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July 29 2011


Questions for Baratunde Thurston: What The Onion can teach real news organizations about social media

Baratunde Thurston, Director of Digital, The Onion

The Onion is funny because it looks and feels like real news. To do that well, The Onion has to act like a real news organization.

So when Baratunde Thurston, the newspaper’s 30-something digital director who “resides in Brooklyn and lives in Twitter,” describes the evolution of the Onion’s social-media strategy, it sounds pretty familiar.

“The Onion can be, in some ways, a creatively conservative place when it comes to process,” Thurston told me. “It was born out of a weekly print production and creative process. Breaking that down and reassembling it in a way that doesn’t destroy everything we’ve built has been a part of the journey.”

Over the past four years, Thurston has worked to bring both structure and experimentation to social media. The success is enviable: nearly 3 million Twitter followers, nearly 2 million Facebook fans, and an unusually loyal and engaged audience.

“When we look at social media we’re also borrowing from — or in some cases leading — what the news industry itself would do, or is doing, or should do to promote its presence on these new digital platforms,” Thurston said.

I met Thurston last month at MIT’s Civic Media Conference, where he was a featured speaker and a judge for the 2011 Knight News Challenge. I was surprised to see a stand-up comic who works at The Onion address a group of journalists — that is, until it became clear that The Onion is dead serious about civic media. (Thurston himself will be delivering the keynote at the next SXSW festival.)

In a recent phone interview, Thurston outlined his three-pronged approach to live event “coverage,” hinted at The Onion’s state-of-the-art predictive news technology, and discussed the making of a 500-foot Osama bin Laden. What follows are lightly edited excerpts (long excerpts!) from our conversation.

Baratunde Thurston: It’s important to remember that The Onion is, overall, a satirical news organization. That extends across everything the organization does, not just social media. It starts with the content. The Onion works, and it’s funny, because it reads like real news, it looks like real news, and it promotes itself like a real news organization. So when you think about, you know, a story that The Onion does and think, “Oh, that’s really realistic!” that’s part of the joke. When we look at social media, we’re also borrowing from — or in some cases leading — what the news industry itself would do, or is doing, or should do to promote its presence on these new digital platforms.

With social media, we started with promoting our material. “Let’s set up an RSS feed that points to Twitter that lets those people know what we’re doing.” That wasn’t revolutionary, it was just a basic plug-and-play, let’s-not-ignore-this-community kind of thing.

Over time, though, what’s become more fun, more interesting, more creative, is: “How do we take the unique thing that we do and sprinkle our own little Onion voice and fairy dust into this world?” Where we start to differ from actual news is that we’re not actually reporting actual news. What we’re often doing is building a parallel universe that people like to play with, and we are giving them more of an opportunity to play in that world than they previously had when we were just in print….

The approach we’ve taken that’s most interesting is in the area of rapid-response news creation and promotion. We look at it in three levels. The first is, How do we get our take on actual breaking-news events out quickly? (And sometimes even before other media organizations.) So you look at a situation like Tiger Woods — this is obviously a while ago now — and he announces there’s going to be a press conference Friday at 11 a.m. So the whole world — a big chunk of the wealthy, developing world, at least — pauses and waits for what Tiger Woods has to say. And people are at their offices literally not working because it’s, like, a State of the Union for Tiger Woods address, and both houses of Congress convene to listen to Tiger.

And there’s a big, gaping news hole — and we shoot into it using social media as a rapid-delivery system to publish a story that says: Tiger Woods Announces Return To Sex. And that becomes, for awhile, the news, because no one else knows what’s going to happen, and we have predictive news technology, which allows us to get ahead of that story and dominate, for a term, the interest in what Tiger Woods has to say.

Andrew Phelps: I’m sorry, predictive news technology? Is that an Onion “technology” or is that a real thing?
BT: No, it’s Onion technology. We built it, yeah. It’s proprietary, so….
AP: Right, right, can’t get into too much detail about that. So while the world is in suspended-animation waiting, The Onion dominates the conversation.
BT: People, when they’re in search of information, will violently and radically attach themselves to the first hint of it. And they help spread that message. Our most successful example of that is with Donald Trump and the day that President Obama released his birth certificate. We immediately published just a photo with a headline: Trump Unable To Produce Certificate Proving He’s Not… um…
AP: Festering Pile Of S—?
BT: Festering Pile Of S—, yeah. So that got almost 800,000 likes on Facebook, which is absurd. That’s just ridiculous. And it got retweeted tens of thousands of times. We got over a million pageviews to that thing, because it struck a chord with the real world.

The second thing I think we’ve pushed the envelope on is live event coverage. This is just fun. And it’s slightly insane. One of the things that we have done as a society is become more fragmented, more atomized — more selfish, to some degree — and our society is somewhat predicated on everyone having their own version of a thing. “I want my own car, my own driveway, my own pool, my own home theater system, my own music delivery system.” So shared experiences are harder to come by. People also work more, they don’t see their families as much. The water cooler is dying as a common ground for discussion of anything together. Social media helps reconstruct that water cooler and that shared experience. You see it on television shows, you see it around big news stories, you see it around celebrity silliness, and you especially see it around major cultural events like the Super Bowl, like the award shows, State of the Union addresses.

