Social Media Tools … What’s It To Ya?

I’m contributing for the first time to the Carnival of Journalism discussion. This month’s prompt comes from Bryan Murley:

How do you decide to dedicate time to a new tool/platform/gadget? What is the process you go through mentally? And then later – how do you convince others to go through that process? And, last: How do you ensure that the tools you do adopt are used once the “newness” factor fades?

Given the vastness of the Internet wasteland that is social media, keeping track of and incorporating new social media tools can seem like a daunting task. Ultimately, I stick to one governing principle when it comes to social media: how will the respective tool improve (and make easier) my work as digital media editor for Urbanite magazine?

Much of the thinking associated with the position is focused on developing an online strategy that will draw readers to the website, keep their attention, and get them to click on other pages on the site. It’s a strategy hell-bent on cultivating an online readership of loyal fans (as opposed to “fly-bys“).

So, social media tools incorporated—and the manner in which said tools are used—all need to serve the same purpose: attracting readers. If I’m able to sketch out, either in paper or my own mind, the way a social media tool will accomplish that, then I add it to my toolbox. Facebook and Twitter—and, by extension, Hootsuite—are no-brainers, so to speak, when it comes to driving traffic. Add to that StumbleUpon, Google +, and Digg., Retweet Rank, and Qwitter are used because they allow me to gauge when most of Urbanite‘s followers are reading my tweets, which of those tweets are most successful (I submit that the arbitrary metric of retweets isn’t the best to base this off of), and which tweets result in people un-following Urbanite.

QR codes are used judiciously; I have one QR code linked to an Urbanite E-Zine sign-up list—which allows me to track just how many people actually use the damn code to sign up for our e-mail newsletters—and another linked straight to each month’s Issuu PDF.

SocialToaster, by far, is the one tool that makes perfect sense for my work. Essentially, it taps into the social networks (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and LinkedIn) of friends and followers of Urbanite, makes them “ambassadors” for the magazine, and then content we want pushed out is disseminated as normal updates on our friends’ and followers’ own networks. All of that is synced in with a dashboard that shows me which of Urbanite‘s followers have the greatest reach and most influence. (So, I can see, for instance, if a Tweet of an Urbanite article by “Mike” reached all 1,000 of his followers, as well as how many unique visitors to our site his one Tweet generated.)

In short, I use only the social media tools that will achieve the goal of driving traffic to our website. In the process, online engagement, online community-building, and brand management, among other things, are developed and maintained. If a tool can’t do that, then I don’t waste my time with it. It’s the same message I preach to others. Find a way to make social media work for you and your job; if you can’t find a justifiable reason to use a specific social media tool for your particular line of work (be that in advertising, marketing, journalism, and so on), don’t resort to using the tool for the sake of it.

Down on The Corner: The First Trip to Occupy Baltimore

“They say we don’t know what we want, but here we are making our decisions without bankers or politicians intervening in our lives. This is what we want.”

That is the statement printed on the back page of the “Occupy!” resource guide, which itself is a nine-page printable zine chronicling the “international occupation movement of 2011.” The guide is found on the OccupyBaltimore website, and the protest itself—located at the corner of Pratt and Light Streets near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor—was where Joe Soriero and I were Tuesday night beginning around 8:30.

I went seeking some semblance of an answer as to why roughly 150 people (by my unofficial count on Tuesday) are protesting. (I won’t speak for Joe, whom I wrangled into this because of his skill with video editing.) OccupyBaltimore’s Facebook page says they’re working to fight social inequality and economic injustice; I’m told that to ask for any sort of end goal is to betray my inability to understand a 21st-century protest, regardless of how many voices out there define this movement as being for one thing while consistently insisting that no definable objectives exist.

I didn’t find that answer. I found various—and sometimes competing—interpretations of an answer, but if I had to give a 30-second elevator pitch on the matter, I wouldn’t be able to. (Granted, I’m probably not supposed to be able to: after all, I’m not down in McKeldin Park every night.) The video clip below compiles some of that information together. It forms the first part of a weekly series Joe and I plan to host here until further notice. (As of Tuesday night, the protestors in McKeldin Park have had roughly $4,000 donated to them, of which $1,500 has been earmarked for food and about $400 has been set aside for weatherproofing their makeshift encampment.) This is just the introduction. Some of the pieces here will be more journalistic, while others will take an academic tone.

What I do have, for now, are some thoughts. These aren’t well developed or comprehensive in the least bit. As I continue to go down every week, I hope to gain a better understanding of not only what is going on in the Inner Harbor, but also how what is going on relates to the U.S. economy as a whole—why now are people suddenly so enraged about the economy, when it has been in a state of relative disarray since 2008?; have people protesting given up any hope of finding work, or is the idea of finding work tacit approval of an economic order they apparently abhor?; why protest corporate America on the streets instead of delivering the message at the polling booths? The video comes first. My thoughts follow.

