A bit more on Salim Jiwa’s talk at Social Media Club Victoria

May 29, 2010 at 10:56 pm | In advertising, business, media, newspapers, web | 3 Comments

When Salim Jiwa left his job at the Vancouver Province after a 30-year career in journalism, he didn’t leave his career behind. He instead took the insights he had accumulated – especially in his last years at the Province while heading up its digital media efforts – and started his own online news outlet: Vancouverite.

Last Tuesday (May 25) Salim Jiwa shared his experiences with us at Social Media Club Victoria: I blogged about one aspect of Jiwa’s talk that night (journalism-by-press-release), but Jiwa touched on so many other aspects as well.

First, to recap: “Print media faces extinction,” and the habit of picking up a physical newspaper is gone (or going). By the time a story reaches print, it’s at least 10 hours old, so why bother reading it half a day late? Newspapers used to function on having “exclusivity” (exclusive access to a story, exclusive coverage of a story): this is no more. News-makers (governments, public offices, organizations, businesses) have hired ex-journalists, top of the line pros, who write the organization’s press releases, which are completely press-ready. The journalist who pieces together a story is effectively sidelined: now the “source” writes its own story (huge ethical implications and questions around free press here, too).

At the same time, old-style journalism programs at university continue to prepare journalism students for careers that don’t actually exist anymore. But still they crank ’em out (this reminded me of the conversation I had with Jon Beasley-Murray in the comments thread to my first post on Northern Voice 2010 – about the immorality of producing “workers” for jobs that are gone).

During the Q&A, I mentioned recently hearing of a New York City-area university program that combines journalism and computer science – and here (courtesy of a memory jog via google) are the details: New dual-degree master’s in journalism & computer science announced at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. See also Wired’s coverage of the new program. It all reminds me a bit of Ryan Sholin’s 2007 advice (10 obvious things about the future of newspapers you need to get through your head) coming to fruition. Take, for example, Sholin’s item #6: Reporters need to do more than write. The new world calls for a new skillset, and you and Mr. Notebook need to make some new friends, like Mr. Microphone and Mr. Point & Shoot. Columbia U is jumping ahead even of this: the program doesn’t just teach journalism students to use Mr. Microphone and Mr. Point-&-Shoot, but is supposed to teach them to write software programs with which to address journalism-specific needs.

At Vancouverite, Jiwa single-handedly does what a traditional newspaper does with four to six people. Must be a lot cheaper to operate, yes? Well, an online outlet is definitely more agile and leaner than a mainstream outlet, but in both instances, the underlying question remains: What’s the business model and can it sustain the operation? Mainstream newspapers have seen ad revenue die away, but making [enough] money to make an online news operation fully viable is also very difficult.

If I understood correctly, the numbers are sobering: even with 25,000 visits (unique page views) per month, the money generated through ads hovers around $500 to $600 monthly. (I’m open to being corrected here – perhaps I completely misunderstood, but if I didn’t, sobering it is.) Udate/edit: I’m way off on my remembered numbers: as Salim notes in a comment to this post, Vancouverite “averages about 80,000 to 120,000 visits per month – not 25,000″ – and, in spite of those numbers, even with “80,000 to 100,000 unique visits per month, click ads can produce less than $200 per month.” Very sobering numbers. /update

During discussion, we briefly touched on the question of hyper-local reporting and selling ad space specifically to local businesses (different than generic google ads), which in turn could generate more revenue. It seems to me there are some significant roadblocks here, though: how much would local businesses be willing to pay for online ads, if they’re already either (1) drawing enough business through established local custom (the “we don’t need to advertise, our customers know where to find us” mentality of successful local niche businesses), or (2) generating enough word-of-mouth traffic through social media (earned media)? If you’re so cool that your customers tweet about you, why should you pay to advertise anywhere?

The funding model seems somehow unmapped: terra incognito.

I’d argue that in both cases (traditional media and new online/ digital media) we’re also talking about making accountability journalism viable (that’s Clay Shirky’s phrase). We know that in print media/ traditional media it’s dying. Where is it going online? I found myself balking a bit at the suggestion that “bloggers” aren’t accountable, although I have to admit that there are a bazillion bloggers out there and obviously not all of them will desire to be “accountable” in a traditionally professional journalistic sense. Add to this another twist: I try to be “accountable,” yet I never consider myself a journalist. I’m a writer, blogger, citizen. When I feel especially fat-headed, I might think, “oh, when I grow up, I want to be a public intellectual – wheeee!” Never a journalist, though.

It’s a bit of the Wild West – or Revolutionary France, before the Thermidor.

