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September 04 2012

13:13

4 Tech, Social Innovations at the RNC -- And One Clever Tweet

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TAMPA, Fla. -- For those who haven't experienced it, a national political convention in America is something like a post-apocalyptic police state crossed with the Super Bowl and an Academy Awards red carpet.

Here at the site of this year's Republican National Convention, bomb-sniffing dogs, Secret Service agents, and a tropical storm all made it hard for people to connect with each other. But social media probably made people feel more connected than ever. Twitter confirmed that more than 4 million tweets were sent during the GOP event -- a one-day record for political conventions.

But we're somewhat past the era during which merely using a social media platform is considered interesting. Whether it be Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Foursquare or any number of other platforms or apps, people are using them. Republicans, Democrats, and Independents can agree that they like social media.

Guests in Tampa were immediately greeted by a gigantic sign that boldly stated the official hashtag: #GOP2012. Times have changed since the John McCain/Sarah Palin campaign of 2008.

The convention officials themselves were using social media: conducting interviews with media via Skype, monitoring the hashtag. But this is what we have come to expect. It's not particularly interesting.

(Note: Skype is now owned by Microsoft, my employer.)

Innovation in the shadows

Here's what I did notice was standing out a bit at the GOP's big event: collaborations between some unlikely bedfellows, overtly or presumably serving to show both partners in different lights. This took place in what one might call the "shadow convention," the space outside the official proceedings with delegates and votes and state delegation breakfast meetings, where a melange of media and tech companies hold policy briefings, interact with convention VIPs, and underwrite after-hours parties. The shadow convention with its corporate stalwarts got fairly innovative in comparison to the convention proper.

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Here's a rundown of some innovations I saw:

1. CNN had a "CNN Grill" at the convention, as they typically do at large events like the conventions or SXSW. It serves as a combination working space for staff and full-service restaurant. Because you need a special pass to even get into the CNN Grill for one day, it's a popular place to hang out. But CNN was also using social technology in the midst of all the hamburgers and beer. Deploying Skype, they created what they call Delegate Cam, and enabled people following from home to be able to talk to their delegate representative casting their vote inside the security perimeter.

2. Time partnered up with social location service and fellow New York-based company Foursquare on an interactive map that helped conventioneers find each other. I asked Time about why they thought this was an interesting experiment to deploy in Tampa. Time.com managing editor Catherine Sharick told me, "Time partnered with FourSquare for the political conventions in order to help solve a common problem: Where are people and what is happening?" Writing elsewhere, I gave it a "B" for usefulness (if I know where Time writer Mark Halpirin is, what exactly should I do with that information?), but an "A" for creativity.

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3. Mobile short video service Tout collaborated with the Wall Street Journal to launch WSJ Worldstream, an effort by more than 2,000 global reporters who post vetted real-time videos from a special Tout iPhone app. The new video channel was launched in conjunction with the RNC. Reporters posted video interviews with delegates, protesters, and so on. Some of the videos will also be incorporated within longer online written pieces.

4. Microsoft (my employer), for its part, allowed me to use Pinterest to post real-time photos of the behind-the-scenes efforts of my colleagues. That included powering the IT infrastructure of the convention, conducting cyber-security monitoring, running Skype Studios for media and VIPs to conduct HD video interviews, and live-streaming the event on Xbox Live. Interestingly, Pinterest as far as I can tell, was not a popular medium during the GOP convention. I'm not sure if that's significant, but I couldn't easily find many pins from the convention.

Toward the end of the convention, social media watchers knew that the Republicans had a success by the numbers -- millions of tweets and countless uses of the hashtags, photos uploaded, YouTube views of individual speeches, etc. But that's expected now. One thing that was missing? A truly creative use of social media that involved more wittiness than brute force.

One Clever Tweet

There were a couple of clever uses of social media by a prominent politician during the Republican convention. That politician just happens to be a Democrat by the name of Barack Obama.

The most popular tweet during the Republican National Convention wasn't tweeted by a Republican. In a reference to the now-infamous Clint Eastwood "talking to an empty chair" speech, Obama's account tweeted three simple words: "This chair's taken." It was retweeted more than 50,000 times and favorited more than 20,000 times. More importantly, it's smart, it's art, and it's memorable.

This seat's taken. OFA.BO/c2gbfi, twitter.com/BarackObama/st...

— Barack Obama (@barackobama) August 31, 2012

Obama also hopped on the somewhat-edgy, somewhat-underground "front page of the Internet" Reddit to do something Redditors (as they're dubbed) call "Ask Me Anything." In a half-hour chat, the president took on all comers in a broad Q&A.

Heading into the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., I'm curious to see how it compares. I'll be Pinteresting, CNN will be Skyping while they're grilling, and the WSJ will be posting short videos. What'll be the surprise there, if anything?

Mark Drapeau is the the director of innovative engagement for Microsoft's public and civic sector business headquartered in D.C. He tweets @cheeky_geeky.

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August 23 2012

14:00

A Bold Experiment: Sending Citizen Reporters to Cover National Conventions

For two weeks every four years, the media and the politicos gather for the insider's ritual of selecting a presidential candidate. Really, it's an opportunity for them to party, schmooze and show the special interests, who support their cause, a good time. The role of the citizen in these pageants is, at best, as passive consumer.

So, what happens when you toss in a pair of citizen reporters, and put them on national television asking the one question that conventioneers don't want to answer: What are you doing to get money out of politics?

We launched the Digital Citizen experiment in July 2012 to find out. The big idea is to find citizen journalists to cover the 2012 elections from a citizen's point of view, with a focus on an issue we know Americans care about: the corrupting influence of money in politics. A Reuters/Ipsos poll from May found that "most Americans [75%], no matter what their political party, believe there is too much money in politics ..." The poll showed that 76 percent "feel that the amount of money in elections has given rich people more influence than other Americans."

The first experiment will be a series of reports from the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., August 27-30 and the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., September 3-6. The past months have been spent locating partners and finding potential reporters. We are creating a process that will reveal whether the citizens' voice can make a difference in the national dialogue, even -- especially -- when the political and media powers want to ignore what the people have to say.

But first, we had to find and train the reporters.

HOW TO FIND CITIZEN REPORTERS

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We realized early on that only by combining outreach to a significant number of people with the leveraging power of national television broadcasting could we hope to find our citizen reporters. First, Link TV, the national non-commercial television channel committed to informing Americans about the world, was willing to take the chance of putting real citizens on TV. In many ways this is the boldest move of all, and it had to be a small, independent and feisty channel like Link that would be willing to run with it. Next, United Republic, whose mission is to address the corrupting political influence of money and has more than 250,000 subscribers, jumped on board. We used an app adapted from the Personal Democracy Forum's 10questions.com that allows people to post, rate and share videos. The app was embedded on a United Republic page, and scores of aspiring citizen reporters posted and promoted videos of themselves, telling us why we should send them to the 2012 Conventions.

But trying to find citizen TV reporters posed serious unknowns. We don't know of any previous attempt to use social networking to surface potential citizen journalists for a national broadcasting outfit. Would anybody show up to post videos? Would those who did post videos "work" on TV? And, could citizen journalism go big time?

Answers: Yes, yes, and stay tuned ...

CITIZEN VS. REPORTER

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71,000 page views, 2200 votes, plus thousands of Tweets and Facebook "likes" later, we have found our reporters: Solomon Kleinsmith from Omaha, Neb., blogs at riseofthecenter.com, and WNYC's It's A Free Country. He tells us, "I am an avowed Centrist, because both parties have sold out to special interests, rather than listening to the will of the American people." Jessica Eise, a globe-trotting videographer and sometimes travel reporter, who is paying off the debt for her NYU master's degree, hails from Kansas City, Mo. She says, "Like many Americans, I'm struggling to find employment. We need to battle against corruption and fight for what is right for our country."

A key part of the deal is that they will be trained by our staff, led by radio and TV producer Shia Levitt. Her goal is to help them walk the razor's edge between legitimate citizen outrage and productive reporting.