Video by Joe Soriero

Thought One: If the movement can be summarized as a clash between distinct world orders, it’s identifying Globalization versus Localization as the battle of our time.

To condense the idea of globalization into a simplistic critique—it can be overwhelmingly destabilizing. As national economies become more complex, individuals who don’t have a direct say in the shaping of economic policy can feel like they have no control over the larger (mostly unnoticeable) forces that govern their daily lives. It’s detachment that wasn’t asked for. Asking to be able to make decisions without “politicians or bankers interfering with our lives” is essentially asking to be living in hyper-local cities—all of Baltimore’s food comes from Baltimore, and not from California; all of Baltimore’s energy comes from Baltimore, and not from oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico; and so on.

Insofar as this unsettling feeling of detachment is connected to any broader complaint regarding the state of the nation’s economy, protestors have reasonable, genuine, not unfounded qualms. (Take a look at Henry Blodget’s charts on Business Insider. He does far more justice to this than I ever could in a few pithy lines.) Moreover, in a nation where unemploymentreal unemployment, which includes those who are underemployed and those who have stopped looking for work—is trending toward 20 percent, people feel devalued. It’s an employer’s market, so to speak. For those with college degrees, your prospects look good (September’s unemployment rate was just 4.2 percent). But for others with no degree, or those who are older or have been unemployed for a long period of time, the outlook is bleak.

But to rail against globalization without any finesse or nuance is to ignore how specialization and consolidation have made products cheaper and standard of living better. Again, turn to Henry Blodget on Business Insider, whose line-by-line commentary on the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City, while snarky, is spot on. Which brings me to my second thought…

Thought Two: Some of these protestor demands are solved with greater voter turnout, not with more people sleeping on concrete.

Since the protests began, I have seen cardboard signs making a variety of demands. Some of these demands—repeal the Patriot Act; end the Federal Reserve; no more bailouts for banks—are items linked directly to those we elect to our local, state, and national legislatures. The government implemented the Patriot Act and the Federal Reserve and the bank bailouts. Not corporate America. So why aren’t people marching on D.C.? Or, better yet, turning out to vote? In 2008, youth voter turnout rose to 51 percent. But read the fine print. That was in the presidential elections. In the 2010 mid-term elections—two years since the housing bubble burst and the subsequent economic downturn—just 24 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted. Which takes us to…

Thought Three: Good intentions do not always a good policy make. (Or, monetarily subsidizing ideas can actually create perverse incentives that engineer an undesirable end result.)

It’s time for this country to ask itself some uncomfortable questions. The first one we can tackle relates directly to the housing crisis of the past few years: can everybody in this country afford a home? If not, do we need to make it so that everybody in this country can afford a home? (We’re not talking about shelter, which we could all debate at length; we’re talking about a house with a mortgage.) This is not meant to absolve Wall Street and banks from dealing in mortgage-backed securities, effectively turning local banks into investment banking firms and pushing them to deviate from their role of advising to one of selling. But—and this relates back to Thought Two—if we don’t want the government picking winners and losers (i.e. we have to bail out banks that are “too big to fail”), then we need to have a conversation about what we think, precisely, the government is supposed to do for the people. (To all you libertarian-types out there: Yes, I know it’s called the Constitution.) Which means that, whether this movement is about that or not, specific ideas and solutions need to be discussed, since tearing down something without building something in its place probably isn’t the best option.

Thought Four: There are elements of the Occupy movement I can’t give any credence to, and that’s because of circular logic.

Douglas Rushkoff, if he were reading any of this blog, would tell me that I don’t get it. In an article for CNN, he says:

“Occupy Wall Street is meant more as a way of life that spreads through contagion, creates as many questions as it answers, aims to force a reconsideration of the way the nation does business and offers hope to those of us who previously felt alone in our belief that the current economic system is broken.”

And, from what I observed Tuesday night, he’s quite right. But there are individual arguments within the Occupy movement that don’t seem to make much sense. For starters, the idea of bringing together small communities of people to have conversations about what works for individual communities—and then taking that information to create a system that works for everyone. Doesn’t that run counter to any idea of having isolated conversations to come up with specific, community-based solutions? (And doesn’t that directly contradict the reason for some of this protesting—arguing against a purported cabal of corporate big-wigs who have decided upon the rules and imposed them upon everybody?)

