4 Minute Roundup: Michael Jackson’s Death Rocks Web; Guardian Crowdsources

Here's the latest 4MR audio report from MediaShift. In this week's edition, I look at the way Michael Jackson's death yesterday played out online, going from TMZ to Twitter to the LA Times blog. Yesterday was a record traffic day for Yahoo, and Google News reacted like it was under a hack attack from the huge jump in search queries for Michael Jackson. Also, the Guardian is doing a massive crowdsourcing project to look over hundreds of thousands of documents of expenses from members of parliament.

Check it out:

4MR podcast 6-26-09.mp3

Background music is "Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson.

Here are some links to related sites and stories mentioned in the podcast:

Outpouring of searches for the late Michael Jackson at Official Google blog

Losing Michael Jackson at Yahoo's Yodel Anecdotal blog

Michael Jackson Dies: Twitter Tributes Now 30% of Tweets at Mashable

Guardian Crowdsources Information about Parliament Members' Expenses at Poynter

Investigate your MP's expenses at the Guardian

MPs expenses -- what you've told us. So far at the Guardian

Four crowdsourcing lessons from the Guardian's (spectacular) expenses-scandal experiment at Nieman Journalism Lab

King of Twitter by Jeff Jarvis

Here's a graphical view of last week's MediaShift survey results. The question was "What websites do you trust most for news about Iran?"

survey grab for iran.jpg

Also, be sure to vote in our poll about when you really believed Michael Jackson died.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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How Will Iranian Protests Change Twitter?

There's been much ado about Twitter's role in the political protests in Iran, and for good reason. With the Iranian government expelling foreign journalists, outlets like CNN scrambled to uncover sources where they could. They found these sources among the din of unverifiable messages surfacing on Twitter. It's been fun reading mainstream media accounts of how Twitter is, in a sense, revolutionizing revolutions -- very "meta," no? If you aren't familiar with these recent events, MediaShift editor Mark Glaser has a very useful summary here.

But I've been more interested in the way this story has brought Twitter into the mainstream. That is, not Twitter's effect on the Iranian protests, but the protests' effect on Twitter.

Ok, I'll Join...and So Will the UN Secretary-General

I have a confession: I've made a good chunk of my living recently counseling clients on digital media strategies, yet I myself have abstained from jumping aboard the Twitter bandwagon until this past week. Sure, I've launched Twitter campaigns on behalf of clients and I do consider myself wise in the ways of microblogging best practices. But while I understood how organizations could use this channel to connect with certain audiences, I felt that, for personal correspondence, Twitter had a sort of a navel-gazing, quasi-exhibitionist feel about it. If something's worth sharing with a larger group, isn't it worth more than 140 characters? Besides, I was -- and continue to be -- a stickler for good grammar, so the idea of proudly publishing that SMS-style nouveau scrawl makes me nauseous.


My friend Laura Fitton (who authored the just-released Twitter for Dummies") has been hassling me for quite a while to sign up, but I've been stubborn. Nevertheless, the Western media's reliance on Twitter as a primary source -- along with the technology's power to enable dissent in an otherwise stifling environment -- has inspired me to climb aboard.

Twitter was scheduled to go offline for routine maintenance last week, but the U.S. State Department requested that the service keep the information flow from Iran uninterrupted. If the continuous operation of Twitter is deemed important to our national interest, perhaps there's something to this. Perhaps I should stop being so self-conscious about using such a self-conscious communications tool.

It's not just the State Department that's giving a nod to Twitter in the wake of the protests. The United Nations is adding its voice, too. I've been talking lately with my friend Jim Landale, a public information officer at the UN. Landale's been working on a multiplatform campaign to mark the 100 day countdown to the UN's International Day of Peace. The campaign, called WMD: We Must Disarm, is jettisoning traditional promotional tools in favor of social networks in an effort to reach a "socially active audience." (You can follow the campaign on Twitter here).

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who's shown a willingness to use digital media tools in the past, has even started tweeting. Landale, who was part of the team that encouraged Ban's use of Twitter, shared with me how the Iranian elections have impacted the UN's decision to use Twitter:

This is obviously the first time that a Secretary-General of the United Nations has 'tweeted' and the first time (that we know about) that one of our campaigns has used multiple online platforms at once...There was some skepticism initially within the UN Headquarters at the idea of using Twitter, Facebook and MySpace for such an important campaign, rather than the traditional set of promotional tools, but we managed to overcome this by demonstrating how the campaign would work online...In addition, although we planned the campaign well ahead of the recent elections in Iran, the role Twitter has played in the demonstrations has also probably helped persuade doubters within our own ranks that Twitter and other social networking sites can be an extremely powerful tool.

A Look Forward: Twitter and Limitations

Peggy Noonan, whose column is the sole reason I buy the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal, had a thoughtful take on new technology's role in the recent Iran protests. She notes that Twitter and YouTube may have become powerful expression tools for existing sentiment, but acknowledges that they don't, by themselves, create that sentiment. What will be most interesting, she suggests, is how Twitter will be used moving forward. Using the French Revolution as a proxy, she writes:

If they Twittered and live-blogged the French Revolution, it still would have been the French Revolution: 'this aft 3pm @ the bastille.' It all still would have happened, perhaps with marginally greater support...The interesting question is what technology would have done after the Revolution, during the Terror. What would word of the demonic violence, the tumbrels and non-stop guillotines unleashed circa 1790-95 have done to French support for the Revolution, and world support? Would Thomas Jefferson have been able to continue his blithe indifference if reports of France grimly murdering France had been Twittered out each day?


