#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.

CelebBoutique Shredded by a Lack of Curiosity and General Awareness

CelebBoutique, the British clothing website, may have committed the foul-up of all foul-ups:

CelebBoutique tweet says #Aurora is trending, clearly about our Kim K inspired #Aurora dress.

After being hammered for just a few minutes on social media, their social media people turned on the TV, and saw the terrible news from Aurora, Colorado. Then they sent this:

We apologise for our misunderstanding about Aurora. – CB

We didn’t check what the trend was about hence the confusion, again we do apologise.

Followed by this:

We are incredibly sorry for our tweet about Aurora – Our PR is NOT US based and had not checked the reason for the trend, at that time our

social media was totally UNAWARE of the situation and simply thought it was another trending topic – we have removed the very insensitive

tweet and will of course take more care in future to look into what we say in our tweets. Again we do apologise for any offense caused

this was not intentional & will not occur again. Our most sincere apologies for both the tweet and situation. – CB

Meanwhile, most Americans are livid at the insensitivity of what is now being perceived as a vacuous and clueless fashion brand spouting off about clothes, shoes, and celebrities. As a result, CelebBoutique has just taken a major hit to its brand, with several thousand people pounding them like the fist of an angry god.

And it’s not going to go away anytime soon.

I’ll cut them a little slack. Yes, I’m angry, but I also recognize that mistakes do happen. Someone made a terrible mistake, and it’s not worth storming the castle with pitchforks and torches. No one should lose their job for this.

But this was a mistake that could have easily — EASILY! — been prevented.

All you have to do is be curious, and be willing to educate yourself.

Lack of Curiosity Killed CelebBoutique

Erik Deckers' Twitter response to CelebBoutiqueTheir first follow-up tweets are the first indication that curiosity is not something CelebBoutique’s social media staff holds in great quantities.

“We didn’t check what the trend was about.”

How do you not check this? How can you not be the least bit curious that some word is trending? Why was the first thing that popped into your head about you and your dress, and not “gee, I wonder why that word is trending?”

There are tools to tell you what is trending. There are tools to tell you why something is trending. Google, Twitter Search, even hashtags.org are all places to start.

This is where people need to think like journalists. A journalist never reports on a story that he hears from one person. A newspaper reporter doesn’t write a single sentence until she has confirmed everything her sources tell her. And they never, ever fire off a comment without knowing a single thing about what they’re talking about.

I don’t know if CelebBoutique uses an outside PR firm to do their social media, or if they have an internal staff. I don’t know if they have one person in charge of the Twitter account, or if there are several people.

But regardless of who is doing what, you need to act like a journalist. Even for just a minute. Act like a journalist.

Be curious.

Ask questions.

Wonder why something is happening, and don’t just fire off the first thing that comes into your head, like an 8-year-old.

Otherwise, you pull a boneheaded move like this, and all the goodwill you and your company have worked for will be shredded and ground into the dirt.

Update: It looks like the National Rifle Association made a similar gaffe. They actually deleted their entire Twitter account.

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…]

U.S. Court Declares Bloggers Second Class Citizens, Not Part of Media

Update: Judge Marco A. Hernandez has since clarified his ruling on this matter, and stated that his ruling was only meant to apply to Crystal Cox, and not all bloggers. Read my latest blog post for the rest of the story.

A U.S. district court just ruled that bloggers — at least bloggers in Oregon — are not part of the media, and therefore, not protected by Oregon’s media shield laws.

As a citizen journalist, this scares the bejeezus out of me. If you’re a blogger of any kind, it should worry you too.

I’ve been clamoring for years that bloggers are citizen journalists. That is, we should be entitled to the same First Amendment protections, the same access, and the same considerations that newspaper, TV, and radio reporters get. At the same time, it means that bloggers need to act like journalists: with great power comes great responsibility, etcetera, etcetera.Handcuffs

But a U.S. District Court judge in Portland, Oregon just set us back to pre-1990 days when he ruled against Crystal Cox, a blogger, after she was sued by Obsidian Finance Group for defamation over blog posts that criticized the firm and co-founder Kevin Padrick. The judge also awarded Padrick $2.5 million.

In his ruling, the judge wrote:

. . . although defendant is a self-proclaimed “investigative blogger” and defines herself as “media,” the record fails to show that she is affiliated with any newspaper, magazine, periodical, book, pamphlet, news service, wire service, news or feature syndicate, broadcast station or network, or cable television system. Thus, she is not entitled to the protections of the law.

Seriously? Pamphlets? In other words, if she had slapped together an 8-page booklet at Fedex/Kinko’s, she would have been protected?