Moreover—and since I’m a recent college graduate, this is something that made me scratch my head—students discussing the injustice of expensive student loans ought to take a step back, for a moment. If you’re a college undergraduate or graduate student protesting at these rallies, those loans you took out to attend school are now doing you no good: As you cut classes to protest the fact that you have to take out loans, you’re criticizing the very thing now financing your ability to cut classes and protest the fact that you have to take out loans. As one of my friends put it, “They’re protesting the people who are financing their protest for financing their protest.” While the movement itself isn’t as jejune as one-sentence zingers—Hey! Funny you’re protesting corporations while using your iPhones and MacBooks to tweet a revolution and stream it to your Facebook!—circular arguments devalue what could be integral parts of this movement’s aims (like searching for a way to come up with a more affordable system of higher education).

Thought Five: Real change comes from speaking to people with whom you disagree the most.

You Know What John Waters Says

I’m plugging with no shame right now. For several months, I’ve been writing book reviews for Primer online magazine. The mag, started by Andrew Snavely, is all about “self-development for the everyday 20-something man.” Andrew (that guy’s got a great name) was gracious enough to believe me when I pitched him the idea of a monthly book review. If I recall correctly, I mentioned something about how 20-something men are illiterate troglodytes. Anyway, this month’s Damn Good Read is Eager Street: A Life on the Corner and Behind Bars. It’s the memoir of Tray Jones in which he retells his life as a teenage cocaine dealer in 1980s East Baltimore. Read the review. More importantly, read the book.

If you enjoy that review, consider checking out the following:

The best damn biography out there on John Adams, our nation’s second president.
The boldest sonuvabitch to ever take an ill-equipped group of men down an uncharted tributary of the Amazon River.

And if you really enjoyed those reviews, you might be interested in hearing about how to make yourself irreplaceable, no matter what you do.

Go forth and read the world into a better place. After all, you know what John Waters says:

20 Minutes? Let’s Try That Again.

A good friend of mine posted the below image to my Facebook wall this morning:

His prompt, to me, was whether I thought the differences between the two stories amounted to any sort of censorship, or if the New York Times had merely edited the updated article (the one on the right) by rewriting the lead.

Of course, the superimposed text—especially the “shift the blame” part—suggests something different entirely.

Notice that in the piece on the left, the manner in which the lead is written suggests entrapment* on the part of New York City’s police forces. The police allowed protestors onto the bridge, knowing full well that obstructing a roadway is a legitimate charge,** and therefore lured protestors into their being arrested.

In the piece on the right, the lead … well, it doesn’t place any blame whatsoever. It merely states what happened (“a tense showdown”) and, for all intents and purposes, allows the reader to assume how that “showdown” might have gone down. Now, the superimposed text seems to suggest that in those “20 minutes” the New York Times effectively made the protestors, instead of the police, the wrongdoers.

But, quite frankly, all this is—as I interpret it—is shoddy initial reporting, the sort of work you’ll get in the digital age when a reporter is expected to file quickly, before any editing happens. Here’s why:

1. For starters, notice the time discrepancy. Yes, we know—20 minutes. But have a look next to the bylines of each article. I doubt the New York Times organizes stories in their online content management system according to when a reporter saved a draft of a story; it seems perfectly plausible for anyone not working at the Times to assume that the initial iteration of this story was published “47 minutes ago,” with a newer version appearing “9 minutes ago.” So, whoever took this screen shot appears to have grabbed a story 56 minutes after the fact.

2. And that 56 minutes is important, because in the new version, not only do we have a rewritten lead, but we also have another reporter contributing to the story. That reporter probably brought with him more quotes, more anecdotes, and more information, all of which more than likely helped flesh out the original piece. This means—and we’ll never really know***—that the new lead was probably just edited. Any lead that implicates a party involved off of flimsy evidence (in this case, the reporter’s observations****) is dubious at best. Recognizing that, once there was time to edit the piece, the reporter/editor/editors at the New York Times rewrote the lead. That’s my guess.

I’m not necessarily condoning the action. A lead like the one on the left is potentially libelous, insofar as the statement is a potential untruth about the New York City police department (though, proving libel against an organization is exceedingly difficult, since one must prove, in addition to the three other proofs, that the writer or publication made a statement with a “reckless” disregard for the truth). And in reporting, if you’re not entirely sure something happened (in this case, police allowing protestors onto a bridge only to cut them off and arrest them), then you shouldn’t report it.

But with these two stories? It seems to be just a little bit of editing.