The answer, of course, is "no." And the point, of course, is that Twitter can enrich the newsgathering ability of the mainstream media by acting as an investigative tool, a harbinger of public sentiment , and/or a crowdsourcing device. But Twitter itself is not -- and should not be -- the story here (except for outlets like this that cover this beat). Instead, it's part of the storytelling apparatus. It's no longer a grand phenomenon, but is instead a mere fragment of the mainstream media's new configuration.

Journalists should use Twitter to better understand the Iranian rebellion, not use the Iranian rebellion to tout a "Twitter Revolution." By focusing too heavily -- and headily -- on a simple micro-blogging technology, the news media risk distracting themselves from the more macroscopic, geopolitical issues at play here. If the mainstream news media can't get over its impulse to hype their shiny new tool, they will be enfeebled by the same kind of navel-gazing I thought Twitter was all about...until now.

Mark Hannah has spent the past several years conducting sensitive public affairs campaigns for well-known multinational corporations, major industry organizations and influential non-profits. He specializes in issues and reputation management online. Before joining the PR agency world (v-Fluence Interactive and Edelman), Mark worked for the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign as a member of the national advance staff. He's more recently conducted advance work for the Obama-Biden campaign. He is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and a fellow at the Society for New Communications Research, and he serves as an awards judge for both organizations. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he's currently pursuing a master's in strategic communications at Columbia University. He is an independent communications consultant based in New York City and the public relations correspondent for MediaShift. You can reach him at markphannah[at]gmail[dot]com.

Iran protest photo collected but not taken by Misterarasmus via Flickr.

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Your Guide to Iran Election News Online

nico pitney huffpost.jpg

From time to time, I'll give an overview of one broad MediaShift topic, annotated with online resources and plenty of tips. The idea is to help you understand the topic, learn the jargon, and take action. I've already covered Twitter, citizen journalism, alternative models for newspapers and other topics. This week I'll look at Iran election news online.


After the presidential election in Iran on June 12, incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner by a large margin not long after the polls closed. Then came questions about whether the vote was rigged, and rival candidate Mir-Hussein Mousavi called for protests. The resulting chaos involved mass protests, violence and killings in the streets of Tehran and other cities in Iran, and calls for a new election. During it all, Iran's government arrested journalists, would not allow them to report on protests, and blocked Internet sites or slowed down Net access to make it unusable.

With reporters restricted on the ground, that left the main reporting on demonstrations and violence to the citizens of Iran, who spread stories, photos and video through blogs and social networks. That made services such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube crucial to following the story as it unfolded the past couple weeks. But it also made it difficult to verify the information on all those sources. Soon CNN was warning viewers that the material it was getting from social networks was not verified -- leading to a swipe from Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show":

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJason Jones in Iran

How This is Different

This was not the first conflict that included a repressive regime cutting off media coverage leading to citizens reporting online. In 2007, citizens and tourists played key roles in getting news out of Burma during protests by monks there. And the wider global blogosphere helped bring attention to jailed bloggers in Egypt, China and Iran in 2006, leading to their freedom. In late 2004, citizens helped capture the destruction of a massive tsunami in Southeast Asia when major media couldn't reach disaster zones.

But what was different this time was that more Westerners were connected through social networks than ever before. So when news started spreading through Twitter under the #IranElection hashtag, anyone on Twitter could follow reports as they came in minute by minute. Not only could they read what was going on but they could take action, re-tweeting accounts they trusted as true, and changing their photos green in solidarity with protesters.

The myth of this being a "Twitter revolution" was quickly debunked because so few people in Iran were using Twitter, and the authorities could easily go onto Twitter and subvert the memes being spread. But what made Twitter so powerful was its ability to get news out of the conflict zone to the wider world. And Twitter is extremely difficult for authorities to block because of its open API, meaning that people could continue to get news out by text-messaging or via apps such as Tweetie or Tweetdeck even if Twitter.com was being blocked by the government.

Plus, Iranians have long had to deal with the government blocking websites, so they know about getting around those blocks. And they have a flourishing blogosphere accustomed to organizing to help out jailed bloggers or to get information out when the state-run media is censored.

The Ecosystem of News

What's happening online is that the people formerly known as news consumers are now given access to all the raw material being captured by eyewitnesses. What is truth and what is fiction? Who is there and who is pretending to be there? Where and when was that video captured? How do I know that Twitter feed isn't from a government agent posing as a protester?

protest in iran photo.jpg

Soon the viewer starts to figure out that there are various levels of trust they can associate with what they find online. There are the raw unverified feeds found via Twitter hashtags and Flickr tags. Then there are users on those services that have been reporting for a number of days, and who have been quoted or verified by others as being legitimate. Then there are sites such as Global Voices Online that have editors who know which bloggers to trust. Then there's the cell phone video of Neda Soltan, a young Iranian woman who was shot in the street and died. That video started as raw and unverified and eventually was shared, passed around, and the story and context came out to the wider world.

Over time, we start to find places online where we can trust the content, where people have proved their value in sharing valuable pieces of information. And they're not just trained editors and journalists at news organizations, though those people also play a role in verifying information, when possible, and providing context. Here's a roundup of some of the best sources on the fallout of the Iranian election.

Live Blogs

Iran Live-Blogging at Huffington Post by Nico Pitney

Iranian Presidential Election coverage at the NY Times' The Lede blog

Iran Crisis Live in the Guardian

The Daily Dish by Andrew Sullivan


Citizentube Channel on YouTube

Where Is My Election videos from inside Iran

iReports on Iran Election

Videos from IranDoost09

Twitter Feeds

Iran Unrest on Twazzup

Super-filtered #IranElection info from Current TV's Robin Sloan

Breaking Tweets' Middle East





Facebook Pages


Protest to Iran Election

Democracy for Iran

Where Is My Vote?