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They are studying up on the issues for the 3-hour training, which will range from practicing stand-ups to the art of asking civil questions to the secrets of follow-ups. Levitt will only know if her tutelage worked when we get to the convention floor.

FULFILLING THE ENGAGEMENT PROMISE

In fact, for all the ballyhoo about "citizen journalism" and "engagement" over the last few years, there's precious little to show for it, on the page or on the screen. Some bloggers have risen to prominence as journalists, and all bloggers are in one sense crowd-sourced, becoming representative voices for a point of view shared by many. People do vote with their clicks, alerting journalists to what the crowd finds of interest at any given moment. But the very nature of this process ensures that fleeting interest is made much of, while enduring interest -- the many clicks scattered among cat video likes and satirical tweet shares -- is lost even to the most attentive observers. No wonder media coverage has degenerated into flashes of scandal and outrage at the expense of the larger issues people insist they care most about.

The 'Elephant' in the Election Booth

Nonetheless, we are very clear that the mission of Digital Citizen -- to expand the voice of the citizen in policy dialogue for the digital age -- is more than fulfilled by the issue of the corrupting influence of money in politics. As Steven Dikowitz, one of our competitors and a member of our Citizens' Editorial Board put it, money is "the elephant in the room" where media and politics intersect. A July 2012 Gallup Poll revealed that reducing corruption in the federal government was second only to focusing on jobs among Americans' concerns.

So we are focusing on a subject that is owned by the people. After all, politicians who live by donations are not likely to meaningfully confront the issue without public pressure, and the public has a shrinking number of avenues through which to address their elected representatives, despite the growing list of complaints. Nor can most journalists, who must be careful what they ask lest they get blackballed by politicians or, worse, censored by the huge media corporations they work for (which reap tremendous benefits from the campaign finance system), be relied upon to push the issue.

Thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United and related decisions, combined with the politicians' reluctance to reveal the fonts from which their campaign financing flows, there is no good way to source money in politics. But if you "follow the money" as to where most of it flows, you find yourself at the door of the media. A May 2012 investigation by the Columbia Journalism Review took a hard look at the recipients of this largess. By law, "the campaigns get the lowest rates in a given ad class, [but] they do tend not to buy the cheapest class, which is subject to 'immediate pre-emption,'" while Super PACs and issue groups, "are not entitled to the same low rates." It all adds up to a bonanza -- the article quotes industry estimates that "$2.5-$3.3 billion will be directed to local spot advertising" -- a new record. This is quite an incentive to forget to question the campaign finance system.

With only four days until the Republican Convention begins, our reporters are tanned, rested and ready to march into the maw of the prime-time Conventions extravaganza. We, the production team, are exhausted, hurried and worried, up to our eyeballs in logistics, stretching our dollars until they squeak. We hear there's a hurricane heading for Tampa and are packing our camera raincoats. But it's worth every bead of sweat and storm-surge: We are using the lure of appearing on TV to find new journalists who have no stake in the system as it is. Because they represent the many people who have nothing to lose but the integrity of their leaders, we hope to leverage this issue into national prominence.

So, while other TV journalists at the conventions will be on the lookout for scandal and bombast, the Link TV Citizen Reporters will be more interested in the special treatment of special interests, the workings of Citizens United and Super PACs, the costs and tolls of attack ads. Will 2012 prove to be the year that citizens gain a stronger voice in the policy dialogue that shapes our nation? Stay tuned.

Evelyn Messinger (@citizenschannel) is president of Internews Interactive, http://citizenschannel.org. She is a television and Internet producer, and a pioneer of citizen engagement projects that define the parameters of digital connectivity. Her credits include daily news, features and documentary programs for the BBC, Link TV, PBS, PTV stations, CNN and others. Ms. Messinger is a co-founder and former executive director of Internews Network, an international media NGO.

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August 17 2012

17:55

Study: In the Digital Race for President, Obama Has a Clear Lead

If an election outcome rested on how well a campaign does with Twitter, then President Barack Obama's camp would be focused not on November 2012 but January 2013. Not only is the Obama campaign out-tweeting the Mitt Romney team, but the Obama tweets are being shared at a rate of 17-to-1 compared with Romney's.

The Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism analyzed the digital activity of the two campaigns over a two-week period in June. The report shows that there is a "digital gap" between the presumed Republican and Democratic candidates for president, just as there was between Obama and John McCain in 2008.

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Project for Excellence in Journalism, August 2012

The report reviews candidate activity across a mature set of digital platforms: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube plus the campaign websites. In June, the Obama campaign had a presence on nine social media platforms: Facebook, Flickr, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, Spotify, Twitter (@barackobama plus five others), Tumblr and YouTube. The Romney campaign had public accounts on only five: Facebook, Flickr, Google+, Twitter and YouTube; it has subsequently added Tumblr and Spotify, according to the report.

A digital legacy

Obama established a broad digital presence in 2008 and has maintained it throughout his presidency. Thus it is not surprising that his digital support dwarfs Romney's.

For example, on Facebook, today the Obama's campaign page has almost 28 million likes versus 4.5 million for Romney's campaign. On Twitter, @BarackObama has 18.6 million followers; @MittRomney has 863,000. On YouTube, Obama has 210,000 subscribers (214 million views) whereas Romney has almost 15,000 subscribers (18 million views).

The Obama campaign is not only active in more spaces, it's more active, period. Across the platforms analyzed in this report, the Obama campaign posted almost four times as much content as the Romney campaign: There were 614 Obama posts in the two-week period but only 168 posts by Romney.

A Twitter gap

This gap was most evident on Twitter, where @BarackObama averaged 17 tweets per day and @MittRomney averaged one tweet per day. On Facebook, the campaigns are neck-and-neck. The Obama campaign produces more videos for YouTube and more content for the website blog than the Romney campaign.

Analysis of both accounts using Seattle-based Tweetstats makes the point about the Twitter gap visually.

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TweetStats, August 16, 2012

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TweetStats for Mitt Romney

Content

But what do the campaigns talk about in these spaces? And to whom?

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Both campaigns were focused on the economy in June, with 1-in-4 Romney postings and 1-in-5 Obama postings discussing the subject.

What differed was the approach.

Romney's campaign made twice as many posts focused on jobs as Obama. Reflecting the cerebral candidate that he is, Obama's campaign spent just as much time talking about "broader economic policy issues such as the need to invest in the middle class and how the election presents a choice between two economic visions."

Here are two tweets that illustrate the difference.

Barack Obama, August 14: "I don't believe in an economy from the top down. I believe that the economy grows from the middle class out, and from the bottom up."

Mitt Romney, August 12: "If your priority is creating more jobs and putting more people to work, that's what we know how to do. #RomneyRyan2012"

Not surprisingly, the challenger was more than twice as likely to mention the incumbent than the other way around. In June, Romney's campaign devoted about a third of its posts to Obama, "largely attacking him for a policy stance or action." The Obama campaign mentioned Romney half as much.

Wordle, a tool used to visualize how frequently words appear in a text, starkly shows this difference.

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Wordle, 78 Mitt Romney Tweets (June 8 - August 16)

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Wordle, 89 Obama Tweets (August 14-16)

Also, the Romney campaign is much more likely to communicate with an image or a video than the Obama campaign, making an emotional appeal versus a rational appeal.

But in the public spaces -- YouTube, Twitter and Facebook -- neither campaign goes out of its way to actually talk with citizens.

The report notes that is rare for either candidate to "reply to, comment on or retweet something from a citizen." Although if it is going to happen, the odds are that it will be the Obama campaign.

In its analysis of June tweets, the report shows that only 16% of @barackobama tweets were retweets. Most of those were campaign related; only 3% of all tweets were "retweets of citizen posts." During the two-week analysis, the Romney camp had one retweet.

TweetStats reveals that the June pattern is the norm for both campaigns. Over the lifetime of the two Twitter accounts, @barackobama shows 14% retweets and @mittromney shows 2%.

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The campaigns may not interact with voters, but they regularly issue calls for action, with "about half of each candidate's posts [including] a request for some kind of voter follow-up activity."

