Talking politics on Facebook

A few years ago, my publisher told me a conversation he had with a neighbor who didn’t read the newspaper. He asked where she got her news. She responded, “Facebook.”

That answer baffled him because he wasn’t active on the social networks, but I got it. Friend the right friends, like the right pages or follow the right people on Twitter and you can find out just about everything that’s going on in the world.

Last night, Fox 8 did a piece on the dangers of using social media to discuss politics. The premise of the report was that it’s a terrible idea to talk politics on Facebook. “You’re not going to change someone’s political beliefs through a Facebook post,” said Scott Dickson with Dickson Interactive, a website and social networking consultant company, in Winston-Salem…. “If you interact with the public at all then it’s my opinion just keep quiet about these kinds of things let your vote be your voice,” said Dickson.

Even though the headline of the piece says “experts,” plural, its sole source is Scott, who is my friend. And, for my money, he’s wrong. (I’m a little surprised that Fox 8 didn’t get another social media expert to counter Scott’s ideas rather than simply letting them stand. After all, in practice, Fox 8 doesn’t agree with them, as it posts links to political stories and permits a free-for-all in the comments.)

One of the wonders of Facebook and Twitter is that you can follow who you want, read the discussions you want and participate in the discussions you want. I have friends who do nothing but lurk. I have others who post about their kids. Some who post Bible verses. And others who post politics. Sometimes the comments get a little personal, but not that often.

I admit that I’m biased. I post about politics. It’s a topic that interests me. I like to read the links that others post because I usually learn something. For instance, the first places I’ve seen the fact-checking articles about the Republican and Democratic speeches at the conventions were on Facebook and Twitter. Those informed my opinions about what was said in Tampa and Charlotte.

I’m also biased because I don’t like others putting rules on how social media “should” be used. Facebook and Twitter give us enough rules. So, when Scott says that social media sites are for people who want to have fun with friends, I must respectfully disagree. I have fun with friends and we talk about all kinds of things. But eliminating politics from the discussion? Well, Arab Spring, anyone?

Update: Scott responds to this post in the comments. He also points out the WFMY did a similar story a day later. It, too, is a one source story. It’s recommendation, however, is one that is closer to where I am.

In touch with the news through Twitter

Yesterday, I had the privilege of moderating a political panel of journalism heavyweights — David Gergen, Charlie Cook, Taylor Batten, Domenico Montanaro, Anita Kumar and Rob Christensen — as part of the Elon University Poll’s latest polling results. (But enough about them. I’m the guy standing at the podium on the far left.)

It was going well with a lot of give and take among the panelists, I thought. I looked over the audience preparing to open it for questions and almost panicked. So many people were looking down at their smart phones and texting! Had I lost them? That couldn’t be right; the panel was saying smart, headline-grabbing quotes. Then I realized that the crowd was live tweeting the event. Rick Thames, editor of The Charlotte Observer, which hosted the event with Elon University, announced the appropriate hashtag — #ElonPoll — before the panel started. That, in itself, was pretty cool.

It also made me realize what people who aren’t on Twitter or who “don’t get” Twitter are missing.

Update: In the comments, Phil Meyer correct points out a potential danger with live-tweeting when using “the classic bait-and-switch rhetorical device.” Of course, that’s not a problem limited to Twitter.

Update 2:

Getting past the inconvenience of newspapers

It’s been years but newspapers still haven’t grasped the inconvenience of their products. And inconvenience is killing them.


* A longtime newspaper loyalist told me last week that she finally dropped her 7-day home-delivery subscription to Sunday only because she was in her car headed to work by the time the paper was tossed on her driveway. If it isn’t there when she needs it, it’s useless.

* Want a paper delivered? Get dressed and walk down the driveway in all kinds of weather to get it. This in a time when many people check their smart phones before they get out of bed. 

* Want home delivery only on Sunday and, say, Wednesday? You’ll be lucky if that option is available. It may be convenient to you, but it’s inconvenient to the paper.

* Some papers, like mine, promote their e-editions, which for a relatively cheap subscription price you can read the newspaper itself online. But it’s a clunky interface, requiring you to scroll up and down to see the entire page. Inconvenient. Not accessible on iPad either.

* Some newspaper websites are good. More often, though, they aren’t. It’s hard to find what you want. Design is cluttered. Ads come unbidden onto the screen, and, like a pesky mosquito buzzing around the room, it’s hard to get rid of them. Search is bad. Some content is walled off. Inconvenient.

