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January 23 2012


Breakthrough Websites for Young Women, by Young Women

A new generation of young women has begun to make their mark online, combining entrepreneurial energy with the hardwired digital fluency that typifies the so-called digital natives.

Here are two stories of such women, both 26 years old, who jettisoned their office jobs to create online media outlets designed for young women like them. For these women and others like them, the decision to embark upon these web-based ventures was not revolutionary. To them, the "digital media revolution" has receded and they're simply operating in the only media environment they've ever known.

The Daily Muse: Work, Inspired

Kathryn Minshew hadn't been interested in starting a website for young professional women. As an undergraduate at Duke, she had no particular predilection for women's issues, and she didn't belong to any women's groups. So when, last month, Forbes featured Kathryn in its "30 Under 30" article for her leadership of The Daily Muse, the wildly successful career- and lifestyle-focused online magazine, it was an accolade that was unforeseen by her former self.

Kathryn, who's moved her publication (and herself) out to San Francisco to participate in an incubator program, recently told me that her passion for female-oriented career advice developed gradually. "I was surprised when I applied to a position at [management consulting firm] McKinsey, and they had a separate information session for women." After she landed the job, however, she began to observe the complex gender politics amid the corporate environment. She noticed how uncomfortable women were when asking for salary increases, foregoing a bonus check for $10,000 herself simply because it didn't occur to her to ask for it.


She scoured the web for sites that offered professional guidance to young women like her, but her search was fruitless. So she partnered with friends Alex Cavoulacos and Melissa McCreery to create their own. Today, The Daily Muse has a formidable readership, with a staff of five and more than 140 writers contributing content nationwide. The site's articles are syndicated on Forbes and the Huffington Post, and Kathryn's modest ambition of targeting an otherwise underserved demographic has been regarded in media circles as prescient. She herself explains that investors are "shocked to learn that there are no other sites" that are designed and deployed for professional women.

"Kathryn saw a need and filled it," said Rachel Sklar, media entrepreneur and adviser to The Daily Muse. "She recognized that not only was there a huge market of young professional women being pumped out of colleges every year -- but that there was key information that they weren't getting. Fixing those information asymmetries is extremely powerful -- and damn good business. And it's their niche, because they made it."

Big Girls, Small Kitchen: A Guide for Quarter-Life Cooking

Phoebe Lapine was bored by her first office job after graduating from Brown. She remembers sitting down at a Thanksgiving dinner when her cousin interrupted her workaday complaints by asking her, point-blank, what she'd rather be doing. She thought about it a moment and then replied, "writing a cookbook."

Knowing, instinctively, that the boundaries between media were becoming increasingly porous, Phoebe called Cara Eisenpress, a cooking friend of hers since high school and, together, they started a cooking blog. They knew that they wanted to focus on young women who, like them, were facing the challenges of limited resources. So they came up with the title, Big Girls, Small Kitchen as an online "guide to quarter-life cooking."

According to Phoebe, they "started off slow, meeting at coffee shops after work or sneaking out to plan recipes on [their] lunch breaks." They didn't get a lot of traffic but were seen by the right people. Before long, a literary agent who had taken notice of the site approached them, and they had their deal for a cookbook. "In the Small Kitchen" was published in May and is currently available on Amazon.


While Phoebe had pretty swiftly accomplished her goal to write the cookbook, she and Cara decided to reinvest a significant portion of their advance into the website, transforming it to a more thorough resource for the community of young chefs that had begun to follow them. Phoebe recounted her literary agent's advice: "A book is something that goes on the shelf. It could be hidden discontinued, and you have much less control. It's more static. The site is something you have more control over. It lives on beyond the book and gives a rich opportunity for interaction with your audience."

What she didn't expect, however, is that the development of a more polished and attractive site actually decreased the amount of user-generated comments and contributions. She and Cara speculate that it may have been difficult for her audience, which was used to a shabby-chic site, to be greeted by something that had a more professional design. Cara observed, "When we did our first redesign, we were so sick of having an ugly old blog that we over-corrected and wound up with a homepage that was beautiful but static, even boring. It took a few months, but we were just able to go into another design phase and play with the elements until they felt vibrant."

Now, as they embark on their new venture, Small Kitchen College, they're applying their learned lessons to create community for the culinarily curious college student. With nearly 40 student contributors, they are harnessing the collective contributions of people with shared interests, much in the way The Daily Muse has done.

These are just two examples of young media-minded entrepreneurs who are noticing barren spots in the media landscape. They understand that people with similar interests to their own are being underserved by the the current catalog of media offerings, and so they're deciding to insert their own voices into this otherwise vacuous lull. As more and more digital natives come of age and instinctively exploit online opportunities in the way that Kathryn and Phoebe have done, the digital media landscape will become more verdant and variegated for it.

Mark Hannah is the director of academic communications at Parsons The New School for Design. Coming out of the public relations world, he has conducted sensitive public affairs campaigns for well-known multinational corporations, major industry organizations and influential non-profits. Mark worked for the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign as a member of the national advance staff. He's more recently worked as an advance associate for the Obama-Biden campaign and Presidential Inaugural Committee. 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 2008 research fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. He holds a B.A. from the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania and a master's degree from Columbia University. He can be reached at markphannah[at]gmail.com

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December 21 2011


April 20 2011


Tasini Lawsuit Against Huffington Post Has No Merit

Jonathan Tasini's at it again.

Last week, the writer and labor activist declared war on Arianna Huffington, first promising to make her "a pariah in the progressive community" and then threatening to make her life "a living hell." He went on, in a splendid variation of Howard Beale's "I'm mad as hell" speech, to say that unpaid Huffington Post bloggers are "modern-day slaves" on "Arianna's...plantation."

In short, Tasini's a real charmer.

He made those comments in the shadow of a class-action lawsuit he filed April 12 against the HuffPost and its parent company, AOL. Tasini claims that all unpaid HuffPost bloggers -- he was one of them, until two months ago -- deserve a share of the site's estimated $315 million buyout value. Specifically, his magic number is $105 million. He wants not a penny less. Why that much? Because "justice" demands it, of course.

Weak Legal Theories

The lawsuit really is two things: It's interesting and it's a loser. On the one hand, the suit raises some provocative big-picture questions. Should media sites pay their content creators? If so, how would those relationships be structured? If not, how would the supply of free content affect the creative market? On the other hand, a trial court is not the best forum for those questions, and the suit relies on weak legal theories.

The big theory, the one I'll focus on here, is unjust enrichment. Tasini argues that Huffington Post has generated enormous revenue by inviting people to blog for the site on a volunteer basis, in exchange for exposure. The low production costs have lifted the HuffPost's value, with the "entirety of the financial gain" going to the site. The bloggers have received no money, even though their content has generated a portion of the revenue. As a result, the HuffPost has been unjustly enriched.


So goes Tasini's argument, and needless to say it's unpersuasive. The theory of unjust enrichment stems from the principle that one person should not be allowed to enrich herself at the expense of another. It applies in cases where no legal contract exists. After all, if a legal contract existed, then its terms would dictate the relationship between the parties -- their rights and obligations. On a claim of unjust enrichment, the court can impose the obligation of one party to pay the other, in the absence of a contract, if doing so would be fair and right.

In the Southern District of New York, where Tasini filed his lawsuit, a person "seeking relief under a theory of unjust enrichment...must demonstrate (1) that the defendant benefited; (2) at the plaintiff's expense; and (3) that equity and good conscience require restitution." In other words, Tasini needs to show that the HuffPost benefited from the posts written by the unpaid bloggers, that the HuffPost benefited at the expense of those bloggers, and that requiring the HuffPost to repay them is the fair and right thing to do.

I bet Tasini could satisfy the first two elements, either by submitting evidence about the amount of revenue that the Huffington Post realized from each freebie post, or by submitting evidence about the savings in production costs that HuffPost realized by using unpaid bloggers. However, I don't think that "equity and good conscience require" the HuffPo to repay them. Thus, Tasini couldn't satisfy the third element.

Not 'Modern-Day Slaves'

It's easy to think of the unpaid bloggers as helpless -- as victims of a tidal wave of digital-industrial capitalism. But that's too generous. I'd like to see writers get paid just as much as the next guy, but the HuffPost bloggers chose to write for free. They're not "modern-day slaves," contrary to what Tasini said, and their relationship with the site has been informal, at best. As Lauren Kirchner wrote in February, in the Columbia Journalism Review:

The thousands of unpaid bloggers...have signed no agreement with the site, and are under no obligation to submit their stories with any regularity. They do not receive assignments. If they have an idea for a post but then decide not to write it, they are not penalized by the site's editors in any way...When bloggers no longer feel it's in their interest -- or that it's disproportionately too much in AOL/HuffPo's interest -- then they'll quit, which they have every right to do...Every individual writer has his or her own individual motivations for contributing for the site.

Tasini offers no evidence that he expressed to the HuffPost any expectation of payment. Nor does he offer evidence that the site expressed to him that he'd be paid. In short, he had no reasonable basis to believe he'd get any money. For these reasons and in light of Kirchner's comments, I just can't say that "equity and good conscience require" the Huffington Post to repay the bloggers.

If they want to get paid, they shouldn't write for free.

Jonathan Peters is a lawyer and the Frank Martin Fellow at the Missouri School of Journalism, where he's working on his Ph.D. and specializing in the First Amendment. An award-winning freelancer, he has written on legal issues for a variety of newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at jonathan.w.peters@gmail.com.

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March 14 2011


IMA + SXSW = Major Discussion on Future of Public Media

Public media makers found a whole new crew to hang with at this year's Integrated Media Association (IMA) Conference on March 10 and 11. Joining the mix were attendees at a Knight Foundation-supported panel on news innovation and content strategy.

Adding a further dose of excitement was a new collaboration: The IMA preceded and then flowed into the interactive track of the SXSW festival on the 12th.

Despite looming cuts and recent controversies, participants seemed eager both to learn about a raft of recent public media experiments and collaborations, and to meet their online friends and followers in the flesh. This annual public media conference, IMA, has recently been revitalized with new leadership and strategy, and felt much hipper and more cohesive than the last iteration of the conference in 2009.

But don't just take my word for it. Here's a glimpse at the conversations through the eyes of attendees -- noted in bold -- and my own running Twitter coverage at @beyondbroadcast. You can follow a larger discussion of both conferences by going to the #imaconf and #sxsw hashtags on Twitter.

The run-up

Geez -- pack for IMA or glue myself to the screen to track blowback on Schiller's resignation? #pubmedia, I can't keep up!

@rbole (Robert Bole, CPB): Getting in the shute: first #imaconf re: #pubmedia analytics, then #SXSW on open APIs and finally #mediafuturenow on digital journalism

@nextgenradio (Doug Mitchell) : @beyondbroadcast Plenty to talk about amongst the faithful at SXSWi. Leaving today for Austin.

Opening panel: Innovation Anxiety

@martineric (Eric Michael Martin) : RT @LCKnapp: Jeannie Ericson encourages #pubmedia to adopt some Texas swagger while @ #sxsw2011 & #imaconf in Austin

@aschweig (Adam Schweigert, WOSU) : @joaquinalvarado: public service media seeks to identify need and engage with communities to solve problems

PBS and NPR Local/National Strategies

Kinsey Wilson (of NPR) at IMA conf: "I am here to tell you that NPR will keep moving forward."

PBS incubation lab is building directory of station tech staff for collab projects.

At #iMAConf, #pubcorps is announcing "America's Next Top Public Media Model" contest.

Learn more about these Top Model projects and the Kindred collaboration platform at publicmediacorps.org.

LaToya Jackson from #pubcorps says that "at this moment, #pubmedia needs drastic action if it's going to survive."

@rbole: @timolsonsf (Tim Olson, KQED) sending picture of Next Top Model at #imaconf


Beyond the Stream: Mobile Apps that Matter

mobile apps panel: Andrew Kuklewicz of PRX (@kookster), Colleen Wilson, Seth Lind, Demian Perry on which/how/why

Wilson: Interesting question re. geolocation app: "How can we get people lost?" Give people rich locative experience

Wilson: PBS/NPR already have streaming apps -- station apps need to take advantage of local assets/engagement

Seth Lind of This American Life: Exciting to be able to feature individual stories on iPad app, offer live content

Lind: "Thinking about mobile has pushed us to think about users way more actively, and it's just been great."

@kookster: Mobile is not as forgiving; you have to think about every pixel and what the user is seeing.

@kookster: variability of both networks and devices makes mobile development trickier than web by an order of magnitude.

@kookster: "people feel entitled to have amazing things in their pockets," & will tell you loudly if you fail to deliver

Lind: Users find push notifications offensive, especially when they are asking for donations

Wilson: proximity is key--finding what's near you now: discounts, stories, members


Lunchtime Keynote

@mediaengage Top 10 #pubmedia Tech Trends, courtesy of @webbmedia at @IntMediaAssn #imaConf http://wp.me/pUN9X-a4

Re-thinking public TV

On the platform: Chris Hastings (@chrishast) and Bob Lyons from WGBH re. "Re-thinking Public TV" | http://www.worldcompass.org

Lyons: World is a national digital TV channel that is serving as a platform for independent and international #pubmedia makers

#worldchan website has a different take/voice than the channel -- younger, multicultural, multiplatform, participatory #pubmedia

#worldchan is arranged thematically, organizing a variety of content on the channel and online. Sample theme: Skin You're In #pubmedia

WorldCompass site just got redesigned for the 3rd time in 6 months; will rebrand again/ iterating on the fly #pubmedia #worldchan

(PBS MediaShift recently covered the redesign of WorldCompass.org.)