"These calls to action were most common on the website blog posts. Every single blog post from the Obama campaign during the time studied included some call to action, as did 91% of his YouTube posts. Most, 81%, of Romney's homepage content and 40% of his YouTube video posts had calls to action as well. Twitter was the platform least likely to contain a call to action," according to the Pew report.

"For Obama, the primary call to action most often (51% of the time) was a request for some kind of digital-oriented response, such as watch this video, join this list or sign up to be part of a 'team,'" the report said. "For Romney the request that appeared first most often (31% of the time), was to donate money. These tended to appear in the form of a donate button."

Some of those calls for action include "share this post."

The most popular platform for engagement turns out to be Facebook, not Twitter.

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Project for Excellence In Journalism, August 2012

Likes and dislikes

The Pew researchers recorded the likes and dislikes (where appropriate), comments, retweets and views for up to 48 hours after posting. The Obama campaign posts on Facebook generated more than 1,100,000 likes. The Romney campaign generated about 635,000 likes, about half as many.

But the Obama campaign posts more often than the Romney campaign, so average likes per post is an important metric. Obama Facebook posts had an average of 2,938 comments per post versus an average of 1,941 for Romney's.

The Obama campaign had more than 150,000 retweets during this two-week period. Romney, on the other hand, had almost 8,600 retweets. However, on Twitter the ratio between the two campaigns matches: 17-to-1 total tweets, 17-to-1 retweets.

And the Obama campaign YouTube videos averaged 466 likes per video compared with 253 per video for the Romney campaign.

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In comparing the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, the Pew researchers ignore Twitter, saying that it "was not in the mix in 2008." That is not the case.

John Edwards was the first presidential candidate to embrace Twitter. Barack Obama sent his first tweet in 2007:

"Thinking we're only one signature away from ending the war in Iraq. Learn more at http://www.barackobama.com 12:04 PM Apr 29th, 2007 from web"

On August 10, 2008, the Obama campaign used Twitter to invite supporters to be among the first to know the pick for vice president. Announcements were made by text and email.

By the end of the campaign, Obama's presence in the emerging network was phenomenal, and 165,000 people had signed up for one-way political advertisements.

It may be hard to believe, but in 2008 YouTube was also a new platform for political communication. YouTube gives candidates the opportunity to share longer messages than financially possible on television. And like Facebook and Twitter, it encourages sharing.

All campaigns want their videos to "go viral," to be shared quickly and widely.

In the two-week period, the researchers report than no video went viral. Videos for both campaigns averaged about 40,000 views within 48 hours of posting. But the most popular video wasn't campaign-related but human-related: it was Michelle, Malia and Sasha Obama's Father's Day card. Its metrics: 2,265 Facebook shares in the first 48 hours and 211,663 YouTube views.

The History and the Future

Political digital campaigning truly got its start with the Howard Dean campaign in 2004. Ron Paul's supporters demonstrated the potential of the medium for fundraising when they contributed more than $4.2 million on November 5, 2007; Paul was polling in the single digits at the time.

But just as Harry Truman was the first president to make a coast-to-coast address on television in 1951, it wasn't until the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960 that the medium had an impact on political communication. Those who heard the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won; those who watched on television picked Kennedy. Kennedy went on to win the contest, and "more than half of all voters reported that the Great Debates had influenced their opinion; 6% reported that their vote was the result of the debates alone."

We'll not know for a while whether a similar watershed moment for digital political communication came during the Dean, Paul or Obama (first) run for president. But there is no doubt that a generation immersed in digital communication technologies will turn to these tools to learn about candidates and issues. And not just turn to them first; eventually, they'll turn to them only.

Kathy Gill has been online since the early 1990s, having discovered CompuServe before Marc Andreessen launched Mosaic at the University of Illinois in 1993. In 1995, she built and ran one of the first political candidate websites in Washington state. Gill then rode the dot-com boom as a communication consultant who could speak web, until the crash. In 2001, she began her fourth career as a full-time academic, first teaching techies about communications and now teaching communicators about technology. At the University of Washington, she teaches undergraduate digital journalism as well as classes in the Master of Communication in Digital Media program. For almost five years, she covered politics for About.com; for three years, she covered agriculture.

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April 26 2012

17:48

Approve This Message: Politics through Awl-colored glasses

The Awl sure likes to build stuff. In about three years, they’ve gone from a single “New York City-based web concern” to a family of six sites. The latest just debuted: Approve This Message, a kind of politics wire with the sensibility of The Awl mothership.

It’s an aggressively, intentionally bare bones effort. At first look, you’re confronted more by what it lacks than what it has: Each story has a photo, a tag, a headline, and a credit line to the original source. That’s it: No summaries, no commentary other than the headlines that read as, well, Awl-esque: “Will Mitt pick a mini-Mitt? I hope so, because getting to say ‘mini-Mitt’ over and over will be the only fun we have,” and “Oh no! Obama has ‘only’ raised $196 million for reelection, how sad.”

Approve This Message is a link machine with a cyborg brain that is part Awl and part Percolate, the same team that developed Felix Salmon’s Counterparties at Reuters. Percolate is like a butcher with an algorithm, serving up lean news by separating the meat from the fat around the web, whether via Twitter, RSS, or elsewhere. (Think of our own heat-seeking Twitter bot, Fuego.) Unlike Counterparties, which was based off a set of existing sources from Salmon, Approve This Message is made from a wholly new set of sources, Percolate cofounder Noah Brier told me over email. As the human element in the Percolate machine, Awl editors Alex Balk and Choire Sicha can add new sources and push stories through to Approve This Message, Brier said.

“In a way what we’re doing is compiling index cards of things people said, things that happened, political posturing, and all of that”

When I talked with Sicha, he said they wanted to create something that could capture all the interesting, “did you read this” kind of stories on politics that happen every day. Approve This Message is designed to be selective and slower, so readers can find stories pegged to the news cycle or timeless work that relates to the election. It’s by no means comprehensive — the simplicity is meant to serve up interesting stories and that’s it. It’s the opposite of what Sicha calls as the “fire hose news blast” of headlines that come from most political sites. Nothing wrong with that approach — there’s an audience for it and the election is one of the biggest stories in the US this year. Still, that torrent can be daunting to even the most interested of readers.

“If you stare into the maw of the election too long you will lose your will to live,” he said.

Sicha said they’re big fans of Counterparties, and after talking with Brier they decided to run with a similar idea, thinking of the site as a scannable record of what’s being said in and around politics. “In a way what we’re doing is compiling index cards of things people said, things that happened, political posturing, and all of that, and if that changes of weeks and months we’ll have our memory file and can make note of that,” he said. The site doesn’t have any ads currently, but there are slots currently taken up by house ads sprinkled among the stories.

Approve This Message is the second new site The Awl has launched this month with the addition of The Billfold, the site dedicated to all things money. (At six main sites, The Awl’s URL count is edging closer to the scope of Gawker Media, where both Sicha and Balk put in their time pre-Awl.) But aside from a kind of wry conversational nature, the look of Approve This Message shares little in common with The Hairpin, Splitsider, or other more blog-like members of the family. As The Awl has grown its associated parts have taken on different forms, perhaps more distinct in structure than other vertical-assemblers like Buzzfeed or Gawker Media. Over in Brian Lam’s end of the universe, The Wirecutter is essentially a list, a repository of product reviews and guidance. Awl Music, the site launched in January, is like a radio station run by Eric Spiegelman with a crew of contributing DJs.

“It’s a tool for people who want to know what the great articles on the election are without all the media noise and hype”

When I asked The Awl’s publisher John Shankman about that over email he said their strategy starts with finding good writers with vision and passion, then finding the right outlet for them. “Wirecutter is a very specific vision that Brian Lam has. Approve This Message is a tool that’s fun and useful and appropriate for who and what The Awl is and our readers are,” he said. “With that said, though, design and how to architecture our information better is something we’re considering a lot.”