And what we’ve done is lend our voice and our massive platform in service of covering those events in real time — and so experimenting with a real-time flavor of journalism. Whenever there’s a big event like the Oscars — I think we do about five a year at this point, in a major way — we will live-tweet the hell out of that event. And that’s been a good way for us to increase our reach and our audience, because we’re attaching ourselves to an existing conversation and often — always, I’d say at this point — dominating it. Having the “top tweets” on a trending topic is a valuable thing and a low-cost thing if you have good material. So we’re exposing new people to what we have to say, and we’re giving people who already know us another way of finding us and hearing us and seeing us. And it’s also creatively fun. It gives the writer a different way to think about writing and about “journalism” (in big quotation marks).

AP: With Tiger Woods, no one knew what the news was yet, so you could make it up and make a little bit of a point. But when it’s live, everyone’s watching what’s really happening in real life. So what does The Onion do? Does it add more of a spin, or does it pretend to report facts as though they are happening even though they aren’t?
BT: In general, The Onion is not Daily Show-ish. We don’t cover the real world, per se. We often comment on things that feel like the real world. In the live event world, part of what we have as our advantage is 22 years of coverage already. And a lot of what we’ve written in the past is still relevant today. Because most of what is written in The Onion is written in kind of an evergreen fashion. So it’s about digging those things up.

For example, we started covering the Oscars by me doing a personal live-tweet session of the Oscars through my account. Just being silly, being funny, whatever; I wasn’t thinking about the Onion. And then I saw a celebrity (I think it was Queen Latifah) take to the stage to present something, and I was like, “Wait, The Onion has a story about Queen Latifah. And the story is really just a headline and a photo that says ‘King Latifah returns to claim queen.’ And that’s funny.”

I tweeted it out as The Onion, and people reacted very positively, and I thought, “I wonder if I can just keep doing this.” And so I was kind of watching the TV screen, listening for key words, searching the Onion website, manually digging up the story, tweeting it through our custom Bit.ly link, and you start to see the reaction, like, “Oh, wow, The Onion’s live-tweeting the Oscars!” And it’s like, well, sort of. We’re live archive-reposting the Oscars.

That was the first version of it. And then second version was, “Why don’t we actually intentionally prepare for this?” And so we gathered all the material we had that would be related to the films or the actors or the actual event of the Oscars itself and then we actually wrote for the event, things you know are going to happen.

And then there’s actually live stuff. With the Super Bowl, a sporting event is much more difficult to cover in advance, so you write for conditions, you write for, “Well, if there’s an interception, if there’s a kickoff return, if there’s a safety…” and then it’s a matter of mentally connecting what actually happens with what you’ve written for possibly happening and getting it out quickly enough. And then the layer beyond that is actually writing in the moment. So you have a sort of real-time writers’ room — at someone’s apartment, in some cases, or just over e-mail and instant messaging — that allows you to react truly in real time. And so I think the combination of those things lends itself to a feeling of comprehensive, real-event coverage.

AP: It’s funny, because it doesn’t sound all that different from what an old-school wire reporter would do to cover the outcome of a big trial or some live event that he needs to file quickly.
BT: Exactly. News organizations have troves of obituaries for people who haven’t died yet. We’re doing the same thing. Even if it’s not a formal process in a newsroom or a news organization, you are prewriting. You do have conditional headlines. We’ve just, in some cases, formalized that process and made it much, much funnier.

The third way that I think we have learned to play with this is to apply what we’ve learned from those first two completely to the world of news that we’ve created. And in this case, it’s about, OK, if we do a story, if we know we have a story coming up, how do we stretch it out? How do we massage it and promote it and tease it as if it were an actual breaking-news event?

The recent case where we did this pretty well was a story we had of a 500-foot Osama bin Laden returning from the sea to destroy America. And I was like OK, this is a Big Story. What does a Big Story deserve? Big coverage. You don’t just want to just put that out there; you spend weeks thinking about this stuff. Our graphics department — I’m sorry, our photojournalists — but our graphics department has done some impressive work to make this look super-realistic, so let’s give the story the big coverage it deserves. So in that case we are applying the lessons especially of the last event coverage in the breaking news to the alternate reality. So we start that story with a rumor: “BREAKING: Seismic activity detected in the Indian Ocean near site of bin Laden burial. More coming.”

And it’s like, What? And people see that tweet and that Facebook post and think, What’s going on here? Some people already get where it’s going, because their minds move more quickly. Others are just totally confused. And then we start adding in a layer of more commentary than coverage. We have our character Twitter accounts and Facebook profiles… “I’m just getting in word that the Air Force whatever unit has been deployed off the East Coast of the states… We’ll give you more… Unconfirmed reports of missiles fired… Spotting of bin Laden figure emerging from…” You’re like, What is–? So then it’s really starting to roll out. We have a layer of quotes that we’re attributing to generals and citizens and merchant marines out on the ocean. And then finally you get a version of the story with a link back saying, “Confirmed: 500-foot bin Laden spotted off the coast head towards Atlantic region of U.S.,” and there’s this big picture of bin Laden emerging from the sea.