Map Mashups

2009 Tehran Election Protests

Embassies Accepting Injured People in Tehran

Mapping the Protests in Iran at the BBC

Independent Websites

Iran Focus

Tehran 24 photos from Iran

Tehran Bureau

Wikipedia's 2009 Iranian election protests page

Wikipedia's Iranian presidential election 2009 page

Aggregated Information

Iran Election on Alltop

Iran Election 2009 at Global Voices Online

Iran Election Watch at FriendFeed

Iran page on Daylife

Iran Conflict and Tragedy News at Allvoices

Iran Election Crisis at FairSpin (via Stephen Hood)

Yahoo Full Coverage of Iran

Articles and Blog Posts

America's Iranian Twitter Revolution at Open Anthropology

Coverage of the Protests: Twitter 1, CNN 0 at the Economist

Iran, citizen media and media attention by Ethan Zuckerman

Iranians find ways to bypass Net censors at News.com

The Revolution, in real-time by Joe Trippi

Twitter Is a Player In Iran's Drama at Washington Post

Twitter, Social Networks Deliver News of Protests in Iran at Poynter

The Web vs. the Republic of Iran at Technology Review

This list is just a start. Please add any trusted sources you have found to follow the news in Iran in the comments, and I'll update my list with any glaring omissions.

Protest photos by Milad Avazbeigi via Flickr.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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The Time is Right for Direct-To-Fan Marketing of Music

As the music industry continues to evolve and search for a sustainable and profitable business model, the direct-to-fan (D2F) approach is making great advances, from artists just starting their career up to superstars with massive fan bases.

Artists marketing and selling directly to their audience is not necessarily a new or revolutionary concept -- one can find examples of artists offering their products to customers directly in every generation of music. For established artists, it is used as a way to inexpensively leverage all the awareness they have amassed. For evolving artists, it is often a necessity. Without a label and distributor, the usual options for new artists have been selling music at live shows, selling through fan clubs or sympathetic indie record stores -- or sometimes just selling out of the trunk of a car (which is how N.W.A. got started). But today, advances in technology have opened up exciting new avenues for direct-to-fan sales.

Successes in the D2F Market

Direct-to-fan sales and marketing have seen a significant spike in recent years thanks to a number of factors. First, technology has given artists at all levels the opportunity to sell and market to their fans in a clear, inexpensive, engaging fashion online. Second, many emerging artists see less value in signing to a label and instead choose to steer clear of entangling contractual obligations. Finally, established artists are choosing not to renew their label contracts at a record pace, realizing that the brand they have developed can be leveraged without a label. All of these situations benefit greatly from direct-to-fan initiatives.


The list of interesting applications of direct-to-fan marketing and sales seems to grow daily. As with anything innovative, a few core examples will always stand out. Most notable is Radiohead's 2007 offering of "In Rainbows" -- interesting both because of the name-your-own-price model and the absence of any middlemen upon initial release. What was revolutionary about this was that the band enabled both the transaction and digital download directly from their site at a price of the fan's choosing; the experiment brought the band a significant amount of publicity and awareness.

Many critics of Radiohead's approach felt it would not scale downwards, but that was proven wrong when the band Metric launched a successful D2F offering surrounding their April 2009 release "Fantasies." A combination of free content (in exchange for email addresses), streaming media widgets, and intelligent social networking strategy resulted in more gross revenue in a few weeks than in four years for their prior release. The band was in full control of their retail presence, and was able to offer heightened packages (at heightened profit margins) to dedicated fans. So as not to exclude fans that preferred a traditional retail experience, the release was also made available at iTunes.

Josh Freese, a studio drummer extraordinaire but not a household name, used the direct-to-fan approach to launch a campaign that completely re-wrote the rules of music marketing. His sales page included everything from a $7 digital download to massive packages in the thousands of dollars that included a level of personal interaction never before offered as a retail music item (e.g. foot rubs, drum lessons, and Josh's 1993 Volvo).

The unique packages generated massive amounts of press, which certainly helped, but the bigger point is that a $20,000 rock fantasy week that included mini-golf with Maynard James Keenan is not the type of offering that the traditional music industry is built around. Selling this type of experience directly to a hardcore fan created an opportunity where each side saw massive benefit.

Why Now?

The biggest hurdle most artists have faced in setting up a direct-to-fan marketplace has been distribution, followed closely by dealing with financial transactions and customer service issues. For many years retailers have been willing to help facilitate the process, a good example being Amazon.com's Advantage Program, where any artist can pay a $30 yearly fee as well as 55% of each product sold. Although this does enable artists with no distribution to sell via a massive online retailer and not be concerned with transactions and customer service, it comes at a major profit hit. Essentially, instead of a label, distributor, and a retailer, Amazon is the sole middleman existing between artist and consumer. Forty-five percent of a sale price is higher than most signed artists get, but far lower than the margin from selling directly.

Fortunately for artists at all levels, technology has allowed direct-to-fan to become much more viable. Digital distribution has significantly leveled the playing field for all artists, and transaction processing has become widespread and easy for most bands to implement. Enterprising companies have created products that offer services typically reserved for those artists signed to a label and distributor.


Companies such as Topspin and Snocap have made it very easy to sell products and collect revenue. Websites such as Reverb Nation and Nimbit offer tools that enable artists to build, interact with, and sell to their fan base. Aggregation services such as TuneCore allow artists to get their music onto digital retailers such as iTunes (not quite true D2F, but cutting out at least one middleman).

Topspin has taken direct-to-fan much further than simple transaction processing. It has developed widgets and technology that gives artist and fans levels of control never available at the DIY (do-it-yourself) level. Artists with little tech ability are able to upload content, create sales offers, and then distribute them in embeddable widgets. In addition to a software platform, they have developed a full methodology and set of best practices for optimizing the D2F process. (Full disclosure: I am a certified marketing partner of Topspin.)