Shankman said the value of curating in Approve This Message isn’t just pulling together good stories, but also in presenting them in a clean and accessible way. (As Buzzfeed’s Matt Buchanan put it on Twitter: “when did the awl get all designy? this is nice.”) Approve This Message provides a refreshingly simple experience for readers. The Awl gives its audience the choice to follow Approve This Message on the site, through Twitter or Tumblr. And on those two venues they link directly to the source of the story, not back to their site. “It’s a tool for people who want to know what the great articles on the election are without all the media noise and hype. The election through Awl-colored glasses, if you will,” Shankman said.

Sicha calls Awl Music and Approve This Message more disintermediated than other sites in their network. It’s not that they want out of the blog business, because they love that and will continue to build out new places for writers to showcase their talent. But they also want to toy around with the medium, and Approve This Message is one way of doing that, Sicha said.

“We’re not building traffic here. We’re using a great tool and letting it be free,” he said. “That’s probably the opposite of what we should be doing running a business, but that’s what it is. To do anything else would be untruthful or wrong.”

April 17 2012

14:30

Politico Pro, one year in: A premium pricetag, a tight focus, and a business success

Most nights on Capitol Hill, the Senate and House press galleries begin to thin out around dinner time. The deadline rush subsides, and all but a scatter of reporters remain.

It was approaching 11 p.m. on March 7 when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced a deal that cleared the way for voting to begin the next day on 30 amendments tied to a $109 billion transportation bill.

Inside baseball, sure, but it’s news that matters inside the Beltway, and matters to a lot of people. It’s the kind of deal you might want to know about right away if you were a member of Congress or a lobbyist or someone else who has to keep track of policy for a living. But it’s unlikely you would have found out about the deal on TV, or on Twitter or via any major newspaper’s website that night. Even traditional policy publications didn’t have it.

Enter Politico Pro, the pricey premium news service, launched last year with the goal of doing for policy coverage what Politico set out to do for political coverage five years ago.

“I don’t think the policy areas had been covered in a very interesting way before — policy publications can be pretty dry,” Politico Pro editor-in-chief Tim Grieve said. “There are ways to cover this stuff that are pretty damn interesting, which may be the secret to our success.”

On the night of March 7, paid subscribers to Politico Pro got the news about the Senate transportation deal almost immediately. Anyone signed up for the service’s energy coverage would have received this email at 10:41 p.m.:

Sixteen minutes later, Politico Pro published a story about the deal, including a full list of the amendments. Here’s a partial screenshot:

Less than an hour after that, a reporter for Politico’s core site broke the news that President Barack Obama had been personally lobbying Democrats in the Senate, urging them to reject one of the amendments that turned out to be on the list.

In the span of an hour, Politico and Politico Pro — we’ll get to the distinction later — had significantly advanced a major story in a way that would inform the next day’s business on Capitol Hill. For people involved in that business, knowing about these developments before getting to work the next morning would have been key.

“The next morning at 7:18, our competitor has this story: ‘Amendments for the Senate transportation bill are still up in the air,’” Grieve said. “They didn’t even have the story. That happens quite a lot…Do you want to find out something that’s really important in your universe now, or do you want to wait?”

“Now” is increasingly the answer among smartphone toting news consumers. But like many premium niche news services, the nowness that Pro delivers comes with a steep price tag. A year into its life — and as more publishers consider whether a premium-content strategy might make sense for them — Politico Pro’s success is a model worth watching.

You pay for what you get

Politico Pro covers four major policy areas: technology, energy, health care, and transportation. Newest in the mix is the transportation section, which launched on Tuesday. The site plans to add at least one more vertical before the end of 2012. Of Politico’s 217 total employees, more than 150 are on the editorial side, with 45 of them dedicated to Pro. The rest work in sales, technology, and events.

For an individual subscribing to one of Pro’s verticals, pricing starts at $3,295 per year. But most Pro subscribers are part of a group membership, and those start at around $8,000 per year for licensing content from a single vertical to five people. Pro bans subscribers from sharing or forwarding content. Add more employees to an organizational membership and the “price becomes more fluid,” says Miki King, Pro’s executive director of business development.

The subscription strategy has been somewhat fluid, too. Pro didn’t offer group memberships at first, but quickly found that it was a better business strategy. “The vast majority, well over 95 percent, are organizational subscriptions versus individual subscribers,” King says. “The whole idea behind the Pro subscription is we are going so deep in these policy areas that you would only care about it to this degree if this is your job.”

So it’s not surprising that about one-third of Pro subscribers are government workers.

“That ranges from Capitol Hill offices — members of Congress and senators’ offices — to government agencies to state and local municipalities,” King said. “Roughly another third are in the general public policy space — trade associations and those organizations that cover general policy, the think-tank types of organizations, or those who specifically cover energy policy.”

The other third is “everybody else,” King says.

Pro executives won’t publicly share subscription numbers, but just past the one-year mark, King says the figures “very quickly exceeded the expectations of where we thought we would be.” She says the number of subscribers has tripled since February 2011, and renewals “overwhelmingly” surpassed market-based predictions of 85 to 90 percent. As Politico’s Jim VandeHei and John Harris wrote in a staff memo earlier this month:

We set high editorial standards, and we achieved them. We set big goals for Pro’s first-year sales, and we beat them. We set big goals for Pro’s first-year renewal numbers, and we’re beating those, too. Readers want the kind of journalism Pro produces — fast-moving, decisive POLITICO-style journalism applied to the specific policy areas that interest them most. Because of this success, POLITICO has the most reporters working the most important policy areas in Washington — and all our readers benefit from this when we turn to the PRO team to write for our broader audience on energy, health care and technology matters.

While the Politico brand has been built on breaking targeted news, the sense of urgency that guides Pro’s team is mostly about getting meaningful information to people right away — sometimes even before reporters have a full understanding of what a news development means. King says Pro has “no problem whatsoever sending out to our subscribers a two-line email that’s going to give you a piece of breaking news that could impact your day because we’re not waiting for three hours for a reporter to file a story on it.”

“It’s very liberating for reporters, but it’s pretty damn liberating for readers too.”

That also means changing the way Pro’s stories are constructed.

“One of the things I tell reporters every day is: When you get to that point of the story, four or five paragraphs in, and [you write] ‘the move comes amid…’ — stop,” Grieve said. “Anybody who is reading Politico Pro knows what ‘the move comes amid.’ That 300 words of new essential information can be a 300-word story. The traditional approach would be a 1,000-word story, but the second part of that story would be the blah blah blah that everybody already knows…It’s very liberating for reporters, but it’s pretty damn liberating for readers too. No one has time to read stuff they already know. Take your time with the stuff that’s going to grab them by the jacket lapels and say, ‘Whoa, this is new.’”

Pro by phone

For Politico Pro, grabbing readers by the lapels means getting into their inboxes. Because the overwhelming majority of Pro subscribers are in Washington, that means catering to their reliance on BlackBerrys, which are — believe it or not — still ubiquitous on the Hill.

“It’s such a BlackBerry-centric and email-centric world,” VandeHei, Politico’s executive editor and co-founder, told me. “Anything that moves [on Pro] you’re getting pinged to you instantly on your BlackBerry. That option is only available right now to Pro subscribers. We just hear something interesting, and it might be just enough text to fill a BlackBerry screen. That part of the experience is very different than what you’re getting from Politico.” (Although Politico’s main product puts a lot of emphasis on mobile, too.)

Pro’s phone-centric approach means that its subscribers spend “very little time” on the site itself, Grieve says. There’s also no plan to move into text-messaging territory. Instead, subscribers get Pro updates on their BlackBerrys while rushing between hearings, while they’re waiting for a meeting with a Senator, or while they’re otherwise on the go.

“If you have a few hours on the weekend to read a 10,000-word New Yorker story, that’s a really rewarding experience,” Grieve said. “It’s also not what we’re trying to do. If you’re racing around the Hill trying to make progress on the policy area you care about, that’s a really lousy way of getting information.”

Content customized and on-demand

The other way that Pro tries to help readers cut to the chase is by letting them customize their newsfeeds. So in addition to subscribing to basic alerts, briefings, coverage from specific reporters, and other updates in policy areas of interest, readers can tag up to 25 terms that matter to them. That could be the name of a senator, a particular piece of legislation, or just about anything at all, really. Check it out:

“Any time that we write about your member of Congress, your agency, your company, your client, that’s instantly sent in full email text to your BlackBerry,” VandeHei said.

