#Ferguson Shows Why Citizen Journalism Is Still Critical

If you’ve been keeping up with the news from Ferguson, Missouri, chances are a lot of the updates and photos are coming from individuals who aren’t journalists, posting live video feeds from their cell phones. When members of the traditional media were being arrested by the police, and the cable news stations were all kicked out or, in the case of Al Jazeera Television, fired at with gas grenades, it was often the alternative news sources and citizen journalists who fed us new information and updates.

I spent most of last Friday night, as well as last night (Monday), following what was happening in Ferguson through a variety of Twitter users, including Vice News, Alice Speri, Ryan Reilly, and Adam Serwer, as well as alderman Antonio French (who was arrested Friday night), his wife @Senka, and several LiveStream, Ustream, and Vine users. That’s not to say the mainstream media wasn’t there — they were. But on that first night, most of the video footage and images they replayed over and over on CNN were coming from people uploading them from their phones to Twitter and Instagram.


I won’t rehash what’s been happening this week — the militarized police response, the protests, the tear gas and the flash grenades. The fact that you know about it at all is thanks to the mainstream media, the alternative and non-traditional media (Huffington Post, Vice News, Freedom of the Press), and citizen journalists. (Update: The police kicked nearly all the media out of the area at 12:00 am CDT, often pointing guns, firing tear gas, and threatening to arrest them. One journalist, Tim Pool, allegedly had his press badge ripped off his chest and told by a police officer, he “didn’t give a shit.”)

Citizen journalists can range from anyone with a Twitter account and a cell phone to an independent news organization as complex as a large blog or an online news website, like The American Reporter (disclosure: I’ve been the humor columnist for the American Reporter since 1997). And anyone with that basic technology can record and disseminate news on a micro scale, or have your content seen around the world by tens of thousands of people.

While the term citizen journalists is often spoken with air quotes around that second word, especially by professional journos, they still play an important role in getting out early information. Ever since George Holliday recorded the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles 20 years ago with a Sony Handycam, private citizens have become citizen watchdogs against the police, the government, and in some cases, even the media themselves.

In many cases, they’ve been doing it without protection, at their own risk, and without the benefit of a publication’s legal team to back them up. They’re the people who find themselves at the center of the action and rather than run away, they pull out their cell phones, hit the button, and stand around a little longer than is safe or wise.

This means anyone can upload videos of things they think are wrong, or want to record for posterity and history.

Of course this means we also have to become critical thinkers and viewers, making sure that what we’re seeing is real, and not a hoax. That we’re re-sharing news from people we trust, and not just blindly retweeting everything with the trending hashtag of the day.

We Also Need to Trust Our Technology

But while we were watching Ferguson news on Twitter, it turns out Facebook’s algorithm didn’t even allow #Ferguson news to show up in our news feeds at all. On that Friday night, if you weren’t looking at Twitter, you didn’t even know anything was going on. (And if you rely on Twitter’s U.S. trending reports to see what’s happening, you were told that #ThatsSoRaven was infinitely more important than #Ferguson, as the tweens’ show trended that night, while the civil unrest in our own country was supposedly not even happening. The hashtag trended in individual cities like Indianapolis and Nashville, but not the country as a whole.)

Medium writer Zeynep Tufecki argues that this shows why not only is net neutrality important — what if Facebook and Twitter didn’t want us to know about Ferguson? They didn’t mess with the algorithm, but what if they had decided to play that card? — but even the technology used by both real and citizen journalists could be affected. California is considering legislation that will require “kill switches” in cell phones. While the technology is there to discourage violent cell phone theft, who’s to say an overeager militarized police department won’t force a wireless company to throw that same switch when they’re about to come down on a crowd of protestors?

Citizen journalism isn’t going away, despite the gnashing of teething and rending of garments by the professional journalists who look down on the amateurs with only slightly less scorn than a militarized police force. It’s here to stay, and as we’ve seen in Ferguson, it sometimes may be the only source of information we have for a while.

