Times’ Paterson story was a hatchet job

February 20, 2010

On Tuesday, the New York Times skewered David W. Johnson, a top aide to New York Gov. David Paterson, in a news report that brought to light Johnson’s run-ins with the law as a teenager, questions about his qualifications to serve as a campaign advisor, and domestic violence allegations.

To be fair, it would concern me to learn that my state’s governor surrounds himself with drug dealers who beat women. But that’s not what’s in this story. What we learn instead is that Johnson had two run-ins with the law for selling drugs when he was a teenager — about 20 years ago. And the domestic violence accusations? The most serious one in the article is made by an ex-girlfriend who said Johnson punched her in the face in 2001. She didn’t file a complaint with the police, he denies it, and though she claims to have filed complaints with the police before, she refused to share the information with the Times.

A good newspaper editor would never have printed these things.

First, Johnson served his time for the drug sales. Not only that, but he went to college, studied criminal justice and turned his life around. He took a job as an intern in Paterson’s office (Paterson was a state senator at the time), later became Paterson’s driver, and continued to work his way through the ranks. It’s a “troubled youth makes good” story if I ever heard one. But you know what? The reporting of the drug arrests themselves is disturbing. Because Johnson was a youthful offender, he has no official criminal record. None. In the eyes of the law, he’s squeaky clean. So how does the Times know about the arrests at all? We’ll come back to that.

Domestic violence is an important issue. It warrants as much attention as we can give it. And there are few things as serious as allegations of child or spousal abuse. But the New York Times is clearly trying to demonstrate a pattern in Johnson’s behavior that is entirely unsupported by the facts. Witnesses saw him and a girlfriend yelling at each other once. A woman says he punched her, but he denies it, witnesses deny it and though she claims to have proof, she refuses to provide it. I’m not saying it didn’t happen; I’m saying as a newspaper editor, I wouldn’t print allegations without proof, and the Times did just that.

The big questions are: Why did the Times print this article? and Where did it get this information?

The answer lies in the rest of the story, where you find Johnson’s qualifications to serve as top confidante and campaign strategist to Paterson come into question by top Democrats. Kinda makes sense now, doesn’t it? These are “top Democrats” who feel like their very status as “top Democrats” should automatically “qualify” them to be closer to Paterson. They should get his ear more often…after all, they’ve been in politics awhile, probably went to fancy colleges and never never worked as drivers

Oh, and these top Democrats bringing up all these questions? They’re unnamed. They’re other Paterson aides, clearly jealous of Johnson’s standing. And, most likely, they’ve been the Times’ most consistent backroom sources for Paterson news.

So, the Times reports the story the way the sources want it done. That makes the sources happy, and the sources will keep giving the Times more stories. And, if the story works and Paterson has to distance himself from Johnson, it leaves a big void that needs to be filled — hopefully by one of the jealous aides who fed the story to the Times in the first place. Unfortunately for the jealous aides, Paterson is standing by his man; after all, he clearly can’t count on the rest of his staff either, right?

We’ve been told to we can’t trust the intentions of bloggers. They all have angles. But this story illustrates in vivid color that even the Old Gray Lady hides its intentions, runs hatchet jobs to please sources, and has no trouble at all printing a half-baked scandal story worthy of Perez Hilton.

We deserve better.


Dear newspapers: You’re doing it all wrong

November 28, 2009

My local newspaper (or, more correctly, the website associated with the local newspaper) recently put out a call for reader input. How, the bloggers asked, can we make the newspaper better? How can we bring you back? How are we doing?

You can see the suggestions here (hint: though the article was posted a month and a half ago, there’s not a single response).

I like to help and I do still hold a place for newspapers in my heart. So here are my suggestions and observations:

1. Stop asking me how to run your newspaper.
I’m a reader. I’m not I’m paid to run your newspaper; you are.

These pleas for public comment have been going out for years, especially as newspapers began to see their readership numbers decline. In my years in newspapering I was guilty of making similar overtures. The idea, of course, is that it makes the paper look like it cares what readers think — that it allows readers a greater stake in the newspaper. It doesn’t.