It may sound simple, but VandeHei calls what Politico Pro is doing “arguably the most important business innovation and arguably journalistic innovation” since Politico’s core site launched five years ago.

“The reason I say that is it now gives us two different solid revenue streams, which gives us two different ways to fund really aggressive journalism,” VandeHei said. (Politico won its first Pulitzer Prize yesterday.) While the Pro reporters are grouped in a different area of the building than the other Politico reporters, VandeHei says Pro is ultimately a “descriptive term” and, “at the end of the day, it’s one newsroom.”

Pro’s top editor Grieve also says that he’s hoping to foster more cross-pollination among reporters going forward. Already, there’s overlap. Pro reporters’ bylines are often on the core Politico site, and one Pro reporter recently hit the campaign trail with Mitt Romney when the core Politico team needed a break, Grieve says.

“As we grow Pro, I think you’re going to see much more of that — much more crossing over and blending and people moving around the newsroom in creative and maybe surprising ways,” Grieve says. The other surprise will be what verticals Pro rolls out next. Executives won’t say which areas they’re exploring, but King says there are clues on the core site.

“If you think about the way we have launched Pro products in the past, we’ve always launched around where we have done coverage,” King says. “For a hint on policy areas where we may be able to, over time, lend some insight from a Pro perspective, take a look at policy pages where we’ve covered everything from transportation to finance to defense. Those and more would be potential areas for future verticals.”

The good news for those who can’t afford the pricey premium service — and for those who care about quality journalism in general — is that Pro’s growth directly affects what the core Politico team is able to cover.

“If Pro didn’t exist, if there weren’t a base of readers who were interested in paying for the kind of highly detailed coverage Pro provides, it would be a limitaiton on the way Politico as a whole could cover this stuff — we might have one energy reporter, one technology reporter, one healthcare reporter,” Grieve said. “So when SOPA comes to the fore, when the contraception fight comes to the fore, when gas prices are the thing everyone’s talking about in Washington, there’s kind of an overwhelming force of manpower, expertise, knowledge, and insight that we can bring to bear for Pro readers and regular Politico readers that we just wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. It works from an editorial standpoint and works from a business standpoint. And if it doesn’t do both of those things, then it’s not going to happen.”

Photo of the U.S. Capitol Rotunda by ctj71081 used under a Creative Commons license.

February 09 2012

00:00

Are You Part of the 2% (of People Who Get Campaign News From Twitter)?

Many of you are, like me, among the proverbial "99%" when it comes to economics and income. But if you regularly learn about the 2012 campaign from those you follow on Twitter, as I do, you're in an elite class of a different sort.

A new report out from the The Pew Research Center for The People and The Press contains some interesting findings about the media outlets citizens are using to inform themselves about the presidential campaign.

Here are a few of the more surprising findings.

New Media: Not So Much

According to the study, while this is the first campaign in which the Internet has surpassed local newspapers as a primary source of political news, social-networking sites are largely exempt from this trend.

Very few Americans regularly get campaign news from social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter (6% and 2%, respectively). Even among people who report using these social networks, nearly half (46%) say they "never" learn about the election there. At first, these findings seem to fly in the face of the current craze around word-of-mouth or peer-to-peer campaign tactics. But when you consider the apparent influence of offline social networks (you know, friends and family and other relationships that transcend cyberspace), these types of grassroots approaches are doubtless effective.

social network breakdown.png

Cable rules

The study also shows that for the first time, more Americans regularly get campaign news from cable news outlets like Fox News and MSNBC than from their local television stations. This makes cable news the most popular destination for regular political news. Given the frequency and intensity of these channels' political coverage, this may not be surprising. It may also not be surprising to learn that Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to tune into Fox News and Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to turn to CNN and MSNBC.

What does this all mean for the prospect of continued polarization in this country? What do we get when the increasing influence of cable news channels on the national debate mixes with the increasing partisanship of those channels' audiences -- and when more people are getting campaign news from the Internet (where, presumably, they can pick political news sites that align with their political disposition) than the local paper, magazine or radio station?

Moreover, what does it mean when the audience group that most commonly reported that they "enjoy political news a lot" (people who agree with the Tea Party) are also most likely (at 74%) to report that they see the news media as biased?

I spoke with Carroll Doherty, the associate director of the Pew Research Center for The People and The Press, who observed that Tea Party Republicans who reported seeing bias aren't thinking about Fox News, but about other media channels they're less likely to watch. My psychologist friends might chalk this up to a classic case of actor-observer bias, but no matter.

media channel breakdown.jpg

What? Mitt Romney is a Governor?

If it is the media's job, collectively, to educate voters about the candidates, their policies and issues, they're not doing a very good job of it. The report finds that the "general public's knowledge about some of the fundamentals of the major candidates' resumes, positions and the campaign process is rather limited ... 58% were able to identify Newt Gingrich as the candidate who had been speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Fewer than half (46%) knew that Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts, and just 37% could identify Ron Paul as the Republican candidate opposed to U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan."

This begs the question: If the various media aren't effectively educating the voters, perhaps we can find ways of educating ourselves -- and maybe we could start by using Twitter and Facebook?

Mark Hannah is the political contributor for MediaShift. Mark's political career began on the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign, where he worked as a member of the national advance staff. He's more recently done advance work for the Obama-Biden campaign, the Presidential Inaugural Committee and the White House. In the "off-season" (i.e., in between campaigns) he worked in the PR agency world and conducted sensitive public affairs campaigns for well-known multinational corporations, major industry organizations and influential non-profits. He serves on the board of directors of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and was a research fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. He is a graduate of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and received a master's degree from Columbia University. His personal website is www.mark-hannah.com, and he can be reached at markphannah[at]gmail.com

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January 09 2012

20:10

NYT Districts API helps Fractured Atlas help artists

The arts, and the benefits to the public they provide, sometimes gets lost, barely noticed by government. Fractured Atlas, a New York City-based multi-disciplinary arts service organization, is finding that by creating information and data services for its members and for city arts communities, it can also provide more effective advocacy for the arts to government. Fractured Atlas uses the New York Times' District API to create and run these services and to link them to its arts advocacy mission.

September 04 2011

17:53

Omar Abdullah and a nationwide debate: Twitter as platform for Indian politicians

India Today :: Barack Obama did it. Hugo Chavez does it. Shashi Tharoor was a pioneer. And now, Omar Abdullah has sparked a nationwide debate with his comments on the medium. It's Twitter time once more. The humble 140-character tweet is again hogging the headlines in Indian politics. The microblogging site seems to be emerging as the medium of choice for politicians and social activists such as Kiran Bedi to engage with the masses.

Continue to read Abhik Sen, indiatoday.intoday.in

July 24 2011

19:05

#fuckyouwashington

So I was angry. Watching TV news over dinner — turning my attention from scandals in the UK to those here and frankly welcoming the distraction from the tragedies in Norway — I listened to the latest from Washington about negotiations over the debt ceiling. It pissed me off. I’d had enough. After dinner, I tweeted: “Hey, Washington assholes, it’s our country, our economy, our money. Stop fucking with it.” It was the pinot talking (sounding more like a zinfandel).

That’s all I was going to say. I had no grand design on a revolution. I just wanted to get that off my chest. That’s what Twitter is for: offloading chests. Some people responded and retweeted, which pushed me to keep going, suggesting a chant: “FUCK YOU WASHINGTON.” Then the mellifluously monikered tweeter @boogerpussy suggested: “.@jeffjarvis Hashtag it: #FUCKYOUWASHINGTON.” Damn, I was ashamed I hadn’t done that. So I did.

And then it exploded as I never could have predicted. I egged it on for awhile, suggesting that our goal should be to make #fuckyouwashington a trending topic, though as some tweeters quickly pointed out, Twitter censors moderates topics. Soon enough, though, Trendistic showed us gaining in Twitter share and Trendsmap showed us trending in cities and then in the nation.