Five Things To Stop Putting In Your Press Releases

Press releases are one of those not-dead-yet tools that lazy PR professionals still insist on sending out to hundreds and thousands of journalists and bloggers. I still get press releases for movie releases taking place in L.A., inviting me to attend the red carpet rollout of some indie movie. Clearly they’re not culling their lists.

When I did crisis communication, we got a real sense of pride if one of our releases was published verbatim, or nearly so, by our state newspapers. That’s how we knew the real journalists were taking us seriously. That, and our success rate (it was an outstanding day if you could bat .500 on story placement). To do it, we needed solid, tight news stories, not a marketing puff piece.

Many releases I see are just abysmal. I don’t know if the agencies are teaching young flaks the wrong way, or if they’re teaching it in college, but there are some serious errors that are keeping your stories from getting published at all. Here are five things you need to stop putting in your press releases.

1. Marketing copy, especially in the opening paragraph

“ABC Coffee Stirrers, the leader in the coffee stirring industry since 1978 and the developer of the Turbo-Whoosh titanium stirrer, is pleased to announce the acquisition of Global Stirrings, a Canadian coffee stirrer manufacturer.”

Do you see all that dreck? All that extra crap about ABC’s history? That’s amateur hour. That stuff goes at the end of the press release in the <H2>About ABC Coffee Stirrers</H2> section. You know, the part nobody reads. It’s going to get cut out anyway, because journalists like real openings, not a copy-and-paste of your About Us page. When you write that, you sound like a flak, not a journalist, and the editor may pitch the release out of spite and loathing.

2. Adverbs, adjectives, and competitive language

“ABC Coffee Stirrers have proved to be 33% more effective at mixing a coffee drinker’s cream and sugar into their beloved morning java. And customers have eagerly demonstrated their strong preference for the Turbo-Whoosh by increasing sales by a staggering 12% every year for the last five years!”

Newspapers and TV stations are supposed to present the news in an unbiased, objective manner. That means they don’t get to express their opinion. They don’t get to say whether something is good or bad. They typically don’t talk about products, unless those products killed someone.

That means they’re not going to talk about how much better your product is than anyone else’s. They’re not going to publish the “news” written by your product manager. And they’re not going to talk about increased sales, customer preference, or improved performance.

You may get that kind of coverage in trade and industry journals, but you still need to avoid the adverbs and adjectives. If your press release sounds like a freshman English Comp essay, pitch it and start over.

3. Copyright and Trademark symbols

The company lawyer may have told you to put them in the release, but the ®, ©, and ™ symbols don’t belong in press releases for two simple reasons:

  1. They could interfere with SEO. While we can’t be sure how Google treats these, why risk it? Maybe they ignore those symbols, but maybe they treat it like a regular word. No one is going to search for ABC™ Coffee Stirrers®, so don’t make that a search term.
  2. Those don’t appear in news stories. The editors are going to delete them anyway, so don’t make extra work for them or you.

Unless the company lawyer also has a background as a journalist, ignore anything they tell you about writing press releases.

3. “We’re very excited” quotes

“We’re very excited about the merger between our companies.”

“We’re very excited about our laptop upgrades.

You can’t be equally excited about both things. Saying “we’re very excited” about every damn thing that happens is either lazy writing, or your CEO is off her meds. Find another way to express interest or enthusiasm. Better yet, don’t even bring it up at all. We all know you didn’t interview the CEO for this, and if you did, she probably didn’t say this at all.

Talk about the benefits of the news item. Is the merger going to add jobs? That’s your lead quote. Is it going to improve profitability by $10 million? Then that is. No one cares who’s excited; that’s not news. The jobs and profitability are exciting. Only include things that drive the story.

4. Business jargon quotes

“This new relationship will help us streamline mission-critical functionalities as a way to regenerate impactful niches.”

No one talks that way in real life. If they do, make sure they aren’t having a stroke.

But even if they do, preserve their reputation and avoid marketing words altogether. Make them sound like a real human being since, not a marketing textbook.

