Get it first and get it right

For mainstream media, two essential characteristics for survival in this media world are urgency and verification. Get it first and get it right.

And yet, it’s so hard for some to do. And that failure is a big media killer.

Let’s go inside a story.

Last Sunday, Kristin Shotwell, a student of mine, wrote a blog post in which she described having her photos stolen and posted on Tinder under someone else’s name. I had my old editor’s hat on and knew it had all the makings of a good story: an innocent is harmed, and injustice had occurred and it involved new technology. I messaged friends at the News & Observer, WRAL and the Daily Tar Heel. Here’s what happened in order.

The Daily Tar Heel had seen Kristin’s blog and assigned a reporter to it on Sunday. The reporter contacted Kristin and me Sunday and set up interviews for Monday. Her story was published in the newspaper and website on Tuesday morning. It was accurate and informative.

WGHP, the Fox affiliate in High Point, wrote a story for its website on Monday. The story was based entirely on Kristin’s blog post. The interesting thing is that the writer made no obvious attempt to verify the story. No call to Kristin. No call to me. No apparent call to Tinder. No verification. Please note: Journalism’s “essence is the discipline of verification.”

The Daily Dot, a national website, picked up on the story from WGHP, contacted Kristin and asked for an interview. Kristin didn’t immediately get back with the reporter — she is a student with class obligations — and by the time she did, a few hours later, the reporter had already filed a story on the website and no longer wanted to interview Kristin. Again, no verification.

The first two people I contacted at WRAL didn’t respond to me. On Monday, I contacted a third who did. On Tuesday, a reporter set up an interview and the report aired 1t 11 Wednesday night.

I heard from the person I contacted at the News & Observer who said he would pass it to the appropriate person. I’ve been an editor. I knew what that meant. I never heard from anyone else there.

A reporter with interviewed Kristin on Tuesday and published a story on Friday.


1. News judgment? It differs. It’s a story on a national news site, but not one for the News & Observer? OK, fair enough. One person’s story is another’s “I’m busy.”

2. Urgency? Wow. Hard to find. Social media spread it from North Carolina to Florida to California by Monday morning. Her blog had 16,000 visits by noon Monday. It made its first appearance on a website other than Kristin’s blog (and Facebook and Twitter) Monday afternoon on WGHP. The DTH published Tuesday. WRAL aired Wednesday. NBC on Friday. Social media didn’t just beat the mainstream news media, they sent newspapers and TV outside, made them cut a switch, bring it to them, and got a such beating in which they had to shout “May I have another?”

3. Verification? This, to me, is the most frightening. Urgency is important these days, but anyone can be fast, if they want to. Making sure you’re right, however, takes some effort. How WGHP and the Daily Dot knew that Kristin’s story wasn’t a fake is beyond me. Trust? Hope? Or just an attempt to get traffic, damn the accuracy of the report. (Because it got traffic; the WGHP story was shared nearly 400 times on Facebook.)

I hear people — particularly young people — say that they already know everything that is “in the news.” It is one reason they think that newspapers and television news is irrelevant to them. Everything they care about they have already seen on Facebook or Twitter. This story fascinated college students — and they didn’t need mainstream media to tell them about it, which is good, as mainstream media didn’t tell them about it.

To survive, newspapers and television stations must do better.


Sunday sampler

Asheville — One of the most serious stories of our time is about the number of people who are turning away from science. You see it in climate change, in evolution and, as the Citizen-Times reports, in the increasing numbers of parents who won’t vaccinate their children. (I can’t find the story on the website.) Why is it that so many people actually believed the satirical story that Kansas legislators were trying to ban “Cosmos” from being broadcast there? Were I a reporter these days, I’d carve out a mini-beat on the conflict between science and fantasy.

Fayetteville – The Observer does a fine job explaining the long hours and low pay that teachers receive. It should be required reading for members of the General Assembly who can’t seem to understand the relationship between good teachers and good students. And, of course, the story shows clearly why teachers are trying to find jobs in other states. I wonder what the legislators and governor who harp about creating jobs have to say about that?


Lessons from the front: Stolen identity, media and networks

A student of mine is having the media experience of a lifetime, learning about the compelling draw of a great story, the power of networks and the various degrees of news judgment.

Kristin Shotwell, a junior at UNC-Chapel in the PR concentration, discovered that someone pulled some of her Facebook photos and is masquerading as her — although using the name Kim — on Tinder, which is a dating site. Let Kristin tell the story. Take the moment to read the first and updated versions.

