Thursday, March 31, 2005

News Journo Payola Threatens Press Integrity

Americans' personal privacies and freedoms are increasingly under siege, what with redefinitions making the news daily. And with freedom of the press tantamount to the existence of a true democracy, it's disheartening to learn when a professional journalist has been remunerated by the government. It calls into question the integrity of news organizations and their reporters and their obligations to the public.

The March 29 issue of the New York Times (via MediaBistro's Daily Media News Feed) reveals yet another journalist who purportedly burns the candle at both ends. Veteran TV reporter Mike Vasilinda makes a living selling his opinion and reporting acumen to well-known media outlets like NBC affiliates and CNN. At the same time, his work supports the PR initiatives of "Gov. Jeb Bush's office, the secretary of state, the Department of Education and other government entities that are routinely part of Mr. Vasilinda's news reports."

Here's the beef, for those of you scratching your heads.

A news reporter wears an implied hat of objectivity, helping the Average Joe decide whom to believe and why. A news reporter is a sentinel of public trust, in a way that trumpets and holds dear the American way of life. When a news reporter is compensated by government or a political party, he becomes a double agent, with questionable ties, faulty newsgathering practices, and a predilection to provide disinformation and manipulate public opinion.

But before we condemn Vasilinda for capitalizing on capitalism, let's examine the reality of the beast that is freelance writing. Freelancers must always find new ways to market and sell their services daily, having no regular paycheck on which to rely. When publications have no work to outsource, freelancers must pursue other avenues of income or starve. Yeah, starve. That's a real possibility, unless freelancing is just a past time. But I'm getting sidetracked here, which is why this is a blog entry and not a commissioned article.

Wait a minute. The beauty of blogs is that the writer's biases are...or should be...transparent. I will disclose that I am a freelance writer. There. I've said it. I'm standing before you flashing a knee figuratively. I will be totally naked by the time you finish today's entry. Sorry, it's not a pretty sight.

I have been writing professionally since the early 80s. I have been a trade magazine writer, ad industry news beat reporter, newspaper columnist and syndicated public radio talk show host and writer. In fact, I honed my writing skills on the marketing communications side originally, writing brochures and news releases, ghostwriting technical articles and executive presentations, and handling media relations on behalf of technology-based companies and PR agencies. This means I came to reporting with marcom street smarts, rather than J-School book smarts. Now you can judge my comments within that context.

While working PR on the company side, I had to educate a seasoned vice president who wasn't too pleased with coverage we received in a recent tabloid issue. As an advertiser, he expected better treatment. He directed me to call the journalist and threaten to pull our ads if the reporting didn't "improve." I tried to explain the concept of "church and state." He wasn't interested. I told him I wouldn't call the editor, but would be glad to provide his telephone number. That ticked off the VP who said I couldn't have ethics and be in marketing.

While freelancing, there were times I had a chance to create marketing materials on behalf of a corporation. I also knew I might report on a business and later wish to pursue paid projects with them. Hey, who wants to close doors, burn bridges, blah blah blah (insert other trite phrase here)? It occurred to me my trustworthiness as a blossoming journalist could be called into question. I remember asking my newspaper editor for a judgment call and following his advice. When I landed a news beat at a marketing weekly, I was asked to stop doing business with companies that fell into my realm. I agreed and gave these clients a sad but definitive farewell. When in doubt, I endeavored to err on the side of virtue and was occasionally mocked by marketing colleagues for being so hung up.

Have I always been above board in my journalistic dealings? 'fraid not. During my syndicated public radio reign, I interviewed executives of the show's sponsors. I was contractually obligated to the production company plus I wanted to keep my show on the air. I begrudgingly agreed to these guests. Yep, I sold my soul for radio fame. Not too impressive, eh? In my favor, I argued with the producers during editing to maintain some sense of content integrity. But the situation would be far less palatable than I had imagined. Sponsor interviews were often thinly veiled sales pitches by executives who knew better and couldn't care less. They exploited their position and the producers were more than willing to accommodate. I cringed during tapings while attempting to prod these carnival barkers into providing actionable information. Sometimes I wasn't too successful. My only saving grace was that listeners could hear the sponsor's message during commercial breaks and judge for themselves.