Screen shot 2011-07-24 at 7.33.24 AM

Jeff Howe tweeted: “Holy shit, @JeffJarvis has gone all Howard Beale on us. I love it. And I feel it. Give us our future back, fuckers. #FUCKYOUWASHINGTON.” He likes crowded things. He’s @crowdsourcing. He became my wingman, analyzing the phenom as it grew: “Why this is smart. Web=nuance. Terrible in politics. Twitter=loud and simple. Like a bumper sticker. #FuckYouWashington.” He vowed: “If this trends all weekend, you think it won’t make news? It will. And a statement. #FuckYouWashington.”

And then I got bumped off Twitter for tweeting too much. Who do the think they are, my phone company? Now I could only watch from afar. But that was appropriate, for I no longer owned this trend. As Howe tweeted in the night: “Still gaining velocity. Almost no tweets containing @crowdsourcing or @jeffjarvis anymore. It’s past the tipping point. #FuckYouWashington.”

Right. Some folks are coming into Twitter today trying to tell me how to manage this, how I should change the hashtag so there’s no cussin’ or to target their favorite bad man, or how I should organize marches instead. Whatever. #fuckyouwashington not mine anymore. That is the magic moment for a platform, when its users take it over and make it theirs, doing with it what the creator never imagined.

Now as I read the tweets — numbering in the tens of thousands by the next morning — I am astonished how people are using this Bealesque moment to open their windows and tell the world their reason for shouting #fuckyouwashington. It’s amazing reading. As @ericverlo declared, “The #fuckyouwashington party platform is literally writing itself.” True, they didn’t all agree with each other, but in their shouts, behind their anger, they betrayed their hopes and wishes for America.

@partygnome said: “#fuckyouwashington for valuing corporations more than people.”

@spenski, on a major role, cried: “#fuckyouwashington for never challenging us to become more noble, but prodding us to become selfish and hateful…. #fuckyouwashington for not allowing me to marry the one I love…. #fuckyouwashington for driving me to tweet blue.”

@jellencollins: “#fuckyouwashington for making ‘debt’ a four letter word and ‘fuck’ an appropriate response.”

@tamadou: “#fuckyouwashington for giving yourselves special benefits and telling the American people they have to suck it up or they’re selfish.”

@psychnurseinwi: “#fuckyouwashington for having the compromising skills of a 3 year old.”

I was amazed and inspired. I was also trepidatious. I didn’t know what I’d started and didn’t want it to turn ugly. After all, we had just witnessed the ungodly horror of anger — and psychosis — unleashed in Norway. I’ve come to believe that our enemy today isn’t terrorism but fascism of any flavor, hiding behind anger as supposed cause.

But at moments such as this, I always need to remind myself of my essential faith in my fellow man — that is why I believe in democracy, free markets, education, journalism. It’s the extremists who fuck up the world and it is our mistake to manage our society and our lives to their worst, to the extreme. That, tragically, is how our political system and government are being managed today: to please the extremes. Or rather, that is why they are not managed today. And that is why I’m shouting, to remind Washington that its *job* is to *manage* the *business* of government.

The tweets that keep streaming in — hundreds an hour still — restore my faith not in government but in society, in us. Oh, yes, there are idiots, extremists, and angry conspiracy theorists and just plain jerks among them. But here, that noise was being drowned out by the voices of disappointed Americans — disappointed because they do indeed give a shit.

Their messages, their reasons for shouting #fuckyouwashington and holding our alleged leaders to higher expectations, sparks a glimmer of hope that perhaps we can recapture our public sphere. No, no, Twitter won’t do that here any more than it did it in Egypt and Libya. Shouting #fuckyouwashington is hardly a revolution. Believe me, I’m not overblowing the significance of this weekend’s entertainment. All I’m saying is that when I get to hear the true voice of the people — not the voice of government, not the voice of media, not a voice distilled to a number following a stupid question in a poll — I see cause for hope.

I didn’t intend this to be anything more than spouting off in 140 profane characters. It turns out that the people of Twitter taught me a lesson that I thought I was teaching myself in Public Parts, about the potential of a public armed with a Gutenberg press in every pocket, with its tools of publicness.

* * *

For an excellent summary of the saga as it unfolded on Twitter, see Maryann Batlle’s excellent compilation in Storify, as well as Gavin Sheridan’s Storyful. CBS News Online’s What’s Trending was the first in media to listen to what was happening here. David Weigel used this as a jumping off point for his own critique of Washington and the debt “crisis” at Slate. Says Michael Duff on his blog:

Everybody knows you guys are running the clock out, waiting for the next election. But you can’t have it both ways. You can’t go on TV to scare the shit out of us every day and then expect us to wait patiently for 2012.

You can’t use words like “urgent” and “crisis” and then waste our time with Kabuki theater.

Either the situation is urgent and needs to be solved now, or it’s all just an act that can wait for 2012. This isn’t 1954, gentlemen. The voters are on to you now. We know you’re playing a game and we know you’re using us as chess pieces.

That’s why #fuckyouwashington is trending on Twitter. We’re tired of being pawns.

Every politician in Washington needs to pay attention to this outrage, and remember who they’re working for.

And then there’s this reaction from no less than Anonymous: “@jeffJarvis you’ve started a shit storm. Nice going.”

07:39

Politics in real-time: Barack Obama the big winner in GOP Twitter debate

U.S. News :: Mary Kate Cary: Here at Thomas Jefferson Street, US news staff watch presidential candidates debate on Twitter in favor for their audience. Yesterday they watched the launch of a new idea, created by TheTeaParty.net. The organization invited all the GOP presidential candidates to a 90-minute debate in which they’d have to answer questions from the moderators and the public, all in 140 character tweets.

Does that work? Is it possible to transfer political debates to Twitter? 

[Mary Kate Cary:] "Just because it was a new idea doesn’t mean it was a good idea."

What Twitter can and can't - continue to read Mary Kate Cary, www.usnews.com

July 07 2011

21:59

UK Phone-Hacking Scandal Shows Clash of Privacy with Need to Know

British journalism has undergone one of the most radical weeks in several decades this week.

398px-Rupert_Murdoch_2011_Shankbone_3.JPG

"Rocked," "chaos," "shocking" -- use whatever adjectives you like, but news this week that the News of the World (NOTW) tabloid hacked into the phones of child murder victims, families of July 7, 2005 terror attacks and parents of soldiers killed in action has turned the stomachs of much of Britain.

Now Rupert Murdoch's News International has shut down the NOTW after 168 years. This weekend will be the last edition of Britain's biggest selling newspaper.

The public appetite for information, particularly about celebrities and major news stories is insatiable -- until it becomes an intrusion into your own individual life. Is the duty to provide information more important to society as a whole than individual privacy? Does the civil "public interest" test outweigh the private protection of an individual?

'Hackgate'

The phone hacking scandal, or "hackgate" as some have dubbed it on Twitter, is a long-running saga and the New York Times Magazine investigation last year remains the best and most detailed single explanation. The Guardian has steadfastly kept attention on the matter.

As a basic summary, a reporter or private investigator would dial into the cell phone of a celebrity, politician or other public figure and then use a four-digit PIN number to access the voicemail. Many people never even change the PIN on their mobile voicemail or know how to do that. Investigators might pose as the celebrity in question and call the cell carrier saying they lost their PIN and need to reset it.

guardian phone hacking.jpg

The technique first began to unravel in 2005 when messages to Royal family aides were appearing read and saved, even though they hadn't heard them.

That eventually led to the conviction of NOTW Royal reporter Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire. Police said Mulcaire's notebook had thousands of names and corresponding details of cell phone numbers and PIN numbers.

Since then, attention has always been on which celebrities, MPs or other public figures had their phones hacked -- a practice which is illegal, except by the security services with a court order.

A Widening Scandal

That was until this week. When it emerged on Monday that Mulcaire had accessed the voicemail of 13-year-old Milly Dowler who went missing, and deleted messages in some cases giving the impression she was still alive to worried family members, the public reacted. Only on this past June 23 a man was convicted of murdering the schoolgirl so it was still fresh in the public's mind.