Kristin is a student in my current issues in mass communication class. (I’ve been fortunate to have her in three of my classes. She is an outstanding student.) The day her friends told her about discovering her photo on Tinder, she told me about it. We talked about turning it into her final project for my class. How she could try to track this Kim down. How she could turn her quest into a strong piece about privacy and identity theft on social media, weaving in her story.

She and her friends tried to track Kim on their own, using a variety of search techniques, but they got nowhere. Then Kristin wrote the first blog post and a few of us tweeted it and shared it on Facebook. In class we have talked repeatedly about the power of network connections and how stories go viral. Here we had a real life example, and the combination of a compelling story and a network of social media savvy students makes it almost unstoppable. And it didn’t take long to take off.

That was the first lesson.

On Sunday, we decided to “alert the media.” The campus paper, the Daily Tar Heel, was ahead of us. One of its editors had seen Kristin’s initial post. A reporter interviewed Kristin, me and others Monday. Its story was published today.

WGHP-TV, the Fox affiliate, posted a story on its website Monday. But they must have a lot of trust in UNC students, because, best I can tell, they simply wrote the story off of her blog post with no attempt to verify the story. The Daily Dot asked Kristin for an interview, but by the time Kristin got back to the reporter — she is a student with classes, after all — the reporter had already written and posted a story. Based on the h/t at the end of the story, it was tipped by WGHP.

That news outlets would write straight off her blog was the second lesson.

She talked with a reporter at NBC today.

I messaged friends in the newsrooms of WRAL-TV and the News & Observer on Sunday and Monday, but they haven’t expressed any interest. That surprised me, but I certainly know that news judgment varies by the person and the day. (Update: WRAL interviewed her on Wednesday.)

That lack of interest in what most thought was a good story was the third lesson.

(She talked with a reporter at NBC today.)

As of yesterday, Kristin’s FB post had been shared nearly 100 times. It resonated in Augusta Athens — we originally thought Kim was there. (The campus paper, the Red and Black, is interviewing Kristin today.) But she also heard that people at Stanford were also talking about it. Almost as soon as she posted the Tinder exchange in her second post revealing that Kim goes to UAB, she heard from someone in Birmingham offering assistance.

That’s the first lesson again: Virtual networks work for you.

The comments on her Facebook page, her blog, the WGHP site and others have been supportive, informative and critical. (Father that I am, I warned her to be careful with commenters and emailers — creeps can be found all over the place. She was way ahead of me there.)

That the Internet builds up and eats its own is the fourth lesson.

There likely will be other lessons we learn and talk about. One student just messaged me asking if she could do her final project on Kristin’s experience because it was so real and close. (We’ll see.)

Follow Kristin for more details.

Sunday sampler

Asheville — When I was in high school, I worked in retail and made less than minimum wage. Instead, I got a percentage of sales. Can’t imagine actually living on minimum wage, although many must. The Citizen-Times reports on an effort to get companies to commit to paying a living wage, which is calculated at $11.85 an hour. ”Asheville is ‘Beer City USA,’ but I think we have a chance to be ‘Living Wage City USA,’” Hebbard said. “We’re certainly the biggest program in the nation, so some eyes are on us.”

Raleigh — Campaigns have spent more than $15 million in political ads for the Senate race so far — primary isn’t even here yet — with no end in sight. Who’s paying for it all? The N&O tried to follow the money. And if you like the idea of big money from outside the state influencing who gets elected inside the state, you’ll be thrilled by this story. Otherwise, god help us.

Raleigh — The N&O also looks at the doubling of the heroin OD rate in 2012, which apparently continued upward in 2013. Scary. “In Raleigh, heroin seizures went from less than a pound in 2010 to nearly 24 pounds last year….”

Shelby – The Star looks to have an interesting story on the rising level of child abuse in the county, but it’s not online right now.

Sunday sampler

It’s the last Sunday before the Obamacare signup deadline so…

Charlotte, Raleigh and Gaston write about the status of the effort in N.C. to sign up. The most stunning anecdote to me is from the Observer. Still, when asked by the Observer last week, Kasey Stack, 28, the Charlotte bartender and nanny, said she had “no clue” about the approaching enrollment deadline or even that there was a federal mandate to buy insurance. “I could probably give you 10 other people that have no idea,” she said.