Exciting times, no matter what we call ourselves – or what others call us

Salim Jiwa at Social Media Club Victoria

May 25, 2010 at 11:59 pm | In free_press, newspapers, victoria | 9 Comments

This is not a press release…

Tonight I had the great good fortune to attend Salim Jiwa‘s presentation at Social Media Club Victoria. Focusing on newspapers, the industry of professional media, and the revolution that is digital media, Jiwa’s talk was one of the most refreshing I’ve heard on the subject. It was the kind of open, forward-looking perspective I wish Kirk Lapointe had offered listeners at Northern Voice 2010 earlier this month (or had been on offer at an earlier Social Media Club Victoria panel).

“Print media faces extinction,” was Salim Jiwa’s key message: like it or not, we’re living through a revolution created by digital media. In this new paradigm, the economic models of sales and advertising that we may have grown up with don’t apply anymore. Whether you’re getting your news for free online or shopping for the cheapest tires online (and then taking that quote to a bricks-and-mortar retailer for a price match – which you’ll probably get), the bottom is falling out of old-style business models.

Note the common denominator in both consumption practices (consuming news, buying tires): o-n-l-i-n-e. Consumers, driven by the need to find the best price for everything (with “free” being the jackpot), are changing their consumption habits. But as Salim noted, traditional newspapers depend on reader habits – such as picking up a physical newspaper in the morning, to read over coffee. The people who still have that habit are aging, and they’re not being replaced. Our new habits let us reach for online news sources instead.

And we want news quickly. Why bother reading a story in print when that story is already ten hours old by the time it gets printed? When that story can be read online within minutes of an occurrence? Canwest (the Canadian media corporation) says it plans to “go web-heavy,” but doing so means cannibalizing its print outlets even more. If you’re going web-heavy by putting all your good content online as soon as it becomes available, why should anyone bother to read that content in print, given it’ll be a day old by the time it finally appears?

Those were just some of the cold facts Salim Jiwa described. But for me the biggest “aha!” moment came when he spoke about press releases – or journalism-by-press-release.

Consider this: The White House keeps up a running stream of information (including press releases) on its site, to the point that journalists become nearly redundant. You could just as well outsource the story-writing itself to a journalist in India: all he or she needs to do is read the official press releases online and cobble together the story. Eventually, you could ask, “why bother doing even that?” Interested readers are probably already following @WhiteHouse on Twitter, reading those same press releases as they appear. The newspaper no longer has (1) exclusivity; or (2) the financial wherewithal to do investigative journalism – which at any rate is being obviated by press releases and an open stream of information from the source itself.

That combination (funds drying up even as cultivating sources behind the scenes becomes redundant because organizations and institutions are releasing news and information through official channels) means that a kind of press release culture is actually helping to make journalism obsolete (also see this article).

This is funny (not haha-funny, but weird-funny).

On the one hand, we’re living in this incredibly open, accessible digital age where anyone with access to the internet can set up a website (blog) for free and produce content (including news content), or, consume (for free) content created by others. We should be awash in information – and we are, for the most part. I would hope that with the push for Open Government, there’s hope that enough information is available in addition to sanitized press releases, meaning we will need journalists (and others) who can interpret (and investigate?) the information and present it back to readers.

On the other hand, however, consider the agencies that don’t release information in an open way and instead over-rely on corporate communications to “inform” the public and the press (albeit a tame lap-dog – not watch-dog – press).

Take, for example, the City of Victoria, which is one of 13 municipalities in the Capital Regional District (which locals and outsiders often refer to simply as “Victoria,” even though the City of Victoria proper is just one small piece of that agglomeration). The City of Victoria has a population of just ~80,000 people (the Capital Regional District has ~350,000). Yet the City of Victoria has a Department of Corporate Communications (headed by a director whose 1998 salary was only $2,000 under the six-figure $100,000 mark). In addition, this department of Corporate Communications is staffed by two coordinators and a graphic designer, and the City found $180,000 worth of spare change to hire two additional communications coordinators, …and (since that was not enough) the City recently hired another basic communications person at $61,000 annual salary (a two-year replacement, possibly for maternity leave?).

All this, just so Victoria can issue well-groomed press releases and control the outgoing message. Where are the reporters digging in at City Hall? The newspaper for the most part relies on what the City tells it, and what the City tells citizens is massaged by Corporate Communications (which does not, however, appear to have its own webpage on the city’s site: it is opaque and unavailable to scrutiny…).

Journalism-by-press-release does not help democracy or make for a healthy city.

Tomorrow: more on Salim Jiwa’s talk, with special reference to his digital news project, Vancouverite.

(Update May 29: Second part of my report posted here.)