* On Thursday, I went looking for stories about the U.S. Women’s soccer team because I wanted to read and see photos of its gold medal victory over Japan. I went to the Washington Post, the New York Times and ESPN, and I was struck by what an inconvenience that was. Each site gave me stories by their reporters only. I wanted more than that. I wanted a curated collection of content from everywhere. (C’mon Project Thunderdome!) Finally, I went to Google News, but even there I seemed to keep pulling up the same AP story.

* Don’t get me started on mobile.

I love newspapers and can’t imagine not getting one every morning, though I know that day is coming. That’s OK because I love journalism even more, and I hate to miss good journalism because of obstacles put in my way. I know well that there are sound business, financial, cultural and historical reasons why these obstacles exist. The problem is that customers don’t care about any of them. They want ease of use and service.

There is a solution.

I hate to stand in line for anything, but I do it when the payoff is worth it. If you assume that news organizations can’t or won’t eliminate the inconveniences, the only way to save themselves is to make the payoff worth it. The content must be so compelling that I will tolerate hassles because I know that there is gold at the end of the rainbow.

This is so much easier said than done. If it were easy, every day papers would be full of interesting enterprise, hard-hitting investigations, surprises, local analysis, depth, news about my neighbors (my neighbors, not someone who lives in this city of 300,000.) Or perhaps it’s not breadth but it’s a clearly designated focus, in the way that I know what I’m going to get if I go to Politico or watch FoxNews. (Poynter has a good piece about “the continental content divide.)

Mass is dead. Personalized is alive. Make it so easy and seamless to get the news I want OR provide news and information that is so relevant and necessary to my life that I’ll trample the crowd to get it. I know journalists want to do that the latter. Let them loose.

On Twitter, don’t be stupid

My daughter once tried to hold back the ocean’s waves with her hands. Didn’t work.

I thought of that as I thought of how organizations have tried to hold back Twitter with their hands. Doesn’t work. But, unlike me dealing with my daughter, the organizations have punished those who used Twitter.

Don’t get me wrong. Writing racist things deserves a good spanking. Maybe sending the athlete home is the appropriate response. But suspending the Twitter account of a reasonable corporate critic is beyond the pale, especially when the complaining organization is NBC, a MEDIA company.

This is what we know as a teachable moment. When coaches prohibit their athletes from tweeting, they are missing an opportunity. Rather than banning Twitter, the coaches should teach their young charges how to act in public. It is a lesson that many of them need to learn.

My social media policy is “Don’t be stupid.” The Olympic athletes and NBC were being stupid. They didn’t understand what Twitter and social media networks are. But they don’t have to remain stupid. They — and the other athletes and corporations — could learn proper social behavior. Corporations could learn about freedom of speech and the press. I had never heard of Guy Adams until I read that his account had been suspended after a complaint from NBC. Sometimes the smart thing to do is to grow a thicker skin.

Organizations and coaches can’t turn back the clock any more than my daughter could stop a wave with her hands. Damned if they won’t try, though.

Three journalists seek the future

Three smart young journalists I know are leaving their jobs and returning to school to study journalism’s future. If I were still the editor of a newspaper and one of them worked for me, I would mourn the loss of a good reporter. But I’m not. I’m hopeful that they will do more than study the future. I’m hopeful that they will create something new, not just for themselves, but for all of us. I told her what I would study if I were returning to school..

1. Money. Enough people are looking at the future of reporting the news, of figuring out how to reach people. While that’s what interests journalists, don’t go there. Look at the other side of the equation — the revenue. Where is the money going to come from to produce the strong public service journalism we want? Many have suggested solutions, and some are even trying them with varying degrees of success. But what that says to me is that the best solutions are still out there. If I were returning to school, I would study how to make good money practicing journalism.

2. Community. Traditional news organizations lost their built-in headstart to be the community’s place to be when Facebook came along. But Facebook is vulnerable because of its immense size, because of its insistence to do things that annoy its users and because it’s now a publicly traded company with all the profit pressures that brings. It’s not unthinkable that it could go the way of MySpace. Competitors are popping up all the time. What is the next Pinterest? It’s out there. I think someone can concoct the magic formula that melds journalism and community with connective tissue that is  valuable, informative and profitable.