Reverb Nation also gives artists a sizable toolkit to market and sell to their fans, including a catalog of widgets that fill many purposes, including streaming audio and tour routing. The site also provides a back end for managing fan interaction, organizing street teams, and social networking.

Topspin CEO Ian C. Rogers feels that direct-to-fan is helping define the new direction of the music business.

"The greatest thing about the future of music is that artists have choice of who their partners are," he said. "It's not about 'getting signed' -- it's about choosing the right team and running a smart business. At the end of the day there are only two important things in the music business: the artist and the fan. The rest of us are here to provide value and efficiency to them. It's not up to them to provide value to us; it's up to us to provide value to them."

Through the use of technology and a forward-thinking digital strategy, artists at all levels finally have the tools necessary to build and maintain an environment that lets them dictate the terms of their business.

Jason Feinberg is the president and founder of On Target Media Group, a music industry online marketing and promotion company. He is responsible for business development, formulation and management of online marketing campaigns, and media relations with over 1,000 websites and media outlets. The company has served clients including Warner Bros. Records, Universal Music Enterprises, EMI, Concord Music Group, Roadrunner Records, and others with an artist roster that includes The Rentals, Flipper, Thin Lizzy, Sammy Hagar, Primus, Poncho Sanchez, Ringo Starr, Chick Corea, and many more.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @otmg

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Will Digg Users Bury New Digg Ads System?

Since its launch in late 2004, Digg has tried its hand with several outside advertising networks, going from an off-the-shelf Google AdSense arrangement to working with Federated Media before finally signing a deal for Microsoft to deliver its display advertisements. But in April of this year, Digg announced it would end its deal with the software giant in favor of selling and delivering its own ads. Earlier this month, it announced that in the coming months it would introduce Digg Ads, a platform that involves injecting sponsored links directly into Digg's news stream, allowing users to Digg up or bury the ad just as they would any other story.

Over the past several years, it has not been unusual for a Digg user to screenshot a Digg display ad that he found particularly annoying or ironic and submit it to the site itself -- in fact, several such items have made it to the front page. Describing Digg's user base as anti-consumer wouldn't be quite accurate given the daily front page stories of the latest gadget news on Gizmodo and Engadget, but its community has been quick to lash out against corporations seen as having brushes with unethical behavior.

Like all major Internet communities, Digg's hosts a fair number of trolls (though the community itself polices the worst offenders) and the user base has never hesitated to criticize the very site that hosts their comments. Given all this, it's not difficult to be skeptical that advertisers would want to throw their brands right into Digg's news stream, possibly placing them within the cross hairs of an extremely outspoken and acerbic community.

Over the past few week, I reached out to several of the site's most powerful users, people who have pushed hundreds of submissions to the coveted front page. All of them spend sometimes hours a day on the site, commenting and Digging their friends' articles. Did they think that the community would welcome sponsored submissions and treat them just like the dozens of other stories, videos and images that flow across the front page every day?

Power Users react

Steve Elliot became an active user of the site in April of last year, pulled in initially by the idea of promoting his own content. But like other power users, he quickly realized the quid pro quo nature of Digg, in which you must push and network other Diggers' content. He told me that he's hopeful that the new ad platform will work, but that he's worried about the "noise" generated with front page submissions.

steve elliot.JPG

"I think that it's possibly a workable system, but for it to be workable, they're going to have to find a way to cut through the noise of the automatic knee-jerk negative reaction a lot of people have to any front page story," Elliot said. "For any paid content, there's going to be even more users ready to react negatively to it. So if there is a way to separate that inevitable sizable negative reaction to an ad, then maybe out of the rest you can get enough usable data of up and down votes to see what kind of advertising is most effective."

He explained that if a company feels like an outsider to the community, then they're going to have a different experience of feedback than if they somehow integrate themselves into the community. The question, he said, is whether they can learn and replicate the formula for a popular Digg submission. He believes that it's possible.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," he said. "And when I say I'm optimistic, it goes beyond the baseline optimism that maybe they can pull this off. It goes for me all the way to the level that I'm hopeful that maybe in their attempts to catch the eye of the Digg community...instead of trying the same little tricks of old media, maybe they'll get creative. Maybe they'll break some new ground, and maybe we'll see some exciting ideas and ways of interacting with the community, which to me is what Digg is all about."

Abusing the 'Bury' Button

A Digg power user named Patrick (he didn't want me to use his full name) told me that he thought that the idea was a "brilliant one on Digg's part," because of the potential for massively higher click-through rates than you'd ever see with standard display advertising. And, unlike some, he was confident that the advertisers could create enticing content.

"I'm sure Digg has people who are smart enough to come up with stuff that's eye-catching, and I'm sure that people who work for Digg monitor the site and know what works really well and what doesn't," Patrick told me. "So they know what formula works. They know the algorithm...If I saw [an ad] that caught my eye, I'd click on it just like any other Digg submission. By the time I opened it and checked it out, and if I'm reading it and checked it out that long, I'm going to Digg it because it held my attention."

As for what consumer products would work well under this new system, Patrick said that anything involving mobile phones and tech products already gets a lot of coverage on the site, but pointed out that, with entertaining content, almost anything could work. His only fear would be that a certain percentage of the site's users would automatically bury all sponsored content.


"They should get rid of the bury button, because more often than not it's misused," he said.

Rami Taibah, who has submitted over 700 stories to Digg, over 100 of which made it to the front page, said that the Digg demographics -- and likes and dislikes -- could be somewhat limiting in terms of what advertisers could be successful on the new platform. He noted that companies that have prior histories of perceived unethical behavior will likely have some negative pushback from Digg, no matter what the content.