Instead, it makes newspapers look pathetic and lost. It makes them look rudderless and incapable of solid decision-making. You are supposed to be an organization of trained journalists. Don’t whine and beg readers to make your decisions for you. If you do, you undermine your authority, and your readers’ trust in you.

Speaking of undermining your authority…

2. Stop dumbing down your design.
There’s a reason everyone wears jackets and ties on TV news: Authority.

If new anchors wore T-shirts and jeans, you wouldn’t look up to them, would you? So why have all our newspapers gone from the stately, authoritative nameplates and designs to T-shirt and jeans equivalents? When I started in the newspaper business, the big metro daily’s flag screamed authority, in stately capital letters that demanded respect. The last two redesigns have reduced that nameplate, first to a friendlier font with lower-case letters and now, well, it’s become just initials, tucked away into the top left-hand corner.

Beyond that, the paper has moved to more digest items, fewer long-form stories, bigger photos, and all the little things readers have said they wanted for years. Guess what? It ain’t working.

3. Stop trying to prove you’re cool.
I’m glad you’re on Twitter. For me, the easiest, fastest way to catch up on the news of the day is to follow news outlets I trust, grab their headlines in my Twitter feed, and hit up the stories I’m interested in. So that’s working for you.

What doesn’t work are the news stories about Twitter, the constant references to your Twitter feeds in the newspaper, quoting Twitter feeds in the newspaper. It wastes valuable newsprint and it alienates readers who aren’t on Twitter — and that’s the majority of your readers. In fact, it’s more than 80 percent of your readers.

Speaking of Twitter…

4. Stop cluttering your Twitter feed with stories you didn’t write.
I don’t follow you for world and national news.

The Associated Press is a great resource for newspapers, if used properly. A good newspaper will include bits of world and national news of importance, and local writers and papers are just not equipped to cover that stuff. But national stories do not belong on local news websites unless they’ve been localized. I get my national news from sources with the resources to cover those stories. I follow them on Twitter, or I visit them daily. Including such stories on your websites and feeding them to Twitter waters down your strength, which should be covering local news.

The same really should go for the newspaper as well. More care needs to be put into what wire stories are chosen for the print editions, and in every possible case, those wire stories should be localized. If there’s not a local angle, why put it in the local paper?

I am a fan of newspapers. I spend every Saturday and Sunday morning with mine. And every weekend, I struggle with whether I will continue my subscription. As the quality of local coverage drops, the paper’s usefulness declines as well.

Unfortunately, nearly everything they’ve done to bring readers back drives readers the other way.

So maybe they really do need help.

Cuz it’s almost too late.


Managing your online identity (Or: Why I unfollowed you)

August 26, 2009

“Authenticity” is a huge buzzword these days, mostly amongst the so-called social media evangelists, who promise to help companies manage their brand identities on Twitter and Facebook. If you’re lucky, you may even get the chance to see one of these evangelists speak, and they’ll tell you how important social media is in building your brand.

First, I want to dispense quickly with that claim: You don’t need social media to build your brand. And before any company throws its eggs into that basket, it must consider that nearly every dominant brand in the world was built before today’s social media was conceived.  Twitter and Facebook can be tools to communicate and converse with the public. Sure, they can help your brand. But you don’t need to pay a social media expert to teach you how to do it or, God forbid, to do it for you.

I don’t use Twitter to talk about what I had for lunch. Nor am I necessarily trying to build a brand. Primarily, I use Twitter as a news feed, and though I follow acquaintances, I most often follow news organizations and thought leaders, so I can get headlines and ideas. I can keep up with trends and innovations. My own Twitter posts are often retweets of things I find interesting, links to things I’ve stumbled on, and the occasional reply to something interesting I’ve read.

Do you know what that is? Authenticity.

Let’s get one thing straight: Authenticity isn’t pretending to be the real thing; it is the real thing. So when the social media moguls tell you how to be authentic or how to create an authentic voice for your brand, understand from the get-go that the very act of trying to be authentic ruins authenticity.  No question about that at all.