Journalism and (use of) social media

May 14, 2010 at 11:32 pm | In danah_boyd, facebook, free_press, guerilla_politics, media, newspapers, northernvoice, web | 1 Comment

During the How (Should) Journalists Use Social Media? session at last weekend’s Northern Voice 2010 blogging conference, panelists Lisa Johnson and Kirk Lapointe both noted that newspapers regularly mine social media, especially Facebook, for information, leads, and photographs. Sometimes the journalists use the site to obtain information on criminal activity – if I recall correctly, Lisa Johnson explained how Hell’s Angels member Leonard Pelletier’s involvement in a Vancouver-area shooting was (partially?) outed via Facebook. And sometimes the media uses Facebook to obtain photos of teens who have died.

I sensed that some people in the audience were perturbed to learn this, even though it’s increasingly clear that material published online can be discoverable in one way or another. And if it’s on Facebook, it’s even more likely to be found – hence the growing popularity of the google search, “How Do I Delete My Facebook Account?”

Lisa Johnson and Kirk Lapointe – photo by Kemp Edmonds

Based on what I heard from Lapointe and Johnson at Northern Voice, the discussion of journalism’s use of social media now splits, for me, into two directions.

One path, broached by Kirk Lapointe after he was challenged by an online new media journalist, Linda Solomon of the Vancouver Observer, leads to the question of how the mainstream media uses leads and information – stories – that it harvests from social media sources, and whether or not it shares those sources with its readers.

Most of the time, mainstream media doesn’t share its sources with readers, as my post from yesterday (about Bruce Schneier’s article for CNN.com) illustrates clearly. Lapointe tried to cow Solomon, who challenged him (in his capacity as managing editor of the Vancouver Sun), by arguing with her, claiming that bloggers and online media also “steal” the newspapers’ stories. True, Solomon replied, but, she added, we give credit – aka “link love.” Bloggers and digitally native media freely give links back to the various sources, which is something the mainstream media still has to learn to do. We don’t need to “own” the story – but mainstream media apparently still does. This is particularly odd thinking, in my opinion, since – as Kirk Lapointe said himself at the very session – in the new landscape opening up for journalism, “the topic, not the article, is the centerpiece.” How, I would ask him, can a news outlet, “own” a topic?

The other path that’s red hot right now, which Johnson and Lapointe also opened up, is the question around privacy and social media. For an impassioned analysis of that issue, read Danah Boyd’s blog post, Facebook and “radical transparency” (a rant), which she published today.

Boyd says it better than most: questions around transparency and privacy are also class issues, which must be analyzed in terms of privilege and/or disadvantage. Mainstream media can certainly use social media as a “news scanner” (or maybe police scanner), as Lisa Johnson put it (see Raul Pacheco-Vega’s live-blog of the session). But the media must also realize its use (and possibly abuse) of power here. Given Boyd’s excellent deconstruction of the power relationships exerted by closed platforms like Facebook vis-a-vis the users, there should be a conversation – and maybe policies – around the morality of mainstream media mining social media sites for information. Of course they (we, anyone) are going to mine these sources, but we don’t do so innocently.

(note: photo by Kemp Edmonds, on his Flickr stream here.)

Link love is better (or why blogs trump MSM)

May 13, 2010 at 9:53 pm | In free_press, media, newspapers, web | 1 Comment

My husband is a regular reader of Bruce Schneier, and earlier today he pointed me to Schneier’s post, Worst-Case Thinking.

Here’s a screen shot of what the entry looks like – note all the links (in blue):

I’m particularly interested in Schneier’s final sentence:

This essay was originally published on CNN.com, although they stripped out all the links.

So let’s take a look at the CNN.com version, shall we?


Sorry about the indecipherable text (but the images are clickable and will take you to the original posts) – the key thing is the absence of links in the CNN.com version.

The only links in the CNN.com post are in the editor’s introductory note, namely a link to Schneier’s site (which you can make out in my screenshot), and one single link in the article itself, which happens to be to one of CNN.com‘s own stories (which is off the page in my screenshot, but if you click through you’ll see it).

Ok, that’s so f*cking stupid. So, CNN.com, you’ll only link to yourself, and not to other sources?

Question: does MSM have any idea how stupid this is?

From my perspective the main take-away is that there was an editor (or maybe a team of editors) making the decision to be anal in such an epic way. The CNN.com editor includes a link to Schneier’s site, …and then makes the choice to strip all the other informative links from his article. The editor also makes the choice to “protect” the CNN.com brand by including only a link that points to another CNN.com story. How retarded is that? That is no way to grow the pie.

But bottom line? It’s people, stupid. Maybe CNN.com has a social media / links policy – but maybe they don’t. We know that Canwest’s Times-Colonist doesn’t – who’s to say that media giants have ’em? It gets back at any rate to individual people making these idiotic choices – even if CNN.com has a policy, individuals made it. It’s not magically in the technology – it’s how people deploy it. In CNN.com‘s case, it’s a big fat #fail.