"Advertisers will have to try to understand the Digg community and what the users like to click," he said. "It's very anti-establishment, and is pro-Apple, pro-Linux, and very anti-Microsoft. If they try to understand the submission culture, then yes they can succeed. There are a lot of social media experts out there that could help such companies to customize articles and content that would sit well with the Digg community."

When I pointed out the sometimes-trollish behavior of some Digg commenters, Taibah said that this is simply the nature of the Internet and that he didn't believe that such a thing should or would deter companies from promoting their brands through the social news site.

Digg Ads

Mike Maser, Digg's chief strategy officer, told me in a phone interview that they first approached a few of the site's advertisers with the idea years ago and were met with enthusiasm. As their ad budgets have continued to contract -- especially in the last year or so -- the companies have been looking more toward performance-based advertising and less toward the traditional branding approach.

mike maser.jpg

"They believed in this model that Digg was leading, which was this user-generated, user-led definition of what's popular content," Maser said. "But they wanted to apply those ideas in some way to their advertising as well. I remember a conversation with Intel, which has been a longtime advertiser with Digg, in late 2007. We came in and said, 'What if we could apply a Digg platform, the Digg model, to advertising?'...And they were absolutely interested in that because they were seeing that consumers were part of that conversation already, whether they like it or not."

Maser explained that a large percentage of Digg's front page stories are already directed toward promoting consumer products, and he doesn't think it will be very difficult for advertisers to sponsor that kind of content. Not only that, but they would have monetary incentive to tailor their submissions to those users.

"So let's say an advertiser comes in and has a $10,000 budget," he said. "We place their advertisement into the system. Let's say it starts a baseline of $1 cost per click. So the ad gets shot out to the Digg audience in the stream of news. If that ad is really resonating, and people are clicking out to see the content...that dollar will come down so every time there's a click maybe they pay 90 cents, or even better 80 cents and so on. So even more people are clicking on that advertisement and it's spending more of their budget, but the incremental cost of that ad is going down."

The flip side is that if people aren't Digging the piece, or if they're actively burying it, the cost-per-click will go up until it hits some pre-set maximum, causing the ad to fall out of the system.

User control

But what if a so-called "bury brigade" forms that automatically buries every sponsored post?

"When we announced this last week, we saw a lot of generally positive reactions from our user base," Maser said. "The notion going into this is that there will be more control over the ad experience, so when Digg is transparent with their users and gives them that control over the site, they've actually really taken it to heart and appreciated that control. So we feel like the users being able to sort of have a more relevant content experience on the site is one way we'll mitigate any sort of backlash."

And then there's the Digg algorithm. For years the site has refined the algorithm to weed out organized attempts to "game" the system, so Maser was sure that they were well equipped to locate any sort of advertisement bury brigade and neutralize its efforts.

The ad platform is still a work in progress and won't be rolled out for a few months. Maser said they announced it early so they can work with advertisers over the coming months, developing the kind of content and ideas that will attract Digg's user base.

"I do think innovation is the name of the game," he said. "I think that sites need to come up with advertising experiences that are more endemic to their own property and their user base. So I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all approach to advertising anymore. Does that mean that display advertising is going away? No, but I do think systems like Digg Ads speak directly to our audience; it has a pricing mechanism that works for advertisers. Being more performance-oriented advertising, it gives them a more innovative option than display advertising."

Of course, Digg's display advertising isn't going away. But with continuous reports that advertisers are getting frustrated with the lack of effectiveness of traditional CPM advertising, it's not unfathomable that they would want to take the risk and inject their brands right into the user base. What the users do with the brand once it's in their hands will likely determine whether Digg has come up with an advertising program that will truly break the mold.

Simon Owens is a former newspaper journalist and an associate editor for MediaShift. You can read more of his writing at his blog or contact him at simon[.]bloggasm [at] gmail.com.

Photo of Mike Maser by Scott Beale of Laughing Squid.

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Rules of Engagement for Journalists on Twitter

guardian apology.jpg

Twitter's role in the Iranian election aftermath leaves no doubt about its power as a global, real time, citizen-journalism style news wire service, along with a tool for facilitating dissent, while countering the view of Twitter as simply a zone for egotistical banality. But it also highlighted Twitter's role as a platform and content generator for traditional media outlets, along with some of the key dilemmas being faced by professional journalists in the Twittersphere.

I've been researching the ways in which journalists and traditional media outlets are using Twitter and exploring the ethical dilemmas raised by the clash of the private and the public for journalists in the sphere via interviews with Australian, US and South African journalists. And, while I'm convinced Twitter is now a vital journalistic tool for both reporting events and breaking down barriers between legacy media and its audiences, there are still multiple questions around professional journalists' activities on Twitter that require thoughtful, open debate.

While many journalists recognize Twitter's power as a reporting tool, some news organizations are still reluctant to embrace it while others have issued rules restraining their writers' use of the service. In this third installment of my Mediashift series on the intersection of journalism and Twitter, I'll attempt to determine the rules of engagement for tweeting journalists.

Rules of Engagement

Some media outlets are making tweeting almost compulsory for their journalists but others are much more cautious, or even ban journalists from tweeting on the job. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times , Bloomberg and AP (among others) have all introduced policies covering social media, partly in response to problems resulting from the unique mix of personal and professional information in the zone. Some of these policies have been criticized for missing the point of social media -- humanized interaction -- and too rigidly regulating journalists' tweeting.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The previous paragraph had referred to the newspapers' social media policies as "conservative." That descriptor was removed in recognition of the distinctions between their various policies, and in light of a comment from the Times' Jonathan Landman, below.]

