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.

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"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.

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"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.

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"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

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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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Criminal Cases Push Newspapers to Identify Anonymous Commenters

Anonymous comments on newspapers blogs are drawing attention from prosecutors seeking information about criminal matters, once again raising the issue of whether newspaper blog comments are protected under state press shield laws. Last fall, I wrote about two civil cases involving claims of defamation, where two separate courts refused to order newspapers to disclose information that would lead to the identification of anonymous commenters on their blogs.

In criminal cases, the issues are similar, but the stakes can be higher for everyone involved. A refusal to turn over information in response to a grand jury subpoena can result in a contempt proceeding and a coercive jail term, as individuals as diverse as New York Times reporter Judith Miller and video blogger Josh Wolf have learned.

In one recent case, an Illinois court upheld the issuance of a grand jury subpoena seeking information on anonymous newspaper blog commenters who had, the court concluded, relevant information about the defendant in a murder case.

I Know Who You Are and What You Did

In 2008, Frank Price was arrested in Madison County, Ill., and charged with first degree murder for the death of a 5-year-old child, a development that was reported in the local newspaper, the Alton Telegraph. The article was posted on the newspaper's website and drew the attention of a number of anonymous commenters, some of whom purported to have personal knowledge of Price as well as past incidents of his abuse against children. Detectives investigating the case contacted the newspaper informally, seeking to learn the identity of the anonymous commenters, but the newspaper refused and told the detectives that the information had to be requested formally.

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Shortly thereafter, the newspaper was served with a grand jury subpoena requesting records that would lead to the identity of five of the commenters, including full names, addresses and IP addresses. The newspaper filed a motion challenging the subpoena, arguing that the comments fell within the protection of the Illinois reporter's shield law.

Journalist Shield Laws

As we noted in our prior blog post discussing the two rulings in civil cases, individual state journalist shield laws vary greatly in their provisions. The Montana Media Confidentiality Act is worded very broadly, and covers "any information obtained or prepared" by a news outlet. In Doty v. Molnar, the court focused on that language in concluding that anonymous comments were protected under that Act from disclosure in a civil suit.

The Oregon Media Shield Law protects "the source of any published or unpublished information obtained by the person in the course of gathering, receiving, or processing information for any medium of communication to the public." In Beard v. Doe, the Oregon court ruled that anonymous comments fell within that language and were thereby protected from disclosure.

The Illinois reporter's shield law, 735 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/8-901., provides that a court may not compel "any person" to disclose the "source of any information obtained by a reporter" unless "all other available sources of information have been exhausted and...disclosure of the information sought is essential to the protection of the public interest involved." A "source" is defined as "the person or means from or through which the news or information was obtained."

The Alton Telegraph v. The People of Illinois

In the Alton Telegraph case, the newspaper argued in its brief that the Illinois reporter's shield law protected the identity of the anonymous commenters because the commenters were both "persons" and "sources" within the meaning of the Illinois law.

The newspaper also argued that the subpoena should be quashed because the prosecutor had not shown that all other sources of information had been exhausted, and that the disclosure was essential to the protection of the public interest. The prosecutor argued that the commenters were not "sources" for the newspaper or its reporters because the comments were posted after the newspaper's article on the topic was published, and the commenters were not "individuals who approved a reporter as an anonymous or confidential source."

In its ruling, the court construed the statutory language narrowly, agreeing with the prosecutor that the commenters were not "sources" for a story that had already been written and published, and therefore the identity of the commenters fell outside the protection of the shield law. But the court did recognize the importance of newspaper commenters (whom the court refers to alternatively as "bloggers" and "commentators") and their potential to serve as future leads for reporters, and suggested that arguments that they should be protected should be directed to the legislature:

While the bloggers were not used specifically to write this article, there is the possibility of the commentators becoming sources. It can be argued that the commentators are persons through which the information was obtained. However, the information is not necessarily obtained for the purpose of gathering the news. The commentary section provides readers with a platform for discussing the case at their leisure. Bloggers feel the comfort, and sometimes too much comfort, of freely conversing with the protections normally provided through the expected anonymity of the Internet. A lack of these protections and/or anonymity might well have a chilling effect on future bloggers.

On balance, the court concluded, that while the newspaper's interest in protecting the identity of individuals who made unsolicited, public comments was "not negligible," that interest did not "go far enough to serve the larger purpose of the reporter's privilege, which is to allow 'the public to receive complete, unfettered information.'" The court concluded that ordering the newspaper to reveal the commenters' identities would not "make the public unwilling to express their opinions or to provide information during the course of a reporter's actual investigation, in future cases, nor does it deny the public the right to receive complete unfettered information in this and future instances."

The court ordered the newspaper to provide information on only two of the five specified individuals, however. As to those individuals, the court found that the state had met its burden to show that the information they sought was relevant, that the information could not be obtained by other means, and that the individuals had "relevant information about the defendant's prior conduct, his propensities for violence, and the relationship with the child."