#worldchan is demonstrating multiplatform branding and cross-silo collaboration in #pubmedia; example: live video from The Takeaway on site

Lyons: the "visual vocabulary" of seeing the reporter unshaven and on the beat at 6:00 in the morning was exciting

Lyons: show's audio morphing into other things: audio slideshows, Snap Judgement multiplatform/animated storytelling, #pubmedia #worldchan

Lyons: #worldchan offering periodic "callouts" for public content. @chrishast elaborates. Goals: Incubate & support new creators #pubmedia

@chrishast: More goals for #worldchan--innovate new production models, bottom-up storytelling, solution-based civic discourse #pubmedia

@chrishast: Will be doing public callouts via WGBH Lab (lab.wgbh.org) to populate #worldchan #pubmedia

@chrishast current call is for videos re. gay rights, inspired by Stonewall anniversary #worldchan #pubmedia

@chrishast "In some ways we're creating a pipeline for independent makers that doesn't exist, in addition to PBS" #worldchan #pubmedia

@chrishast "It's not just about creating a platform for discourse, it's about solution-based discourse...not the rant" #pubmedia

@MediaFunders: Is it enough 4 public media 2 ask content makers to preformed mold? How can public truly enter the space?

@martineric: blog coverage of Re-Thinking Public TV: The World Channel from #SXSW Interactive http://worldcompass.org/blog

Open Wide: New Models for Public Media

Back at #SXSW -- at a panel on new models in #pubmedia, with Orlando Bagwell, Sue Schardt, Jacquie Jones and Greg Pak. How to innovate?

Bagwell: How to reinvent public service for a multiplatform environment?

Jones: describing trajectory of NBPC (National Black Programming Consortium)

Jones: every year that she's been at NBPC, there's been "a watershed event that galvanized an African-American public"

Jones: Began by supporting diverse producers, but then realized #pubmedia wasn't reaching minority audiences; how to create relationship?

Jones: realized there was no dedicated producer corps within #pubmedia creating content relevant to minority communities -- how to address?

Jones: next step was to create the #pubcorps in order to build linkages and skills among young producers and community/#pubmedia orgs

Learn more about the #pubcorps at publicmediacorps.org

Jones: "There's still a lot of opportunity to engage new voices and have a real impact in #pubmedia...even though we're in dicey times"

Jones: #pubmedia produced by young people may look very different: games, citizen journalism training, etc. Need to be reflected in content

Bagwell: Is there a possibility for young ideas to lead the future of #pubmedia? Jones: Yes, but it's really challenging, different process

Jones: "We learned that we have a lot more to learn"

Bagwell: a recurring issue in #pubmedia now is "how do you find the public where they are"

Sue Schardt (@Schardt) from Association of Independents in Radio (@AIRmedia) talking about vibrant, diversified universe of makers/content

@Schardt: "How in #pubmedia can we harness this invention and energy" of indy producers? MQ2 project: demo project exploring this

@Schardt: #pubmedia #sxsw You have to balance structure with creativity. Learn more about MQ2 here: http://bit.ly/Spreading_the_Zing

@Schardt: We don't throw out the existing infrastructure, but we have to reflect humanity in a relevant, meaningful way

@Schardt: It's a tremendous challege to produce authentic #pubmedia at this moment when many institutions are risk-averse

@Schardt: Every one of the MQ2 projects took themselves outside of the structure to deep into communities. #pubmedia led us there

Jay Rosen: Bloggers vs. Journalists Redux

Listening to @jayrosen_nyu deconstruct the psychology of journalists and bloggers & why they love to hate each other

@jayrosen_nyu: the "fantasy of replacement" is a phantom of journalists' fears re. waning business model.

jay rosen

@jayrosen_nyu: journalists dismiss bloggers as "compulsive," "random"--displaced anger at a public that doesn't value journalism

@jayrosen_nyu: what do journalists have against basements, anyway? pajamas? flies in the face of intrepid journalist stereotypes

@jayrosen_nyu: if it were self-evident that commercial model is better, drawing contrasts w/bloggers would be uneccessary, yes?

I always marvel at the skill with which @jayrosen_nyu brands himself and revisits his own crusades to clever effect

@jayrosen_nyu: bloggers turn critique around to claim that big media should be responsible so they can slack off. but press is us

@jayrosen_nyu: "discarded parts [of old news habits] live on in the subconscious...and have come roaring back with blogging"

@jayrosen_nyu: i.e.--Bloggers are the return of the repressed

@jayrosen_nyu: voice is what you take out of modern professional journalism--if you succeed you might one day earn a column

@jayrosen_nyu: "Bloggers disrupt the moral hierarchy" by jumping straight to voice without the discipline of flat reporting

@jayrosen_nyu: It's time for some psychiatry with journalists--to "get them to tell a better story" about themselves & the world

@jayrosen_nyu prescription: bloggers, learn some basic standards. journalists: get flexible. "mutualization"

@jayrosen_nyu: In psychology, you don't get over the things that have wounded you; instead you can open up space for motion

@jayrosen_nyu: "freedom of the press is a public possession," the right for citizens to print their opinions

@jayrosen_nyu Wants NPR to drop ideology of "view from nowhere" and replace it with pluralism & transparency

Editors' note: Read Jay Rosen's discussion of the attempts to defund public media.

@jayrosen_nyu: "so-called objectivity is a very expensive system to maintain" b/c anything that pierces it threatens outlet

@jayrosen_nyu: The only place we actuallly define journalists is via shield laws and velvet ropes

How PBS and NPR Can Support Local Journalism

Reporting from #sxswlocal panel on future of local w/ @kdando @tgdavidson @janjlab @amyshaw9net Photo: http://yfrog.com/gzfkcksj h/t @JLab


Last #pubmedia panel of the day: On what PBS/NPR are doing in the local news space. @janjlab talking about variety in news ecosystem

@janjlab: lots of news innovation happening in silos; not networked in a way that can amplify news/info

Amy Shaw from the Nine Network in St. Louis talking about Homeland project, which we covered here: http://to.pbs.org/9Q6Ja0

Shaw: "I wish there was a more holistic perspective" about how to work in an community news ecosystem

Shaw: people need to "tuck their peacock feathers in at the door" and think about what's good for engaging community

Shaw: people need to be nudged around creating dialogue around stalled, intractable issues

RT @PatNarciso: Nine Network on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/STL9Network

@amyshaw9net: the master narrative about immigration is demonization and polarization of "undocumented"--wanted to deepen issue

@amyshaw9net: they are training people how to use flip cameras: young people get tech but not story; older folks the opposite

@pubmlicmic: Schaffer: Need to end mentality that once funding is over, project is over

@mediaengage: Great wisdom shared by @janjlab @kdando @amyshaw9net & @tgdavidson (and @nicolehollway!) at today's #SXSWlocal #pubmedia session

@JackLerner: "#pubmedia can help local news by being a hub, a partner, or an innovator." - @JLab's @janjlab #SXSWlocal #sxsw

And onwards...

@CJERICSON: Video or audio of #imaconf coming soon. Audio this weekend. Video next week. For all attendees & members.

@g5member: Great to meet so many of public media's creative and dedicated minds at #imaconf. Now, #sxsw time!

Full disclosure: In my role as the director of the Ford Foundation-funded Future of Public Media Project, I am working with the National Black Programing Consortium to incubate their Public Media Corps project via the Center for Social Media, and have also worked with PBS/NPR on the PubCamps and Association of Independents in Radio on a study of their MQ2 project. More details on all of these here: futureofpublicmedia.net.

Jessica Clark directs the Future of Public Media Project at American University's Center for Social Media, and is a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation.

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December 02 2010


10 Reasons Our Student Newspaper Blog Stinks

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

I am writing an adviser's confession: Our student newspaper blog stinks.

Amid many scoops and successes this semester, The Minaret, the weekly campus paper I advise at the University of Tampa, has endured a major bust. Roughly three months in, our efforts to launch a buzzworthy and newsworthy blog have failed -- spectacularly.

But I will not go quietly into that long production night, which for us is Tuesday.

Instead, I want my staff to learn from our mistakes and grow our blog, The Crescent, into something better. I also want to ensure others do not follow in our #epicfail footsteps.

In that spirit, here are the top ten reasons I believe our student newspaper blog, so far, has flopped.

10 Reasons

1. We don't have a dedicated blog editor.
Our managing editor oversees the blog. At first glance, that makes sense. He's a workaholic new media whiz kid with design chops and an unbridled passion for journalism and the newspaper. So far though, it has been hellish for him.

I know we live in a journalism age in which everyone is supposed to be equipped to do everything. And I know that student newspaper staffers regularly double and triple up on their defined job scope for the greater good of the paper. But for our managing editor -- someone who is already enmeshed in layout, staff oversight, copy editing, reporting, and budget issues -- launching and overseeing the blog appears to be a step too far.

Even in the short time I've known him, I've been able to measure his stress not by the look on his face, but the fuzz. When he's clean-shaven, I know all's well and we have a solid issue. When he sports two-day stubble, I know there's a major misspelling in a published headline and a reporter who's gone MIA. When he periodically dives into blog work, his scruff becomes a full-blown "defeat" beard, the kind Al Gore grew after he lost the 2000 presidential election and the one Conan O'Brien continues to sport after being ousted from "The Tonight Show."

A blog is important enough to have a staffer whose sole or most significant responsibility revolves around its maintenance. Just because a staffer in a separate position has the skills, knowledge or willingness to augment their work with additional blog oversight does not mean that they should.

2. We don't have a blog-first mentality.
The Crescent should be our spot to break news and provide real-time previews and post-event reviews. But the power of print is subverting the blog's potential. Students continue to hold content for the hard copy paper, seeing their role as weekly newshounds instead of real-time watchdogs. In this sense, writing for the Crescent is not perceived as a perfect avenue to report in the moment, engage readers or experiment. Instead, it is viewed as extra work, the type most staffers do not have the time or energy to take on.

3. We haven't integrated the blog into the paper.
In our early planning, we excitedly defined the Crescent as the last piece of our puzzle, the driving engine of a three-tiered presence that also includes our print edition and website. Instead, it's been the spare tire hidden in the trunk.

There is no real interplay between the blog and other parts of the Minaret. At editorial meetings, while brainstorming story ideas, we talk about news angles, sources, photos, editorial illustrations, information graphics, and full packaging options. The Crescent rarely, if ever, comes up.

Screen shot 2010-12-01 at 10.14.00 PM.pngWe randomly run a few Crescent headlines in RSS feed-fashion on the side of our home page, but otherwise the blog exists in no-man's land. It sports its own web address and masthead. At first glance, it is not immediately clear what the blog is, why it exists or who it belongs to.

4. We don't embrace the blog's multimedia potential.
The Crescent sports bare text and Flickr photos by the truckload. We are not running podcasts, audio slideshows, news videos, Dipity timelines or PDFs of campus security reports or student government budgets. At this point, we barely offer active links.

5. We haven't made the blog feel very inviting.
The design is what I've dubbed "minimalist bleak." The text is there, presented in the classic centerpiece one-column format, but it is tiny. The sparse whiteness of the page also appears just a bit too white, overwhelming the words and images embedded within it. We also don't tease out enough of each post to entice readers to click through. And the small photos running with the text are not grabbing anyone's attention.

6. We haven't made the blog interactive.
There is no dialogue with readers. We haven't solicited crazy Halloween stories, messy dorm room photos or #epicfailatUT tweets.

We have attempted to stir up interest in a poll question asked at the end of a big story in each week's print edition that students must travel to the blog to answer. Our enthusiasm has waned after realizing that not many people are answering. I recently responded to a question, selecting one of the three choices, and found each one had been chosen by 33.3 percent of respondents. It turned out only three of us had answered, each one giving a different response.

7. We aren't promoting the blog enough.
In an informal poll a few of my students and I conducted on campus, we came across only one student who even knew the Crescent existed. He had only been to the site once. When asked how he had heard about it, he giggled, replying, "Honestly, I don't remember."

We have not yet taken advantage of the massive power of social media to hype our efforts. Heck, we haven't even handed out flyers or papered dorm hallway walls with the web address. And while we drop in occasional quarter-page promos about it in our print edition, they don't sport an image, tagline or concept that in any way stands out from the bodybuilding and "quit smoking" ads running nearby.

8. We aren't running enough fresh content.
We never expected hourly updates, but we barely scrounge together three or four solid posts a week. They tend to go live at random and rarely relate to anything timely happening on campus or in the world. The bottom line: There is absolutely no reason for anyone to check out the blog on a regular basis or in the midst of breaking news.

9. We don't have a coherent voice.
This was a planning problem. We wanted a blog, plain and simple. But at the outset, we never really established why or what we wanted it to be. Is it meant for us to let our hair down and write without objectivity? Is it for us to tackle tougher issues and be more explicit? Is it to speak with sarcasm? Is it to drop the nonsense and literally be all-interactive, letting students write in and sound off? Is it to simply flesh out our print coverage? Answers still to come...

10. We don't offer a consistent editorial slate.
Our blog content is scattered. As recent headlines reveal, we jump randomly from "Gossip Girl Spoiler Chat" and "How Real Men Treat Women" to "American League Cy Young Predictions" and "Another Reason Canada Should Apologize to Justin Bieber."

The best blogs fill a niche, providing the most relevant and comprehensive information on a single slice of life, geographical area or area of interest. By contrast, our blog is a ditch- one in which we have been throwing unwanted or unneeded content, regardless of form, quality or relevancy to our readers.

Still Have Hope

On the bright side, the beauty of the web is that failure can often turn to success -- and you can watch it happen in real-time. I hope in the months to come the Crescent will become a central part of our web presence. The dream scenario is for the blog to be the students' home page, their first check in the morning, something for which they are excited to contribute, and something that fills their information niche.

But for now, as Usher once sang, this is my confession: Our student newspaper blog stinks.