But in Australia, journo-tweeting is largely unregulated by media outlets. None of the 25 Australian journalists I interviewed for this study (from Fairfax, News Ltd, ABC, ACP, Sky News and a range of smaller outlets) was aware of such a policy in their workplace. According to some of the interviewees, management ignorance could account for the absence of such policies. When asked why he thought his Australian employer didn't have a policy like the WSJ, one journalist responded, "They just don't get it."


There's growing realization among employers, however, that guidelines may be a helpful adjunct to corporate editorial policies in the brave new world of social media. There's evidence of a policy shift at the powerful Fairfax group, publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne's The Age. Asher Moses (who was at the center of the tweeting controversy featured in part two of this series) indicated that, even though there was no official policy, the company had expectations that he could tweet either for professional or personal use but not both.

And the ABC is currently consulting staff as a precursor to publishing new guidelines.

"I think they're still feeling their way on social networking sites. It's a new world and they're trying to figure out exactly how to approach it," prominent ABC presenter Leigh Sales said.

Newsrooms Blocking Twitter at Work

But some employers are either so afraid of the platform or so disdainful about its journalistic potential that they've tried to bar their reporters from even accessing Twitter in the workplace. The Sydney Star Observer's (SSO) Harley Dennett says he's denied access to both his Facebook and Twitter accounts at work via web filters on office computers.

"The publishing editor said staff can make those contacts in their own time," he explained. "But I get around that by using the Tweetie desktop and iPhone applications. I do so openly and unashamedly."

Nevertheless, Dennett's newspaper happily prints copy generated by his extra-curricular tweeting.

"During news conferences I declare if a story originated from Twitter, but my editor has never verbally acknowledged that," he said. "I can't explain the resistance to popular social media and networking websites. Personally, I would welcome some guidance from my employer on Twitter use, if it made sense at least."

The SSO's policy is clearly a short-sighted and narrow-minded approach to managing the issues raised by journalists' interactions with social networking sites but it's not an isolated example.

Jonathan Ancer, from South Africa's Independent Newspapers group, which publishes Johannesburg's The Star along with other influential titles, plans to use Twitter to help trainee journalists to write with brevity and clarity, but he is also barred from Twitter at work.

"When I tried to log onto Twitter a few days ago, I was surprised to find myself blocked with a note saying my attempt to access porn had been recorded," he said. "I think media companies should open up access to Twitter, Facebook and other social networking platforms because this is where people -- readers, eyeballs, etc. -- are going."

However, while individual journalists with the Independent group may have difficulty accessing Twitter, the company's online publication has a moderately active Twitter account. South Africa's media certainly need to make active use of Twitter ahead of the 2010 soccer World Cup when they'll be seeking the world's eyeballs.


Meanwhile, in Australia, the Speaker of the Federal Parliament recently approved live tweeting from the floor of the House of Representatives during Question Time via cell or PC. This breaks a decades-long ban on reporting from inside the House. This will likely both enliven political reporting and make it impossible for resistant journalists and media outlets Down Under to continue holding out.

As Twitter becomes entrenched in daily reporting practice, it would seem appropriate for media organizations to update existing editorial guidelines to make them relevant to social media platforms like Twitter. But if they want to bank on the significant benefits that can flow from their participation in the Twittersphere (such as developing new audiences and enhancing traffic to their websites), they will need to ensure their journalists have unfettered access to the site and also be flexible about interactions in the space to encourage reporters to engage in conversations with their followers.

What principles guide J-Twits?

So, for those journalists who tweet according to their own personal code, what principles guide them? For the ABC's Leigh Sales, it's a mix of gut instinct and rules derived from industry experience.

"If I have even the slightest hesitation about posting something, for example, a slightly off-color witticism, I choose not to post it," she said. "I don't post gags about stories on which I may have to report seriously. I don't put any significant personal content on Twitter. I may occasionally say that I've been to a movie or express a like or dislike, but I don't engage in personal chit-chat...I view it as a professional tool."

Dave Earley from Brisbane's Courier Mail has changed his approach since Twitter began hitting the headlines.

"Until Twitter's recent media exposure, my Twitter account had remained relatively unknown in my workplace," he said. "Now that it's on the radar, I'm probably more conscious of what I say."

Early also chooses not to "tweet angry."

"I do try to make sure my tweets are never inflammatory, there's no point setting out to make enemies," he said.

For John Bergin of Sky News, it's a case of common sense and basic training.

"Our journalists receive legal training," he said. "Issues such as defamation, contempt of court, statutory restrictions and so forth should apply as much to the online world as they do in the offline. Obviously, anything that is private and confidential in a newsroom should remain so -- again, common sense and respect for the workplace and its people is paramount."

But Harley Dennett's approach is to tweet independently of his employer. This allows him to publicly criticize his paper and its policies if he desires -- an act which he believes demonstrates transparency and buys him credibility with his followers.

"Increasingly, I'm confident the best model is for the journo to have a direct relationship with their Twitter followers independent of the media outlet that employs him or her," he said. "The spectre of a big media outlet appearing to control what a journo says online would also really hamper that personal quality that Twitter can bring out of a conversation."

Lessons from Iran

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What information on Twitter is fair game for a journalist to report? There needs to be further discussion between media professionals, their employers, journalism academics and social media experts to help navigate this complex territory. But my preliminary views go like this: Although social media etiquette may not recognize a journalist's right to report any material published openly, the reality is that open Twitter accounts are a matter of permanent public record and fair game for journalists. While attribution is vital and it might be polite (but not necessary) to seek the approval of a Twitterer to quote them, I don't see anything unethical about using tweets in mainstream news coverage. However, the locked Twitter account is a more delicate matter. I'd suggest that a locked account amounts to an "off the record" comment which requires permission from the tweeter before re-publishing.