And then we’ve got people reporting what they’re seeing. And this is all under the hash tag #500FootBinLaden. And where I think this differs from the breaking-news coverage and the live event coverage is, this is more open-ended. This is treated as, like, We don’t really know what’s going on here, we need your help. This is calling on the community to help fill in the blanks. And so we’re asking, actively, People, tell us what you’re seeing where you are. Have you spotted #500FootBinLaden? And people love to play along. They love to play along with real news, they love to play along with ours even more, because it doesn’t require actual fact-finding. And so people are Photoshopping Osama Bin Laden in the Boston Harbor, saying, “He’s in Boston right now, oh my God!” and adding their own flavor to it and using Twitpic and what not, and that is super satisfying. It becomes a collaborative news event. It has a full arc and life, just like “real news.”

You see another example of this, even when it’s not prompted, in our story about Planned Parenthood building an $8 billion Abortionplex.

AP: …which really happened.
BT: Right. And we didn’t really build any layers around it, we just put the story out, but the community wants to play along. Also, people want to write for The Onion (that’s probably not going to happen; it’s a very small team), but they can help build out this world that was previously limited to our writers’ individual creativity and minds. So someone on Yelp created an Abortionplex “venue” in Topeka, Kan., where the story said it existed, and they took details from the story and added it, and then the world just ran with it. There are, at this point, over 400 reviews of this thing we created. And it’s been inspiring. That’s a different level, when you don’t even prompt the collaboration with the audience, they just run with it, because they can. And it doesn’t require your permission, but it also doesn’t undermine your mission.
AP: I think a lot of news organizations would hear this interview and think: “Well, great, The Onion is very successful at engaging people, but they have the advantage of being hilarious and not having to talk about real news. The debt ceiling might not be so interesting, but it’s really important. So what are we supposed to do?” I just wonder if you have any kind of advice for real news organizations who are struggling a little bit.
BT: Think flexibly. Think loosely. I think there’s a lot of fear and conservatism — not political conservatism, but brand conservatism — around letting loose your team or your voice in this new environment. We’ve done journalism this way for a really long time, we’re really nervous about breaking it up. Not everybody thinks this way, but a lot do, and you can see it reflected. Sometimes you see the social media policy of Media Organization X, and it’s like the 20-point bullet list of “don’ts.” It doesn’t leave much room for what you can do. I don’t remember the organization, but one of them had a very fun post, like, “Our social media policy” — and it was just blank. That’s the kind of open-ended attitude that lends itself to finding value in this space.

For us, what’s been fun over the past few years is seeing the writers and the editors actually embrace social media and get inspired themselves and come to us and say, “Hey, can we do this?” And we’re like, “Yeah! Great — by George, you can do that! We didn’t think of that.” When Brooke Alvarez, the host of Onion News Network on IFC, live-tweets, that’s the writers of that show just doing it. It was a very, very proud moment for me. The way we used to do it, we would ask, “Hey can we get a batch of tweets from you guys around this thing?” And we’d kind of schedule it out and manually post it or use a tool to do it.

The Onion's Brooke Alvarez

Now, we run a training session with them. We say, “Look, people are talking to Brooke. She should have something to say back to them.” Basically give them a kind of framework, and they’re like, “Oh, that could be kind of fun.” And we literally handed over the keys. It was like a ceremony: “I give you the keys to the social media city.”

AP: That’s really funny, because once again you sound like a real news organization, having won over the journalists, so to speak, to social media. I don’t know why, but I didn’t expect writers at The Onion to have any kind of resistance to new media the way you might see at newspapers.
BT: The Onion can be, in some ways, a creatively conservative place when it comes to process. It was born out of a weekly print production and creative process. Breaking that down and reassembling it in a way that doesn’t destroy everything we’ve built has been a part of the journey. I come in here like, “TWITTER! FACEBOOK! YAY, STREAMING!” And everybody’s like, “Whoa, slow down, Twitter dude! We’ve got 20 years of awesome here, let’s not just destroy it for the sake of the latest trend.” And I think there’s some healthy tension that allows us to get to a good place.

And what we do does apply to so many news organizations. When you think about live event coverage and how you try to add some kind of value — get your sports writer to cover the Oscars. Mix it up a little bit and do something a little different. It doesn’t have to be funny, but it can be fun. It can be unique. I think the point is not to be funny, but to have a unique voice that stands out in an increasingly commoditized environment and space.

And then there’s exploiting your archives. A lot of media organizations are decades old. You’ve actually been there and done that. This debt ceiling conversation isn’t new. Unemployment isn’t new. Isolationism versus expansionism isn’t new. The role of religion in a democracy isn’t new. When it comes down to it, there’s not much new under the sun. So what have you already done? Basically, get more return on your existing investment. And the advantage that a deep media organization has over just the commentariat layer of cable news and the blogosphere is that you’ve actually done reporting, you’ve actually dug into records, so starting to think about your trove of data and analysis, and How do you slice that up? and How do you make it quotable and Facebookable and Tumblrable? is not exceedingly difficult. It takes some dedication, but it doesn’t take that much money. It’s not that expensive in terms of people and machine hours. That is something that we’re doing, and we’re not breaking the bank to do it.