(Bonus: I like that Schneier included a link to Frank Furedi. Check it out.)

(Oh, and PS: Be sure to read Schneier’s post – it’s excellent.)

Evocative journalism: is there room for it?

May 12, 2010 at 9:22 pm | In newspapers, writing | Comments Off on Evocative journalism: is there room for it?

Reading an article filed today by the Montreal Gazette‘s Monique Muise about Monday’s horrific tragedy in St. Jude, Quebec, I was struck by the evocative quality of the writing.

(A recap of events: in the early evening of Monday May 10, in the Quebec town of St. Jude 77 kilometers north of Montreal, an absolutely gigantic sinkhole, measuring 1 kilometer by 500 meters and reaching depths of 30 meters in places, suddenly developed. One of the houses in the sparsely populated area sunk, was inundated with mud, and the family of four in it died. Other individuals were affected, but the family that died was clearly the main focus. Their daughters were only 12 and 9 years old.)

Back to Muise’s article: when I went to look for it later today, it had changed – significantly, to my mind. Not for the worse, since the changes were updates intended to clarify the facts. But the tone had changed, and it made me wonder if journalists often express something quite evocative, which gets edited out in later versions …or whether I imagined the tone in the first place.

I finally re-found the first version of Monique Muise’s report, Sad news ends the search for a missing family in Saint-Jude, Quebec (filed by Monique Muise, Montreal Gazette: Wednesday, May 12, 2010), in an online regional publication whose pages haven’t been updated.

After first describing what happened in general terms and how the Prefontaine family died, Muise’s report winds down as follows:

Herman Gagnon, who lived near the Prefontaines, said he heard a loud groan on Monday night and thought there had been an earthquake.

The noise came from his basement, so he went to check his pipes. They were fine. Gagnon soon got on the phone with a neighbour, got into his vehicle and drove from his home toward the town along the sparsely populated Rang Salvail, where next-door neighbours often can’t see each other’s houses.

Between Gagnon’s home and the Prefontaine’s, there is normally a narrow creek and a bridge. But as he went down the hill and started to climb the other side, he said he was stopped in his tracks.

In front of him lay “a different kind of blackness,” Gagnon recounted Tuesday. He stopped at the edge of a giant precipice and found himself staring into the abyss.

Another resident lingering at the roadside barriers, who declined to give his name, said sink holes and landslides are common in this area of southern Quebec. (source)

Some subsequent updates kept many (not all) of the same words, but somehow the story – now enriched with more information – became less …frightening.

Muise’s initial version conveyed a sense of gothic horror – which (oddly?) made for effective reporting, precisely because the event itself was freakish and terrible:

stopped in his tracks …”a different kind of darkness” …giant precipice …staring into the abyss

And then, the unnamed stranger (who declines to give his name), lingering at the roadside barriers observing that sink holes …are common in this area of southern Quebec.

Lingering …like the after-effects of brimstone and a whiff of hell?

No doubt my imagination is running away with me – but Muise’s original article impressed itself on my mind precisely because it was evocative.

In comparison, here’s a version that’s really cleaned up (no “lingering” remains): At sunset, the news everyone feared; and here’s one that keeps some of the words, but also adds enough other material to chase away the “different kind of darkness”: Missing family confirmed dead in landslide.

All in all, consider this a plea for more evocative journalism – factual, but able to convey the tone of events.

Journal bricolage?

May 11, 2010 at 10:58 pm | In free_press, media, newspapers | Comments Off on Journal bricolage?

Off-topic preamble, part 1: Lately, when I have a “must-write” on my agenda, I find myself staring at a “can’t-write.” Take the topic of journalism (please, take it!)…

Continuing off-topic preamble, part 2: Bricolage means putting something together from cobbled together pieces, or processes.

Cut to the chase (not exactly part 3, but getting there): With that in mind, two pieces, which the reader may complete or associate in ways that she sees fit:



^ That’s one item (a screenshot of a tweet today by David Eaves, apropos of transactions at the Canada 3.0 Digital Media Forum in Stratford, Ontario).

The second item is from today’s Toronto Star, CanWest sees future in digital content, about the sale of Canwest Global Communications‘ newspapers for CDN$1.1 billion to a group headed by Paul Godfrey:

Citizen journalists, reporters equipped with video cameras, news stories that are filed first to the latest mobile gadget before they appear in traditional print media.

These are some of the concepts the man who will be advising the next owners of Canada’s largest chain of newspapers will bring to the table. (source)

I’m not so sure that anyone in the suits really cares about “intrinsic nature,” frankly.