(Note: It’s easy to confuse marketers with real human beings, but do your best. Give them the benefit of the doubt, and translate their marketing gobbledygook into real words.)

If you don’t have good quotes, the journalist will either email you or call you for a follow-up quote that uses real words. Save them the time and give them a quote that sounds realistic and not one made up by the Dack.com Bullshit Generator (which is what I used to write that sentence above).

A press release is supposed to sound like a real news story written by a real journalist. Most PR flaks don’t know what that looks like, so they keep putting out the same garbage week after week. Then they complain that their stories aren’t being published and that their clients aren’t getting any traction. Start writing real journalistic stories and send out only newsworthy items. You’ll see your success rate — and self-respect — increase.

Do NOT Write for Free for the Jackson, Miss. Clarion-Ledger

It’s Friday afternoon, I’m tired, and I want to relax on the couch. But Ben Pollock of the National Society for Newspaper Columnists just made me leap up and race to my computer.

It seems the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger is looking for some new columnists. The hitch? They’re not willing to pay you for it. Here’s the invitation from their website:

ClarionLedger.com is looking for Mississippi’s next great columnist. Those with an interest should know from the start, however, that the position is a labor of love – the perfect hobby for someone who cares deeply about the state and its people and who also has a passion for writing.

In return for your hard work we will deliver a one-of-a-kind platform – a seat on the front row of the biggest news forum celebrating the great state that we call home. As a ClarionLedger.com columnist, you can write about whatever comes to your mind. Some areas we hope that hold your interest include: politics, family, leadership, community care and involvement, and education.

Anyone who is dumb enough to fall for this one is exceeded in their idiocy only by the person who thought asking writers to write for free was a good idea.

Good writers do not write for free. And good newspapers wouldn’t expect their writers to work for free either, would they?

I guess I just answered my own question, because, you see, the Clarion-Ledger is a Gannett owned newspaper. Gannett, owners of USA Today, the Indianapolis Star, and many other newspapers, is known for cutting staff positions around the country so their CEO can earn the slashed salaries as a “performance bonus.”

But I’m angered by the hypocrisy of this request, and I think it mocks the very tenets of journalism that publications like the Clarion-Ledger (hopefully) cling to, even if their parent organization does not. Here’s what I mean:

  • Real journalists do not write for free. This is their job. They get paid to do it. They get cranky when you no longer pay them to do it. And they go on and on about how they’re highly trained professionals who deserve the money they get. And yet these journalists are asking other people to do their job for them in exchange for no money. If I were a paid staff writer for the Clarion-Ledger, I’d be offended.
  • They’re asking for bloggers and citizen journalists. Most journalists I know hate bloggers and citizen journalists. Bobby King, president of the Indianapolis Newspaper Guild, once referred to us as “the animals in the blogosphere.” King’s attitude is not uncommon in the professional journalism world. But this means that the Clarion-Ledger is now consorting with animals and non-professionals. Does this mean their standards are slipping, or are we better than the journalists want to give us credit for?
  • Good writers get paid. We produce things that many people are willing to pay for. Good writers don’t do this for free, because they recognize the value of their skill. This means that the Clarion-Ledger will most likely get shitty writers. Shitty writers = fewer readers = more cost-cutting = more good citizen journalists = fewer readers.
  • Gannett already makes plenty of stupid money decisions. The last round of major layoffs that hit the Indianapolis Star, Clarion-Ledger, and other newspapers lead to a $1.25 million bonus for CEO Gracia Martore, as part of her $8.1 million salary in 2010. If they want to really bring out the good writers, Martore would a) quit taking bonuses made from blood money, and b) the other executives would take a pay cut to keep professionally trained writers on staff so they wouldn’t have to make such an insensitive, distasteful request like asking unpaid writers to replace the paid writers they fired.

The Clarion-Ledger has acted in bad taste and bad faith. Any writer who is worth his or her salt needs to refuse to write for them. All you get for writing for the Clarion-Ledger is the “exposure” of putting your name on your own work on their website. But make no mistake, they will own the work you create for them, and you will not be allowed to benefit from it any further.