[snip - long rambling self-indulgent comments deleted]

But wait! Maybe I am being too hard on myself.

Was I an employee or contractor for any company while writing about it as a news reporter? No. More to the point (and the news of the day)...had I ever been paid by a government agency to handle its PR projects while simultaneously interpreting its news as a reporter? No. Did American citizens rely on me to interpret the news of the day impartially so they could decide how to vote? No. Therein lies the difference.

Do I hold ties to anyone I've cited in my body of work? Now you've got me. My brother is the owner of multiple shoe stores and a former domain owner of shoes.com, a fact widely reported in such publications as the Washington Post. I've mentioned his business ventures a few times and could write and speak somewhat intelligently about them. And there's not much I can hide from anyone willing to Google my name, either. I'm not very good at covering my tracks and lack of decorum, as evidenced by my naivete in posting to Usenet newsgroups once upon a time.

That's why I'm stumped by recent "discoveries" of reporters found moonlighting. If anyone had any misgivings, all it would have taken was a quick check in publicly accessible places, like search engines, newswire archives or periodical indices. As journalists kidney-punch fellow journalists for hiding true intentions, I raise an eyebrow and say "huh?" Why didn't the attackers do their investigative homework sooner and stop masqueraders in their tracks? What did White House press corps journos do when Jeff Gannon (a.k.a. James Guckert) first showed up nearly two years ago? Nothing useful, apparently. So were they waiting for mob mentality to set in or were they just asleep at the wheel?

Meanwhile, some folks act like there is a vast right-wing conspiracy to hide the truth about journalism in America, which is why we're hearing about all these indiscretions now. Maybe there is and maybe there isn't a conspiracy. I can't really say. Ahem. I'd better disclose that I'm a Democrat and leave it at that.

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Thursday, March 24, 2005

Slow-Loading Sites Suck Eggs on Purpose

Before you know it, it'll be Easter (Sunday, March 27, 2005) and then Passover (Saturday, April 23, 2005 at sundown). So I was just thinking about eggs, which led me to thoughts about sites that happen to suck them...big time.

Is it just me or is everyone else annoyed at those deliberately slow-loading Web sites? Apparently, they're designed to make sure you notice and read the top banner ad while you wait (endlessly) for content to load. I'm sure some e-marketing wizard thought this was an exceptional idea, and I agree. It's exceptionally bad.

But I get it. Everyone is questioning online advertising expenditures, more than ever before. A Webmaster or ad network rep wants to show advertisers that impressions are really impressions. But this dumbass delay tactic alienates folks while they ponder what the !&^$#*^ is wrong with your coding, server or worse, your entire organization.

Nothing like holding a site visitor hostage...or not, while they give up and browse to your competitor. Geez.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Celebrity Blogs A Mixed Bag of Styles

Having been knee-deep in the blogosphere lately, I started trolling various blog directories to see what celebs are up to these days. Today, I found a compilation of celebrity blogs. My first few clickthroughs were disappointing. Some linked "blogs" were more Web sites than diaries or journals. But there were a few gems.

Rosie O'Donnell has her own blog, on this host. Titled formerlyROSIE, the former talk show host's blog includes poems and personal observations. The site is littered with rude comments posted by intolerant oafs who have nothing better to do than contribute obscene graffiti to an otherwise thoughtful journal. Barely fazed by the negative feedback, Rosie doesn't appear to delete much in the way of reader rudities. Good for her. She's a better editor than me, in this regard.

Having just sprung from the pen (er...jail), Martha Stewart should be poised to pen (er...write) a blog entry or two. I cruised over to MarthaTalks, a site that hasn't seen new prose since, well, maybe last Christmas. For some reason, I couldn't read much of her Open Letter with any objectivity, having felt she was dripping with insincerity. The word "beseech" stuck out like a sore thumb, which I guess, is "a good thing." I'd like to think Martha's jail sentence was the result of a national witch hunt, since more nefarious celebs haven't seen the inside of a cell yet. Since I tuned out the details of Martha's trial and incarceration long ago, it doesn't really matter. So goes the average American's attention span. Sue me. At least I admit my lack of education on this topic.