Is authenticity a good thing? Let me give you a couple of examples, because the answer isn’t all that simple.

This week I stopped following two of the most annoying Twitterers I’ve ever willingly followed: Jennifer Bull and Lisa Barone. Bull started following me, so I checked out her stream. She seemed to have some interesting posts, so I followed back. In the ensuing days,  I noticed my home page filling up with Bull’s posts. I clicked through a few of them, and found they all went to her blog. And several times, she posted links to the same blog post, using different words to draw attention. And several times a day she’d send out links to old posts on her blog. Clearly, Jennifer Bull is not providing an authentic experience. She’s merely stuffing Twitter with self-promotion. Sorry. You’re unfollowed.

I don’t remember how I found Lisa Barone. But she bills herself as “Co-Founder (sic) and Chief Branding Officer (sic) of Outspoken Media, Inc. Lisa has been involved in the SEO community since 2006 and is widely known for her honest industry observations, her inability to not say exactly what she’s thinking, and her excessive on-the-clock Twittering…”

She comes from nearby Troy, NY, so I thought maybe she knew what she was talking about. Turns out, what I found was a stream of curse words and inappropriate, juvenile commentary. Like these gems:

“.@sugarrae and I are about to cut a bitch. Srsly. Fucking overprotective mothers. Bet she mommyblogs too. #ireland

and

“Dear liver, I am so incredibly sorry. I promise, nothing but water once I return. Assuming, we’re still alive. Love, Lisa #ireland

This is a business person? Someone who claims she “saves brands?” From her Twitter feed, I wonder what exactly I’m supposed to think about her brand. Perhaps that she’s drunken, prone to violence, condescending and intolerant of “mommybloggers?”

Clearly, Lisa Barone is an example of taking authenticity too far. If there’s an upside to what she posts, it’s this: I will never hire her to do anything. Ever. If she can’t manage her own identity online, I will never trust her to manage mine.

So the straight answer is this: If you’re faking it on social media, people will know. Say what you think, but don’t forget that showing disrespect and offering too much information isn’t good for anyone. If your company wants to Twitter, be sure that the person tweeting for you is responsible, cordial, respectful and stays on message. It’s nice to give shoutouts to those who mention your brand. It’s even better when there’s a personality behind the whole endeavor (see @comcastbonnie), but if the person doing the tweeting is abrasive, unpleasant and unprofessional, the last thing in the world you want is “authenticity.”

UPDATE: I love when people say I’m wrong, and then prove me so very right. Lisa Barone was kind and measured enough to respond to my post below, and I truly appreciate that. Her business partner, Rae Hoffman, on the other hand, got a tad angry. From her Twitter feed:

@LisaBarone fuck em… and he’s wrong – it’s not that he’d never hire US. It’s that WE would never work with HIM

@sugarrae He has every right to hold that opinion. I just don’t agree. Hopefully he’ll approve my comment.

@LisaBarone oh, he does… and I have every right to think he is a superficial douche because of it

@sugarrae you’re such a bully. :p

@LisaBarone I’m not a bully babe, I’m a realist and I just don’t give a fuck… he can chase <shiny object> the pretty flags

The thing I absolutely love about Rae’s posts is not the juvenile tough-guy act, but the assertion that her company wouldn’t work with me, if I were willing to pay. The fact is that I stated quite clearly above that they will never get a chance to turn down my business because I won’t offer it to them.

I want to be absolutely fair to Lisa Barone here: The above posts were between Rae to Lisa in Twitter conversation. Lisa’s responses were quite tame and measured. She truly handled my criticism the way a professional would. I can only thank Rae for her “authenticity.”

My point stands.


Found money and hypocrisy.

August 7, 2009

Back in May, we had a miracle in Syracuse. In a fairly distitute section of town, business owners and passersby found money in the street. Lots of it. Police say about $328,000 stuffed into 14 plastic bags littered Wolf and North Salina streets.