Grand Jury Subpoenas and Gag Orders

The Alton Telegraph case is not the only recent instance of law enforcement seeking information from anonymous commenters. Unlike civil proceedings, grand jury proceedings are secret; thus these incidents may fly under the radar unless a party who is served with a subpoena chooses to publicize it or challenge it in court. But some grand jury subpoenas contain "gag order" provisions warning recipients that mere disclosure of the subpoena may obstruct law enforcement, thereby suggesting but not stating that the recipient of the subpoena might be prosecuted if the subpoena is disclosed.

Such a gag order provision was contained in a grand jury subpoena issued in 2008 by a prosecutor in the office of the Bronx District Attorney to the operators of the New York political blog Room 8. The subpoena sought the production of identifying information about a single commenter on the blog, and warned that disclosure of the subpoena "could impede the investigation being conducted and thereby interfere with law enforcement." The subpoena and the included warning were subsequently withdrawn and the operators went public concerning the incident.

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An article posted on the website of the Las Vegas Review-Journal on May 26, 2009, concerning the federal prosecution of a Las Vegas businessman, drew over 100 comments. Thomas Mitchell, the editor of the paper, revealed in an editorial on June 7 that a short time later the newspaper received a federal grand jury subpoena seeking information about the anonymous commenters, including "full name, date of birth, physical address, gender, ZIP code, password prompts, security questions, telephone numbers and other identifiers [and] the IP address." This subpoena also contained a warning: "You have no obligation of secrecy concerning this subpoena; however, any such disclosure could obstruct and impede an ongoing criminal investigation."

In a story published by the Review-Journal on June 17, Mitchell stated that the newspaper had reached an agreement with prosecutors to limit the amount of information that the newspaper would be compelled to produce, narrowing it to only two user accounts. Prosecutors indicated that they sought the information out of concern for the safety of jurors hearing the underlying criminal case based on what they regarded as threatening statements in the comments. According to the story, the American Civil Liberties Union remained concerned about the chilling effect of the subpoena, however, and filed a motion to quash the subpoena.

Mitchell also pointed out something that seems to get lost in the shuffle in these controversies: The newspaper may not even have the identifying information that law enforcement is seeking. As Mitchell noted: "We don't require registration. A person could use a fictitious name and email address, and most do. We have no addresses or phone numbers."

This is probably the case for many newspaper websites, in which case server logs that record the IP addresses of website visitors might provide the best clue to a subscriber's real identity. Resolving IP address information to yield a user's real identity is possible, but it can be a complex process and would probably require additional subpoenas to Internet service providers.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal can't fall back on a state shield law in this case, because the proceeding is in federal court. Currently, there is no federal journalist shield law, so newspapers seeking to challenge a grand jury subpoena must argue that the information requested by a prosecutor is protected under federal constitutional law principles. There is currently an ongoing move in Congress to adopt a federal journalist shield law.

Do Blog and Website Operators Protect Anonymity?

While some newspapers like the Alton Telegraph and the publications involved in the civil suits discussed above have taken legal action to protect the identity of anonymous commenters on their websites, not all media organizations do so. Typically, a site's online terms of use, terms of service, privacy policy or similar document will address the issue by reserving the right to provide information on website users in response to legal process, with no promise that they will even notify a user whose information is sought by law enforcement.

As noted by the court in the Alton Telegraph case, the newspaper's website required commenters to read and assent to a user agreement stating that comments submitted to the website "are not private," and its privacy policy stated that the newspaper reserved the right to disclose user information "when the law requires it." In The Alton Telegraph v. the People of Illinois, the law required it.

Jeffrey D. Neuburger is a partner in the New York office of Proskauer Rose LLP, and co-chair of the Technology, Media and Communications Practice Group. His practice focuses on technology and media-related business transactions and counseling of clients in the utilization of new media. He is an adjunct professor at Fordham University School of Law teaching E-Commerce Law and the co-author of two books, "Doing Business on the Internet" and "Emerging Technologies and the Law." He also co-writes the New Media & Technology Law Blog.

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4 Minute Roundup: Special Iran Election Edition

Here's the latest 4MR audio report from MediaShift. In this week's special edition, I look at the way that social media have played a vital role in the breaking news happening in Iran after their contested presidential election. Though the government has cracked down on the opposition, censored the media and blocked websites and even text messaging, the news has continued to spread on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube. And when CNN was seen as lax in coverage of Iran last weekend, the #CNNFail meme sprouted up on Twitter and they paid attention, increasing coverage the next day.

Check it out:

4MR podcast 6-16-09.mp3

Background music is "What the World Needs" by the The Ukelele Hipster Kings via PodSafe Music Network

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

#IranElection hashtag on Twitter

#CNNfail hashtag on Twitter

Iran Election Live-Blogging on Sunday at Huffington Post

Tehran Bureau independent website on Iranian news

@persiankiwi on Twitter

@IranElection09 on Twitter

#CNNFail: Twitterverse slams network's Iran absence at News.com

The Revolution Will Be Twittered by Andrew Sullivan

Dear CNN, Please Check Twitter for News About Iran at ReadWriteWeb

Cyberwar guide for Iran elections at BoingBoing

Iran Protest Videos on June 16, 2009 on YouTube

Here's a graphical view of last week's MediaShift survey results. The question was "What do you think about WSJ's social media guidelines?"

survey grab social media guidelines.jpg

Also, be sure to vote in our poll about which websites you trust most for news about Iran.