And lastly, news organizations can open up to their community in some way. I’m not saying you’re going to have your audience become, like, investigative reporters. But there are really interesting things happening on the edges of journalism. You see the Knight Foundation investing through these grant awards in some really cool ways of, not seeing your readers or this digital layer of people as competitors but as collaborators. The fact is, the world is too big for any one news organization to cover comprehensively. And maybe you’re not going to ask your commenters to expose Watergate, but you might ask them to fact-check. You might ask them to help spot a pattern. You can have this sort of distributed research pool that can assist you in your journalistic mission to create an informed public.

We do it in a tongue-in-cheek way. We do it in a way which ultimately isn’t building real institutions. It’s building some intelligence, it’s building a lot of fun, but I think what we’re doing is even more important for an actual journalistic organization. And that’s where we hand off the stick. It’s like, “OK, our work here is done, but dear actual media organization, hey, give it a shot, you might just help our democracy.”

July 14 2011


Social Media and Satire Fuel Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt

Political satire is, historically, a great propeller of social movements. As Srdja Popovic, a leader of Optor, the Serbian resistance movement, said:

Everything we did [had] a dosage of humor. Because I'm joking. You're becoming angry. You're always showing only one face. And I'm always again with another joke, with another action, with another positive message to the wider audience. And that's how we collected the third party in the whole story -- which is very important -- the publicity, the people on the ground.

Nowhere has this been more true that in the pro-democracy movements in Tunisia and Egypt: While humor was potent contraband in the 23 and 30 years, respectively, of dictatorship in those countries, the increased breathing room afforded by their revolutions has allowed it to expand.



In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring in many ways began, a satirical comic book series on Facebook is gathering buzz. Called "Captain Khobza," (spelled 5OBZA) it features a masked, Zorro-like character who goes around with a baguette rather than a weapon in order to promote and highlight the importance of non-violent action.

Its creators see the series as an important tool to prevent a backslide on freedom of expression in post-uprising Tunisia. As they told Reuters: "We are complementing the revolution with this comedy because we don't want there to be any retreat in any way on the issue of freedom of expression."

And formerly apolitical comics have also jumped on the bandwagon. The most prominent example of this is Migalo, who started out as a football satirist but has switched topics since the Tunisian uprising.

In some ways, this isn't new. As Behedinne Hajri, a Tunis-based activist, told me, "Tunisians are satirical natives ... and all kind of satirical programs have a lot of fans ... Some are caricatures such as this one, some are radio sketches, and some are inspired by [the American television series] 'South Park.'"

Satire on the radio and on the streets was tolerated to varying degrees under dictatorship. Social media, however, increases the impact of political satire that formerly existed only on radio. As Youssef Cherif, a student in Tunis, put it:

Satirical anecdotes were common to Tunisia, even though not as open [as now]. We always had jokes about the "cop-president and his hairdresser wife," [but] I am not sure if these radio shows had political impact ... The big impact comes from the Facebook pages that disseminate pictures and videos (old or new) and that are touching the population.

While radio is still important, it's the availability of this content on Facebook (and the speed with which it can spread there) that's key.



Regardless of medium, there's been a definite uptick in all political comedy since January in Tunisia.

"A lot of people tried to express themselves by making funny critiques of the government," Wael Ben Slimene, another Tunisian activist, said. "It's a way to make sure that freedom of expression will remain."

Similar trends are apparent in Egypt. Take a look around Tahrir Square nowadays in Cairo, and you'll see plenty of caricatures and wordplay. Likewise, a Cairo-based English-language "fake news" website called El Koshary Today, modeled on The Onion, the successful satirical news network in the United States, has attracted a dedicated and growing fan base. Recent fare includes, "How To Become a Political Activist in Egypt" and "Egypt's National Security Agency Helps Former Torturers Find Inner Child."

Humor threaded the 18 days of the Egyptian uprising as well. According to a recent (informal and not statistically significant) survey on media use during the uprising, people were trafficking jokes nearly as much as they were sending logistical information. On Facebook, 35 percent of respondents reported receiving jokes in their news feeds, compared with 42 percent who said they had used the news feeds to get information about where to go and when. Similarly, 20 percent of respondents reported receiving jokes over their mobile phones, which isn't too far below the 32 percent who got coordination instructions over the phone. Humor was likely as important a morale booster and motivator during those 18 days of protest as it is today during the continued revolution.

In political environments marked by citizens struggling to move forward with revolution, people are using satirical media not just to hold onto increased political space but to push for more freedoms.

Cartoon screenshot from this satirical blog.

Susannah Vila is the Director of Content and Outreach at Movements.org. Get in touch with her at susannah.vila@gmail.com.