Some resources for Victoria’s MSM

April 29, 2010 at 10:13 pm | In free_press, local_not_global, media, newspapers, social_critique, times_colonist, victoria, web | 7 Comments

Someone named Adrian (not sure if it’s the same Adrian, different email address) just …um, remarked that I haven’t yet responded to the comments thread on my No policy …no strategy, either post.

Ah yes, newspaper and MSM people get to complain about being understaffed, but we bloggers are expected to be on 24/7/365 (for free!)…? 😉

As I mentioned in yesterday’s brief post, my internet went down around 3pm. It didn’t come back till this afternoon, so my usual method of snatching a moment here and a moment there to go online, to listen in, to read, and even to write was down the tubes for nearly 24 hours. I don’t own a smart phone (mobile telephony – drool, one day, one day!), nor do I ever seem to have the luxury of taking myself off to a third place to be alone and work in peace – my first and second places are one and the same, and they get crazy. When I go out, it’s for meetings (as happened today) or to walk the dog. So, if I can’t glean a minute inbetween other minutes, it seems it doesn’t get done.

But let’s see if I can now expand into some sort of follow-up on No policy …no strategy, either.

First: I was very impressed by Bryan Capistrano’s comments, who commented initially via Twitter and then on my comments board. Among other things, he noted:

I’ve mentioned that radio stations can sometimes get into an easy habit of talking AT a listener and not TO a listener. The social media that we use has allowed us on a number of occasions to be an ear and not just a mouth (I thought of that while walking back to my car last night and kicked myself for not saying it)! If that’s not considered a strategy, I would at least consider it a good starting point.

This is of course one of the basic tenets of markets are conversations (see Cluetrain Manifesto), a kind of blueprint (now 10 years old) for what new media (and new business) is all about. I would really really encourage local media people to familiarize themselves with the Cluetrain’s theses. Of course you don’t talk AT people, you have conversations. This means you can forget about hierarchies, too.

Bryan gets this when he writes,”I’m a firm believer that the only way to learn about something is by looking at it from all sides.” I would argue that Adrian doesn’t quite get this. In his comment, he writes, “The notion that everything in daily papers is suddenly a bunch of bunk seems to be rather overstated.” That’s an unnecessarily defensive statement since neither I nor anyone else on the comments board said “everything in daily papers is …a bunch of bunk…”

After all, a cardinal rule of conversation is that you also learn to listen.

Bryan was one of the panelists, along with Dana Hutchings, who I thought would have the best overview of the managerial/ revenue questions since his station isn’t owned by some corporate overlord(s). (I think his station is independent – I could be wrong; happy to be corrected if so.) In his comment, Bryan wrote, “social media has in no way affected our medium’s revenue stream.” I wish I knew more about the radio business, but I don’t. TV and radio are two mediums I rarely pay attention to (I don’t have cable, so no TV for me; and I listen to radio once in a blue moon – say, while driving, which means for ~10 minutes at a time). But it’s obvious from Dana Hutchings’s CHEK TV saga and also clear from Bryan Capistrano’s comments that these two do have incredible potential for steering their own destiny. I also wonder if it’s a condition specific to Victoria (which still has a deep digital divide) that revenue streams have not been affected.

Bryan and Deb (not sure if I should note which organization she’s from since she didn’t provide that link in her comment) noted that my body language further into the evening spoke volumes – and yes, while I was initially intrigued by what people were saying, I grew more impatient as the panelists began to respond to questions from the audience.

If anyone was making this an “us and them” issue, it was, I’m sorry to say, the panelists themselves who grew increasingly defensive at being questioned.

This was all really bizarre since, at the very end of the evening, Sarah Petrescu in particular sketched out a fairly detailed vision for what her ideal online news world should entail – and it’s one that absolutely includes the participatory “we.”

But as long as the wall between editorial and management persists, any visions will exist in silos – and the editorial side stands to lose because, as newspapers die, their jobs will evaporate.

Janice commented:

There was an interesting discussion on CBC radio the other day about the increase in citizen-generated news (and its credibility as real news!) on the internet and in SM, often around things that MSM deems un-newsworthy like re-zoning.

This speaks to revitalizing local coverage. We are terribly under-served right now: City Hall makes important decisions that directly affect us where we live, but we don’t hear about them. Social media can be way ahead of traditional media in being able to cover this (via that mobile telephony I don’t have, or if City Hall ever gets its act together to provide wi-fi), and the only way that traditional media can catch up is by including bloggers and others who will cover these news. It’s not rocket science.

Overall, I’d say Tuesday’s meeting was a great start – props to Social Media Club Victoria and Paul Holmes for organizing the event. There should be more, there should be follow-ups.