The revelations have continued, with more alleged hacking vicitms: the parents of murdered children Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in 2002, the family members of victims of the London terror attacks on July 7, 2005, and the parents of fallen soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan.

It has also been revealed that up to five Metropolitan Police may have been paid bribes of £100,000 for information, from the same force that was supposed to be investigating the allegations of phone hacking, throwing the entire voracity of the inquiry into question.

So, how widespread is the practice of phone hacking? There have been reports -- by the New York Times feature last year in particular -- that other newspapers may have bought information obtained through phone hacking, or phone hacked directly, or that the technique was common at the NOTW. Although there have been a handful of arrests from within the NOTW, nobody has ever been charged beyond the original Royal reporter and private investigator. No other newspapers have yet been identified by police.

Pushing the Boundaries

I know a fair number of reporters and not one of them would engage in illegal activity for a story. Have we sometimes pushed boundaries? Of course. Do we sometimes feel a bit questionable afterwards? Yes. We're human.

When a newspaper told me they wanted a picture of school pupils but with "no fatties, uglies or ethnics," they apologized but that was the style of the paper. That's not illegal, but it's not the journalism I believe in.

Stories are regularly "spiked" because of the biases or agenda of a paper. Thankfully the UK has enough publications that almost any story can end up in print eventually, despite those barriers.

This story is still moving rapidly. Advertisers were pulling out of the paper. Ford was the first, very early on after the revelations and before any social media campaign really got going.

Social Media Pushes Advertisers Out

Mitsubishi said they were second on Tuesday as "morally right" to suspend advertising with a paper. Based on a suggestion from one of their Facebook followers, they are diverting the money to a children's charity instead.

As the week went on and the public identified which advertisers were in the weekly paper -- particularly thanks to data from the Guardian -- many other firms have pulled the plug, including the Royal British Legion on Thursday morning.

tesco campaign.jpg

Tesco, the UK's largest food retailer, said they wanted the police investigation to take its course, even while people on Twitter and Facebook bombarded them demanding they pull their advertising.

The Co-operative Group confirmed they heard from members by email, phone and via Facebook and Twitter while they were already reviewing their advertising, which they have now suspended.

Airlines, phone companies, the Post Office, and others have all pulled their advertising. One parody story even joked that Fish Refusing to Be Wrapped in the News of the World.

Other social media suggestions have included canceling subscriptions to Sky TV (i.e. BSkyB) which News International is trying to buy, or avoiding shops that sell the paper.

Closing NOTW

And then late on Thursday afternoon, News International chairman and Rupert's son James Murdoch told staff that the good work of the paper had "been sullied by behaviour that was wrong -- indeed, if recent allegations are true, it was inhuman and has no place in our company."

james murdoch.jpg

"The News of the World is in the business of holding others to account. But it failed when it came to itself," he said.

Ultimately, the paper was in decline already. Circulation of the NOTW fell from 4,104,227 in October 2001 to 2,606,397 in April 2011, a drop of 36.5 percent. That is a significant pressure on any paper.

Total sales for 10 Sunday papers in October 2001 was 14,044,396. That has plummeted to 9,082,065 as of April, a drop of 35.3 percent. But the UK remains one of the most read newspaper markets in the world.

One non-press colleague said yesterday: "Everyone talks about freedom of the press. They've had their chance. Take it away."

Hundreds of people have worked for the NOTW as staff, hundreds more as contributors, and thousands more have been willingly quoted in the paper.

The actions of a handful of reporters or those they hire does not in any way dissuade me from the importance of journalism, a free press or a "smart, fearless journalism," as Mother Jones magazine aptly puts it.

Feeding the News Appetite

I personally don't know any reporters who lack souls. We don't exist in such realms of black or white, good or evil. But I know all of us are under pressure to feed the ever increasing news appetite, often within ever shrinking offices of demanding firms with expectant shareholders.

In one case, a colleague was required to supply one story each week on Harry Potter author JK Rowling, no matter what. "No" isn't an answer to the boss. They achieved those results perfectly ethically.

To interpret pressure as justifying unethical and illegal practices is a choice of individuals. They are culpable, as are any bosses who knew of them.

However wrong the hacking activities were and are, many of those leaping to condemn them are not without bias themselves.

Broadsheet newspapers are almost gloating at the peril of the tabloid press which disgusts, but outsells, them.

MPs have repeatedly been caught in adulterous or worse behavior by the tabloid press over the years, but would never dare speak out against News International prior to the current public furor.

And government opponents see this as a chance to extract blood from Prime Minister David Cameron for making the mistake of hiring former NOTW editor Andy Coulson as his communications chief (who might be arrested tomorrow).

Final Consequences

Ultimately we have a clash of what my retired philosophy professor father refers to as the "social duty to provide as much information as possible", and the duty of "non injury to others." So which trumps which?

The question now is what will happen in this Sunday's last ever NOTW. What will the NOTW put on its front page (one tweet suggested the word "Sowwy" and a picture of a kitten)? Will it come back in another form in a few months?

When the Sun published lies about the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, it has arguably never recovered sales in Liverpool and is still reviled. That may well have happened to the NOTW, but would have requited more than 2.6 million customers to switch off to the celeb gossip and "real life" coverage they are in the habit of devouring. Has the Murdoch empire now successfully drawn a line under this sordid tale by closing the paper?

It is only one product -- the conflicting appetites for information and privacy are not going anywhere any time soon.

Disclaimer: I have, a few years ago now, been paid for freelance stories and tips by the Scottish editions of the News of the World and the daily sister paper, The Sun, and more recently by the Sunday Times. I stand by those individual stories.

Photo of Rupert Murdoch by David Shankbone via Wikipedia.

Tristan Stewart-Robertson is a Canadian freelance reporter based in Glasgow, Scotland, operating as the W5 Press Agency.

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June 16 2011

02:28

PJ Crowley on The Arab Spring: How Social Media Ignited a Revolutionary Movement

The Arab Spring is not a "Twitter revolution," but  a real revolution in which social tools including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube played a central role in organizing movements, says PJ Crowley, former Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, in this interview with Beet.TV

We spoke with him last week at the Digitas NewFront conference where he addressed social media and the developments in the Middle East in a panel with Egyptian filmmaker Amr Salama and Time magazine ME Richard Stengel.

 

June 13 2011

02:13

Sarah Palin’s emails and a call for collaborative journalism

If you were committing an act of news on Friday, June 10, chances are every national news organization missed it.

Why? We all had boxes and boxes of printed emails of an ex-political official to go through. From the New York Times to Mother Jones/MSNBC/ProPublica, the Washington Post and my own employer – many national news sources spent enormous amounts [...]

June 02 2011

18:53

New in the Campaign Finance API: Paper Filings

Today we're announcing the addition of paper campaign filings to our Campaign Finance API, which previously had only provided details of electronically filed reports.

March 14 2011

07:46

Hyperlocal Voices: Darryl Chamberlain, 853 Blog

853 blog

Having worked for the BBC News Entertainment website for a decade, Darryl Chamberlain took voluntary redundancy and set up the widely successful 853 Blog. As part of the Hyperlocal Voices series he shares some of the secrets of his success.

1) Who where the people behind the blog, and what where their backgrounds?

853’s all mine. My background’s actually in showbiz news. I worked for the BBC News website’s entertainment desk for a decade in a variety of roles – mainly sub-editing and being the daily editor, but also reporting and feature writing.

I took voluntary redundancy and a career break in 2009 – standing in a council election in May 2010, and doing odd bits of freelance work. While standing in an election will probably leave me hopelessly biased in many eyes, it helped introduce me to local issues which simply weren’t being touched, and potential contacts of all political hues. After my glorious defeat, I realised I could do a bit more for my local area by sticking to what I was good at – finding things out and writing about them.

I have lived in the Greenwich area all my life, and it’s an under-reported patch, so here was my chance to do something about it. 853’s helped me keep my hand in the trade, too, which has been a nice spin-off.

More recently, I’ve set up a truly hyperlocal blog, the Charlton Champion , for the area where I live . I’m hoping to get more people involved in it, though, so it develops a different voice and its own distinctive identity. I’ve a few other people on board, but it’s very early days.