Strong journalism from the mountains and the coast

Asheville — The Citizen-Times writes about why there is so little affordable housing. Nearly one-half of all renters in Asheville and just under 40 percent of homeowners fell under the category of “cost-burdened,” which are those paying more than 30 percent of income for a place to live, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures for a five-year span ending in 2013.

And if any N.C. journalists are reading this, the story gives you direction for a story in your area. The average apartment rent for the Asheville market in 2013 was $864 a month, just $10 a month less than Charlotte, according to the Charlotte apartment research firm Real Data. Greensboro came in at $705 a month, Wilmington at $800. Raleigh/Durham stood at $893.

Wilmington — The Star-News examined police records and concluded that 60% of the city’s crime occurred within a mile of public housing. Last year, the numbers show, 60 percent of the murders, rapes, robberies, larcenies, auto thefts, burglaries and assaults happened in the districts that contain public housing. A high concentration of drug arrests and drug seizures occurred in those areas as well.

Greensboro — The News & Record envisions the future with the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering. Imagine a germ-resistant kitchen counter, inspired by the noisy cicada. Or a combat helmet as strong as a turtle’s shell. Or hospital bedsheets that capture sweat, then analyze its contents. For anyone interested in looking forward and trying to peer around corners, this is the kind of thing you should be reading.

Who needs a news site when you have a network?

“And despite evidence of news consumption by Facebook users—half of whom report getting news across at least six topic areas—recent Pew Research data finds these consumers to have rather low levels of engagement with news sites.

That statement in the annual State of the News Media 2014 report by Pew should send chills up the spines of editors of news sites. It outlines a problem that has been evident for several years — social media is replacing news sites as information centers.

Here is a recent example: On Sunday, a man with knives wandered the UNC-Chapel Hill campus intimidating and threatening people. Alert Carolina sent out a text to students, staff and faculty, and posted a notice on its website, telling people to get to a safe place and lock the doors. And by most accounts, it was the first notice. But then social media took over.

Here is a collection of thoughts from some of my students about how they got the information. Here are just two:

John Murray wrote: “The news traveled more quickly, and more effectively through a massive social networking site, and not an official first-rate University of North Carolina-approved system of communicating.  Simply put, Facebook did it better. They reached a widespread college audience more quickly, and could have potentially saved more lives in the wake of a crisis because of it.”

Nora Fritz appreciated the sense of community that the sharing of information created. “I just think it’s amazing that within maybe two minutes of receiving the campus wide email alerting us to seek shelter, I already knew just about as much as possible. My phone was literally blowing up with news and updates of the situation, from people in the union and Davis library to Franklin Street and beyond. I was actually ahead of the school in terms of information, if that’s possible. I knew the suspect had been arrested before the school informed its students.”

Alert Carolina is run by the public safety department at UNC-Chapel Hill. Like a news organization, it has the responsibility of getting accurate information to the public quickly. And that takes time as this sentence on the Alert Carolina website says: “Remember, though, that it may take time in an emergency for authorities to determine the facts and to provide the campus with instructions.”

Meanwhile, students are communicating with each other outside of “official” channels. While an outsider might think, “well, that’s an opportunity to spread misinformation,” students trust their friends, real and virtual. And by my following of the word spread on social media, the information was quick, accurate timely and helpful.

This is not an uncommon problem for news organizations. They need to get their facts straight before they send out information. Consequently, they usually lag behind the social networks. What can they do? Do what’s been recommended for several years:

* Go to where the people are. The Pew data shows clearly that they aren’t coming to you. That means you must be more active on social media, not just during crises, but all of the time. Spreading news, telling stories and engaging with people.

* Aggregate and curate information, both on your site, and on the social networks. How many news sites link to other sites? How many of the news sites on Facebook and Twitter link to other sites beyond their own?

* Become a “friend.” Too many sites are impersonal.  If they were a person, you wouldn’t want them as a friend. They broadcast and don’t interact. They aren’t interesting. They send out bland messages without personality or opinion.

* Put a priority on getting information out quickly. Don’t save things for your website, print product or newscast. (Yes, I know that’s where the money is. Think long-term readership/viewership.) The possibility of making a mistake is greater — although less great than you may think — so be alert and correct it as quickly as you can.