And does re-tweeting (or RT) -- re-publishing someone else's tweet -- equate to giving their tweets your professional stamp of approval if you tweet openly as a practicing journalist? If you are passing on information to your "followers," do you have an obligation to first establish the information's authenticity or acknowledge it as "unconfirmed" -- an obligation many journalists would feel if they were doing the same for a newspaper or broadcaster?

When I raised concerns this week about the practice of tweeters who openly identify as professional journalists re-tweeting without verification, in the context of the indiscriminate dissemination of tweets claiming to emanate from Iran, I found myself engaged in a lively discussion on Twitter. I asserted that when Patrick LaForge, an editor at the New York Times, re-tweeted (without acknowledgement of verification or absence thereof) a list of Iranian tweeters sourced from expert blogger Dave Winer (who had, in turn, passed on the list without verifying its contents) it amounted to an approval of that list. LaForge disagreed. NYU's Jay Rosen then reminded me not to expect open systems like Twitter to behave in the same manner expected of editorial systems.


But while I agree with Rosen, my concern wasn't directed at the unmediated Twittersphere. Rather it was directed at the way journalists approach this flood of information. I'm of the view that professional journalists will be judged more harshly by society if they RT content which later proves to be false -- particularly in the context of a crisis. This goes to their professional credibility and their employer's.

Therefore, while I wouldn't for a minute suggest journalists step back from reporting on social media contributions flowing from zones like Iran, nor from repeating tweets purporting to represent witness accounts -- clearly these are valid contemporary storytelling devices -- I do think they need to critically assess information to the best of their capacity before republishing it and, if there's no way to do so, flag this with "unconfirmed" or some other abbreviated signal that the information has not been substantiated by the journalist.

In many international settings, there are legal as well as ethical imperatives to consider here. If you inadvertently RT a defamatory tweet in Australia, for example, arguing "I was just passing on a link," would not be a defense against a defamation action.

Writing in The Atlantic, Marc Ambinder advises readers to treat the flood of information from Iran like a CIA analyst would -- sifting it and weighing it up. I think that's sage advice for professional journalists operating on Twitter, too. The ABC provided a good example of an appropriate approach to this problem in their online amalgamation of the social media coverage of Iran by simply acknowledging that some of the content was unable to be substantiated. (These issues will be a theme at the #media140 conference to be held in Sydney later this year.)

Top 20 Take Away Tips for Tweeting Journos

1) Think before you tweet -- you can't delete an indiscreet tweet! (Well, you can, but it will survive in Twitter search for three months and it's likely live on as cached copy somewhere.)
2) Think carefully about what you're re-tweeting and acknowledge if it's unsubstantiated.

3) Be an active twit: tweet daily if you want your followers to stick.

4) Determine your Twitter identity.

5) Be human; be honest; be open; be active.

6) Don't lock your account if you want to use Twitter for reporting purposes -- this fosters distrust.

7) Twitter is a community, not just a one-way conversation or broadcast channel -- actively engage.

8) Check if your employer has a social media policy.

9) Be cautious when tweeting about your employer/workplace/colleagues.

10) Be a judicious follower -- don't be stingy but avoid following everyone as your list grows to avoid tweet bombardment.

11) If you quote a tweet, attribute it.

12) Expect your competitors to steal your leads if you tweet about them.

13) Don't tweet while angry or drunk.

14) Avoid racist, sexist, bigoted and otherwise offensive tweets and never abuse a follower.

15) Scrutinize crowdsourced stories closely.

16) Find people to follow. Foster followers by pilfering the lists of other twits.

17) Twitter is a 'time vampire' (via @anne_brand) -- you don't need to keep track of all tweets, so dip in and out through the day.

18) Prevent information overload by using an application such as Tweetdeck.

19) Add applications to your Internet-enabled mobile device to allow live-tweeting on the road.

20) Add value to your tweets with links, Twitpic and other applications for audio and video.

A useful resource: You can find a list of the top 100 Australian media professionals on Twitter compiled by @earleyedition here.

UPDATE: Jonathan Landman, deputy managing editor of the New York Times, responds in comments to the contention that the Times had a "conservative" social media policy:

Actually, The New York Times does not have a conservative code of conduct for social media. It does not have any code of conduct for social media.

What it does have is a comprehensive set of ethical and practical standards compiled in a handbook, last issued in 2004 and updated and amended from time to time afterward. It is a guide for Times journalists in print, online, over the air and in life. One of the updates is entitled 'Using Facebook in Reporting.' It says, among other things, that social networking sites 'can be remarkably useful reporting tools.' It also sets forth some reasons for caution -- any tool, misused, can be dangerous.

You can read both the ethics guidelines and the Facebook update here and judge for yourself whether they are 'conservative' and/or clueless about social media. Personally, I think that's a bum rap...

The Times also has a social media editor, a new position. Her job is to identify the most promising journalistic uses of these tools and then to teach and encourage Times journalists to deploy them. It is quite possible that her work will include publishing her recommendations for all to see and use, maybe even in the form of a code. It will not miss the point of social media.

Julie Posetti is an award winning journalist and journalism academic who lectures in radio and television reporting at the University of Canberra, Australia. She's been a national political correspondent, a regional news editor, a TV documentary reporter and presenter on radio and television with the Australian national broadcaster, the ABC. Her academic research centers on talk radio, public broadcasting, political reporting and broadcast coverage of Muslims post-9/11. She blogs at J-Scribe and you can follow her on Twitter.

Green Wave protest photo by Hamed Saber via Flickr

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Why is American University Becoming Center for New Journalism?