If you want to write for free, put your time and energy into your own blog. At least with that, you have the possibility of turning it into something profitable down the road, like a speaking career, a book or two, or even a sought-after information channel that people will pay to advertise on. But don’t fall victim to the Clarion-Ledger’s scam.

How Do You Know You’re a Real Writer?

Cathy Day’s recent blog post, “Last Lecture: Am I a Writer?” took me back to my own days of struggling with my identity as a Writer.

I’ve been writing for 24 years, but I’ve only accepted the mantle of Writer for the last 17.

It’s an odd thing to wonder about one’s self. Either you’re a Writer, or you’re not, right?

You’re a professional, literary, word slinging, spell-it-with-a-capital-W-by-God Writer, or you’re just some wannabe hack who doesn’t deserve to even call what you do “writing.” (You even manage to speak the word with invisible quotes around it.)

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway: This dude was a capital-W Writer. He also drank a lot and shot things.

Someone who does plumbing is a plumber. Someone who does accounting is an accountant. And someone who cooks food is a cook.

But ask someone who strings words together if they’re a Writer, and they’ll think about it for a minute.

“No, because I haven’t been published.”

“Yes, as soon I published my first book.”

“No, I’ve only been doing it for a couple years.”

“Yes, after I received my first check for a magazine article.”

New writers hesitate to call themselves one, as if this thing we do is sacred, and they’re not worthy. Writers don’t just string words together for people to read in an email. We tell stories to entertain people, inform and educate, persuade and rally. We can string words together that provoke, comfort, or incite. Scribblers use corporate jargon and fifty dollar words in five cent emails.

Even when I first started writing, it never occurred to me that I was a Writer, until a more experienced one said, “Don’t you write stuff?”

“Yes, every day.”

Moleskine notebook and Pilot G-2 pen

If you do this a lot, you may be a writer.

“Then why aren’t you a Writer?”

Since I didn’t have a good answer, it was easier just to mumble, “Well, I guess I am.”

That’s how most Writers are crowned, with a mumbled realization, rather than a pomp-filled ceremony, complete with gleaming pens carried proudly on red velvet pillows by pages, to be presented by the queen amidst the fanfare of trumpets. (Although wouldn’t that be awesome?)

To be sure, Writers earn their title. That capital W is not just granted to every schmuck who took a high school English class and pounds out the occasional email to coworkers. That’s not writing. That’s written communication, but it’s not writing.

There may be standards for calling one’s self a Writer — you have to write 100,000 words first; you have to submit a piece for print publication; you have to get paid — but no one has figured out what that is yet. Self-granting the title varies from person to person.

But one constant remains: you’re not a Writer until you call yourself one. The very minute you can say, “I’m a Writer,” and say it without that question mark at the end? That’s when you are one.

Otherwise, no one is stopping you. Go ahead. Take it out. Try it on, and see how it fits. You’ll grow into it over time.

Three Simple Rules About Blogging Ethics and Money

Yesterday’s clarification by Judge Marco A. Hernandez about treating bloggers as journalists points out the need for bloggers to follow basic ethical principles, especially as it relates to accepting money or requiring payment for our services.

Oregon blogger Crystal Cox had been sued for defamation — and lost — after writing blog posts that were critical of Obsidian Financial Group and its co-founder, Kevin Padrick. Cox had claimed she was a journalist and used Oregon’s Media Shield Law as her defense. But Hernandez decided she wasn’t a journalist at all.Roll of money

The reason she lost, the reason she was deemed to be not “media,” was that she basically tried to get Obsidian to pay her to repair the damage she was causing. As Hernandez wrote: [Read more…]

US Judge Says Bloggers Are Journalists Again

Hooray, bloggers are real journalists again! Just not one in particular.

Back in December 2011, we learned that a U.S. district court judge had ruled that bloggers in Oregon are not part of the media, and therefore, are not protected by Oregon’s media shield laws.