Dan Reimold is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa. He writes and presents frequently on the campus press and maintains the daily blog College Media Matters, affiliated with the Associated Collegiate Press. His first book on a major modern college media trend, Sex and the University: Celebrity, Controversy, and a Student Journalism Revolution, was published this fall by Rutgers University Press.

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

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November 22 2010


NPR, PBS Try to Tame Controversy, Embrace Tech at PubCamp

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The Public Media 2.0 series on MediaShift is sponsored by American University's Center for Social Media (CSM) through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Learn more about CSM's research on emerging public media trends and standards at futureofpublicmedia.net.

The last few months have been a bumpy stretch for public media. Due to controversial editorial decisions at both NPR and PBS, these organizations have gone from just covering the news to being the focus of it as well.

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NPR has faced withering criticism from the right for its seemingly abrupt firing of news analyst Juan Williams. The local Mississippi Public Broadcasting received similar criticism from the left after it dropped the popular national show Fresh Air from its line-up due to what it viewed as inappropriate sexually explicit conversation. And PBS came under fire for cutting controversial comments Tina Fey made about Tea Party-favorite Sarah Palin from its broadcast of the Mark Twain Prize ceremony, supposedly due to time constraints.

While each of these firestorms was put out by the institution that created the controversy, the second annual National Public Media Camp, which wrapped up last night at American University (AU) in Washington, D.C., provided an opportunity for representatives from all three organizations to share their experiences and -- more importantly -- the lessons learned. Not surprisingly, the session entitled "How to handle an online revolt" was one of the many highlights of a packed weekend of diverse discussions.

NPR social media strategist Andy Carvin's talk about the Williams incident combined his first-hand knowledge of managing a social media disaster with that of Thomas Broadus" from the Mississippi radio communications team and PBS' director of digital communications Kevin Dando. Broadus's former boss, who has since resigned, provided a casebook study of how to not respond to an angry Internet: ignoring the web at your own peril.

Carvin thanked his lucky stars that he had the good fortune to hire a comment moderating firm only weeks before NPR's home page was hit by more than 10,000 comments a day in the immediate aftermath of Williams' dismissal. Dando, whose preemptive plan to host Tina Fey's full speech online muted the conservative outcry, told the audience that even PBS.org got angry (and confused) comments denouncing the television service for firing Juan Williams (even though that was really done by NPR not PBS).

"When you have an online conflagration, you're probably better off letting users vent," Jon Gordon, the social media director of Minnesota Public Radio, observed after the discussion. "And it's interesting to hear, that is the independent conclusion reached by all three of those people who talked about online revolts. To me, that was the value of that session."

How it Worked

"The goal of PubCamp," said Carvin, "is to create an informal but high energy environment where members of the public with certain skills to bear can come and work with public media staff to find ways to collaborate with each other."

PubCamp organizers Carvin, PBS product manager Jonathan Coffman, iStrategyLabs founder Peter Corbett, and MediaShift corespondent Jessica Clark employed a freewheeling, unconference format to facilitate this interaction. Each morning, all of the station managers, fundraisers, and web developers -- as well as the larger group of public media enthusiasts in attendance from non-profits, the press, and tech community -- gathered in the large conference room provided by AU and shared ideas for sessions and discussions over coffee and bagels.


"The entire success or failure of the event is based on what attendees are willing to propose in that first hour," Carvin explained. "That puts enough pressure on the people who come to put some thought into it and to do something constructive and interesting."

The 160 or so participants, some of whom came from as far away as Brazil and Japan, were not lacking for ideas. Out of this participatory process came informational sessions like "Metadata best practices," big idea talks like "How does public media respond to the culture wars?" as well as technical discussions about the Android mobile platform in "Collaborating with Google."

While nominally led by the person or team who proposed the topic, sessions were similarly reliant on the input of the attendees. For example, Jon Gordon of Minnesota Public Radio, guided a talk about effective use of social media on Saturday afternoon.

"I proposed that session not because I really had the answer but because I have questions to ask of the community here," said Gordon, who took over as the social media and mobile news editor at MPR earlier this year. There was enough interest that a second social media discussion was staged on Sunday morning.

Gordon attended his first public media unconference in St. Paul in 2008. This community engagement and brainstorming event, as well as another staged by Santa Cruz public radio station KUSP, helped inspire the first National PubCamp and a dozen other local PubCamps last year.

How it Succeeded

5195429417_ccb3e50097_m.jpgMany first-time attendees found the unconference process somewhat bewildering, but everyone I spoke with seemed happy with the discussion it produced.

E-Democracy.org executive director Steven Clift, another Minnesotan who was among the third of conference-goers who were not public media employees, made the trip primarily "to meet the people in the online side of public media," he said.

Clift also used his first PubCamp experience to discuss a pet issue he's passionate about: improving the quality of online news commenting by reducing user anonymity. "Local newspapers are fundamentally undermining their democratic mission -- and their brands -- by hosting poor quality commenting," he said.

NPR mobile operations manager Jeremy Pennycook was excited to meet Michael Frederick, a software engineer at Google who NPR CEO Vivian Schiller described as "a celebrity" in her welcome speech at the opening plenary.

"It's always great to develop relationships with people who are in your field but aren't doing what you're doing," Pennycook said. "It's my job to go between people like Michael Frederick who are knee deep in code and people who are content producers or making decisions about media at the executive level."

Although Frederick's primary job is programming Google Docs, he used the 20 percent of time his company sets aside for creative ventures to work with Pennycook and build the much beloved NPR Android mobile app.

How it Aims to Change Public Media

Carvin hopes future PubCamps will lay the groundwork for more open source collaborations like the one between Pennycook and Frederick. Carvin said he hopes PubCamp becomes a "movement," and noted that his primary complaint about the first full year of the organization was that it had not produced more technical advances.

"One thing that I wanted to see happen at more of at the PubCamps we did this summer was more people writing code," he said.

To foster innovation at the national PubCamp, the organizers set up a separate room stocked with food and plenty of coffee for developers. The "Dev Lounge" produced one tangible result: A WordPress plug-in that will allow users to edit, excerpt, or fully republish NPR stories. Two other projects -- an SMS polling platform and a trackback system for quotes -- were also in the works.

But the most lasting result may be the connections formed in the Dev Lounge -- and indeed within the PubCamp as a whole. At the closing plenary, the coders announced they were forming a Google Group to float new ideas and keep in touch. As Amy Wielunski, a membership manager working on fundraising for dual licensed PBS/NPR station WSKG in Binghamton, N.Y., pointed out, "just the fact that we're having these conversations is a huge step forward."

"Why would I have ever had a reason to interact with Andy Carvin before?" asked Wielunski, who spoke up at the online revolt session about how the Juan Williams incident had affected membership contributions at her station.

"I wouldn't," she said.


What did you think of the National PubCamp? If you weren't able to attend, what did you think of the event coverage on Twitter and NPR? Would you attend a future PubCamp? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.

Photo of Jay Rosen by Julia Schrenkler via Flickr

Corbin Hiar is the DC-based associate editor at MediaShift and climate blogger for UN Dispatch and the Huffington Post. He is a regular contributor to More Intelligent Life, an online arts and culture publication of the Economist Group, and has also written about environmental issues on Economist.com and the website of the New Republic. Before Corbin moved to the Capital to join the Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program at Mother Jones, he worked a web internship at the Nation in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @CorbinHiar

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July 29 2010


Pop and Politics Blog Becomes Converged Radio Project

These days it's not so unusual for a public radio program to boast a companion blog. But few shows begin online and move to broadcast.Pop and Politics is the exception.

Farai Chideya -- a high-profile public affairs reporter, novelist, and the former host of NPR's late and lamented African-American current events program "News & Notes" -- began the Pop and Politics site 15 years ago when she was working at CNN as a political analyst. The project, she said, has evolved through "a few different lifecycles" -- from a multi-author blog covering issues of race and culture, to a student journalism training organization, to its latest, a multi-platform radio show.

"I decided that now was the time," Chideya said. "There have been so many times that I have been a part of 'converged media' but it was too soon or didn't quite work. Now, all of the market conditions are right."

She described the project as more of a "media ecosystem as anything else," comprised of a broadcast, podcast, social media feeds, and mobile content -- all under the Pop and Politics brand.

Election Plans

On air, the program -- formally titled "Pop and Politics Radio With Farai Chideya" -- will launch in a pilot version just before the midterm election. It will be a series of hour-long broadcasts recorded live-to-tape from spots around the country where there are critical races. The goal is to feature perspectives that aren't always highlighted in national election coverage.

"All politics is local, life is local," Chideya said. "I want to meet people where they are, to be respectful of the fact that not everyone lives in a big city, that not everyone thinks the same way that I do."

She plans to work with American Public Media's Public Insight Network to uncover local sources for stories. Click on the video below to hear her describe the show's format.

News + Entertainment

A mixture of reporting, a panel of guests, interviews and live performance, Pop and Politics Radio draws inspiration from popular late-night comedy programs by mixing news and entertainment.

"I want to enjoy the act of making media, and I want people to enjoy the media I produce," Chideya said. But instead of just relying on celebrities and politicians to comment on the day's events, she'll draw in independent producers and reporters to contribute fresh content.

Her program targets a demographic that isn't young exactly -- around 35 -- but younger than the usual boomer-generation NPR fan, as well as hipper and more multicultural. Online, Chideya notes, with search, peer recommendation, streaming audio and podcasting, it's now possible to find audiences for public radio content, "even among those who don't consider themselves public radio listeners."

The show will be produced out of WNYC, the New York-based NPR station that is also home to such innovative shows as Radiolab and The Takeaway.

Fans of News & Notes -- who launched an online campaign protesting that show's cancellation -- will be excited to tune in. But they still have awhile to wait. "It's going to be a bit of a slow bake," Chideya said. Right now, she's focused on revamping the Pop and Politics site for its latest incarnation.

Jessica Clark directs the Center for Social Media's Future of Public Media Project, and is a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation. Tracy Van Slyke is the Project Director of The Media Consortium and was recently named one of "30 Women Making History" by the Women's Media Center. Together, they are the co-authors of Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media, published in February by the New Press. The authors would like to thank the Ford Foundation and The Media Consortium for their support in conducting the summits and associated research.

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March 12 2010


NPR, SiriusXM Internships Steeped in Multimedia, Social Media

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When you think about internships at media companies, you probably picture people fetching coffee, running errands, or worse. But some internships have taken a different tack, setting up specialized blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages for their interns to help them understand new technology and spread the word about their programs.

At NPR, the 40-plus interns put together a special 30-minute multimedia and audio presentation for the rest of the staff each term. The special "Intern Edition" -- run mainly by interns themselves -- has morphed into a regular blog with daily updates. At satellite radio giant SiriusXM, 150 interns are herded by "Ross the Boss" Herosian, a former intern who has a special Twitter feed, Facebook page, blog, podcast and even YouTube channel for the internship program.

The advantage for interns coming into these programs (which run in spring, summer or fall terms) is that many of them are already immersed in digital media, so there's nothing to relearn. As Doug Mitchell, former head of the NPR Intern Edition, told me for a MediaShift story in 2008:

There's no 'legacy' to concern ourselves with because Intern Edition starts completely from scratch each term with a room full of strangers and me as the continuity and institutional memory. What better place to develop new thinking about media, development and consumption than where nothing truly exists.

A Major Juggle

One thing that interns at NPR have in common with other workers at media companies is the need to juggle like mad. They have their regular internship with a specific NPR radio show or production service; they might have classes at school or other internships; and then they have the extra-curricular work of Intern Edition, their creative outlet. And that creativity can take many forms: video, drawing, comics and more.

"It's never easy," said NPR senior trainer Sora Newman, who has taken on Doug Mitchell's former role. "The interns need to be committed to the project and they always underestimate the amount of time it takes to produce a radio story or slide show, etc. These are just skills learned by experience."

A slide-show by NPR intern May Ying-Lam of the Tiny Desk concert series

Intern Edition gives NPR interns a place to showcase new skills, test their limits and even build an online audience via social media. The @NPRInterns Twitter feed has more than 2,500 followers. And one intern, Teresa Gorman, has just one job for her internship: executive producing the Intern Edition. Gorman told me that "We do almost everything ourselves ... It's tough. It's worth it, though."

At SiriusXM, social media outreach is less about promoting the work of interns as it is about promoting the internship programs to prospective interns. Herosian told me he took a program that had 15 interns four years ago and built it into a powerhouse with 150 interns spread out around the country. The internships are unpaid, but they do offer college credit.

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"I wanted to get the message out about what we're doing and market it to college students," he said. "I thought it would be great to go where the students are, rather than waiting for them to come to us. So when Facebook came out, I was creating groups for people to join, and when they launched the Pages feature, I saw a great opportunity for a community and outlet so that people can follow us."

Challenges for Interns

While both programs have had success in training college students and bringing some of them on board with full-time jobs, there have been some obstacles along the way. NPR interns have had to deal with an entrenched traditional media mentality, and SiriusXM has had to sort through various online platforms to get it right.

Dominic Ruiz-Esparza is the communications director for Intern Edition, and an intern at "Talk of the Nation." He told me there have been battles among interns over the direction of Intern Edition, which mixes newsy stories with lighter fare.

"There's a bit of disagreement about how much should be news content and how much is trying out new things that are fun for interns," Ruiz-Esparza said. "There's a bit of a battle here among people who run Intern Edition. I have a news background and would like that, but that gets boring and some people want to try innovative things. So it's really up to the managing editor to decide, so that we have some news and the interns have creative freedom, too."

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He's also noticed that there's still resistance to change at NPR as a whole.