Speaking of follow-ups, did anyone see if the MSM that attended reported on its own participation? (I get my news online, and since the internet was down, I missed whatever was on. Give me a link if it was reported, thanks.)

As I noted in my comments board yesterday, this is a huge topic – presumably this isn’t the end of it in Victoria, unless the MSM want to shut down the dialog and leave it to social / new media to sort things out. My follow-up, such as it is, is already too long, so let me wrap up with a list of what I’d call must-read resources.

My favorite post is now nearly three years old: Ryan Sholin’s 10 obvious things about the future of newspapers you need to get through your head. Must-read. Ryan posted a follow-up in 2008, 10 obvious things, one year later, which reports on how well (or not) the industry has dealt with the points he raised in 2007. Pay special attention to #5 (I heard a few rumblings from some panelists that maybe charging for content is a good idea. It’s not. Don’t go there.) And of course those who think it’s an “us v. them” issue, puh-leeze: check out #7. The next point, #8, is really great, too. Just go read the whole thing now.

Clay Shirky, the here-comes-everybody (and long-tail) guy. Read his The Collapse of Complex Business Models (which I blogged about here), and watch his superb presentation, Clay Shirky on Internet Issues Facing Newspapers (on Youtube). Shirky delivered this talk at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society in September 2009. Must-see.

Dave Winer, who writes about many things – often technology, and very often with a special focus on media. Check out his January 2010 entry, Why newspapers should host blogs, for a glimpse of innovative thinking around both content and business models.

Why should news orgs host blogs for members of their community? Because the business of news organizations is information. Gather it up, sort it, organize it, keep it current and do it again. People have a huge thirst for new information, more these days than ever and increasing all the time. It’s ridiculous that information-gathering orgs should be shrinking in a time where what they do is in such high demand. (source)

Pop in on his blog or tweets to see what he’s up to with Jay Rosen of NYU, too.

Ok, that’s it for this evening. I’m deeply embarrassed that my list has only guys on it. I know there must be women I’m forgetting/ leaving out. Maybe something for another follow-up …or comments?

No policy …no strategy, either

April 27, 2010 at 11:57 pm | In advertising, black_press, facebook, free_press, local_not_global, media, newspapers, social_critique, times_colonist, victoria, web | 13 Comments

Tonight I attended the 14th meeting of Victoria’s Social Media Club to listen to five panelists from Victoria’s mainstream media (MSM) talk about how new media (including social media) is affecting their business.

Panelists included Bryan Capistrano (promotion director for radio station The Zone); Amanda Farrell-Low (arts editor for weekly paper Monday Magazine); Dana Hutchings (producer/ host for “Island 30” on TV station CHEK News); Sarah Petrescu (reporter and webmaster at daily paper Times-Colonist); and Deborah Wilson (journalist for CBC Radio-Victoria “On The Island”). The panel was moderated by Janis La Couvée.

blog might render photo cropped – click on picture to see original


The setting was the gymnasium of a former elementary school (now used as the University Canada West campus), hence the …well, gym-like setting.

But the setting wasn’t really the disappointing bit: it was the panelists. They all came across as very sweet people, but I left wondering just what the hell they’re doing.

The panelists (representing local heavy-hitters CBC Radio, Monday Magazine, CHEK News, The Zone Radio, and the Times-Colonist) all stated that their organizations have no specific social media policies in place.

Maybe that’s fine – but what was striking was the absence of clear thinking around social media strategy. The one glimmer of an exception was Dana Hutchings of CHEK. In the summer of 2009, while on vacation in Sweden, she received an email from her boss, letting her know that the owners were about to shut down the station.

CHEK had orders from its owners that forbade the station to report on its own troubles. In his email, Dana’s boss wrote (and I’m paraphrasing): “You’re on Facebook! What can we do?”

First, a brief digression on the history of CHEK News, which is worth knowing: see this wikipedia page for details. In brief: CHEK launched on December 1, 1956, which makes it a venerable local institution. Over the decades, CHEK underwent various changes in ownership, and by 2000 it was owned by Canwest, which happens to be the media conglomerate that owns so much of Canada’s media – including most newspapers, the Times-Colonist among them. Canwest, however, was in deep financial trouble by the middle of the decade, and by late 2009 it had to file for creditor bankruptcy protection. Leading up to this, Canwest tried various downsizing moves to save itself, including pulling the plug on CHEK in August of 2009. But by September 2009, the employees had managed to put together a scheme to buy the station and keep it in operation as an independent in Victoria.