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I visited American University last month to try to answer a burning question for me: Why was the School of Communications there becoming such a hotbed for new forms of journalism? The Center for Social Media is there. The J-Lab, the Institute for Interactive Journalism, moved to American from the University of Maryland. And Charles Lewis, the founder of the non-profit Center for Public Integrity, decided to start his new Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University as well.

I met with all the folks representing these centers at American and asked them my burning question in a series of video interviews, below. The answer kept coming back to a few factors: 1) the dean Larry Kirkman was an alchemist, a producer who brought people in from across disciplines; 2) the student body is interested in social justice and change; 3) Washington, DC, is a great place for academics to be part of the political action.

After my visit, Kirkman, the dean, wanted to clarify even more what he told me in the video interview. Here's part of what he said:

We share a social mission. We can imagine a communications environment that supports a vigorous and inclusive public culture. We are anticipating and helping to shape it through educating the next generation of media professionals, innovative production that demonstrates what's possible and communication research that informs and validates our work. Public affairs and public service cut across our three programs -- journalism, film and media arts and public communication. The school is dedicated to media and democracy, media as a tool for public knowledge and action and the social responsibility of our professions and industries...

We are a communication laboratory, working at the intersections of these three disciplines, that provides a powerful platform for these centers, especially in contrast to the traditional silos of most journalism, film and public relations programs. So, among our professors: Lynne Perri, former editor for design, graphics and photography at USA Today, works with Dotty Lynch, former senior political editor and chief pollster at CBS News, who is in our public communication program and heads up our public opinion and audience research courses and projects. They both work with Bill Gentile, who is a former Newsweek photojournalist and a pioneer in backpack video, with an MS in Journalism from Missouri, who is in our film and media arts program. For example, all three of them are working with Amy Eisman, former USA Today founding editor, and David Johnson, former Scripps Media Service Chief Technology Officer, and Gannett on research, production and training projects.

Here are those video interviews:

Pat Aufderheide, head of Center for Social Media

Jan Schaffer, director of the J-Lab

Charles Lewis, director of the Investigative Reporting Workshop

Amy Eisman, head of writing classes at School of Communications

Larry Kirkman, dean of School of Communications

What do you think about American University's bold moves into new forms of journalism and communications? Are you impressed or do you think the school could do better? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

UPDATE: In the comments below, American student Ethan Klapper says he likes what the School of Communication has been doing, but could be doing a better job with curriculum:

While J-Lab and the Center for Social Media are leaders of new journalism, the undergraduate journalism curriculum itself lags behind in my opinion.

For undergraduates, the only required 'new journalism' class is a new class called multimedia productions skills (added last year) that teaches students about basic HTML, audio recording and video production. However, I feel that my skills (and the skills of some of my friends) are already beyond the scope of this course. I will be taking it in the fall.

Perhaps most frustrating is the rumor that AU SOC is adding a new track to its journalism program -- interactive journalism. I know many people who would jump at the opportunity to major in that instead of choosing the existing broadcast or, especially, print tracks.

Kid me not, the AU School of Communication is a great place to go to school. The professors are top-notch and I've been happy. However, I'd like to see SOC accelerate the implementation of its new journalism curriculum at the undergraduate level.

I've put in a query to the dean, Larry Kirkman, to get his reaction to Ethan's comment and will update with his comment.

UPDATE 2: Here's a comment I received via email from Jill Olmsted, the journalism division director, in response to student Ethan Klapper's concerns about the school's curriculum:

Curriculum reform is the No. 1 challenge facing all journalism programs. Just as newsrooms struggle to balance digital media skills with traditional skills and values, so are we. While we have made several curricular changes, more are on the way and it is good to read that our students are pushing for more.

I took over as journalism division director in January and reform is my first priority. So far we have added a required course called Multimedia Production Skills and added Writing for Convergent Media as an elective. I expect both to evolve with the times. We've held some undergrad focus groups on proposed tracks that Ethan may have heard about; we're revising those plans based on input.

In the meantime, less systematically but just as important, we're adding digital content to existing courses. Students are doing podcasts, weblogs, live blogs, using digital audio recorders and Flip cams for newsgathering, putting newscasts online in a program called 'District Wire News,' and of course are using social networking platforms. Professor David Johnson oversaw a partnership with CBS.com and NPR for an acclaimed Twitter report on the Inauguration. Both grads and undergrads were involved.

Continued undergrad curriculum reform is coming.

Reform is difficult for journalism and communication schools that have been focused on legacy media for so long. And just when they have a new media curriculum in place, it's bound to shift quickly as technology changes so rapidly. We'll see how American deals with the fast pace of change and whether they can satisfy the expectations of the student body.

(Note: AU professor David Johnson has another view on curriculum at AU in the comments below.)

UPDATE 3: The SOC dean Larry Kirkman also has responded to Klapper's comments on the curriculum. Here's part of his email response:

The School of Communication (SOC) is accredited every six years by ACEJMC, The Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications. Accreditation, with its commitment to a strong liberal arts education, limits our undergraduates to only 40 credits in communication courses, out of 120 credits required for a B.A. It's a tight fit to cover writing, reporting and editing, and legal aspects, ethics and history, media production skills. We are continuously reinventing core courses and introducing new elective courses. For example, we've recently added Race, Ethnic and Community Reporting, International Investigative Reporting and Visual Strategies.

We count on students, in the spirit of Ethan Klapper's comment, to push us to meet their needs and help us define, and shape, emerging professional roles. And, we learn from regular review by our peers. Last year, an Accrediting Council site visit team, chaired by Carla Lloyd, associate dean of the Newhouse School at Syracuse, and including Karen Dunlap, president of The Poynter Institute and Brooke Kroeger, director of NYU's journalism program, found a curriculum that 'provides a balance between theoretical and conceptual and professional courses (and) equips students for multi-media storytelling.'

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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