Folks who worked in the shops, store patrons and others found the money — which they learned spilled from an armored truck with a broken door — and all had an important decision to make. What would you do with that money?

Most of them gathered it up and called the police. It was returned to the Brinks operation on Lodi Street, where it was headed. All except for the 10 grand Peter Eppolito picked up and brought home with him.

Eppolito didn’t go out partying. He paid some bills. He gave $1,000 to a friend who needed it. He bought himself a decent pair of sneakers. And then he was arrested.

Eppolito is charged with grand larceny because, police say, the money he picked up off the street didn’t belong to him. Now he’s lost his job, and has borrowed to pay back what he found.

And let’s make that distinction now: Despite what the police say, Eppolito didn’t steal the money. He found it in the street. He didn’t hold up the armored car. He didn’t plot or plan a heist. He found money. He took it home.

If that’s the law, so be it. If the state believes it’s our responsibility to find the “owner” every time we find a dollar, a quarter or a penny on the sidewalk, who am I to argue? But let’s face it, none of us do that. And there’s not a cop in this great state who’d slap cuffs on you for pocketing a five you found on a park bench. Or a ten you found in a pair of jeans you bought at the thrift store. Or the $50 stuffed inside a figurine you bought at a yard sale.  And what about the philanthropists who specifically leave $100 bills in the streets or public bathrooms in the hopes they’ll go to someone who needs them?

What’s disgusting about this case is the fact that the state can’t seem to make its mind up. Last night I saw a television commercial for the New York Lottery, in which money was left around on the streets, and hidden cameras filmed the lengths folks go to to climb through fountains or scale walls to grab a $10 bill. Even worse, they rigged an ATM machine to spew out bills, and filmed people scrambling to pick up the money. Aren’t all of those people criminals?

On one hand we have a state that has already taken a man’s livelihood and is threatening to take his freedom. On the other, the same state uses a very similar set of circumstances to actively promote its lottery system — the happy coincidence of found money…

And isn’t that really what happened to Peter Eppolito? Didn’t he finally have the little miracle each of us hopes for just once in our lives?

The only people to blame for the “lost” money are the Brinks employees who didn’t make sure the door to the truck was closed. Their jobs should be on the line because they are clearly not capable of handling the delicate and important job of transferring money. Eppolito should be allowed to keep the money. And the state should apologize for being hypocrites.

But you know what? That ain’t gonna happen.


R.I.P., press releases? Not quite.

August 3, 2009

Yesterday, Jeff Jarvis used Twitter to declare the death of the press release. To quote Mr. Jarvis: “How can I tell flacks that I don’t open ANY of their press releases. The press release is dead, folks.”

In subsequent posts, Jarvis says “I love PR people asking what replaces the press release as if it is a needed element in the universe” and “PR is meaningless. Customer service is the real PR.”

All of this goes to show, once again, how deeply engaged Jarvis is in the workings of his own mind, and how out of tune he is with the way the world actually works. I don’t disagree with Jarvis that customer service is PR. But there’s a whole lot more to the story.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I’ve worked on both sides of Jarvis’s argument. I’m a former journalist and I now work in public relations, as a consultant and designer.

First of all, public relations is not meaningless. In fact, PR can and should be customer service on a grand scale. The challenge is to do it respectfully and effectively. In my consulting work, the challenge is always to help clients find their unique story–the one worth telling the world about. Despite what Jeff thinks, good customer service is not enough. Consider:

In college, I worked for a new restaurant, owned by a very nice, smart couple. Their plan was to offer a dining experience that would rival the chain eateries on the same strip. The food was remarkable. The service was excellent…these two had 40 years of restaurant experience between them, and challenged the wait staff to exceed expectations. If anyone had an issue with their meal, they’d get a personal visit from the owner, Tom, at their table. And Tom made sure everyone left happy. The food, the service, the atmosphere were all impeccable. And yet the restaurant was out of business in six months.

Why?

Public relations.