Social media played a huge role in CHEK’s turnaround. Dana Hutchings answered her boss’s question (“You’re on Facebook – what can we do?”) by starting a Save CHEK News fan page, which in turn galvanized the local community who learned about the true goings-on at the station through the Facebook page. Before long, the page had thousands of fans.

The employees at CHEK, spurred by the support they saw pouring in through social media, worked feverishly around the clock for over 46 days, and in the end the station was saved – bought by the employees and contributors.

The point, however, is that without the resonant support from CHEK’s fans – support that would not have found a gathering spot without social media because of Canwest’s gag order on what was happening at CHEK – the employees wouldn’t have been able to muster the energy and enthusiasm to save the station.

But when asked how social media was affecting their business models, the other panelists relied on the old separation between “editorial” and “management” to absolve themselves of any strategic thinking around how the new media might save their old media bacon.

“I don’t know, I’m editorial, that doesn’t concern me,” was the gist of it. The panelists also seemed to think that the new media folks in the audience were trying to find ways to “pitch” to them, the arbiters of media truth. It was laughable.

First, people in the audience weren’t trying to figure out how to “pitch” to the MSM – they were trying to sound out the MSM to find out how they could get it to listen to them, the community.

Second, the panelists repeatedly told the audience that what would work – what they would be willing to retweet or run a story on – would be semi-sensationalist crap, like “there’s a house on fire on X Road,” or “the ferries are running late,” or “it’s snowing on the Malahat.”

Aside from sensational “news” like this, the MSM wants “human interest” stories: “how I found my true love on Twitter,” or, “my child survived bullying on Facebook,” or similar stuff.

This is truly sad. There must be more to MSM than burning buildings and true romance, no?

There were other annoying contradictions, and then also outright delusions. For the latter: the belief that bloggers are just the rumor mill, while the MSM are the arbiters of truth. Hahahaha. If anyone still believes that what is written in the daily paper is the truth, I feel sorry for them – I know for a fact that it isn’t. I know plenty of bloggers who are more assiduous about fact-checking than so-called professional journalists – and bloggers don’t mind correcting themselves. Try getting a newspaper to do that.

At the same time, every single one of the panelists belly-ached about being underfunded and understaffed, which was their main excuse for no longer doing investigative journalism.

Ok, so which is it? You can’t do investigative journalism because you’re understaffed and underfunded? Or you’re the arbiters of truth because only you are the professionals who can get at the truth?

You can’t have it both ways, kids.

While thumping their chests to claim truth-telling status, the panelists also begged “social media” to “spoonfeed” them potential news items (because, remember, they’re underfunded and understaffed and can’t get their own stories – the news are “thin” these days, as one of them put it). In other words, please spoonfeed us, but don’t think you can pitch us.

Are they nuts?

Which is it?

I could go on, but this entry is already costing me dearly in a town where everyone has to play nice and not step on anyone’s toes – and besides, it’s almost midnight and I’m on a deadline here.

Update, April 29: a follow-up post here (also noted in comments).

Comment quality?

March 25, 2010 at 11:43 pm | In media, newspapers, social_critique, times_colonist | 1 Comment

The other day I noticed some griping on the Vibrant Victoria forum about comments being either deleted or redirected to other discussion threads. That is, it can happen that a discussion thread (for example, Langford’s Skirt Mountain, Bear Mountain, or any other thread) veers off-topic, sometimes with partisan political asides or wild speculation, and the site moderators have to rein commenters in. The moderators will either give a warning or delete the off-topic posts, and then post a reminder along these lines:

The discussion in this thread veered in several directions since it was first started. This is a request to return to discussing ONLY the South Skirt Mountain project. Any side discussions from this point forward, including discussions about environmental organizations, Langford politics or development regulations/practices in Langford will be deleted.

We have dedicated threads elsewhere on this forum that deal with these issues and comments in keeping with those subjects should be left there.

Thank you.

(source – part of Skirt Mountain thread)


Folks, let’s remember this thread is about construction activity on Bear Mountain. Mentioning the sale of the TB Lightning is permissible given its potential relation to Bear Mountain monies, but this is not the thread to get into sports related discussions. Further posts on this topic will be removed.

Thank you

(source – part of Bear Mountain thread)

Almost always, everyone complies.

Consider what moderators on a well-managed forum do compared to what happens on the daily newspaper’s comments board. Take the story about environmentalists releasing a bunch of chickens in the office of Ida Chong, a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) of British Columbia. It appears that the animal rights activists are now ticked off at the environmental activists for using live chickens in their protest against the establishment politician. Hot stuff: a politician who’s often accused of being ineffectual and MIA – and who’s a BC Liberal; environmentalists and animal rights activists; right-left, and so on.

How does the local daily handle comments? (That is, how does it handle comments when it allows comments in the first place? Most stories do not allow comments.)