Actor Jeff Bridges creates a handwritten blog-of-sorts, presumably with the help of a tablet PC or maybe a scanner...who knows? The drawings are cool, but there's not much meat, so we don't get to know his thought process much. Still, it's fun to browse, so check it out. Jeff hasn't added anything new since January 2005, but that's okay. You're allowed, Starman. I'd hate to think you were glued to the computer anyway, like so many of us. And it's pretty clear you'd not fully in charge of technical creation, what with Nicky Hulme as your site administrator.

Melanie Griffith blogged about her hubby and her children.
Antonio finished Zorro in December so he has been a homebody for 3 months now. We all love it when he is home as he works so much.
For some reason, I felt like I was peeking into someone's boudoir, especially since Mel revealed where Dakota attends school. Not something I'd like to publicize on the Weird Wide Web, being a mother myself. Gee, I can't imagine why Melanie told this private info to the world. What was she thinking...or not? Apparently, she's not as careful as I am about creepy people. Being in the public eye must make one either invulnerable or incredibly stupid. Having once been a follower of all things Don Johnson, I kept reading. But I didn't avert my eyes in time. As my daughter would say, "TMI! TMI! TMI!" (Too Much Information). No, I didn't want to know about her recent toe surgery. Ewwwww.

William Shatner offers the Trekkie true blog content, with insightful stuff we all salivate over. His quips as Denny Crane on "Boston Legal" has me often ROFL (rolling on the floor laughing). His blog entry about portraying someone like Denny was delightful, adding to my enjoyment as a viewer.

All in all, celebrity blogs are a mixed bag. Some pretty bad. Some mediocre. Some worth visiting again and again. Find your favorite. Blogroll it. Make it a fan obsession.

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Citizen Media Goes Mainstream...Aw, Nuts!

With the advent of blogging, the age-old term "Town Crier" took on new meaning. But believe it or not, the news media can't leave well enough alone. Rather than accept the trend of ordinary citizens sharing news and information without permission from the gatekeepers of public opinion, traditional media outlets have launched their own citizen's media initiatives. In a March 22 article in Online Journalism Review, writer Mark Glaser cites a new editorial position emerging in the news room, that of "citizen media editor."

...a role that's only now coming into focus at various sites such as MSNBC.com, VenturaCountyStar.com, NorthwestVoice.com and News-Record.com.
-- Online Journalism Review
What better way for the ONN (Old News Network) to once again govern its realm? Invite folks to share their stories in a bigger way, a way that overwhelms any online promotional efforts the average blogger can afford. What an enticement!

Why Buy the Cow When the Milk Is Free?
What's wrong with this picture? No one knows for sure, because editorial processes are still in their infancy. But we can all guess how this will probably play out. The news outlet lays claim to any intellectual property posted on its site, so forget about reprinting what you think is yours. The news outlet decides whether this content is worth archiving, so forget about being able to point to it years from now. The news outlet doesn't pay the blogger, but keeps all the associated revenue from Web site advertising and/or archive sales. The news outlet has final say on what is published and what isn't, often at the expense of your freedom of speech. And so on, and so on, and so on.

Not that we all wouldn't mind getting visibility among the journalism elite, but at what price? Excited about the possibility of becoming a citizen journalist for your local newspaper? If you do decide this can work for you, try not to be a media whore. Read the fine print. Be realistic about what you can and hope to accomplish. Then decide if controlling your own editorial destiny far outweighs the 15 minutes of fame you'll get by giving it away to an entity that clearly doesn't deserve it.

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Thursday, March 03, 2005

Interim Graphics for Small Budgets

If you need quick-fix graphics for use as temporary placeholders on your Web site or blog, check out these easy-to-use tools.

CoolText - online graphics generator - Render a Logo, Render a Button.

Flaming Text Logo Generator - create cool, custom images

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