This may or may not have happened after Judge Hernandez's clarification

But Judge Marco A. Hernandez has clarified that he did not mean for his ruling to apply to all bloggers, or at least all Oregon bloggers, only to Crystal Cox.

Cox had been writing critical blog posts about Obsidian Financial Group and co-founder Kevin Padrick, and was sued for defamation by the firm. Cox lost her case after trying to use Oregon’s media shield law as her defense. Hernandez had also awarded Padrick $2.5 million. [Read more…]

How to Find If You’ve Been Plagiarized

I’ve had my humor columns plagiarized three times in the last 10 years, the last two happening within 25 days of each other. The most recent one happened Monday, and ended with the plagiarist resigning his position as a newspaper publisher 24 hours later.

In the first case, I found out about it myself by doing some basic Google research. The last two, I was emailed because someone else did the same thing, and then did more diligent research, and identified a number of other humor writers who had been stolen from.

If you’re worried about your stuff getting stolen, here are a few things you can do to protect yourself:Red-headed kid with a magnifying glass

1) Google unique phrases and sentences.

The way most people check for plagiarism is to do a Google search for a unique phrase. The lede sentence here, “I’ve had my humor columns plagiarized three times in the last 10 years” is unique — no one has ever used it, in fact — so I would pop something like that in the Google search box.

But, and this is important, you have to put quotes around the entire sentence. This tells Google, “I want to find only instances of these words in this order. If they’re not in this order, don’t serve me the results.” That means sentences that say cooking columns instead of humor columns won’t show up.

Check at least three sentences per piece, just in case one of them was edited. And don’t search for sentences that contain the following:

  • Specific locations: One of my plagiarists changed my city names to his city names so they would be more specific to him.
  • Specific names: Any semi-smart plagiarist is going to know enough to change your spouse’s name to their spouse’s name. Same with kids, pets, and friends.
  • Dates: Unless it’s something historic, don’t search for dates. If you talk about being in college 15 years ago, that will get changed to suit the writer’s personal timeline.

Pick unusual sentences that seem almost innocuous. A string of words that is both unique and unnoticed at the same time. “I snapped my computer lid shut and took a drink” is a safe bet, “”But I’ve never been to Tallahasee!” Gladys shrieked.”

2) Search with Copyscape.com.

I was playing around with Copyscape for a couple of days, and quickly hit my free searches per month limit. They only charge $.05 per search on the Pro plan, so it may be a good purchase if you’re especially worried about being ripped off. It searches all content on a whole web page, rather than unique phrases, and it looks for any matching or near-matching phrases, not just ones you specify.

You can also drop in blocks of text to search for, which is useful if you work with freelance writers or teach high school and college classes.

The same company also has CopySentry.com, which will do regular searches on pages you’ve already written. It does a regularly scheduled search for any possible matches, and emails you the results.

3) Put a copyright statement with your name on every piece

Admittedly, this is like putting a sign on your window that says “please do not steal my TV,” but this may have the desired effect on one or two people. It also gives you a leg to stand on if you ever have to defend it legally. After all, the thief had to remove the copyright statement in order to publish it, so they can’t argue “It was like that when I found it.”

Two caveats about plagiarism

1) It’s not plagiarism if your name is still on it. If you find someone has lifted your stuff and left your name intact, that may be a copyright violation, but it’s not plagiarism. You’re still getting credit for your work.
2) You can’t steal an idea. Someone else may have — and probably has had — an idea on whatever it is you wrote about. If you’re talking about “five ways to rock your next presentation,” it’s been done. If you’re writing about “paintings you must see before you die,” it’s been done. In fact, any idea you had has already been done. Unless you invented something that has never been done before, you’re going to have a tough time proving that you had your idea first. If this is the case, speak to an Intellectual Property attorney.

Once you’ve found out your stuff has been lifted, your first instinct may be to go on the warpath and hammer the thief like the fist of an angry god. Hold that thought. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about what steps to take if you find you have had your stuff stolen. (Preview: It’s not to immediately confront the thief. There’s some work involved.)

Photo credit: jamesmorton (Flickr, Creative Commons)