"Guy Raz, the weekend 'All Things Considered' host, talked to us awhile ago and acknowledged that there's a very conservative spirit here at NPR and it's changed," Ruiz-Esparza said. "It's a lot better than it was, but it's still not the norm for these new forms of content to be primary. The website has changed a lot due to the new CEO [Vivian Schiller], but there is that divide. It's changed somewhat, but not quick enough for young people here."

At SiriusXM, Herosian has a serious challenge just keeping track of the 150 interns spread out around the country. Luckily, he has interns to help him with that task. Because Herosian is only a handful of years removed from his own internship, he can relate to the interns and has taken on the "Ross the Boss" nickname in a light-hearted way. Herosian hasn't been afraid to try new digital platforms to promote the SiriusXM internships -- and he admits some of them just didn't work out.

"At first with the blog I set up a LiveJournal format where everyone had their own account, but it was just too many moving parts," Herosian said. "For us, it wasn't the best interface to use. We also used Ning, which is a great service but it didn't quite meet our needs. Sometimes less in more with social media, because everything you create you have to maintain. People in corporate environments will create these pages and then say 'my job is done' and there's no maintenance that goes into it. It's the conversation aspect that's important, so you can't create them and then have them lie dormant."

Intern Learning and Teaching

As for what's been working well in social media, Herosian said Facebook has been the best way to promote the program to college students, who are much more comfortable commenting or asking questions in that environment. He was surprised that many college interns were new to Twitter and had to be prompted to use it regularly. One SiriusXM intern, Jeremy Lubsey, said he had heard a lot about Twitter before, but had never used it very much until his internship. That said, he thinks he'll get a lot more use out of his new LinkedIn profile.

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"[One of my biggest lessons was] the importance of social networking sites such as LinkedIn," Lubsey told me. "The second week, I was talking to one of the production guys and he said to put up a page on LinkedIn and get your name out there. That's helped me to work on my career after SiriusXM."

And when it comes to social media, sometimes it's the interns who help teach the staffers new tricks. Mediaite editor-at-large Rachel Sklar told me that the startup site had been blessed with "awesome, kickass interns" who also have their own Twitter feed.

"As for social media training, it's gone both ways!" Sklar said. "Only an idiot would welcome these kids just out of school without making a point of learning from them. They've grown up steeped in this stuff. The training flows both ways!"


What do you think about internships that include blogs, podcasts, Twitter feeds and more? Should more media companies do that? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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February 23 2010


Courts Still Wary About Webcasts, Live-Blogs, Tweets at Trials

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One of the most watched television events in U.S. history was the announcement of the verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial in October 1995. By the time that trial was televised, the public had become accustomed to watching footage of both civil and criminal proceedings in state courts, and such proceedings continue to be broadcast today.

But shortly after the O.J. verdict, the United States Judicial Conference, the administrative body that oversees the operations of federal courts, formally approved a recommendation against broadcasting federal court proceedings. As a result of that policy and the various court rules adopted in response, with a handful of exceptions, cameras have been kept out of federal courtrooms.

The emergence of new channels of communication via the Internet has prompted some recent efforts to use new technologies to expand access to proceedings in federal courts. In two civil cases involving controversial subjects of great public interest, federal District Court judges approved plans to stream the proceeding via the Internet. But both plans were successfully challenged on appeal in opinions that cited the 1996 Judicial Conference policy, calling into question the potential for new technologies to bring federal court proceedings into greater public view.

The Prop. 8 Trial

In the most recent failed effort to stream a federal court civil proceeding, the U.S. Supreme Court on January 13 halted plans to provide live streaming of audio and video of the controversial "Prop. 8" trial in California.

The Prop. 8 lawsuit, Perry v. Schwarznegger, is just one chapter in the ongoing political and legal struggle over same-sex marriage. The plaintiffs are proponents of same-sex marriage who are seeking to establish that the repeal of California's same-sex marriage law by the Proposition 8 ballot measure violates the federal constitutional rights of same-sex couples. Because the named defendants in the case refused to defend Prop. 8 (including state officials such as Governor Arnold Schwarznegger), defense of Prop. 8 is being undertaken by a group of defendant-intervenors that includes the organization that campaigned successfully for its adoption.

Due to the enormous public interest in the case, District Court Judge Vaughn R. Walker approved a plan to stream live video and audio of the non-jury trial to an overflow courtroom in the same courthouse, as well as to several other federal courthouses throughout the country. The broadcast plan was fashioned as part of a pilot program approved by the Chief Judge of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The defendant-intervenors objected, arguing that broadcast of the proceedings would violate their due process rights to a fair trial, because all of their witnesses declared that they would refuse to testify if the proceedings were broadcast. The intervenors cited the 1996 Judicial Conference policy, which was based upon a study recommendation against allowing such broadcasting on the basis that "the intimidating effect of cameras on some witnesses and jurors [is] cause for concern."

Hollingsworth v. Perry


The defendant-intervenors ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the broadcasting plan, where the witness intimidation argument was well-received. In Hollingsworth v. Perry, No. 09A640 (U.S. Jan. 13, 2010), the Court ruled that the process that led to the approval of the broadcast experiment was flawed, and that the defendant-intervenors had established that irreparable harm would result if it was allowed to take place. In an unsigned ("per curiam") ruling, the Supreme Court delved into the minute details of the rules and policies governing federal courts. The Court concluded that under those dictates there was insufficient notice and opportunity for public comment before the court rules were changed to allow the pilot program under which the plan was approved.

But the Court didn't stop at disapproval of the procedure by which the broadcast plan was put in place.

Even if the relevant court rules had properly been amended, the Court commented, "questions would still remain" about the District Court's exercise of its discretion to allow broadcasting in a trial in which witnesses had "stated concerns for their own security." That the case was a "high-profile" one was a reason not to allow the broadcasting on an experimental basis, the Court found, because no studies had been conducted to analyze "the effect of broadcasting in high-profile, divisive cases."


The Court's decision was not unanimous, and revealed a split on the issue of courtroom broadcasting along partisan lines that are familiar in other contexts. A dissent authored by Associate Justice Steven Breyer vigorously challenged the legal basis for countermanding the District Court's decision. On the question of potential harm to the witnesses, he pointed out that the witnesses were not anonymous, that each of them had already been "publicly identified" with the Prop. 8 cause by appearing on television and Internet broadcasts, touring California to support its adoption, or because they had "already engaged in extensive public commentary far more likely to make them well known than a closed-circuit broadcast to another courtroom."

Justice Breyer also pointed to the extensive public coverage of the impending trial, which had drawn the attention of "literally hundreds of national and international newspapers." Associate Justices Stevens, Ginsburg and Sotomayor joined in the dissent.

The Tenenbaum Trial

Preceding the Supreme Court ruling in Hollingsworth v. Perry, a similar controversy arose over plans to allow Internet streaming of a hearing in a high-profile, peer-to-peer file-sharing case in federal court in Massachusetts. In January 2009, District Court Judge Nancy Gertner approved a plan proposed by the defendant to "narrowcast" the hearing to a single location in Boston, where it would then be made publicly available via a further webcast.

Although existing Court of Appeals and local District Court rules prohibited broadcasting, Judge Gertner concluded that she nevertheless had the discretion to approve broadcasting in individual cases. She rejected the arguments of the record company plaintiffs that the potential jury pool for the impending trial on the merits would be prejudiced by the broadcasting plan. On the contrary, Judge Gertner concluded, "the public benefit of offering a more complete view of these proceedings is plain, especially via a medium so carefully attuned to the Internet Generation captivated by these file sharing lawsuits."

The recording companies appealed, and in a ruling that presaged the Supreme Court in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the First Circuit Court of Appeals disapproved the plan. In this case, the appeals court concluded that Judge Gertner had misinterpreted the District Court's local rule, and that there was no "discretionary catch-all" exception to the general prohibition against broadcasting civil proceedings. The appeals court also rejected the defendant's argument that the blanket prohibition in the local rule violated his right to a public trial.

With a nod to the emergence of new technologies for providing access to trials, the court commented: "While the new technology characteristic of the Information Age may call for the [change] of some boundaries, the venerable right of members of the public to attend federal court proceedings is far removed from an imagined entitlement to view court proceedings remotely on a computer screen."

Circuit Judge Lipez dissented, echoing Judge Gertner's conclusion that there were "no sound policy reasons" not to allow the broadcasting plan. He emphasized that the proceeding that would be broadcast was not a trial on the merits, only the oral arguments of the attorneys. He, too, referenced the impact of new technologies on access to the court, but drew a different conclusion from the majority opinion.

"Since [the adoption of the District Court rule], dramatic advances in communications technology have had a profound effect on our society," Lipez wrote. "These new technological capabilities provide an unprecedented opportunity to increase public access to the judicial system in appropriate circumstances. They have also created expectations that judges will respond sensibly to these opportunities." Accordingly, Judge Lipez called for an immediate re-examination of the blanket prohibition in the local rule.

Live Blogging and Tweeting

Are the federal courts closed to all new reporting technologies? Not completely. Although the broadcasting plan in the Prop. 8 trial had to be scuttled, the District Court did allow live blogging, apparently without much comment or disagreement on the part of the parties to the litigation. See, for example, the Prop. 8 live-blog archives at firedoglake.com, and the San Jose Mercury News.

But there is disagreement on the issue of whether live blogging is a form of "broadcasting" that must be evaluated under the same standards as a live video or audio feed. The issue was addressed in United States v. Shelnutt, a criminal case in the Middle District of Georgia, in which the District Court based its decision on Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 53. While broadcasting may be allowed under some local federal rules in civil cases, under the federal rule the prohibition against "broadcasting" in criminal cases apples to all federal district courts nationwide.

In Shelnutt, a reporter for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer newspaper who was covering the trial, made an application to the court to be permitted to use a handheld device to live blog the trial via the newspaper's Twitter account. In declining the reporter's request, the District Court relied upon a 2002 amendment to the federal rule that replaced the prohibition against the "taking of photographs" and "radio broadcasting" with the more general term "broadcasting," for the express purpose of covering "modern technology capabilities."

The District Court in Shelnutt ruled that "the contemporaneous transmission of electronic messages from the courtroom describing the trial proceedings, and the dissemination of those messages in a manner such that they are widely and instantaneously accessible to the general public" fell within the definition of "broadcasting" in Fed. R. Civ. P. 53. Thus, no live blogging was permitted.

Reporters in other jurisdictions around the country have met with mixed results on their requests to live blog court proceedings. For example, reporters were permitted to live blog from the Scooter Libby criminal trial in 2007, although they did so from an overflow courtroom to which the proceedings were broadcast by live television feed.

The Citizen Media Law Project guidelines on Live-Blogging and Tweeting from Court cite a number of other state and federal courts that have allowed live blogging in the past. They wisely suggest that such reporting not be attempted without advance court permission, and provide helpful tips on how to make an appropriate request.

The Future of New Media in the Courtroom

While some lower federal courts have shown flexibility in allowing new communications channels access to their courtrooms, they are doing so against the grain of long-standing negative views in the federal judiciary on the issue of live reporting. These negative views have deep roots in U.S. Supreme Court rulings such as Sheppard v. Maxwell, in which the Court found that intrusive press presence in the courtroom in the sensational murder trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard was a factor in depriving him of his right to a fair trial.

The ruling in Hollingsworth v. Perry is also a reminder of the Supreme Court's historic, arms-length relationship with both the press and the larger public. The Court has famously refused to allow either live or delayed television broadcasting of its own proceedings, and although audio tapes of the arguments are made, they are not released to the public until the end of each term. The Court began making exceptions to this policy on a case-by-case basis in the litigation following the 2000 presidential elections, to allow same-day release of audio tapes. But television broadcasting remains completely off-limits, and some justices, most notably Justice Antonin Scalia, have publicly expressed their strong opposition to any change in that policy.

With the departure of Justice David Souter, who declared in 1996 that cameras would roll in the U.S. Supreme Court "over my dead body," it was thought that the Court might warm up on the subject. Souter's replacement, Associate Justice Sotomayor, expressed her positive experience with cameras in the courtroom during her nomination hearings. But the ruling in Hollingsworth v. Perry seems a likely signal against change at the Supreme Court level.

Without a change in the prevailing attitude at the U.S. Supreme Court or a widespread move on the part of federal appeals courts and local district courts to modify their rules, live reporting via new media channels is likely to be limited to the courtrooms of individual judges with more liberal attitudes toward access to the courts, and to cases in which none of the parties is motivated to challenge a court's decision allowing it.

Jeffrey D. Neuburger is a partner in the New York office of Proskauer Rose LLP, and co-chair of the Technology, Media and Communications Practice Group. His practice focuses on technology and media-related business transactions and counseling of clients in the utilization of new media. He is an adjunct professor at Fordham University School of Law teaching E-Commerce Law and the co-author of two books, "Doing Business on the Internet" and "Emerging Technologies and the Law." He also co-writes the New Media & Technology Law Blog.

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January 15 2010


Local Bloggers Step Up to Watchdog Local Government

Traditionally, newspaper reporters were dispatched to cover the mundane proceedings of a local government in action: the city council meeting. But as the mainstream media grapples with its survival in the Internet era, the seats in the audience once occupied by full-time reporters are sometimes being filled by local bloggers and other citizen media outfits. They're using blogs and social media technologies like Twitter and Facebook to spread the word about important decisions, or to inspire action within their communities.

Chuck-Welch.gif"It's the time for the group formerly known as the readers to come out and do our part," said Chuck Welch, the editor of Lakeland Local, a citizen journalism site in Lakeland, Fla.

Welch is a former journalist at a local weekly in Louisville who's now a stay-at-home dad. He created Lakeland Local after his wife took a job in Lakeland and the family relocated. Welch wanted to get to know his new city, and soon grew dissatisfied with how the local newspaper, the Ledger (owned by The New York Times Co.), was covering a big story in the area.