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November 21 2010


A Viral Video Takedown of Public Radio (in 5 Acts)

mediashift_social publicmedia small.jpg

Why is NPR such an easy target for comedy bits and video parodies? It doesn't take a regular listener of Science Friday to figure it out. They're a bunch of mega-nerds.

With every subtle use of alliteration, every time Robert Siegel says "draconian," and each transitional upright bass interlude, they slap a big fat "kick me" sign in the middle of their own backs.

Want to know the five reasons comedians love to hate public radio? As Ira Glass would say, stay with us.

Act I: Hearing Absurdly Perfect Voices

God do their voices sound good. (Ira Glass is the exception.) If we stopped absorbing the content of their reporting and just listened to their silky baritones and rich tenors, we might mistake them for come-ons. YouTube personality Liam Kyle Sullivan gives us a peek into the people behind the voice.

Act II: Attack of the Pledge Drive

We all dread those never-ending, shame-inducing pleas for our hard earned $20.00. Funny or Die explores how NPR stations use guilt to get us to pay their salaries.

Act III: Inane Topics in Soothing Tones

It seems like public radio hosts could talk about the sleep patterns of box turtles for days if we allowed them, but we all just really want to hear Terry Gross talk dirty. (Right? I'm not alone here am I?) Unless your name is Francis Davis, this classic SNL sketch is as close as we'll ever get.

And we can't forget Betty White's recent contribution.

Act IV: Stop the Music!

If I ever see a band billed: "As Featured in NPR Segues," I will run away, fast and far. Here, the always hilarious Patton Oswalt dissects the music of NPR for us (fast forward to minute 2:00 in this clip):

Jokes.comPatton Oswalt - Man Without a Countrycomedians.comedycentral.comRead Patton Oswalt's biographyWatch Patton Live at the New York Comedy FestivalFind more from this comedian in the Shop.

Act V: Those Pretentious Listeners

Public radio fans are the worst. I should know, I am one. From my colleagues at Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy:

House-Sittin': NPR BattleUCBcomedy.comWatch more comedy videos from the twisted minds of the UCB Theatre at UCBcomedy.com


Got a favorite viral public media spoof? Tell us about it in the comments.

Todd Bieber writes and directs videos, mostly comedy and documentary, or some combination of the two. He is currently Director of Content and Production for Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy. Previous to this he worked at the Onion News Networks as Footage Coordinator, occasional Director of Photography, and a freelance Contributing Writer during their Peabody Award Winning year. His work has been featured in a bunch of film festivals including Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, and AFI. His various viral videos have been watched over 13 million times and have been featured on the New York Times' website, Entertainment Weekly's website, Huffington Post, and his mom's Facebook Wall.

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October 27 2010


Quirky Conservative Canadian MP Gets Real on Twitter

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Tony Clement, the federal minister of industry in the current Conservative Canadian government, was home having dinner with his family one Saturday night in July when a woman began banging on their door. She frantically asked for help, saying her friend was drowning in the nearby river.

Clement, his wife and father-in-law ran down to the water. He and two neighbors jumped in, and the group eventually managed to pull the woman to safety. Paramedics arrived and in the end she survived.

Later that day, Clement did what now comes naturally to him: he tweeted the entire story, beginning with this message:

True story & happy ending: we were having dinner when a young woman knocked on our door, hysterical. Her friend was drowning in the river...less than a minute ago via TwitterrificTony Clement

Clement's tweeting brought the media calling, and soon the entire country knew that he, his wife and others had helped save a drowning woman.

"The reason that I used Twitter to communicate the story is to remind people about basic summer water safety," Clement later told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, "because I think that there's something like 200 drowning deaths in our lakes and rivers across the country every year. Every single one of those is preventable."

Clement may not have the most followers of any Canadian politician but he is the most quirky, entertaining and interactive elected tweeter in the country. The fact that he's also a prominent minister in the federal government just makes tweets like these more notable:

Mmm. Waffles!less than a minute ago via TwitterrificTony Clement

I enjoyed the choc chip cookies my daughter left for me tonight. At least...I thought they were meant for me.*licks lips*less than a minute ago via TwitterrificTony Clement

The chap sitting beside me on my Bathurst flight has a lge tattoo on forearm of a smiling skull w a dagger thru it. Meaning??less than a minute ago via TwitterrificTony Clement

Clement has also shown a willingness to poke fun at his well-publicized river rescue:

I regret to inform you that nowhere in my travels today will I be saving any Chilean miners.less than a minute ago via TwitterrificTony Clement

Clement tweets frequently about music, sports, food and, of course, his official duties. It's an eclectic mix (see the collection of some of his recent tweets at the bottom of this article). For example, one day, apropos of nothing, he offered a lyric from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show":

In the velvet darkness, of the blackest night, burning bright, there's a guiding star. No matter what, or who, who you are.less than a minute ago via TwitterrificTony Clement

No Interviews, Please

I wanted to interview Clement about his approach to Twitter, but only got as far as his press secretary. She said Clement doesn't do interviews about Twitter.

"He does believe that it's more a personal thing -- it's a 'Tony Clement the person' kind of thing,'" she told me. "His policy is not to do interviews on Twitter."