Whether this is a problem with the judge not understanding the Internet, or — more likely — Oregon having a media shield law that doesn’t reflect 21st century technology, this may have a chilling effect on bloggers, even in states with media shield laws.

As it stands now, Oregon’s media shield law says:

No person connected with, employed by or engaged in any medium of communication to the public shall be required by … a judicial officer … to disclose, by subpoena or otherwise … [t]he source of any published or unpublished information obtained by the person in the course of gathering, receiving or processing information for any medium of communication to the public[.]

Seems comprehensive enough: any medium of communication to the public strikes me as anything from newspapers to TV to radio to the Internet (including blogs). But when someone learned about the Internet from the Ted Stevens’ School of Technology, they may not realize that the Internet is far more evolved than pamphlets.

Compare Oregon’s law to Washington’s media shield law:

Any newspaper, magazine or other periodical, book publisher, news agency, wire service, radio or television station or network, cable or satellite station or network, or audio or audiovisual production company, or any entity that is in the regular business of news gathering and disseminating news or information to the public by any means, including, but not limited to, print, broadcast, photographic, mechanical, internet, or electronic distribution;

(Read more about Washington’s media shield law here.)

Washington at least spells out what they consider to be the media. But any state that has not included “the Internet” in their shield laws may be able to exclude bloggers from the people who should be protected.

In other words, if you are a pamphleteer, you’re protected. If you type something on a typewriter, reproduce it on a mimeograph machine, and staple everything together by hand, you’re protected by the First Amendment. But if you publish the biggest online-only newspaper, and have for the last fifteen years, tough. You’re not protected by media shield laws in Oregon, or several other states.

This will have a chilling effect on your rights as a journalist, as the government can impose sanctions on bloggers and Internet-based writers, simply by declaring they are not part of the protected media.

Photo credit: Tourettte (Flickr)

Four Online Predictions for 2012

Okay, I’m going to jump on the trends bandwagon and offer yet another online predictions blog post where I polish my crystal ball and predict the future of social media. I think I have a decent track record going for me. In 2010, I predicted that Android sales were going to outpace iPhones, and I was only six months late on that (it finally happened earlier this year). Of course, I also said SMS would become obsolete, and that ain’t happening any time soon, so I’m batting .500.

Emboldened by my previous success — and with a promise to Allison Carter (@allisonlcarter) that this list will not mention mobile or geo-location networks — here are my four predictions for 2012.Crystal ball

1. An even bigger focus on quality of written content.

Thanks to Google Panda, the traditional SEO techniques of on-site optimization and backlinking is not as effective or important as it once was. Now, Panda measures things like bounce rate and time on site. In other words, if your site sucks, your rankings will drop. If your site is good, your rankings will rise.

Want to improve your rankings? Improve the quality of your content, especially your writing. The better your writing is, the longer people will stick around.

We’ll see a bigger push for web designers and bloggers to have better writing, not just a bunch of schlocky writing. So for anyone who has been in the quantity-over-quality camp of blog writing, you’re going to have a tough time of it in 2012.

2. Disruption will be the watchword, and the way to make money.

We’re already seeing how social media, broadband, and mobile phones are disrupting some middle men businesses. People are canceling their cable and satellite TV, and instead watching videos on Netflix and Hulu. We’re getting local news from local bloggers, or national news from each other, instead of TV news and newspapers. I even quit listening to local commercial radio, choosing instead to listen to an awesome public radio station out of Louisville, KY. Traditional media has been disrupted, but that’s not all.

We’ll continue to see more middle men being disrupted by fast phones and social media — look for advertising and PR agencies, publishers, banks, and credit card companies to take a big hit as people figure out how to circumvent these gatekeepers. Look for other people who figure it out to make a buttload of money being the disruptions, or taking advantage of the new disruptions.

(Case in point, Dwolla, which only charges $.25 per transaction for anything over $10 (under $10 is free), and is currently on course to move about $350 million per year.)

3. Citizen journalism will continue to grow and become more important.

Newspapers have taken a big hit in the last 10 years, thanks to online media — a disruption that’s been years in the making — but people still want local news. The newspapers that will survive and thrive will be the dailies in smaller cities, and the weeklies in small towns. In the big cities, we’ll see more citizen journalism as people report on their local stories. More Twitpics, more cell phone videos, more stories that are pieced together through people acting like their own journalists.

I would love to see some news-minded entrepreneur figure out a way to gather all of this content and monetize it. While that may not happen in 2012, look for online-only newspapers like The American Reporter to pick up the slack of the big city papers, and local news outlets like Patch to become more widespread and easier to use.