"I thought the only way I could ensure that the story was being covered the way I wanted was just to go do it myself," Welch said.

Mobilizing the Community

Paul Roberts, editor of the site Blogging Belmont in Belmont, Mass., has also stepped up to cover and mobilize his community. He recently used Facebook and Twitter in tandem with his blog to get people to the polls in support of a debt exclusion school funding measure.

Paul-Roberts.gif"[The voter drive] got us some media attention, which was helpful in creating awareness about what was happening," Roberts said. "The exclusion passed by a wide margin. I don't think the social networking piece was decisive, but they are powerful tools."

Roberts, like Welch, is a former journalist. He currently works at a technology analyst firm, and was recently elected to serve as a school committee member. He created Blogging Belmont to establish a source of real-time information about everything that's going on in the Belmont political sphere, and as a resource for a community where the local media is comprised of a single two-person newspaper.

Roberts said he would like to integrate technologies with Blogging Belmont that allow visitors to the site to use their Facebook or Twitter account to log-in, making it easier to participate.

"There is a huge amount of potential there, but as of yet, my integration between the blog and other media are pretty loose," Roberts said. "I talk to a lot of folks that are pretty frequent readers of the blog and they are still trying to wrap their brain around what Twitter is and why it exists. So I'm not sure the urgent need is there to build the bridges to Facebook and Twitter as it might be if my audience was different."

Political Leaders Taking Notice

Technology is making citizen journalism easier, but of course there is currently little, if any, money in covering local government. Without any financial incentive, how do you get the average citizen to spend their time live blogging or sending out tweets during a public meeting? And unlike the inclination to tweet about an accident on the highway, school board and city council meetings just aren't that sexy, despite their importance.

"I think that it is good for a democracy, but the trouble is that it is an awful waste of time and there's not a whole lot of ways to pay for it," said Tommy Duncan, a Tampa, Fla. blogger and editor of Sticks of Fire. "Live blogging would probably be helpful in many cases, but I don't know if it can be justified financially."

There is some reward in the fact that politicians are beginning to notice the presence of local bloggers. Cincinnati Councilman Chris Bortz said citizen journalists can offer communities additional access to political leaders.

Chris-Bortz.gif"I know a few of the bloggers fairly well and it's nice because it is a good source for me as well," Bortz said. "If I feel like I'd like to get something out and maybe it's too difficult to get in the local paper, I can often email the bloggers and ask them if I can post a guest blog, and they are often eager to do it."

Perhaps the biggest potential for citizen journalists who are focused on local government is the interactivity promised by Twitter or Facebook. They can receive instant feedback and encouragement from readers and fellow citizens.

"I've gotten questions from the readers because they might have more experience or they might have an insight that I didn't have," Chuck Welch said. "In the past it was thought that a story had to be completely finished before you printed it in the newspaper. Today you put the information out there and you update and add to it as you learn more. News is a process. You put it out there and let the audience help you build on it. It's more fun to work back and forth with the readers."

He said the end result is that local government officials know they're still being held accountable.

"I think there are cases now where city council or city staff might be more cognizant that just because the newspaper reporter is not in the room it doesn't mean the community is not going to learn about whatever it is they are doing," Welch said.

Steven Davy is a freelance journalist, and freelance radio reporter/producer. He regularly covers the defense industry and security related issues for UPI. Additionally he hosts a current affairs news magazine radio show called the Nonchalant Café Hour which broadcasts live in Kalamazoo, Mich. Steven recently created Exploring Conversations as a multimedia website examining the language of music for his graduate thesis project at Michigan State University.

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January 14 2010


8 Lessons Journalists Can Learn From Scientists

The ScienceOnline10 conference starts this Thursday, and about 275 scientists, educators and science writers from around the world will gather near Raleigh, N.C. to discuss many of the same online tools and issues that journalists are examining.

Sessions will focus on topics like "citizen scientists," crowdsourcing, and the best iPhone apps for gathering and sharing information. The conference is sold out, but plenty of ways exist to attend ScienceOnline10 virtually.


For journalists, the biggest name at the conference is Anil Dash, a pioneering blogger and one of the founders of Six Apart. He's the creator of Expert Labs, an organization designed to help connect experts with government, and will talk Saturday afternoon about Government 2.0.

The conference and its participants have many lessons for journalists, and many participants also have long histories of successful experimentation and community building. The conference has had heavy support from members of ScienceBlogs, a network of 138 science bloggers that recently announced a new partnership with National Geographic. Members of the group began experimenting with reverse publishing to print from blogs way back in 2006 with "The Science Blogging Anthology." The anthology has been published every year since the first edition went from concept to print in about a month to coincide with the inaugural Science Bloggers Conference in early 2007.

The network of bloggers that launched this conference, in turn, grew out of BlogTogether, a community of N.C. bloggers and online communicators active since at least 2005. These scientists, educators and communicators have been tackling many of the same issues that have become critical for the media industry during the last couple of years. Their experiments and successes are worth examination. Here are eight lessons that journalists can learn from the convention and its supporters.

1. Civility matters.

One session at the conference will tackle hard questions about online civility and debate, and why it matters. The session is led by Janet Stemwedel, Sheril Kirshenbaum and "Dr. Isis," a physiologist at a major research university who blogs but fiercely guards her real identity. Discussion and links are available at the conference wiki.

2. Diversity is worth tackling.

Sessions at the conference, which is being held just before the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, will include diversity in science and technology, reaching out to underrepresented individuals in science, and figuring out a way to reach across generations.

3. Real relationships sustain online relationships.

This conference was born as a result of relationships built through BlogTogether.org, an early, active group of bloggers loosely based in North Carolina's Research Triangle area, and in Greensboro, N.C. Conferences created by the group have brought in champions of citizen voices such as Dan Gillmor, and have attracted support from traditional media executives like editor John Robinson of the Greensboro News and Record. An early national conference started by the group, ConvergeSouth, was the brainchild of blogger Sue Polinsky. At this conference, one session, The Importance of Meatspace, will explore the power of real-world connections.

4. Niches work.

Science bloggers, by definition, target relatively small audiences. Cognitive Daily, for example, focuses on peer-reviewed developments in cognition psychology, which could be considered a niche of a niche of a niche. The blog's "About" page says, "The research isn't dumbed down, but it's explained in language that everyone can understand, with clear illustrations and references to the original research." The blog, produced by a husband and wife duo, Dave and Greta Munger of Davidson, N.C., does seek levity. There are "Casual Friday" posts that deal with subjects like the use of curse words, annoying online restaurant menus, and emoticons. It has been consistently publishing since at least January 2005.

5. The discussion of pros vs. amateurs isn't over.

In science, as with journalism, the role of scientists (or journalists) is still evolving. What exactly is a "citizen scientist"? How do they differ from the pros, and aren't the pros "citizens" as well? How do science or journalism bloggers fit within the information ecosystem and, thanks to the explosion of content, whom do you trust? Where does government fit? One session at the conference will deal with citizen scientists, and longtime blogger and conference organizer Bora Zivkovic also has a roundup of the sessions focused on journalism. For further reading, check out Dan Schultz's Idea Lab post outlining what journalists can learn from citizen scientists.

6. Can people document while they participate?

Three people involved with the great Pacific garbage patch research effort and its related media coverage will discuss the melding of real-time science, non-profit advocacy, outreach and journalism in a session, Talking Trash - Online Outreach from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Can someone participate in research and still report that research? Can someone be an advocate and still produce trusted information? How will society fund journalism that covers specific research? And did funding from the innovative Spot.Us project work well as a way to publish a story in the New York Times about the garbage patch? As a related issue, how can information about research reach ordinary people?

7. Networks and trust are crucial.

Links, blogrolls, citations of sources, guest blogging, and the older technique of "blogging carnivals" build trust and develop networks that pay off. Trust, reputation and "personal brands" remain crucial components in the search for information, and those elements help readers filter the deluge of data and information. The thriving ScienceBlogs site shows the power of branding and networking. But a flip side exists: How can laypeople learn critical thinking and use skeptical questioning to better evaluate sources and information? Two conference sessions deal specifically with trust: How does a journalist figure out which scientists to trust, and Trust and critical thinking.

8. Experimentation and transparency pay off.

You might expect a group of scientists to embrace experimentation. But this group in particular explores new ways of sharing information transparently, opening the process to people in other fields and locations. A concrete example: The reverse publishing of science bloggers' posts required an element of financial risk in order to share information with a wider audience. Organizers are also using the conference wiki and social media tools like Flickr, Second Life, Twitter and Facebook to promote and share the conference in a broad way. Specific sessions deal with Open Notebook Science, and the Open Dinosaur Project, an effort to crowdsource the digitization of data.

Andria Krewson is a freelance journalist and consultant from Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at newspapers for 27 years, focusing on design and editing of community niche publications. She blogs for her neighborhood at Under Oak and covers changing culture at Crossroads Charlotte. Twitter: underoak

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December 09 2009


NYTPicker Covers New York Times Like a Wet Blanket

On Sunday, the New York Times published an Editors' Note detailing a conflict of interest:

The "Place" feature about Miami in the T magazine travel issue on Nov. 22 included a reference to the 8 oz. Burger Bar. The writer has had a long personal relationship with a co-owner of the restaurant; had editors known of that connection, the restaurant would not have been included in the article.

One thing the note didn't disclose was that this personal relationship was first identified and publicized by the NYTPicker, an anonymous group blog (and Twitter account) that has been keeping tabs on the New York Times for a little over a year. During its relatively brief existence, the site's hundreds of posts have demonstrated that its authors have a breadth and depth of insight into the paper.

Just last week, the NYTPicker raised some serious and legitimate questions about a new book edited by Gretchen Morgenson, the Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning business columnist.

The NYTPicker has also demonstrated a talent for spotting overused phrases by Times headline writers; it celebrated the work of Times journalist Robin Toner after she died late last year; and it has been diligent about tracking the work -- and titles -- of technology columnist David Pogue.

If you're interested in the Times, you need to read the NYTPicker. Here's how the site describes itself and the people who write for it:

This website devotes itself exclusively to the goings-on inside the New York Times -- the newspaper and the institution itself. Written by a team of journalists who prefer to work in anonymity, The NYTPicker reports daily on the internal workings of the nation's top newspaper, and comments on its content.

The site's authors refused to provide even a few hints as to their identities, but they did, for the first time, agree to answer questions via email. As a result, we now know that six people write for the site, they describe themselves as "reporters," and they aren't impressed with the work of Thomas L. Friedman. On top of that, they're a pretty funny group.


Why did you start the site?

We came up with the name "NYTPicker" and realized it didn't really work for our soft-core porn idea.

How many people visit the site per day?


We average about 1,000 to 1,500 hits a day, but have had a few 10,000-hit days. Depends on what we write about, who links to us, and whether we use that sexy photo of Maureen Dowd in a lounge chair.

Do you get a lot of traffic from folks inside the Times?

Um, yes.

Do you consider the site to be a watchdog of the Times? Why or why not?

We're not media critics. We're journalists who love the NYT and hope our stories improve it. We report on aspects of coverage NYT readers might not otherwise know or think about.

One common theme on the site seems to be conflicts of interest. You often point out how the personal and professional relationships of Times reporters and editors appear to play a role in coverage. Do you see this as a big problem at the paper? And do you think it's worse at the Times compared to other media organizations?

We're not writing an institutional history of the NYT -- we're covering it day to day. We point out the problems when we find them. They don't seem to be going away.

You often display a decent amount of insider knowledge. A recent example would be the fact that you knew about Times freelancer Suzy Buckley's old boyfriend. Does this kind of information come from sources inside the Times? Or do your contributors have a handle on this stuff on their own?

We're reporters. We don't talk about our sources.

How has the site changed over the course of its first year of publishing?

We're more selective about posts now than in the beginning. We only publish when we've got a story, or angle, you won't find anywhere else.

Is there one post that you'd highlight as your best work?

We liked the story we did on Brad Stone's page-one trend piece, the one that was filled with quotes from friends and colleagues. We were also proud of our stories about the NYT's deeply-flawed Caroline Kennedy coverage, and our reporting on the Maureen Dowd plagiarism scandal. We still haven't gotten any comment from the NYT about whether the paper investigated Dowd's explanation, which wasn't very plausible.

Our biggest scoop? Probably when we discovered that the anagram for "New York Times" was "Write, Monkeys."

Have you received any official reaction from the Times?

When Catherine Mathis, the NYT's recently-departed spokeswoman, answered our emails, she always wrote, "Dear NYTPicker." That was sweet. We liked her.

What is your biggest issue of concern at the paper right now?

That changes every day. We read the paper every morning with an open mind, looking for stories, angles, ideas, and funny bylines. The NYT used to have funnier bylines. We miss Serge Schmemann. We hope we'll be seeing more stories from David Belcher.

We've also been working very hard on a story about the difference between Kirk Johnson and Dirk Johnson. That should be ready shortly.

Who is the paper's best columnist and why?

Philip Adler on bridge. Last week he ended his column with the line, "The imponderables of bridge keep us thinking and playing." That's freaking genius.

thomas friedman.jpg

Who is its worst and why?

Thomas L. Friedman. Do we really need to explain?

You recently contacted sports editor Tom Jolly and received an official comment from him. Did he have any specific reaction to being contacted by your site? Was he familiar with it?

We asked him a few questions, and he answered. Simple as that.

Where does the Times excel in terms of its journalism, and where does it fall short?

Too many stories about texting and driving. We get it. It's dangerous. We'll stop.

Can you give me a preview of the top candidates for the Worst NYT Story of 2009 award?

It all depends on what happens next in "The Puppy Diaries."

Why do you need to remain anonymous?

Mom thinks we're doing our homework and we don't want to get in trouble.

I noticed that a comment on your one-year anniversary post read, "Congratulations on a year of anonymity and cowardice!" Do you regularly face criticism for this decision?