There was never really enough money to pour into a media blitz. A fairly small radio ad campaign kicked off the grand opening, but we couldn’t compete against TGI Friday’s, Olive Garden, Ruby Tuesday’s, or Red Lobsters for television spots. We had satisfied customers who returned week after week. But bringing in new customers proved too difficult and too expensive.

Had I known then what I know now (and had the owners known as well), we could have gotten a boost by contacting news departments as well as advertising departments. We could have asked to be reviewed in the local restaurant guide. And even the story of this experienced couple striking out on their own to start a business would have made good fodder for the business page. Would it have saved the restaurant? I don’t know. But it certainly wouldn’t have hurt.

All organizations need to learn how to effectively and efficiently reach out. And while Jarvis may be annoyed by the press releases he just throws out, many journalists can be grateful for well-written releases — those that are pitches for coverage of an event, a product or more — because a journalist shouldn’t have to dig to find every nugget you read in the paper.

An innovative software release? Shoot me an e-mail. New product launch? Absolutely! New hire? Definitely.

Sound lazy? It can be. But real journalists don’t do what Jarvis accuses them of — which is simply retyping the release (seriously, Jeff, that’s what copy and paste is for!). Real journalists use press releases as jumping-off points, and determine whether there’s a story to be written. Maybe there really is news in the press release. Maybe the release just leads a journalist to a bigger, better story.

Journalists should not have to dig to find positive news. And let’s face it: Bad news rarely comes in press releases. If you force journalists to dig for good news, you will never read any of it. Not ever. We aren’t wired that way. Journalists are programmed to dig for whatever it is you’re hiding. By sending us what they want us to know, companies give us more time to dig around into what they might not want reported.

And what of community announcements? Must a community journalist scour every church, hospital and funeral home to uncover the marriage announcements, birth announcements, obituaries? Should they send Freedom of Information requests to all colleges and universities to determine who graduated? All of these things are handled by press releases. And, I believe, these things are important to communities.

Jeff can declare press releases dead, but he’s got it the wrong way. To the PR world, Jeff Jarvis is worthless. He isn’t going to read your releases because he isn’t reporting on anything but his own thoughts.  His goal is not to inform but to opine.  And for him, it’s a lot easier to declare PR’s death, post about it on Twitter and grandstand about it than it is to just hit “delete.”

For more on this, see Bing’s blog, which includes a response from Jarvis.


This is why we can’t have nice things…

July 31, 2009

The Internet is going haywire over the case of Gary McKinnon, the autistic hacker the U.S. is trying to extradite from the U.K. to stand trial for snooping around in NASA and Department of Defense computers seven years ago.

The U.K. is especially in an uproar, with McKinnon supporters screaming that an autistic man shouldn’t serve 60 years in prison, or that McKinnon shouldn’t be tried in the U.S., but in the U.K. instead.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in reading about the McKinnon case, it’s how ignorant the rest of the world is about the United States. And make no mistake: They are ignorant. Appallingly so.

Let’s backtrack for just a moment:

McKinnon admits that he broke the law by hacking computers belonging to the Army, Navy, Air Force, Department of Defense and NASA between 1999 and 2002. He’s a UFO conspiracy theorist, who  took it upon himself to dig around in U.S. government computers in search of proof that the United States was hiding proof that UFOs exist (I’ve seen no report indicating he found such proof). While snooping, he left messages, warning he would continue to disrupt and accusing the government of being behind the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Needless to say, he was caught. And since then, the U.S. government has been trying to bring him across the pond to stand trial. And, in the intervening years, he’s managed to be diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism. The maximum sentence for his crime is 60 years in federal prison.

To get a flavor of how the Brits are looking at the case, check out Henry Porter’s blog in the Guardian. To save you time, I’ll excerpt:

“…over 55 British defendants have been forced to submit to the often crude and vindictive criminal justice system of the United States. Sixty years for a rather hopeless individual who believes in UFOs is obviously absurd, and British law should have the ability to ensure that a citizen is not exposed to harsher treatment in America, then Americans accused of the same crime would face here.”

Absurd, Henry?