We’re going to see more news, commentary, sports, etc. covered up by real people, not professional journalists. I also think we’ll see smaller print newspapers get smarter about their online efforts, and even TV stations to continue to embrace the web. Could we also see someone start an Internet-only TV news style of website?

4. Teenagers will begin to leave Facebook in droves.

Their moms and dads are on Facebook. Their grandparents are on Facebook. The whole point behind Facebook was it was a place to go where you could be cool. And as everyone knows, it’s impossible to be cool when your parents are around. They’re moving to other networks where their parents are not. Even Ben Bajarin (@benbajarin) of Time Magazine is questioning whether it’s the beginning of the end for Facebook. (Hint: No, not yet. But don’t be surprised if it happens one day far off into the future.)

Where they’re all going is still unknown. MySpace is still popular among teenagers. YouTube is actually the second biggest network among teenagers (Facebook is still first). And the gaming console networks are seeing a big uptick. But when all the stats are showing that 1 in 5 teenagers are leaving Facebook, it’s time for marketers to stop with this “social media is for young people” nonsense and recognize that the parents and grandparents are embracing it more easily now.

Photo credit: JasonLangheine (Flickr)

Is Blogging Killing Newspapers, or are Newspapers Helping Blogs?

Blogging isn’t hurting newspapers. Newspapers are helping blogs grow.

Many months ago, someone named Stephen* presented me with an interest question to my statement about whether blogging was killing newspapers. He said that maybe it wasn’t that blogging was killing newspapers, but rather it was the decline of the quality of newspapers that have lead to an increase in blogging.

The front page of the Indianapolis Star announcing Barack Obama's election

The Indianapolis Star from November 5, 2008

Over the past several years, I’ve seen how Gannett (owners of USA Today) have decimated the local reporting staff at the Indianapolis Star. They get rid of people who know how to report and write (and yes, there’s a difference). They get rid of well-known writers that bring regular readers to the paper in favor of a couple of recent college grads who — together — make up 75% of the salary of the original writer. They have bombed out the newsroom, eliminated business writers, booted popular columnists, and slashed the different culture and dining critics. To add insult to injury, the design work for the Indianapolis Star will soon be moved to Louisville. All we’re left with is a sterilized husk of what was once an awesome newspaper.

The Indianapolis Star, when it was run by the Pulliam family, actually won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, for its outstanding reporting in exposing police corruption in 1974. (The Indianapolis Star, when it has been run by Gannett has, well, not.) I’ve been reading the book by Dick Cady, one of the reporters who helped break the police corruption story wide open, and I sometimes wonder if I’m reading about the same newspaper.

I’m reading a newspaper that wasn’t afraid to go up against local law enforcement for the sake of truth, justice, and the American way. Meanwhile, I’m left with a newspaper whose median years of newsroom experience is slowly drifting toward the single digits.

And yet Gannett can’t figure out why newspaper ad revenue is dropping like a rock. I’ll tell you why: no one wants to read the Indianapolis edition of USA Today. But that’s what we’ll be left with in less than five years (some former Indy Star readers and employees think five years is overly optimistic).

Blogging is not to blame for this. Blogging has not harmed the Indianapolis Star. Blogging did not make Gannett fire people like columnists Ruth Holladay or Lori Borgman, or business writers like John Ketzenberger. Blogging did not kill what was actually a profit-making online venture by replacing the editor with someone much younger.

Instead, blogging is picking up the pieces that Gannett and other big-city newspapers are dropping whenever they gut their newsrooms yet again.

There’s a great blog on the southeast side of Indianapolis called (what else?) Southeast Indianapolis Communities. It’s a simple little blog that has nothing but news for the southeast side of town. They’re covering the news and events that the Indy Star won’t and can’t cover. They’re doing the kind of reporting that the Star doesn’t have the staff, time, or even city knowledge to adequately write about.

Basically, Southeast Indianapolis Communities is filling the gap left by Gannett’s mishandling of the Indianapolis Star, and they’re doing a great job. In this case, SIC hasn’t hurt the Star. Rather, the growing crappiness of the Star is helping the SIC.

What about your newspaper in your city? Is your newspaper holding on, or are you seeing the same decimation and ruin that we’re seeing in Indianapolis? Tell us about your city’s newspaper and if you’re seeing any local blogs picking up the slack. (And tell us about those too.)

My book, Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), is available for pre-order on Amazon.com. I wrote it with my good friend, Kyle Lacy, who I also helped write Twitter Marketing For Dummies (another affiliate link).

Stephen, I can’t find the post where you commented with this great insight. If you’re out there, let me know who you are, so I can at least link to a Twitter page or your blog, or something.

Photo credit: afagen (Flickr)