3. Mobile. It is the future of media. Baby Boomers, who were once the core loyal newspaper and TV audience, are dropping subscriptions and appointment TV news watching and going mobile. That should scare news execs in the same way they should have been scared — but weren’t — when they heard about Craigslist. While some media have figured out how to do mobile effectively — Netflix, for instance — news organizations haven’t. (By effectively, I mean not only delivering a good product to people who want it, but also making money doing it.) Yes, there is cost to mobile and the ROI isn’t immediately apparent. But the ROI of YouTube wasn’t apparent until it was purchased by Google for a couple billion dollars. There’s opportunity. Why let the next Zuckerberg or Brin or Newmark get their there first?

I was going to add a fourth. I was going to suggest she examine why media ownership has been so resistant to understanding or accepting where the business is and what is coming down the road. I was going to suggest that she start with Media General’s CEO, who said that it wasn’t until last year — last year! — that they realized newspaper world had changed. But I decided that topic had been hashed over and resolved by many, and it was more of a psychosociological study, anyway. Besides, SchoolhouseRock teaches that three is a magic number.

I don’t know that these are the best three. What would YOU study?

Before the internet, there was the night editor











That’s from this week’s New Yorker. (More cartoons here.)

It’s not all that accurate, though. In real life, the next frame would be one of them on the phone — usually with a few more empty wine glasses on the table — to the night editor at the local newspaper saying, “I need you to settle a bet. Who played the super on that TV show from the early Seventies? The one with the three veterinarians.”

And the night editor would know the answer because that’s what night editors know. Either that or he — invariably male — would tell the caller to screw off and hang up. Or maybe both.

Update: In addition to the comments from Lex and Steve below, I have a few from Facebook and Twitter friends. They are mainly along the lines of, “The Internet? Son, please. Still happens.”

Shannan Bowen: “I guess there are some people who don’t know how to use the Internet, because I swear I get calls like that all the time! Today someone called me to ask what kind of parking permit she needed in a particular area. I gave her the parking department’s number, because I just didn’t know the answer.”

Lorraine Ahearn: “We were just talking at dinner about the Google effect, no one has to remember trivia anymore. Like we were trying to remember the name of the guy who cleaned OJ’s pool. But we didn’t bother Googling him. That’s the Kardashian effect. When it’s not worth Googling…”

Buffy Andrews: “For me, it was the information desk at the library.”

John Cole: “The news desk at an afternoon daily where I worked decades ago routinely took calls from a woman who needed help with that day’s crossword puzzle.”

Cindy Loman: “I remember people from other states calling sports night desks to check on Nascar.”

David A. Johnson: “We’re still Google for old people.”

R.L. Bynum: “I settled bets many a night on the desk. Also got calls from parents who should have sent their kids to library!”



(Hat tip to John Cole.)

10 reasons why a paywall isn’t the answer

For anyone who thinks paywalls are the way ahead for newspaper companies, read this evisceration of the idea by Howard Owens. A brief excerpt from his post at CJR.

A paywall is reactionary. It represents a mindset that says there’s nothing wrong with our journalism or our business approach. It is also an admission of failure at building a real online news business.

The basic notion behind a paywall is, “Journalism is expensive, therefore people should pay for it.” The notion ignores evidence to the contrary and locks in a mindset that believes the way we’ve always done it is the only way to do it. Paywall advocates are not innovators, and if you’re not an innovator in the fast-moving Digital Age, you’re dead.

One of the real dangers of the current paywall schemes isn’t that they won’t produce revenue; it’s that they will become the proverbial golden handcuffs, producing too much revenue to abandon but not enough to accomplish what advocates hope: save journalism.

Full disclosure: He is overly generous in his praise of me in reason #3.

An abundance of opportunity in journalism

It’s been six months since I left the News & Record, and I have finally figured out the answer to that question. Now, people seem surprised when I answer “no” with absolutely no hesitation.

It took awhile for me to get there, to realize that there was little that I missed about being editor of the third largest newspaper in North Carolina. Of course, I do miss my friends there. As every journalist know, a newsroom is a special place filled with energy, excitement, creativity and humor. Oh, and I do miss the bi-weekly paycheck.

Obviously, I don’t miss all the things that ran me out of the business — the pain caused by the financial problems, the obsession with profit, the second guessing, the lack of vision from the industry, the sense of helplessness and inevitability in the decline.