There appear to be some guidelines in place, but generally the commenters remain anonymous, and very often the discussion (such as it is) devolves to name-calling and overheated rhetoric. There’s the additional problem of comments being held in a “moderation” queue for hours on end, which makes true back-and-forth discussion almost impossible.

People have been complaining, specifically about how the paper censors comments. Aside from finding ways around the automated aspects (swear words are censored out), they’re mocking the censorship – they know it’s all sham:

Ida Chong is lucky they didn’t accuse her of being an aZZ. She could be knee deep in doodoo.

You know, the program that censors these comments is absurd. I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t censor the word ri’dic’ulous. (source – posted by anonymous at 9:48pm on March 25)

More vehement comments critiquing the paper’s censorship have come up, but since I’ve become almost a non-reader of both the pablum articles as well as the often berserk comments they spawn, it would take me too long to find the ones that really zinged, so the above example, relatively gentle, will have to suffice.

I still bring myself to read an article if it’s about an issue I care about, and I’ll go through the comments just for a sense of the vox populi. But every time I ask myself: what is wrong with people? Why are the comments on the Times-Colonist daily newspaper site often so vicious and ill-thought-out and just plain ignorant, while the discussion on a forum like Vibrant Victoria always gets back on track, even if there’s the occasional silliness or derailment?

For a while, my take was that the ventilating ranters on the Times-Colonist comments board should just go and rant on a blog of their own if they object to the paper’s control. When I noticed a Vibrant Victoria forumer complaining the other day about moderation, I again thought, “Get your own blog, vent there.” You can even come back on the forum and post a link to your post! I’ve seen Dave Winer tell some people on his comments board to take it to their own blogs instead of trying to argue it out on his – and that’s absolutely right. It’s what makes the most sense, and can help the conversation go deeper and have diverse anchor points, too.

I was still stumped, however, as to why there’s typically such a huge difference in quality between comments on a good forum (or a good blog) and most of what passes for comments on a daily newspaper.

So, for an answer to that question, turn to Zombie Journalism‘s March 23 entry, Anonymity isn’t to blame for bad site comments, it’s a lack of staff interaction. Bingo – the title alone explains it. (Huge hat-tip to John Speck, aka Frymaster, of The Bucket Blog and Real Advertising for leading me to this entry.)

Zombie Journalism concludes that it’s not anonymity that lets commenters go off the rails. It’s lack of site moderation – whether by a blog owner moderating his or her comments board or a forum’s moderators doing the same …or a newspaper staff using human beings to shepherd the conversation.

It can’t be automated.

Here are the three concluding paragraphs (abridged, click through to read the whole thing):

A moderator is always online -and there is an indication of this that shows up on the forum. The moderator regularly participates in discussion, responds to questions and, most importantly, will give warnings publicly when they are needed. It’s not uncommon to see a gentle “Hey guys let’s try to get this back on topic” or “I had to remove a few posts that got pretty heated, try to keep it civil, folks”. (…)

Contrast this with the moderator involvement on most news sites. Most users don’t even know a staffer was reading their comments until they are removed. Chances are most users don’t know a site’s moderators until they get a warning. (…) Community interaction is not a top-level priority to most news outlets – and that’s the real problem.

We as an industry like to collectively wring our hands about the toxicity of online comment boards, but if we really want to improve the quality of on-site discussion we need to be willing to get involved in our sites in a hands-on manner. (…)  (source)

Click through and read the comments, too (including Frymaster’s). These paragraphs hit on all the typical problems in the daily newspaper’s comments board: you post a comment and it’s like throwing something into a black hole. Your comment might appear …in an hour, or maybe in six. It might appear truncated or mangled – and there’s nothing you can do to correct it. It might take so long to appear, it’s no longer relevant. You have no idea whether or not there’s actually a human being taking it in, which in turn prompts the escalation of verbal outrage that’s so characteristic here. The spittle-flecked frothing-at-the-mouth ranter is probably someone who has never been listened to anyway, and in a comments board environment that suggests the absence of human moderation, his (or sometimes her) “outrage” finds its true home and amplification.

Contrast that to the immediacy of posting to a forum like Vibrant Victoria, which is well-moderated. You see your comment immediately. You can edit it for a short while after posting. It becomes part of a community conversation, not a verbal tennis match. If you make trouble by stepping over the line (whether in terms of going too far off-topic or being offensive), you’ll hear about it: there’s feedback, there are consequences.

It’s true that anonymity isn’t the defining marker of whether or not conversations will be constructive. The defining marker is ownership, embodied by people, aka moderators. Forums like Vibrant Victoria have it. The newspapers, on the other hand, not so much.

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