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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5 Ways a Community Manager Can Help Your Media Outlet

Recently, the New York Times appointed its first ever community manager, someone to "concentrate full-time on expanding the use of social media networks and publishing platforms to improve New York Times journalism and deliver it to readers."

Of course, the New York Times is a huge operation, and has an enormous community of print and online readers/users. Do we at Mediafin need a community manager at our newspaper? Or maybe we already have community managers, but we forgot to tell those people that they are, in fact, community managers?

Our newspaper may be smaller, but more questions than scale alone can be raised about the need for a community manager.

Shouldn't every journalist help to manage the community? Once a journalist engages in a conversation with his readers, whether on forums, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or on his or her own website, that journalist is managing a community -- if the conversation is done right.

A good conversation means that the journalist actually listens to reactions and suggestions, intervenes if reactions threaten to lower the quality of the discussion, and asks for input on upcoming stories or for feedback on published ones.

However, even though journalists have a crucial task here, I am convinced a community manager is essential for our media.

I have been reading a special report by ReadWriteWeb about community management. It consists of a 75-page collection of case studies, discussions and advice concerning the most important issues in online community. Complementary to this, ReadWriteWeb offers a companion online aggregator that each day delivers the most-discussed articles written by experts on community management from around the web.

The report includes case studies in various industries, such as newspapers. Reading this and reflecting on my own experiences, I have to recommend appointing community managers at media companies.

Five jobs for a community manager

So what is the role of a community manager? I'd like to suggest this non-exhaustive list of 5 key points of attention:

  • Helping the individual journalists enter into conversations with the community. It is not yet the case -- at least not at my newspapers -- that journalists happily enter into conversations with people commenting on their articles. They don't use Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn enough to research and promote their stories. Someone has to point out the possibilities and help them with this new media. That someone could very well be the community manager. Besides, new tools develop so fast -- for instance, various Twitter clients, Twitter tools, the Google Wave project -- that someone has to cover these rapid developments.
  • Thinking about the design of the website and the print publications. Does this design facilitate conversations? Is it possible for the community to rate comments and articles, to look up profiles of journalists and fellow members?
  • Developing formats to enhance immersion into the community. I think synchronous online events, like live blogs, regular and special chat sessions using 2D tools or even virtual environments, are important here.
  • Developing formats for events in the physical world. The community manager would put together community conventions, feedback sessions, and specific conferences. The manager would think of ways we could better organize these physical encounters, using online tools to create interaction long before the event takes place and continuing long after the actual encounters.
  • Dealing with criticism and irritation. The community manager would be the advocate for the community in the newsroom but would also explain the newspaper's coverage and reporting decisions to the community in response to criticism. The organizer would help the community to understand the behind-the-scenes "making of" aspects of news reporting. This overlaps with the traditional role of the public editor or ombudsman.

Blurring boundaries

As yet our publishing company has no formally designated community manager. But several people are involved in some of the above mentioned tasks, so we do have some experience with community management. From this we learned that managing a community can blur the boundaries between marketing and journalism -- an unsettling proposition.

Once individual journalists are told to promote their projects by using social media, they actually become marketers.

And once the community manager wants to organize feedback sessions and community events, one can be assured the marketing department will take notice.

cluetrain book.gif

Traditionally, journalists are wary of becoming marketers. In the division of labor they are used to, they search for the truth, write or make videos, pictures and illustrations, and a completely different department -- the marketing people -- promote all this beautiful work in the marketplace.

The problem is that not only is journalism a practice in transition (crisis?), but so is marketing. Since the Cluetrain Manifesto was written, there has been an ever increasing awareness that marketers too need to acknowledge that hysterical campaigns full of empty slogans no longer work. They too need to engage in honest conversations with the audience.

At least, that is what I think about it. So my colleague Raphael and I decided to run our latest social media workshop not only for our fellow journalists, but also for our marketing colleagues. I'll let you know how that works out!

Crossing boundaries

Maybe less controversial, the community manager is a person who will have to meet lots of people. The people formerly known as the audience, of course, will be a big part of that, but the manager will also have to deal with event organizers, marketers, site developers and fellow journalists.

Thus it is very important that the manager has a clear mandate and the support by the publishing company leaders, because being the voice of the community can and will cause tension. But then again, it will also point out opportunities, and actually engaging in a conversation with a whole community is an exhilarating experience.


In my humble opinion, the community manager becomes the chief deconstructor of boundaries -- the boundaries between community and newsroom, and between storytelling and story promotion.

Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L'Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.

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