Once every few weeks, social media editor Jennifer Preston calls us cowards and invites us to lunch. Otherwise, not really.

How many people write for the blog?


What can you tell me about them? (Where at the Times did they work, did any of you take buyouts, are any of you current employees, etc.?)

We're all very attractive.

How many people are answering these questions?

Four. Two of us have declined to comment.

Craig Silverman is an award-winning journalist and author and an associate editor at MediaShift and Idea Lab. He is the founder and editor of Regret The Error, the author of Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech, and a weekly columnist for Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter at @CraigSilverman.

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December 08 2009


5 Tools to Help Automate Local Advertising

Promises of whiter teeth, IQ quizzes, and digital dancing people clutter online ads these days. At the same time, experts at future-of-journalism conferences are declaring that news will never again be solely supported by advertising. Neither one tells the full story of the present and future of online advertising for hyper-local and other news websites.

Experiments with new advertising technology are popping up everywhere. Websites are trying to reach smaller, local advertisers that have been underserved for years by legacy media. This local and hyper-local ad market will be a significant part the future of journalism, says Jeff Jarvis, author of "What Would Google Do?" and associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York.

Even Twitter is dropping hints about its advertising plans. Founder Biz Stone said the company is not considering text and display ads for Twitter's home page, but he told Reuters on November 25 that the company plans to make money with "non-traditional" advertising. Stone didn't define what non-traditional ads will look like, but here are five examples of new tools that websites can use to make money from advertising.

5 Tools for Automating Local Ads

1. PlaceLocal: A new, hosted solution that allows publishers to automate local ad creation and sales. It's operated by PaperG, a startup led by Victor Wong, who is taking time off from Yale to develop his business. PlaceLocal automatically builds customized ads for any local business using just its name and address. The tool can even create a landing page for a small advertiser, Wong said in an interview during which he demonstrated the tool.


The technology builds an ad using algorithms, and by searching databases and the web for reviews, photos, or entertainment listings. It also filters out any content that has a negative tone. The tool allows advertising representatives or publishers to easily build ads on spec and use them as a sales tool, Wong said.

"Some of our partners are using it to crawl their own databases," he said. The tool can be deployed on a publisher's ad servers or run separately, and payment to PaperG is based on a revenue-share basis, he said. "If customers aren't buying ads, we won't make money," he said. "If they are, we will make money." Several media properties are testing the software, Wong said, and a public launch is planned this month. PaperG raised $1.1 million in its second round, from people like the former Boston.com publisher Steve Taylor and Mark Potts, CEO of GrowthSpur, according to paidContent.

2. Dynamic ads: Offered by TheDigitel in Charleston, S.C., this tool allows advertisers to change ad content dynamically via a text message, Facebook or blog update, or using a Twitter or Flickr photo feed. "If you can feed it, our thing can eat it," claims TheDigitel's website. Advertisers fill out a form to create the ad and designate which parts are static, and which are dynamic.

3. Flyerboard: A virtual bulletin board that enables small, local advertisers to create flyers that are then distributed to hyper-local websites. This is another offering from PaperG. The tool, which lets readers share the flyers on Facebook and Twitter, is deployed at sites like the New Haven Independent, Boston.com's Newton, and some of Hearst's local sites, like The Woodlands in the Houston suburbs. Flyerboard is a permanent widget installed on local sites, and revenue is shared between the site and PaperG. Wong said Flyerboard has generated 1% clickthrough rates for ads on some hyper-local sites, outperforming traditional advertising.

minnpost realtime.jpg

4. Real time ads: These are delivered at MinnPost.com, a non-profit site covering Minnesota. Joel Kramer, CEO and editor of the site, showed off the concept during a panel at the Online News Association conference in early October. MinnPost champions the ads as a simple way to avoid creating specific messages just for one website. Rather, small advertisers can harness an RSS feed from an existing blog or business tweet stream. The text is displayed on a widget at MinnPost.com, with a link to a pop-up page displaying the text with images and links to originating websites.

5. Self-serve ads: Multiple examples of self-service ad vendors exist for print and the web, such as the Instiads offered through Neighborlogs, a placeblogging platform based in Seattle, and PageGage. Also, AdReady is used by The New York Times. A partnership for a self-service ad network was announced in September between the Tribune Company and MediaSpectrum.

Most of these services offer hosting and billing assistance in exchange for a percentage of revenue. Other companies, such as Trafficspaces, offer advertising software-as-a-service with monthly fees. Trafficspaces has also launched a free version with sponsored ads. Another ad management company, isocket, is in private beta with TechCrunch, and recently received $2 million in seed funding. Mobile self-serve ad tools have sprouted up as well, such as Zeep Media, which sets ad prices via auction, and Mojiva.

Sharing Space

Beyond the new technology offerings and platforms, traditional media organizations have begun sharing ad space with smaller publishers, borrowing the ad network concept from digital natives like the Blogher network of independent blogs for women. The Miami Herald, a McClatchy newspaper, has launched a Community News Network and is partnering with local websites for content on the Herald's site and sharing ad positions on those pages.

Andria Krewson is a freelance journalist and consultant from Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at newspapers for 27 years, focusing on design and editing of community niche publications. She blogs for her neighborhood at Under Oak, writes occasionally as a Tar Heel mom at The Daily Tar Heel and covers changing culture at Crossroads Charlotte. Twitter: underoak.

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December 07 2009


Can H1N1 Flu Bloggers Help Battle Pandemic Misinformation?

Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology at Columbia University Medical Center, remembers the last flu pandemic, which occurred in 1968.

"It's a great contrast [with today], because back then you had to wait weeks for information, and the only way you got it was through newspapers and scientific journals, and now of course we have instant dissemination of everything," Racaniello said. "I'm amazed at the difference because now you're getting the information in real time."


Racaniello runs the Virology Blog, which aims "to teach you about viruses and viral disease." Though the site is ostensibly focused on all virus news, Racaniello said he's reacted to the growing demand for flu news and is constantly posting about H1N1. He's one of many H1N1-focused bloggers that are providing up-to-date information and analysis, and trying to process the mass of news reports emanating out of the U.S. and other countries about flu infections and vaccines.

A casual glance through flu news trends reveals a wide range of subjects being addressed, from people reporting on new outbreaks and deaths, to anti-vaccine activists trying to warn people that the H1N1 vaccine will cause pregnant women to have a miscarriage. This smorgasbord of headlines, obviously, wasn't available in 1968.

"[Today] you have official government agencies releasing information, and then you have all the journals releasing their papers way ahead of when they would ever appear in papers in the old days -- weeks and weeks ahead of when they'd normally post them," Racaniello said. "And then you have bloggers and podcasters putting their two cents in. It's like an echo chamber; one blogger picks something up, and others repeat it."

Misinformation Spreading Freely

This means misinformation can spread rapidly. Recent surveys show that a large percentage of people in Britain and the U.S. are not seeking out the H1N1 vaccine. Many people believe the vaccine is dangerous, or that the pandemic isn't really that serious. (For the record, I haven't received the vaccine, though that's more a result of apathy than anything else.)

This, Racaniello argued, is the double-edged sword of such instant dissemination and easy access: The Internet has given voice to a wide range of less qualified yet loudly vocal outlets. Take, for instance, the articles and blog posts based entirely on anecdotal message board posts claiming that women are miscarrying after receiving the vaccine, a story that has spread far and wide on blogs.

"It's great because you can get information really quickly," Racaniello said. "You can get it from many sources, like a lot of academics and research types online, but the bad part is that you don't know who's good and who's not in terms of information. You don't know who to believe. So I'm trying to tell people, 'I've been working on viruses all these years, and I'm trying to tell you what I think is right.' It's an incredible contrast between 1968 and 2009, but there are negative aspects of this rapid communication, and not everyone knows how to deal with it."

Impact of Flu Bloggers

It can be difficult to determine the effects of the web on the dissemination of flu pandemic news, but nearly all the flu bloggers I spoke to reported a drastic increase in their readership in recent months. It is often in the wake of a crisis or major news event that bloggers within a related niche gain traction. We saw it happen with economics bloggers during the financial crisis, for example, and with the real estate bubble bloggers before that.

The question is whether these flu bloggers are reaching the public at large and are having an impact on the discussion. One can perhaps determine this based on those who visit, comment, or send in emails to the sites. Racaniello told me he's regularly visited by high school and college students conducting research, but he and others also note that their servers were logging hits from hospitals and other research facilities.

"I get a lot of correspondence myself from a lot of different countries," he said. "At the beginning of the pandemic I was getting a lot of emails from Mexico...I got emails from Egypt when they decided to kill pigs some time ago, and now there are some rumors about them wanting to kill cats because cats have gotten influenza. I've got a number of requests from Ukraine, asking me to help sort out what's going on there. So it's global, it's not just the U.S., and it's nice to see that people have access all over the place, although I've heard virtually nothing from Africa...so not everyone is online."

Mike Coston, who runs the Avian Flu Diary, said he receives between 1,000 and 2,000 visitors a day. Coston said his visitors are "mostly government agencies and hospitals and research centers. And I think people are using my blog as a one-stop shopping place for headlines in the news, as far as the flu is concerned."

Though Coston recognized that he and others are fighting a vocal pseudo-scientific minority, he doesn't blame the platform (i.e. the Internet).

"I don't think I can demonize the Internet here," he said. "It's like demonizing telephones just because telemarketers use it. If you add up the pluses and minuses, obviously the Internet is a plus. I certainly could not do what I'm doing now [without it]. I couldn't talk to other bloggers, journalists, doctors, and scientists. I have access to people around the world because of the Internet."

Blogging Helps Flu Experts


Unlike some flu bloggers, Crawford Kilian does not have a degree, or claim any particular expertise with flu or viruses. Yet his H5N1 blog is a popular destination for pandemic-related news. He said he started the blog mainly as an educational resource for himself, though it's also for the benefit of his audience.

In fact, even the blogging flu experts said their online work forces them to stay abreast of new research in the field. Racaniello said that blogging led him to consult primary literature he otherwise might not bother with. He also said that keeping attuned to flu news has helped his grant writing, teaching, and the creation of an updated edition of the textbook he wrote.

Killian said he does his best to seek out the most accurate information.

"All I would be wished to be judged by is the quality of people I link to," said Kilian. "I'm trying to find the most reliable, scientifically minded people that I can, possibly the most reliable journalists who also understand what the heck is going on, and present at least the highlights of what these people are turning up."

Like many bloggers, he closely monitors where his readers originate, and is disappointed that many of them only come from North America. He recognizes that his blog might not be very accessible to non-English speaking countries, but that still leaves a wide swath of potential readers.

"I would be happy if I were getting more visitors from some of the hot zones," Kilian explained. "China sometimes erratically shuts down access to TypePad blogs, so I get essentially low visits from China, despite the keen interest in the subject, unless they're coming in from some kind of anonymizer and they're sneaking in through the Great Firewall. I also realize that there aren't many people who read fluent English and have computer access in places like Vietnam or Ecuador, so I don't always expect them to be checking in."

On the subject of the pseudo-science that spreads quickly on the web, Kilian said he often ignores it. But sometimes a news meme is persistent enough to require attention.

"Every once in a while, I'll run up against something that is so silly, but maybe so plausible that it might be harmful," he said, "and I'll run a series called 'Annals of Viral Paranoia,' where I drag out samples from some of these folks and try to point out why they are wrong, and I even ask myself, 'what if they're right?'"

Unfortunately, discerning truth from fiction can be hard in countries like Ukraine, where flu pandemic information has been clouded by confusing and outlandish news reports, such as claims of a "super flu," or some kind of black plague. The anti-vaccination crowd has been using every suspicious death following a vaccination as a smoking gun, feeding on the power of the anecdote in the absence of actual scientific evidence.

"People who are anti-vaccine are very vocal," said Racaniello. "They're online, they're blogging, they're communicating, and then your average person reads one of these blogs and gets scared, because they don't know how to interpret the situation. A lot of people put up false information, non-scientific stuff, but people who read them don't know. I get tons of emails saying, 'I heard this guy say this vaccine has stuff in it that's going to do bad things.' Thirty years ago they wouldn't know any of this, all the false stuff would not be out there, and so in this regard I think in some ways we're going backwards."

Simon Owens is a social media consultant and associate editor for MediaShift. For more about him read his blog or contact him at simon.bloggasm@gmail.com

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December 04 2009


Iran Cracks Down on Internet Expression, Bloggers, Journalists

45298227.jpgLast week, the Iranian blogger Sasan Aghaei, who runs the site Azad Tribun, was arrested by intelligence ministry officials after they carried out a search of his Tehran home. It is not known where he was taken. Aghaei is also a reporter for the daily newspaper Farhikhteghan, and he's the third employee of the paper to be arrested since the election. His two other colleagues, Reza Norbakhsh and Masoud Bastani, were both given six-year jail sentences.

The Iranian police recently stepped up their efforts at Internet censorship by creating a special 12-member unit. The unit is under the supervision of the prosecutor general and is charged with acting "against fraud attempts, commercial advertising and false information" and hunting down "insults and lies."

This is just the latest troubling development in a country that is now the biggest imprisoner of cyber-dissidents in the Middle East. Currently, eight Iranian cyber-dissidents are in jail for expressing their opinions online. Among them, four were jailed after the disputed June 12 presidential election. At least 100 journalists and bloggers have been arrested since the election, and 32 are still being held. At the same time, roughly 50 other journalists have been forced to flee the country to escape the relentless repression.

Back in August, Iran adopted a new cyber-crime law that gave the police free reign to crack down on the Internet, and they are taking full advantage of it in order to prevent government opponents from sharing information. So far, the police are blocking thousands of news websites, and putting people in jail.