Here’s what’s absurd: Acting as if the U.S. should treat McKinnon with kid gloves because he’s a Brit. That’s absurd. The U.S. has a “crude and vindictive criminal justice system?” Really? We have trials where the accused is innocent until proved guilty. We have a system where Mr. McKinnon will be given attorneys to represent him at trial, to make sure he’s fairly treated. We have juries who are charged with hearing both sides of the story before judging a defendant’s guilt. Sure, our system is not perfect. But it’s not crude.

In fact, if Porter — or the myriad Internet experts — had done a shred of homework, here’s what they’d learn:

1. Though the maximum term for the crime McKinnon is charged with is 60 years, there is little to no chance he’ll actually receive that sentence. The maximum is reserved for the very worst offenders. It’s entirely possible that McKinnon would serve no prison time whatsoever.

2. Judges weigh many different factors in determining sentences. In this case, McKinnon’s mental state, his behavior since he was arrested, his mental state at the time of the crimes and the actual damage caused can all be considered mitigating factors.

3. If in fact McKinnon is sentenced to federal prison, it will most likely not be in a maximum-security facility with violent criminals, but in a medium- to minimum-security facility where white-collar criminals generally serve. In America, we call these “country club” facilities. Considering his special needs, he would be closely monitored for his own safety.

If McKinnon was inwilling to suffer the consequences of breaking U.S. law, he should have taken care not to break U.S. law. He was completely aware of what he was doing. He carried on, and should therefore suffer the consequences, whatever they may be.

The larger issue here is ignorance. The fact that Brits continue to holler about this case as though Americans have no other goal than to capture, beat and imprison a pathetic autistic man does nothing less than illustrate the arrogance and elitism — unwarranted, mind you — of Europeans, who believe we are uncivilized (we spell that with a ‘z’ here, thank you) barbarians following Hamurabi’s code.

When all is said and done, this case will prove to be much ado about nothing. McKinnon will serve about 18 months in Club Fed. And then he’ll go home. And it will be over.

But Americans should take note of what Europeans think of us. And we need to ask ourselves whether we prefer to bend over backwards to prove ourselves to them, or stand up for ourselves and lead by example.

I, for one, choose the latter.


AP just doesn’t understand the Internet.

July 29, 2009

If the Associated Press wasn’t so important, I would laugh hysterically at the utter foolishness it’s been displaying. Unfortunately, we need the AP, despite the arguments to the contrary, which makes the organization’s complete lack of understanding the Internet quite terrifying.

AP claims the Internet is stealing the news. Of course Google is the big, bad bully in the equation, but even bloggers, AP says, are stealing journalists’ work, by posting headlines and links to the original stories. To counteract the thievery, AP says it will roll out DRM on the news, with some bizarre news registry idea that will use tracking beacons and other Big Brother technology to tell AP exactly how its news is being used.

Look, I understand the fear of the Internet. I come from a newspaper company that was terrified of spreading news online. But by the time I left, the online division I headed up was generating revenue, drawing readers, and building value. I never worried about whether Google was stealing my headlines. In fact, I wanted Google to index my headlines.

What AP doesn’t seem to understand is that Google drives traffic; it doesn’t steal traffic. Google has no content of its own; it merely directs users to the content you’ve got. AP should beg, borrow and steal to ensure its stories are linked up properly to drive readership. Instead, we get this.

The AP’s job is to bring together and disseminate the best, most important journalism. To do that, it must take advantage of all possible mediums. I argue that AP’s mission (and the mission of every journalist) should be to serve the public’s best interest — not its own. Any time you try to keep the news from the public, you are abdicating your responsibility to those you’re supposed to serve.

Not long ago, the AP contacted a member organization, demanding the paper remove an embedded AP video from its website. The paper, of course, was dumbfounded: The video came from the AP’s own YouTube account, and an embed code was provided.

I think that vignette shows everything you need to know about AP’s understanding of the Internet. You can’t report news and horde it. You can’t get attention and credit if we can’t link to it. And you can’t get paid if nobody cares anymore.