She then recommended I try tweeting him for an interview, which resulted in this exchange:

@tonyclement_mp I'm with PBS MediaShift & we're doing special on new media & politics. Have 15 min next wk for call to talk about Twitter?less than a minute ago via TweetDeckCraig Silverman

@CraigSilverman Thanks, but I'd rather be tautological & mysterious about it.less than a minute ago via TwitterrificTony Clement

@TonyClement_MP I promise to ask suitably mysterious questions...less than a minute ago via TweetDeckCraig Silverman

Then nothing.

"He's never done an interview just about Twitter," his press rep told me. "The only place he's ever answered questions about it is at the press gallery in scrums because he will tweet something silly and [the press] will yell out, 'Hey what's your favorite Johnny Cash song?'"

Though Clement didn't answer my questions about his Twitter habit, he did recently tweet about why he tweets:

At dinner last night I was defending my use of Twitter as a way to engage.Then 2 people came by my table to say they follow me. Nuff said!less than a minute ago via TwitterrificTony Clement

That inspired this reply from a follower and a reply to her from Clement:

Do u think staff comes up w this?? It's gold! RT @Kristaloohoo Do you actually twitter? Or do you have staff that twitter for you?less than a minute ago via TwitterrificTony Clement

In His Own Voice

The reality is that most politicians' Twitter accounts are still operated by staffers, or are strictly focused on distributing official information, such as press releases. Clement's quirky tweeting stands out, as does the fact that his voice on Twitter is so similar to how he communicates in real life.

"In person, Minister Clement can have an odd sense of humor and is reasonably popular among reporters because he can be self-deprecating at times," said David Akin, the national bureau chief of Canada's Sun Media, and a popular tweeter. "He's been able to let this aspect of his personality come through in Twitter's constrained format. So, in addition to Tweeting about the sorts of things you might expect politicians to tweets (policy announcements, digs at opponents, etc.), there are lots of tweets about his love of pop music, pop culture -- and about some of the more mundane activities of any politician when they go about their riding activities."

Clement also stands out partly because of his willingness to engage on Twitter about matters of policy. His government's announcement that it will scrap the country's long-form census resulted in significant debate and outcry. Clement has been front and center as the government's defender of the decision, and he's taken on that role on Twitter as well.

"Two other ministers make good use of Twitter -- Jason Kenney (@MinJK)
and James Moore (@mpjamesmoore) -- but neither engage with followers the way
Clement does," Akin said. "Clement was the lead minister on the unpopular long-form census decision earlier this year and did as much as could to defend that decision from specific criticisms originating on Twitter."

It seems to be paying off for Clement. Trevor May runs poliTwitter, a website that tracks and rates the Twitter usage of Canadian politicians, the political press and politics-related online chatter. As of this writing, Clement has the second-most followers of any member of parliament, and is ranked in the top three in the "Top Federal MP Tweeters" and "Top @replied Tweeters" categories.

"Tony Clement's Twitter is definitely known for being a bit amusing and personal," May said. "Which might seem surprising to some, seeing a Conservative minister cracking jokes or being sarcastic."

In terms of what most Canadian MPs use Twitter for, May said, "Many are just tweeting mini press releases and don't interact with others."

Have a look below too see some of Clement's recent, notable tweets and what people say to him on Twitter:

Craig Silverman is an award-winning journalist and author, and the managing editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He is 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 columnist for Columbia Journalism Review and BusinessJournalism.org and the Toronto Star. He serves as digital journalism director of OpenFile, a collaborative local news site for Canada. Follow him on Twitter at @CraigSilverman.

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October 03 2010


'Groping' tickles

Civic media is serious business. Do we need a little more levity?

New Media can learn a lot from Old Media about taking ourselves too seriously, a trick that YouTube certainly has caught onto and turned into a franchise.

Former newspaper humor columnist Susan Trausch defies her reader to resist laughing aloud in her new book, entitled "Groping Toward Whatever -or- How I Learned to Retire [SORT OF], which is about being thrust into early retirement at age 59 after accepting a buyout from the Boston Globe, where she was a Washington reporter, business reporter and editorial reporter. Serious stuff, eh?

But she also at one stage wrote an award-winning satirical column for the Business Section called "Out to Lunch".Much of her new book is written in the style of the column. One book chapter called, "Present Tense" takes a poke at just about every tech innovation from the cell phone "demanding interaction with the world while I am standing in my underwear" to text messages to online banking to the robotic grocery store voice that shouts out, "SHE BOUGHT THE CHEETOS, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. SHE HAS THE WILLPOWER OF A FLEA," to FiOS, bought so her husband can "see the nasal hairs of the football players", etc.

Then there is Facebook. " … I got on Facebook by mistake while trying to send an email to someone who was in there on purpose.Now I get emails from strangers who want to be my friends. Trying to take the name off the site, I found another Susan Trausch pictured with two children. She's not me. Unless she is."