Your present and future audience has learned to get information from not you. Oh, they’ll come to you directly if the story is big and they want more information. But that’s not all that often. It’s like you’re a dictionary. They’ll come when they need to know the correct spelling. That’s not what you want. Figure this out.

I am reminded of a conversation I had several years ago with one of my bosses who was baffled by a neighbor who quit taking the paper. “Where do you get your news,” he asked her.

“From Facebook,” she responded.

P.S. As I was writing this, Chrome crashed. I went to Twitter and wrote: “You’ve crashed enough on me, Google Chrome. I’m wise to you now. Hello, Firefox.” Within the hour, someone from Mozilla Firebox tweeted me this: “Thanx for joining Moz! You’re now part of our global community. We’re here if you need help”

Would your news site be that welcoming?

The lessons of Vine and media disruption

Want an anecdotal example of how an app can be a bright shining star for a few minutes and then get disrupted? Consider Vine, Twitter’s short video service. It’s a lesson for all news organizations.

One of my students, Claire Mayes, posted a question on blog, asking “What happened to Vine?

“The app came out with a bang. One day we were all obsessing over Instagram and pretending we were rich business women that utilized Pinterest to perfect our recipe books and develop noteworthy closets. Then, like Ugg slippers and yoga pants, suddenly vine was everywhere. Children, teens, adults, my grandmother– everyone was using vine. It was a hilarious time, but it was a short lived period in app history.

“Now I want to know where Vine went and why it left us so quickly.”

Another student, Nicole Goldberg, answered: “We overuse them so much that they become trite and annoying and then we never want to hear/use them again. Everyone used to be glued to their phone playing Doodle Jump as if they were addicted to it, but now hardly anyone has the app.

“I think we become overly obsessed with new things that we tire them out just as rapidly as we got addicted.”

Mary Madison Albright said the audio is a problem. “The audio aspect of this video app makes it only viewable in privacy. A tad socially unacceptable to be in a doctor’s waiting room watching and listening to your BFF’s DJ party last night. Therefore, the number of times you can use it is decreased, making it ween out of your daily social media routine.”

Reilly Parker came up with perhaps the best answer: Other, better apps — SnapChat, Instagram videos — came out. “And maybe Vine would still be as relevant today. But Instagram swooped in and added video and now Vine is off the map.”

I have no data to know how Vine is doing financially. But when an initial core audience — college students — try it, use it for a while, and then delete it from their phones, then you’re in trouble.

On Wednesday, I asked the students in another class if they used Pinterest. Three raised their hands. Two years ago, I asked another group the same question. Every hand attached to a female body went up. In their world, Instagram has replaced Pinterest.

Disrupting yourself is a business lesson news organizations didn’t learn. I’m not sure that many have learned it yet, given how much energy is going into producing newspapers, which continue to suffer. A good read of Pew’s State of the News Media shows where the money is and where it is flowing. I wish more papers would use it to figure out how to skate where the puck is going to be.

Sunday sampler

Asheville– With so many questions being raised about Duke Energy’s operation of coal-burning plants and its stewardship of the environment, it’s no surprise that news organizations are taking a look at Duke operations nearby. The Citizen-Times — four hours away from the Dan River coal ask spill — does just that. “A monitoring well at Duke’s Lake Julian plant in Asheville sits about 200 yards from his condominium. Evidence of a toxic metal has been found in that well, and Gibney fears he knows more about what happened in the Dan River than he knows about contamination happening near his own backyard.”

High Point and Greensboro — Both the Enterprise and the News & Record have stories reminding readers that the deadline to sign up for Obamacare is near. Both start with similar anecdotes of women who benefit from the Affordable Care Act. Bias? I’m sure some will say so. It’s my bias that I think that the vast majority of people will benefit. (For the record, my health care costs go up because of Obamacare.) Most people in N.C. think Obamacare hurts health care. Efforts to educate people to the benefits of the law of the land are good journalism to me.

Lenoir — “Call 911. I think I just killed Danny!” The News-Topic tells the compelling story of two neighbors who shared a driveway, but that was about all. Now one is dead and the other charged with murder. Not every murder case is as human, but this one is a helluva read.



Message to the International Civil Rights Museum: Stop digging

When you’re in a hole, you stop digging, as the cliche goes. It’s a lesson the folks at the International Civil Rights Museum need to learn.