*Entrapment, according to a law school-attending friend of mine, Sean Gallagher, requires a police officer to do something that wouldn’t happen in a reasonable situation. (Note: that statement is not legal advice.) If a police officer tells you it’s OK to speed, he can still arrest you for speeding; the same goes with crossing that bridge in New York City, which is something the protestors were going to do regardless of cop presence. Now entrapment, he says, would be more like a cop soliciting sex from a prostitute, and then arresting her for prostitution. (I’ll spare you his phrasing…)

**A quick Google search will turn up New York City’s traffic and pedestrian laws. One such statute—§ 1152 Pedestrians right-of-way when crossing a roadway outside a crosswalk—I found particularly enjoyable. (“Give us our crosswalks BACK! And keep your government hands off my Medicare!”)

***Down, conspiracy theorists! Down!

****Reporting, as its most base level, is a trade of observation. This is why e-mailing or aggregation will never suffice. Even over the phone, a reporter can learn of a subject’s ticks, peculiarities, tone, and the like. It is perfectly reasonable to use one’s observations while reporting, assuming there are no doubts about the veracity of said observations. But if your work tends to invite incredulity, give John Buchan a call, and ask him how he got so good at making shit up.

Content Creators! …All Hail?

Alissa Walker writes in the latest issue of GOOD magazine of her one-time frustration with the tendency of publishing outlets—magazines, newspapers, and blogs online—to rejigger and rewrite headlines, opening sentences, and even entire paragraphs of articles and essays so that more readers would click into a specific story, thereby sending a website’s pageviews skyrocketing. I say one-time because, over time, Walker’s frustration ebbed as she discovered how the most minor tweaks to her headlines could reel in readers—pardon me, users. She writes, “Now, instead of organizing my thoughts into pithy paragraphs for readers, I engineer my words so they’re algorithmically attractive. I rewrite my headlines to make them more enticing to Google. I tag them with dozens of relevant phrases to boost my authority on specific topics. I add search terms to my text to further optimize my SEO ranking.”

Her initial revelation and subsequent recalibration isn’t anything new for those of us involved in the online world of journalism—the legions of content managers, content production managers, digital editors, digital media editors (of which I am one), and the like who are poised daily to dutifully open our Google Analytics reports to see how our respective sites are doing in terms of pageviews, unique visitors, average time on site, and so on.

But the question Walker ultimately poses is one, I think, deserving of attention, especially as we mire ourselves further in the morass of digital journalism: are today’s journalists writers or content creators? Some might argue it’s a subtle distinction—a mere semantics game—but the two distinct interpretations of the term journalist mean entirely different things for journalism’s endgame in an online world.

Walker argues that she wanted to become a writer out of a fascination with journalists’ “ability to shape public opinion. Yet, the more information I have about who actually reads my words, the further removed I feel from the field of journalism. Sometimes my writerly self takes a back seat to my other personality, the one that’s obsessed with getting strangers to like me for something I wrote.” Her point is well said. For those who got into journalism to write and report first, and do everything else second, it’s difficult and sometimes confounding to have to work backwards: think about what readers might want to know more about, and then tailor an article—or rewrite headlines and sections of it—to reflect that.

In theory, it’s a great idea, and it’s something drastically different from peppering articles online with a surfeit of keywords or “tags” just to ensure a (slightly better) chance at beating Google’s algorithm gods so as to pull in any eyeballs you can, even if they’re eyeballs belonging to people who aren’t loyal fans of your magazine/newspaper/blog. Walker says as much: “The more you know about what your audience wants, the better you can create stories and infographics and art for them. If writing a certain headline … means that the most people will get access, shouldn’t you do it?”

But back to the question—are we writers or content creators? The inquiry itself betrays an atavistic aversion to redefining ourselves as producers of something, because in the news business, that isn’t always a good idea. Consumers, invariably, purchase that which enhances their lives—a cheaper vacuum, a better cheeseburger, a more flattering dress. But if we’re writing about, say, reforming the juvenile justice system or the limitations of the death penalty, how do we continue to push out content that people—consciously or unknowingly—might not want created?

In other words, we’re now grappling with a new means of measuring journalistic success, one that is seemingly less focused on reporting and writing good stories and more beholden to figuring out how many people click on what sort of headline. (I’m guilty of this myself—when I check analytics numbers in my own job, I measure a story’s worth in terms of how many people clicked on said story, how many minutes on average were spent with that story, and how many unique pageviews that story generated for the site.) This in itself has flipped the process of journalism, in many ways, on its head.

Journalism, by nature, is hierarchical, with teams of editors and reporters determining what deserves space—what shapes public opinion—in a magazine or on a front page. But in the digital age, when news is democratized, anyone can own a blog, and the front page/front cover has become irrelevant, journalistic importance gets redefined in terms of traffic numbers. Or, to borrow a term from the Twitterverse, whatever is “trending” right now.

And that means, more than likely, that the Facebook “Like” is the new letter to the editor, and that content creators are the new journalists.