I’m also involved in a new project, The Scoop, about London news and politics.

2) When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?

I’d blogged under a pseudonym on a couple of other sites for about five years – the usual “have a go at everyone/everything” stuff – before my impending redundancy convinced me I should try something under my own name.

I set 853 up in October 2008, using a basic WordPress template. Originally, it was going to be a showcase for my writing – I had all kinds of plans to go travelling. But the travel stuff only ended up being a small part of what the site became. Maybe I’ll pack my bags again one day and add a bit more travel.

3) What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

I’ve always thought a blog should tell you something you don’t know, instead of parroting the same old stuff. So I’ve always been in awe of Diamond Geezer , who’s looking at London’s lesser-known aspects for nearly nine years now.

Jason Cobb’s Onionbagblog was a huge influence – like me, he never set out to scrutinise his local council, but found himself doing it when nobody else was. I’m sure the leadership of Lambeth Council are breathing a sigh of relief now he’s chronicling life on the Essex coast instead.

Adam Bienkov has shown the benefits of persistence and building up good contacts in his chronicle of life at City Hall, while Brockley Central has become the model for just about anybody wanting to set up a hyperlocal blog.

My fellow Greenwich blogger The Greenwich Phantom has a distinctive take on local life which means we don’t tread on each other’s toes, Greenwich.co.uk has shown there is a demand for local news and information, while Transpontine is essential reading if you’re interested in south-east London’s music, culture and history. London SE1 is a fantastic news source which puts the big operators to shame, while Chislehurst News is a newcomer to the SE London scene which is well worth a look.

There’s a loose network of bloggers in south-east London and beyond which has been a great source of inspiration and support.

4) How did- and do you- see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?

In south-east London, the hyperlocal blogs are partly filling a gap that’s come about because of market failure. The Greenwich area’s been largely abandoned by the big operators, leaving a couple of freesheets whose editorial is shared with neighbouring Lewisham.

The two boroughs are fairly similar socially but wildly different politically, despite both being Labour areas, and that’s where they hit problems. Combined, those freesheets are struggling to serve an area with the same population of Liverpool against a lack of interest from their proprietors – Tindle’s Mercury has great reporters but is horribly under-resourced and doesn’t even have a proper website, while Newsquest’s News Shopper is based far out in the suburbs and really doesn’t understand the area.

That said, I’d rather 853 complemented rather than competed with them – so when I deal with news I’m concentrating on council-related matters because that’s what’s getting neglected. But it still contains lots of opinion on other issues and anything else that takes my fancy.

5) What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?

The turning point was going to a Greenwich Council meeting in July 2009 and watching a member of the public hectored by the mayor because he was having trouble asking a question about a housing development that affected him. It was horrifying to watch but here were no reporters there to see this – the entire meeting went unreported beyond my site.

Greenwich.co.uk’s Rob Powell asked me to cover a few meetings for him after this, and I’ve continued doing this on 853. A lot of the blog’s opinionated, but on council issues the facts usually speak for themselves.

More recently, revealing the closures of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel and the council pulling its funding from fireworks on Blackheath – claiming cuts-induced poverty despite blowing £30,000 on a mayor-making ceremony have been important moments for the blog.

Following the ongoing story of the cuts is going to become more important as time goes on – 853 was the first place to report on the initial swathe of Greenwich’s cuts and the Charlton Champion’s revealed the threat to a local petting zoo.

Covering the problems of the Southeastern train company whose press office refuses to deal with blogs – has been a boost for traffic; again, it’s an issue that’s often poorly covered elsewhere.

My background on the BBC News website’s served me well – I get frustrated if I’m not first to a story!

6) What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?

Traffic has doubled over the past year or so – it tends to go up in spurts with big stories.

February 10 2011

19:11

Updates to the Campaign Finance API

Political campaigns don't have an off-season, but the brief lull between last November's general election and now has given us time to make some updates to our Campaign Finance API.

January 07 2011

16:45

What Would the Ideal Democracy-Enabling Tool Look Like?

Some say that the last place where true democracy existed were the city-states of Ancient Greece. They had it all: Direct communication between citizens and public officials, complete transparency, minimal corruption.

Time passed and the population increased dramatically, which in part meant that public officials fell out of touch with the people who put them in office. To alleviate this, over time and in other societies, trade unions, non-governmental organizations and various movements were started -- and democracy got more complicated.

Turns out, this is all backwards. In my view, modern people no longer identify themselves by any one characteristic. No longer do they self-identify primarily by a social class, or a particular way of thinking. Linear progression has been completely replaced by a parallel, simultaneous, multi-directional approach to life and all its aspects. Trade unions and NGOs are obsolete, or fast becoming so. Modern people detest inaccessibility and institutionalization; they crave trust and connection.

It is the second decade of 21st century! Technology pushes the boundaries of connection and communication. Old rules are re-written, social norms shift constantly, and the world is primed for a new playing field. We need the tools and structures of democracy to catch up. I think technology has a bigger role to play.

Digital Democracy

Imagine a tool that puts people back into the decision-making equation. Made by people for people. This would be a platform that clearly shows which ideas and initiatives aimed at improving the lives of citizens generate the most interest from society. A platform that allows you to enlist the support of your friends for the causes you deem most important. A place that shows how close projects and initiatives are to being implemented. A public forum where you have access to important government information without having to look for it elsewhere.

We are all interested in our friends' opinions. This platform shows them to you. Also, people with similar opinions on a given subject will be connected, thus making further communication easier. Democracy of the Ancient Greeks is long gone, but maximum transparency and public officials that listen to the people are just a step away.

The latest public elections in my country, Latvia, helped convince me that we need a platform like the one outlined above. My business partner and I have begun work on one, but I'd like to hear what you think the ideal democracy-enabling platform would look like. What's your vision? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

January 05 2011

20:01

Updates to the New York State Legislature API

A new year brings with it a new government in Albany, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a new cast of state lawmakers. To prepare, we've updated our New York State Legislature API.
Tags: APIs politics

December 20 2010

22:14

Using Flat Files So Elections Don't Break Your Server

Publishing live election results requires a carefully tuned system: the setup must be able to withstand some of the most intense traffic levels seen all year at NYTimes.com. We decided to center our elections app on the simplest of all caching strategies: the flat file.

October 27 2010

18:07

DocumentCloud Users Make Ballot Design An Election Issue

When we make lists of the kinds of source documents users can upload to DocumentCloud, they can get pretty long. DocumentCloud is court filings, hearing transcripts, testimony, legislation, lab reports, memos, meeting minutes, correspondence. I can say with absolute confidence that in all of our planning, "ballots" never once came up as the sort of document a news organization might want to annotate for readers. Our relentlessly creative users have shown us otherwise.

This summer, the Memphis Commercial Appeal rounded out its guide to August's primary elections with a sample ballot. Their digital content editor told us that many readers who'd missed the sample ballot in the print edition turned to the version online as primary day approached. Earlier this month, they added the general election ballot to that guide.

New York Ballots

WNYC, New York City's NPR affiliate, also published a few ballots this summer. In an effort to comply with a 2002 federal law that mandates significant updates to voting systems in each state, New York City introduced paper ballots for the 2010 primary election, replacing the city's famously arcane voting machines. One look at the new design and everyone was up in arms, proclaiming its absurdity, but WNYC actually invited a group of ballot design experts to review the city's new ballots. Their findings: the ballot was confusing

Design for Democracy works to increase civic participation, in part through a ballot design project that aims to make voting easier and more accurate. WNYC used Design for Democracy's feedback to annotate a sample ballot on their blog, offering readers vital voting advice.

When the city released sample ballots for November's general election, a local think tank pointed out that the instructions erroneously advise voters to mark the oval above their candidate's name. In fact, the relevant ovals appear below candidate's names. WNYC highlighted the issue by embedding a sample ballot on their blog. Apparently the "oval above" language was mandated by state law. Don't believe me? See for yourself -- WNYC posted the legislation, with the relevant passage highlighted.

From now on, my laundry list of things DocumentCloud catalogs will most definitely include ballots.

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