The museum — a wonderful showplace of an important part of national history — has money problems. It also has Greensboro City Council members questioning the tax money the city committed to the museum last year. And it’s not small change: $1.5 million.

So, complaining that the city is treating you unfairly is not just bad form, it is the epitome of working on the wrong thing. It’s almost as if, at every decision point along the way, the museum makes the wrong decision. Now, its response to questions about whether it will get the promised city money has the mayor talking about hiring a lawyer and anticipating litigation.

The museum has always been opaque in its dealings with the media and, evidently, with the city. This most recent controversy could be a textbook case on how to raise public suspicion. (And a textbook case on how not to build public support.)

Here is what Donna Newton said about it on Facebook:  ”I can tell you from being on the boards of some other nonprofits that have received support from the City, the questions asked of the Museum are reasonable – only with other organizations, they have typically been asked and answered before the money was awarded. Moreover, the other recipients I know about have to submit regular, very detailed reports to the City. It is the City’s fiduciary responsibility to know the details of how public funds are being used.”

Simple. Fair. And right.

Transparency isn’t difficult. In fact, when you’re expecting to be paid with tax money — some of which is my money — then it’s required. That’s pretty much how most Greensboro taxpayers feel, I suspect. Complaining about it does nothing except make people think that you’ve got something to hide. Why plant that in peoples’ minds?

An open letter to UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt, Part III

Updated with the records submitted!

Two days after the report, suddenly, the records are given up!

The university provided its athletic department’s social media policy, which requires each team to have a coach or staff member regularly monitor student-athletes’ social media accounts and says that players can be asked to remove posts or photos. UNC also released a contract with the company that monitors student-athletes’ posts, job descriptions for staff whose job responsibilities include monitoring posts, as well as team-specific policies for the women’s basketball, field hockey, fencing, women and men’s lacrosse, baseball, women’s golf, soccer and softball teams.

Updated with a P.S. Thursday

Dear Chancellor Folt,

I am proud of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’m proud of its long, storied history. I’m proud of its academic rigor and integrity. I’m proud of its stellar faculty, knowing full well that I’m an exception. I’m proud of its students who work hard and want to go beyond what we ask.

Yes, I’m well aware of the recent unpleasantries with academics and athletics. I’ve laughed and brushed aside the jibes from people because they have merit and defensiveness serves no purpose. I am happy to say that I have taught six varsity athletes in my classes and all have been outstanding students. And I say that on social media whenever the subject comes up.

So when I read a story in which our university is listed as the worst in providing basic public records, I get embarrassed. Embarrassed for the university.

“The hardest was North Carolina — they just refused to give anything up,” Zlotnick said. …

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, more than five months after receiving a request from a student, has yet to release any records. Officials haven’t hinted when they might.

This comes just two days after the News & Observer published a scathing indictment of public officials’ openness and responsiveness to public records requests. Included in the story are examples of the university’s sluggish response to requests for basic information. An observer might even call it active resistance.

We teach students in your journalism school to call BS on such hiding, which is a form of the verb the student who requested the information used. Hiding.

And here the university they attend is doing it.

Now what do we teach them?

I appreciate the efforts you’re making to open things up. We both know that the university hasn’t been effective or speedy in either getting to the bottom of what happened or in being transparent about it. As I said in one of my earlier letters, you inherited a hot mess not of your making. But it’s yours now, and you’ve got to address it, answer all the questions about it and move on.

The people’s trust in the university has steadily eroded since the beginning of the scandal. You’re in your job because your predecessor decided it was better for the university to step down. Ask the public relations professors in your own school how to restore trust and they will tell you that transparency is key. So far, the university has not been transparent. When you have people saying that you’re hiding things, you’re in trouble.

Change that. Tell the lawyers to release the requested documents. And to do it fast. This has gone on for too long.

Respectfully yours,

John Robinson

P.S. The Daily Tar Heel Thursday reported on the dinner you hosted at your house for the Athletics Committee. The paper quotes you this way:

Folt agreed with Dean, stating that the University had provided the public a large amount of information about the scandals.

“It’s not like we haven’t given oodles of very specific information to every news agency,” Folt said.

“We cannot control what they put in the newspapers, the articles that are written… but we can respond, and we have.”

I may be misinterpreting those remarks, but they seem to suggest that you think you’re doing a lot. Perhaps you are. But I respectfully suggest that the university isn’t doing enough. So much of the request the students made above are not difficult. You can make it happen.