Years ago, I asked the same question of a former editor who was teaching at the University of Georgia. He said he only missed being “in the know.” He missed being included in the embargoed and off-the-record conversations with movers and shakers. I actually tried to avoid those sessions whenever I could. They were useful for reporters. My attendance was only useful for the movers and shakers. So, there was no reason for me to be there.

Don’t get me wrong: the 13 years I was editor were a true gas. The good times far, far outnumbered the bad times. But it was time for me to go and let someone else take a run at it. As I thought about leaving, I worried that I would not have enough to do, that I’d become aimless, that I would miss it terribly. After all, it’s been in my blood for 37 years.

I did miss it for a little while. I quickly discovered that the things I loved — being a part of a creative process, hanging with interesting people, trying new things, making a difference in the world — are all easily replaceable. Some are in journalism — this blog, for instance, and teaching — and the others are just about joining a part of the world that my focus on my career didn’t permit me. (I never said “I want to spend more time with my family,” but that’s been a benefit, too.)

I have regrets, primarily about things I didn’t do. I have written about them here. But miss it? No. I left the newspaper; I didn’t leave journalism.

And there is an abundance of opportunity in journalism.

“Where is the money?”

Newspapers have money. Sometimes, a lot of money. They just don’t think it’s enough.

I write that because a commenter on this post asked: “For the newspaper that takes this bold step, where is the money?”

I suppose that the years of layoffs, furloughs and salary freezes have given people the idea that newspapers are broke. In fact, those actions have helped newspaper companies’ bottom lines. I’m sure that some newspapers are barely breaking even. A few may even be losing money. But they are the exception, not the rule. Most newspapers have profit margins that, while not what they were in the 90s, would still make other local businesses quite happy. Here’s the illustration: Warren Buffett isn’t buying newspapers if he doesn’t think they make money.

So, the real question isn’t “where is the money?” The real question is, what is the newspaper spending its profits on? And the follow ups: Is it investing in the future? Is it investing in its staff? Is it reducing the profit-taking so that more can be funneled back into the operation? Is it reducing its investment in the newsprint product so that it can increase an investment into digital news creation and distribution? Or is it mimicking Slim Pickens in “Dr. Strangelove,” riding the moneymaker to the end.

More advice for newspapers; it’s time to take it

Newspapers get a lot of advice these days. Much of it is repetitive or derivative and contradictory. Much of it doesn’t answer a key question: How will we make money? Regardless, at some point, papers are going to need to step out and take some real chances. I didn’t take enough when I had the opportunity. I wish I had done more.

Stijn Debrouwere raises some great questions and provide answers in a post last week called Fungible that every editor and publisher should read. “Because the entire point is that journalism is not being disrupted by better journalism but by things that are hardly recognizable as journalism at all. Stepping up your game is always a good idea, but it won’t save you.”

And Debrouwere lists oportunities for newspapers to up their game.

Meanwhile, people who have been paying attention know that The Atlantic has successfully remade itself into a digital magazine. “Our history is in traditional print media,” said Smith. “What we set out to do was to disrupt ourselves in a sense. We decided that we wanted to be a digital media company participating in the high-growth markets and digital media. We went about the process of thinking through the questions, how do we disrupt our own company if we were challenging digital brands attacking us?”

I am a fan of the Atlantic Wire and read it on my reader every morning. I keep wishing a newspapers would give something like that a shot.

Mostly, though, the journalist in me likes Dave Winer’s River of News idea. “Once you have a river, do something bold and daring. Add the feeds of your favorite bloggers and share the resulting flow with your readers. Let your community compete for readership. And let them feel a stronger bond to you. Then when you learn about that, do some more. (And btw, you’re now competing, effectively with your competitors, Facebook and Twitter. Don’t kid yourselves, these guys are moving in your direction. You have to move in theirs and be independent of them. Or be crushed.)”

Fact is, ask people where they get their news and many will respond Facebook and Twitter.

But here is the opportunity for newspapers: Get Winer to work with you. “I wish I could work with the teams of the best publications. If that could happen, we’d kick ass. But I’m here on the sidelines giving advice that you guys take on very very slowly. It’s frustrating, because it’s been clear that rivers are the way to go, to me, for a very long time. A lot of ground has been lost in the publishing business while we wait. There’s a lot of running room in front of this idea. We can move quickly, if publishers have the will.”

It would be gutsy to take Dave up on his offer. Gutsy and smart.

Update: Dave’s response, via Twitter. “I am so under-utilized, it’s really a shame! :-(“