You can count on her for snappy one-liners on just about every page. While grappling with the question of what to do with herself after accepting the buyout, Trausch is advised to print up calling cards. It's an alien notion to her. "My idea of networking was waving to the neighbors on the way into the garage, she writes in the second chapter, "They Paid Me to Leave", in which she uses fast-moving dialogue with co-workers to describe reaching a decision she never contemplated. Typically sprinkling descriptions of her angst with light comments, Trausch is poignant in this chapter's conclusion:

"...on my last day, driving through the Boston Globe parking lot, passing the green and gold newspaper trucks parked in rows like sentries guarding the past, I pulled over and cried."

Trausch then weaves her way through the trauma that so many early retirees face: What to do with your time, crunching numbers, worrying about your physical self (she calls that chapter "Carcass Maintenance"), coping with being called "Mam", slowly shopping for bananas, contemplating senior housing, facing your mortality and dealing with the unexpected.

The unexpected doesn't wait for Trausch to adjust to her new life. Suddenly she and her husband, John Sobierski, are faced with the onset of dementia that strikes his mother at age 86. "Her last year of life was my first year of retirement."

The chapter, simply called "Alice", starts out as a description of the author's bonding with her mother-in-law and soon becomes a love story between a dying woman and her caretaker.

Trausch is a serious thinker. She provides insight into aspects of early retirement that flow not just from her experience but also from her ability to analyze nuances of early retirement issues.

But she also is funny as hell. Each reader will experience laugh-out-loud moments. My favorite was this:

"There I am on my stomach, reaching under the refrigerator with a yardstick to pull out Cheerios, nuts, ossified beans, uncooked elbow macaroni, cooked elbow macaroni, plastic bag fasteners, and grapes that have gone beyond raisins and are on their way to vinegar. I never used to care what was under there, never noticed the grease along the bottom of the stove drawer, or the tea bags that had missed the waste basket under the sink."

The author does well at reminding us that we shoudln't take ourselves too seriously.

(Jack Driscoll was Editor of the Boston Globe when Trausch was a Business Section columnist.)

August 23 2010


Warning labels for the news…

…via Stanley Robert’s facebook page. Stanley, best known for his “People Behaving Badly” stories, shares a love of self-mockery.

This link will take you to a creation by Tom Scott, comedian. He even has a “print your own” option if you want to make up your own creations to plaster over newspapers. Kinda like the one below.

Oh wait – that’s for a TV reporter….hmmmm, wonder who?

November 04 2009


@FakeAPStylebook Editors Explain Their Overnight Success on Twitter

For anyone who has suffered through reading the entire AP Stylebook for a journalism class, there's a cathartic release when reading the dry wit of the @FakeAPStylebook feed on Twitter. It combines parody of the journalism usage bible with funny repartee and the absurd. That mix has brought amazing success to the people behind the feed: more than 40,000 followers in 15 days, plus they've scored a literary agent for a book deal.

Here are some of my favorite recent tweets from @FakeAPStylebook:

> STAR WARS Episodes IV-VI are to be referred to as "The Original Trilogy." Episodes I-III are not to be referred to at all.

> When there's no more room in Hell, omit the final paragraphs to save space.

> When composing a story about strange murders, always refuse to believe the kids until it's too late.

> It is poor newsroom etiquette to throw yourself out of the window to prove that your co-worker is Superman.

While Callie Kimball was touting her sleuthing prowess in uncovering the identities of the folks behind the feed for Wired Epicenter, I simply emailed them and asked them to tell me their story. The two main guys behind @FakeAPStylebook are Ken Lowery, a copy editor at United Methodist Reporter in Dallas, and Mark Hale, an unemployed friend of Lowery's in Louisville, Ky. They work with a motley crew of contributors online called "The Bureau Chiefs." Here's a rundown of who they are:

David Campbell, 40, Seattle, Wash. -- copywriter, ArenaNet
Andrew Otis Weiss, 37, Woburn, Mass. -- communications specialist

David Lartigue, 41, Springfield, Mass. -- database whatzit (not technically a DBA)

Kevin Church, 35, Somerville, Mass. -- online marketing specialist

Dorian Wright, 34, Santa Barbara, Calif. -- currently unemployed

Mike Sterling, 40, Oxnard, Calif. -- manager, Ralph's Comic Corner

Chris Sims, 27, Columbia, S.C. -- freelance writer

Benjamin Birdie, 33, Astoria, NY -- graphic designer

Josh Krach, 35, Las Vegas, Nev. -- freelance designer

John DiBello, New York City -- national Internet account manager, W.W. Norton

Dr. Andrew Kunka, 39, Florence, S.C. -- associate professor of English, USC-Sumter

R.J. White, 34, Philadelphia -- manager of media relations

Matt Wilson, 26, Chattanooga, Tenn. -- reporter

Anna Neatrour, 34, Salt Lake City -- librarian

Eugene Ahn, Washington DC, 29 -- attorney

Shane Michael Bailey, 32, Jacksonville, Fla. -- web designer/developer

Here's an edited transcript of my phone conference call with Lowery and Hale. We spoke about how the feed became an overnight sensation, what a potential book will be like, and their fears of legal trouble with the Associated Press.

How did the idea come about for @FakeAPStylebook?