As the world saw in the aftermath of the election, Twitter and Facebook were used by Iranians to fill a void left by the regime's censorship of journalists. More than a million Iranians took to the streets to demonstrate during Friday prayers on July 17, and they relied on the Internet and mobile phones to help organize and communicate. Local and international journalists were not allowed to cover the event. On top of that censorship, people who used the Internet and social networks to spread news and information are now being accused of spying or "conspiring against the Islamic Republic."

At one point, the regime described the news media as a "means used in an attempt to overthrow the state." It's therefore no surprise to see it ridding itself of these undesired witnesses by jailing them or forcing them to flee the country.

Revolutionary Guard Goes After Bloggers, Others

The Revolutionary Guard, a branch of the Iranian military that's closely linked to the Supreme Leader, is directly involved in online censorship. On June 17, it ordered all website editors to remove "any content which encourages the population to riot or which spreads threats or rumors."

cartoons.jpgSince June 12, at least 10 bloggers have been detained by the authorities. Hadi Heidari, a well-known cartoonist who edits a Persian cartoon website, was arrested in Tehran on October 22. He was attending a religious tribute to political prisoners at the home of Shehaboldin Tabatabai, a leading supporter of the reformist party Participation. Tabatabai was also arrested. Heidari was eventually released in November.

Aside from him, Hassin Assadi Zidabadi, a blogger who also heads a student human rights committee, was arrested in October. Mohammad Davari, the editor of reformist website Etemad Melli, is also in prison. His colleague, Fariba Pajooh, a journalist who also runs a Persian blog, was arrested on August 24, and is still imprisoned at the Evin jail after being summoned to the Tehran Revolutionary Court.

Of course, the most famous journalist to have been arrested and held by the regime is Maziar Bahari. He recently gave an interview to Fareed Zakaria, which you can watch here:

Journalists Fleeing Iran in Droves

The list of people detained and arrested in Iran grows longer every day. Bloggers are being targeted just as much as traditional journalists. Newspapers are now controlled by the regime. As a result, Iran is currently experiencing its biggest exodus of reporters since the 1979 revolution.

Among the fleeing reporters and bloggers, many have been mistreated, tortured or jailed. They leave the country in order to avoid physical violence or another arrest. Most of them escape with the help of smugglers, a process that exposes them to great danger. In the countries where they initially seek refuge, such as Turkey, Iraq or even Afghanistan, they are exposed to more harassment and police surveillance.

The current campaign of brutality, intimidation and censorship in Iran is slowly but surely thinning the ranks of the country's independent journalists and bloggers. They are being forced to choose between saying nothing, speaking out and being jailed, or fleeing the country. In truth, that's no choice at all.


In light of the reporters' exodus, Reporters Without Borders is launching an appeal for financial support for these journalists and bloggers. You can learn more and do your part here.

Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the "Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents," published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.

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November 12 2009


Can Salon's Revamp Help it Stop Bleeding Money?

Salon.com was a pioneering website launched in 1995 by former editors of the San Francisco Examiner, mixing opinion and investigative reporting with a sharply progressive slant. Although the company went public at the height of the dot-com boom in 1999, it had lost more than $80 million by 2003, and lost $4.6 million in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2009. Its stock trades at just 12 cents a share on the over-the-counter stock market.

This year, Salon hired a new CEO, Richard Gingras, who previously worked as a media advisor to Google and at startups such as @Home. Gingras had his work cut out for him. The recession hit the site's bread-and-butter ad revenues hard, it cut staff by 20 percent, and paid memberships have declined.

Salon recently unveiled a redesign to provide more context to stories, include related material from around the web, and give advertisers a more creative platform. It's also planning a new store that will sell third-party products (and provide Salon with a cut of e-commerce sales), as well as a new food section.

I visited the Salon headquarters in Rincon Center in downtown San Francisco, and spoke to Gingras about the redesign, the future of investigative journalism, and his thoughts on competing with Huffington Post. He greeted me by saying "welcome to the oldest new media company." The following is an edited transcript, along with video clips of our discussion.


What is Salon's greatest asset?

Richard Gingras: Salon has been around now 15 years and I think its greatest asset is the quality of its writing. I think it's particularly true today, when there's more information than ever, but there's also more bad information than ever. We have these ongoing arguments about where Obama was born, so I think separating the wheat from the chaff is more important than ever; figuring out what really matters is more important than ever. And that's what Salon is about, so that's its key asset. And it's doing it with a friendly, witty personality that a lot of folks find appealing.

Gingras explains what Salon will be offering advertisers with the redesign.

On a lot of publishers' sites, there's a balance between short and long content. To me, Salon is known for giving more depth. But online you're almost punished for doing longer stories versus lots of shorter ones. How do you balance those?

Gingras: It's an interesting point. I don't think the web punishes you for depth. I think it suggests there might be new ways of going deep that doesn't necessarily mean a 3,000 word article. Salon does both. We do long pieces and short pieces, and the short ones might end up having depth, they're just done with a different periodicity. I'm reminded about something [Marshall] McLuhan said about "every new medium starts as a container for the old."

That's as true for the web as any medium. Radio started out with people reading the newspaper, and they figured out that didn't work. So the narrative form will evolve on the web. It's true that short stuff works really well, blogging works really well. It doesn't mean it's any less thoughtful. It doesn't mean it's any less comprehensive.

Gingras talks about how he sees Huffington Post differing from Salon by succeeding with SEO and traffic, but not with original in-depth reporting.

With all the talk around Web 2.0, people think of Salon as being part of the first wave. Do you feel like Salon needs to be reinvented for Web 2.0?

Gingras: Interestingly, Salon was named for the notion of engaging in discussion. Salon has always been very much about engaging in discussions with its audience. Our comments and letters sections are both extremely prolific and interesting. The WELL, the pioneering discussion site, is part of Salon Media. In one dimension, it's in our bones; in another, technology is changing. We didn't talk about social media three years ago because Twitter and Facebook were barely there. Now it's a key part of the landscape.

Part of our redesigning and re-architecting of Salon was to put us in a better position to use those technological enhancements as they're rolling out. But the theme is the same. Let's pursue interesting subjects. Let's try to approach it from angles that mainstream media does not, and let's engage our audience and let them engage us as much as we possibly can.

I ask Gingras why Salon has lost so much money, and he says he is confident that will change.

Tell me more about your take on paid content. Salon tried out subscriptions early on, but those have faded somewhat. Now many mainstream media outlets are considering paid content. What do you think about that?

Gingras: I refer to business models not model because online you have to be open to different approaches. We do have a premium subscription for $45 a year that people pay to access Salon without advertising. Others subscribe for $35 a year because they want to support what we do. That's one component of it. But advertising is a very big component of it, and I expect it to be that way as we go forward.

But we're also looking at other possibilities. Around Thanksgiving we're going to launch a Salon Store, we're going to go into e-commerce. Salon as an independent voice represents a set of values, a way of looking at the world. In business-speak, it's not just a content brand, it's a lifestyle brand. Just as we carefully select what to write about and discuss in the content space, [we are examining] what we can do in the product space. The web has allowed so many artisans and merchants to mount businesses virtually on the web. It's an opportunity for us to select products and share in that transaction with the merchants.

And we'll be extending Salon's content into new vertical areas. We'll be launching a food section as well in the next month or so.

I've noticed that your paid subscription numbers have gone down. Is that something you're not going to be emphasizing as much moving forward?

Gingras: I'd like to see the premium subscriptions increase. But keep in mind the way we approach it. We're not gating content, we're not saying you have to pay us to see the content of Salon. I don't think that really can work for us or most mainstream publications. It can work for the Wall Street Journal because that's perceived to be high-value business content that people can subscribe to and write off the expense. We don't play in that world.

Gingras walked me through the redesign of Salon and how stories now live within topic pages.

How has your community blogging area Open Salon gone, and what's the business model for that?

Gingras: Open Salon has been a great success for us, and it's something we're very pleased with. And it's an important component of how we're going to have a successful strategy moving forward. It launched a year ago, and has 35,000 bloggers, an audience of about 1 million unique visitors per month, several million page views. But to me the most interesting thing is, given the nature of the Salon audience, which is probably the most intelligent audience on the web, with many writers among that audience, the participation in Open Salon is of very high quality.

We have novelists, former journalists, New Yorker cartoonists who put up cartoons the New Yorker hasn't used. So there's a lot of very high quality content there, and it's a vibrant community. It's a way for Salon to expand its content depth and range with those that love Salon. We target ads into those pages, and the bloggers can also get some money from Google Ads that run on those pages. Open Salon to us is less about getting more revenues, and more about expanding our philosophical view that the web isn't just about speaking at people -- it's about speaking with people.

Have you considered crowdsourcing, because you have this big community at Open Salon, and you have reporters doing work over here. There's been a lot of talk about combining the two, and using the power of the audience.

Gingras: Absolutely. I don't quite use the term crowdsourcing. I've been spending a lot of time over the past few years trying to figure out how journalism will evolve. I think journalism of the future will be great, and frankly better than the journalism of the past, because so many people can participate. I spent a lot of time working at Google and studying how the web works, and how that might impact journalism moving forward. One conclusion I had was that future successful news organizations, part of their success will be based on their ability to effectively and qualitatively leverage what I call 'the trusted crowd.'

This goes beyond citizen journalists submitting cell phone photos of a tractor-trailer crash. That's fine, I'm not saying that shouldn't be done. But we want to go beyond that. So when we look out at Open Salon and others out there, we do think about how to leverage the efforts of those that want to participate with us [with] their writing, research or their assistance curating what we do. Wikipedia has shown the high quality of what you can get by leveraging the help of folks, done carefully. We don't need 1 million contributors, but can we bring in a couple hundred folks into the editorial process of Salon? Absolutely.

Gingras explains how Salon will fund investigative reporting by increasing soft features including a new Food section.


What do you think about Salon's revamp and its prospects for becoming a profitable online media publisher? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Videography and photo by Charlotte Buchen.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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November 11 2009


Does Gawker's Publication of McSteamy Sex Tape Constitute Fair Use?

It probably seemed like a fun idea at the time.

Last year, Eric Dane, known as "McSteamy" from the show "Grey's Anatomy," his wife Rebecca Gayheart, and former beauty queen Kari Ann Peniche decided to make a home movie. Yes, that type of home movie. The threesome recorded themselves nakedly fumbling around in bed, slurring words, and splashing in a hot tub.


Given Dane's popularity on the show, it was almost a forgone conclusion that the tape would somehow make its way onto the Internet, and Gawker was happy to make it happen. It published the video in August, and has since racked up over 3.25 million page views.

Before posting the video, Gawker whittled it down from 12 minutes to just under four and added some special effects to cover McSteamy's, well, steamy. (Its sister site, Fleshbot, used an uncensored version.) The tape, as edited by Gawker, does not actually show the threesome having sex -- it's not a porno. In fact, if the video didn't show Gayheart and Peniche without their shirts, and bleeped out the swear words, it might be suitable for daytime TV.

Hollywood sex tapes making their way to the Internet are nothing new. It has happened to Paris Hilton, Tonya Harding, and, of course, Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee.

While lawsuits almost always follow leaked sex tapes, few cases ever go to trial. (Paris Hilton's suit, for example, ended in a settlement that reportedly made the heiress $400,000.) Dane and Gayheart's suit, which was filed three weeks ago in a California federal court, is surprisingly not about invasion of privacy or defamation of character, as is common when a sex tape goes public. Instead, the couple claim that Gawker's publication of the video violates their copyright. This makes it a unique situation.

I recently described for a friend what the video did and didn't show, and explained that as long as Gawker didn't help steal the tape, it does not matter how they got it. After my 15-minute soliloquy, she asked, "So, who will win?"

"I give Gawker a three-point spread," I said.

Here's how the case of McSteamy V. Gawker breaks down, along with a look at the larger legal issues at play.

Does a Sex Tape Fall Under Fair Use?

In 1976, Congress enacted the Copyright Act, which states that a copyright holder has the exclusive right to distribute or reproduce copyrighted material. However, the law includes one big exception, which is called "fair use." Section 107 of the Copyright Act states that a person or business can publish portions of copyrighted material so long as it is for the purposes of criticism, comment, or news reporting.

Gaby Darbyshire, a barrister and the vice president for Gawker Media, told me that the company published the video because it was "newsworthy." But simply labeling something as news doesn't automatically constitute "fair use." In order to determine whether Gawker deserves the law's exception, a court will look at four factors listed in Section 107.

First, a court will look at whether Gawker used the video for commercial purposes. Obviously, Gawker is a for-profit business, but that alone doesn't prevent it from publishing the video.

Instead, a court will consider the purpose and character of Gawker's use of the video. The question here is whether the website posted Dane and Gayheart's video for news or commercial purposes. If Gawker edited the tape to suit a newsworthy purpose, the website would have given the video a meaning different than that of the original, thus making "fair use" appropriate.

Here's the argument that Gawker will likely make: Dane, Gayheart, and Peniche made the tape because they wanted to record sexual acts. According to Darbyshire, however, Gawker posted the tape because they found some news value in the recording. Darbyshire said that seeing "Dane, his wife, and a former beauty queen who went on a reality show to be treated for sex addiction, and reportedly is a Hollywood madam," together is newsworthy. Thus, Gawker will claim that its use of the video added a news element to a home movie.

David Ludwig, an intellectual property attorney for the law firm Dunlap, Grubb & Weaver, agrees with Darbyshire. "Newsworthiness does not limit itself to hard news, it can involve celebrities as well," he said.

As a result you can probably score a point for Gawker on this issue.

Second, a court will examine whether Dane's tape was published or unpublished at the time of Gawker's use. In terms of "fair use," the law states that "the fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use." However, "scooping" a copyright holder on their work does make the "fair use" exception less likely. In a 1985 decision, the Supreme Court stated that a copyright holder has the "right to control the first public appearance" of copyrighted material. Gawker's post was the first time the public had ever seen the video, meaning that Gawker does not have much of an argument here. Call it McSteamy 1, Gawker 1.

Third, a court will look at the "amount and substantiality" of Gawker's posting in relation to the video as a whole. Gawker posted just under four minutes of the 12-minute tape. As far as the law is concerned, the posting's length may critically compromise Gawker's claim to "fair use."

In 1987, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held, for a variety of reasons, that appropriating one-third of 17 letters written by author J.D. Salinger did not constitute "fair use" because it was more than "necessary to disseminate the facts." Ludwig suggested that Gawker could have legally posted a screen-shot or a snippet of the video to prove that their story was true. Instead, they excerpted a third of the video. Dane 2, Gawker 1.

Fourth, a court will ask whether Gawker's publication of the video supplanted the need for an individual to purchase a legitimate copy of the couple's tape. This depends on what material Gawker left on the cutting room floor.

If the whole video consists only of the threesome hanging around a house naked, then perhaps, after viewing the Gawker excerpt, no one would be interested in purchasing the full version. Thus, "fair use" would be off the table. "No one is going to buy a work if it's freely available on the Internet," Ludwig said.

However, if Gawker edited out some really juicy material -- sex scenes, for example -- then people could still be interested in a bona fide copy of the recording. Though Darbyshire declined to offer any specifics, you can probably assume the McSteamy threesome gets more interesting than what is currently available on Gawker. Dane 2, Gawker 2.

Fair Use Versus Infringement

To recap, Dane and Gayheart appear to have a valid claim against Gawker for copyright infringement. However, Gawker has a formidable defense by way of the "fair use" exception. It's important to note that the four factors outlined above are not examined in isolation of one another. Instead, courts try to balance them against each other.

In the end, if this case goes to trial, the outcome will likely depend on what Gawker chose to cut from the video. It's a strange reality that, in the case of sex tapes, what a news organization doesn't publish is sometimes more important that what it does.

Rob Arcamona is a second-year law student at The George Washington University Law School. Prior to attending law school, Rob worked at the Student Press Law Center and also helped establish ComRadio, the Pennsylvania State University's student-run Internet-based radio station. He writes the Protecting the Source blog.

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November 10 2009


President Obama Must Press China on Web Censorship

In China, Google is forced to censor its search engine, Facebook and Twitter are blocked, U.S. news agencies are barred from selling their services freely, and foreign investment in the media industry is closely watched. Yet when President Obama visits the country in a few days, it's unknown if he will publicly pressure the Chinese government on issues of censorship or free expression.

The president yesterday defended his position on these issues, saying, "We believe in the values of freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of religion, that are not just core American values but we believe are universal values."

This is a critical time for him to speak up because China appears to be increasing its efforts to censor Internet content, while also cracking down on journalists and bloggers. At the same time, the Obama administration has been sending mixed signals on democracy and human rights to China. For example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted the 20th anniversary of the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown, and called on the Chinese government to "provide a public accounting of those killed, detained or missing, both to learn and to heal." But she also celebrated the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Peoples Republic of China by congratulating the Party for its "truly historic accomplishment" of "lifting millions of people out of poverty."

Meanwhile, Yang Zili, a young engineer who spent eight years in prison, recently urged President Obama to intercede on behalf of two colleagues still being held in custody. Their offense? Creating a website.

It's true that gratuitous criticism towards China rarely produces results; but excessive restraint is also ineffective. Human right issues cannot be raised only in private, which is why it's important to review some of China's recent abuses of freedom of expression, and its renewed efforts at online censorship.

Cyber-Dissidents in Jail

Beginning around 2003, the Internet started emerging as a major tool for exposing corruption and abuse of power, and for putting pressure on China's central and provincial governments. Today, China has the largest population of Internet users on the planet. It also has 58 cyber-dissidents in jail. In terms of press freedom, China is ranked 168th in Reporters Without Borders' 2009 World Press Freedom Index, out of 175 countries.

In Xinjiang, Chinese authorities launched a crackdown that includes blocking many forms of Internet communication. The region's Internet has been reduced to an intranet that prevents Uyghurs from providing the outside world with detailed information about their situation.

In October, Reporters Without Borders surveyed the level of access provided to websites dedicated to the Uyghur community. These sites, operated by Uyghurs for Uyghurs, are for the most part inaccessible to Internet users based in Xinjiang, and those abroad. More than 85 percent of the surveyed sites were blocked, censored or otherwise unreachable.

On Oct. 1, 2009, Hailaite Niyazi, an Uyghur journalist and the former editor of the Uighurbiz website, was arrested. His family was told three days later that he was suspected of "endangering national security." His arrest appears to have been prompted by an interview he gave about the Xinjiang regional government's attitude towards recent riots. (In the past, authorities have accused Uighurbiz of "encouraging violence" in Xinjiang.)

In Tibet, there have been ongoing arrests and trials of journalists, bloggers and Internet users since March 2008. Three young Tibetans from the village of Dara have been held in jail since early October, when they were arrested for allegedly sending information about Tibet to contacts outside of the country.

Erecting Dams on the Internet

Silencing dissidents is only one part of China's censorship strategy. Last summer, the Chinese government introduced "Green Dam," new piece of filtering software. Chinese officials claim it's designed to protect children from pornographic content online. However, a study of Green Dam by the OpenNet Initiative showed that its key-word filtering was not very effective for porn, yet it was very good at blocking political, cultural and news websites, among other targets.

More recently, Internet service providers in the southern province of Guangdong have been installing a new type of filtering software called Landun (which translates to "Blue Shield" or "Blue Dam"). It's even more powerful than its problematic predecessor. According to an article in the Hong-Kong based Apple Daily, Chinese network providers were given until September 13 to install Blue Shield and avoid being sanctioned. Blue Shield is said to be more powerful than Green Dam and its installation is obligatory, not optional, as the authorities had reportedly promised. It is intended to provide stronger protection against porn sites and to increase the monitoring and filtering capabilities of Internet connections.


Congress has taken notice of China's stepped-up efforts to control the web. In June, Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) introduced a resolution "expressing grave concerns about the sweeping censorship, privacy, and cyber-security implications of China's Green Dam filtering software, and urging U.S. high-tech companies to promote the Internet as a tool for transparency, freedom of expression, and citizen empowerment around the world."

Chinese Censorship: Made in the USA?

American firms are also involved in Chinese censorship. Cisco Systems helped build the entire Chinese Internet infrastructure, including the mechanisms to censor the web. Yahoo aided the Chinese government in jailing four dissidents by giving their personal data to Chinese authorities. Speaking to shareholders at the Yahoo annual meeting in June, CEO Carol Bartz was questioned about the company's policies in China in light of Green Dam and other controversies.

"We made a mistake, and you can't hold us up as the bad boy forever," she said, referring to the release of information that led to the arrest of the journalists. "It's not our job to fix the Chinese government. It's that simple."

Maybe it's not Yahoo's job. But President Obama has a responsibility to advocate for freedom and democracy, and he should do so publicly when he visits China on November 15.

Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the "Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents," published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.

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November 05 2009


Hossein Derakhshan's Arrest: One Year Later

It's been over a year now since the arrest of Hossein Derakhshan, popularly known as Hoder. Ever since he wrote the first Persian-language blogging guide in November 2001, he has helped pioneer the Iranian blogging community while living in his adopted home of Toronto. (Derakhshan is a dual citizen of Iran and Canada.)

However, beginning in 2006, Derakhshan's views started changing. He called for Iran to have nuclear weapons, and engaged in personal attacks against people that he disagreed with politically. He was even sued for libel by another Iranian in September 2007.

A year later, he returned to his homeland for the second time in nearly ten years. While there, he continued to espouse very nationalistic views. His family had advised against his return, but Derakhshan went anyway, and was arrested on November 1, 2008.

This is the story of how he got to this point, and an examination of the lack of information his family has received from Iranian and Canadian authorities up until this point.

This original audio report for MediaShift is based on interviews with people who knew Derakhshan in Iran, and archival tape of interviews conducted with Derakhshan:

You can read Derakhshan's blog, which is now offline, via the Internet Archive.


Earlier this week, MetaFilter, users discovered that Hoder.com was set to expire at the end of this month. They wanted to make sure it stayed in Derakhshan's name. Some users suggested that the registrar wouldn't allow the domain to be renewed unless Derakhshan did it himself, which was of course impossible. However, later in the day, the domain's whois records showed that it had been renewed it for a year, though it was unclear how or why it had happened. It ends up that GoDaddy stepped in to renew the domain for him. Read my report on what happened.

Cyrus Farivar is an Iranian-American freelance technology journalist, a freelance radio reporter/producer, and is a wanderlust geek who lives in the city of Oakland, California. He regularly reports for National Public Radio, The World (WGBH/PRI/BBC), and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He also freelances for The Economist, Foreign Policy, Slate, The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, and Wired. He is currently working on a book, "The Internet of Elsewhere," about the history and effects of the Internet on different countries around the world, including Senegal, Iran, Estonia and South Korea. It is due out from Rutgers University Press in 2010.

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FT's Long Room Uses Velvet Rope Approach to Online Community

What determines a successful community? The number of unique visitors or page views? The number of comments?

Those metrics can be important, but there are also qualitative aspects to consider. Are the discussions on your site respectful and insightful? Are members deriving value from the community? Or are you hosting flame wars that lack intelligence and decorum?

In order to create a community of quality, perhaps it makes sense to cut down on quantity, and create an exclusive members-only structure. Few media companies have done a better job of building this kind of exclusive community than the Financial Times. Its Long Room was created as part of the paper's FT Alphaville blog. The Long Room is an "exclusive comment and analysis arena, where finance professionals are invited to share their research and offer thoughts on the work of others."

In order to learn more about how the Long Room has created an exclusive community of value, I spoke with New York-based Alphaville editor Paul Murphy.

Some Background and Context

It's important to first understand that Alphaville and the Financial Times are unique properties. The newspaper's website, FT.com, has a frequency-based pay wall. This means you can read a set number of articles for free, but have to subscribe if you exceed that number.

However, Alphaville is a free daily news and commentary service. Its mission is to give "financial market professionals the information they need, when they need it." On a typical day, the blog gets between 40,000 and 50,000 unique visitors. It generates roughly 500,000 uniques per month.

paul murphy.gif

Alphaville was launched roughly three years ago. Murphy said the goal is to serve a community of "deep specialists in their respective areas. They know more than we journalists know."

In addition to the blog, Alphaville offers email newsletters, news alerts, and Markets Live, a kind of chat session where two journalists instant message each other about the financial markets. (The community can also add comments in real time.) Alphaville also regularly links to news and reporting generated by other media outlets.

"We are a blog and we acknowledge that people are promiscuous," Murphy said. "So we tell them what to read elsewhere if they have half an hour of spare time, and we tell them what they should read in the FT. Being financial professionals, it's a navigational service. We allow them to sample."

The Long Room

The Long Room exists as an extension of Alphaville. It is "an exclusive comment and analysis arena, where finance professionals are invited to share their research and offer thoughts on the work of others." It is free to join, if you can get through the vetting process to be accepted.

The Long Room was inspired by a famous restaurant in the City of London that was a favorite haunt of financial pundits and market movers during the 1980s. The online version of the Long Room aims to be as exclusive as the real-world place. The site says it clearly: "The Long Room is reserved for financial professionals and for people with a clear understanding of how financial markets and products work. Our members-only policy and application vetting process allow us to ensure that these criteria are met."

Indeed, when a colleague of mine applied for membership, he received a call from London informing him that he had been accepted. But they also told him that he could not report the discussions taking place in the Long Room. "What happens in the Long Room stays in the Long Room," he was told.

Murphy confirms the application process is taken seriously. In fact, he handles many applications personally. He said the Long Room's exclusivity and careful vetting process have helped it reach the target group of financial experts and decision-makers: "I'm really impressed by the seniority of the people applying for the Long Room," he said.

Listening to the Community

The Long Room is an example of how intimate knowledge of a community can lead to a compelling service. The Alphaville team discovered that there was a willingness among financial specialists to share ideas and research, and so they created a safe place that encouraged them to do so.

"We simulated the way groups of financial professionals operate in the real world: in small email communities of 20 to 30 people," Murphy said. "They are trading research and commentary, and we wanted this functionality [as part of the Long Room]."

Murphy said the sharing of research and insight had to be done "in a walled garden in order to give them a certain comfort level."

The discussions inside the Long Room are organized using topic-specific "tables," such as those dedicated to market strategy or finance 2.0. Members can apply to host a table. So far, Murphy said, everyone is getting along well. (He mentioned one case when a person was kicked out because they engaged in constant self-promotion.)

Why it Works

Alphaville has been profitable since its earliest days. "It's a very light structure, especially compared to a newspaper, which typically requires a massive industrial process," Murphy said. The Long Room also enables the Financial Times to gather important insight about its readers. This information helps the paper sell itself -- and its special community -- to advertisers.

Alphaville also helps the Financial Times enhance its position as a hub for the financial community in London and beyond. This unique focus is a big factor in the structure and success of the Long Room. Financial professionals need timely and correct information, and so they can't ignore the Financial Times (or the Wall Street Journal).

But the question remains whether or not this kind of exclusive community could work at other newspapers and news organizations.

For his part, Murphy has no doubt.

"The model is applicable elsewhere, whether we talk about cycling or tennis communities," he said.


What's your take on this "exclusive" strategy? Do you think it's elitist, or that it introduces an element of civility in online interactions? Could this strategy be used by other media organizations? Finally, a last question for the MediaShift community: could this approach help media to survive financially?

Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L'Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.

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