Ken Lowery.jpg

Ken Lowery: I just became aware of the real @APStylebook Twitter feed, and sent the link to Mark because he was a journalism student at one time, and I thought it might interest him. He had said, "I don't know if I'm sad or relieved that this is not a fake account" because there are so many joke accounts for celebrities. That's when the inspiration struck. We passed back and forth a few jokes, and put them on out Twitter feeds and asked our own followers if they thought it was a good idea. We got a "yes" so we went ahead with it.

Tell me more about the group working on the Twitter joke feeds?

Mark Hale: A lot of us have joke Twitter feeds: Ken has two or three, one of our other contributors has at least three, and I had one I abandoned a couple months ago because I couldn't sustain it. This was in that same vein, but it hit a nerve with more people than anything we had done.

Ken Lowery: I've done some before... with some success. @Zombiehorde has about 600 followers, and is the articulate thoughts of a bunch of zombies. Then there is @ThisReallyHurts, which has 200 followers and is just a guy describing extreme pain, which is a dumb gag but it seems to work for some people. The same group latching onto this new joke [of @FakeAPStylebook] really took off.

How do you guys operate as a group? Do you use instant messaging?

Hale: It's basically an email list through Google Groups. It's funny to me how popular email lists have become again. They were pretty popular in the mid-'90s and tapered off, but they serve us quite well. We always have our instant messaging windows open, so people are always saying, 'how about this?' or 'how about that?'

Lowery: We have the Google Group going and we have a few threads established. [There's] one for the open submissions thread, one for open questions when people ask the Fake AP questions. We link to the question and all throw out answers, and we're able to suggest responses, tweak them, and fine-tune them. Mark and I are basically the editors but as far as the actual creative part goes, it's a roundtable.

What happened after you launched the feed, and how fast did you get a big following?

Lowery: The first day we got upwards of 1,000 followers, which was explosive and way more than we expected. Then, Wednesday morning, the next day, Newsweek's Twitter feed mentioned it, and it just boomed completely out of control after that. A few blogs like the Chicago Tribune's [Eric Zorn] have basically been quoting stuff because it makes them laugh. That's how it's gone since then. By Saturday, four days in, we had about 9,000 followers.

Mark Hale.JPG

Hale: By that Sunday, after being live for about a week, we passed the real @APStylebook feed. We don't want to be egomaniacal, but...

Lowery: We were just looking for a metric at that point because it seemed so crazy and out of control. 'How do we measure our success here?' And that was it. Late last week, we hit a terminal velocity and it slowed down a little bit. But got a fresh round of [sign-ups] after the Wired article and a couple other articles. It's begun anew.

Hale: We've officially passed the population of my small hometown, New Albany, Ind., according to the 2000 census figures. It's across the river from Louisville.

When did you first hear from literary agents?

Lowery: I think it was day two. It was Thursday, which is when we heard from the first one, who we eventually went with. Then we heard from another on Friday, and since then, we've heard from five or six more. Kate McKean at Howard Morhaim Literary Agency was the one we chose.

Hear them talk about their excitement when they heard that comedian Michael McKean liked their feed:

Why do you think out of all the things you've done that this one has resonated with so many people

Lowery: Initially, the first popularity came from journalists who said, "I needed this" or "this made my week" or "this is very cathartic." My own highfalutin theory is that journalists have taken a pretty bad beating the past few years in public perception and job security, and this is a way to goof off without being mean or cynical. It's been journalists, salespeople, marketing people, English teachers, students, and fans of word humor [following us].

Did all the contributors meet online?

Hale: I think some of us know each other in real life. I've never met any of them in person.


Lowery: Same here. We're pretty well scattered all over the country. We initially hooked up because we're all big nerds. At one point we all ran comic book blogs just goofing on comic books. We did all our own blogs, but commented on each other's blogs over the years. Through that we developed a friendship, a writer's workshop, whatever you want to call it.

How will the book be formatted? Will it contain tweets and some original material as well? Will it look like the actual AP Stylebook?

Hale: It won't look so much like the official book. It will take a subject, say entertainment, and then it will tell you how to cover obituaries of celebrities, how to approach closeted gay celebrities, how to review a fine art piece, and a glossary, which will be more like the actual guide.

Lowery: The way we have it mapped out now is there will be a sections like sports, entertainment, medicine, etc., with tips on writing up front, and then a glossary of terms that looks more like the Stylebook and the Twitter feed. The stuff we've put together so far for the entertainment chapter is about 75 percent or 85 percent original material that hasn't gone live.

Hear Lowery talk about the tone of the @FakeAPStylebook feed as a faceless voice of authority:

Have you heard from people at the AP about what you're doing, and do you have a fear that they might come after you?

Lowery: We have fans who are AP reporters. We were approached early on by an AP reporter to do a story about us, but nothing came of it. We are talking about changing the name if and when the book becomes a reality. Part of the bind is that this is how people know us now. If we change it too much, then we could potentially lose everyone... We're already thinking about it and tossing around ideas, but some of this might be up to the agent or publisher.


What do you think about @FakeAPStylebook? What are your favorite tweets from them? Share your thoughts and favorites 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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