My Remarks to Congressional Staffers Today

I’ve been invited to speak to two groups of Congressional staffers today. In about 30 mins, I’ll speak to Republican staffers at the Capitol Hill Club. Later today, at 1:30, I’ll be speaking to the Democrats in their Capitol Building office. The topic is Blogging, microblogging and social media and the event is hosted by NextGenWeb and the DCI Group.

These are my planned opening remarks:

First of all, I want to thank NextGenWeb and the DCI Group for inviting me to be with you today. I want to thank all of you for taking time out of your Friday morning to be here as well.
The U.S. Capitol at Night
We have a lot to talk about today because, frankly, the landscape of news, reporting, politics and effective organizing isn’t changing. It already has changed.

comScore, the metrics organization that measures website popularity and user engagement and leads the industry in much the same way that Nielsen has led the more traditional media rating media, reported that sites like Facebook and MySpace are owning over 100M unique visitors every month. Universal McCann, another measurement company, reports that 77% of active internet users read blogs.

Whether you agree or disagree with these numbers, and whether you like the trend or not, it is undeniable that the new media space has emerged. It is difficult to turn on your television without seeing personalities – and I do mean personalities – such as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow or CNN’s Rick Sanchez engaging their audiences with Twitter.

Up until recently, your own rules here in Congress have prevented you from effectively engaging the citizens on your districts, states and this country. You were hampered by antiquated rules that required separation of content from endorsements in the form of ads. I led the way in helping America see this, through my blog, public radio and conversation on and off the Hill. Though I cannot take full credit for any changes that have occurs, changes have still have occurred. Your House and Senate rules now allow you to utilize Twitter, YouTube and other social media avenues.

The news cycle is there and it’s different than it was before. In another lifetime, you played the game by talking to the press and hoping that they found interest in your cause. Now, you can go directly to the American people.

However, with much power comes much responsibility. Blogs have given us as citizens an expectation for engagement. For conversation. For exchange of information, ideas and transparency. Major media for the most part has not figured this out yet, and that is why more Americans get their news on the internet. There are, of course, exceptions. If you are to use this effectively, you will need to treat the internet, not as a faceless drop box where constituent mail comes from. Not as an anonymous voicemail box. Not as a nameless email inbox that sends an automated reply to the sender.

You must engage. You must converse. More importantly, you must listen.

Today, we’re going to talk about blogs, Twitter and new media. I hope that we can all learn from one another and build a better interaction platform for constituents. Thank you, again.

The Death of Newspapers. Or Not.

Note that this is a multiple page post. If you are reading in some feed readers, you may not get the entirety of the article unless you come to the site itself.

The question posed over at Friendfeed asks, “Are blogs killing newspapers?”

The answer, quite simply, is no they are not.

I have talked about the newspaper industry quite a lot and part directions with many others in the new media space. In a world of absolute positions staked by nearly everyone, that paint issues in stark contrasts of black and white with no grey in between, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that if blogs are successful over newspapers in some area, then they must be killing the newspaper across the board.

In my old age of nearly 33, I’ve learned something in this life. That absolutes are generally far from absolute. The passion that is put forward by belief in something is enough to cause issue-oriented myopia, wherein it is impossible to consider other possible alternatives.

Thus is the case when the question is posed, “Are blogs killing newspapers?”

Let me pose both sides of the argument.

Journalistic Recklessness

It’s been no secret that John McCain running mate, Sarah Palin, has been less than popular. Uttering many gaffes during the last two months of the campaign, she was an obvious choice to attribute the failure of the campaign. People simply wanted to believe that she could say some of the stupidest things on the face of the earth because, after all, that’s what stupid people do.

After the election, Republicans were looking for some kind of reason to understand their loss. Democrats? Well they were happy to pile on anyone around and gloat about it. The media willingly became accomplices to any story that made sense. Bloggers? Reckless.

Such was evidenced by the appearance of Fox News political analyst Carl Cameron on The O’Reilly Factor where, of note, Bill O’Reilly appeared to be the pundit showing some restraint while Cameron nearly jumped through the television exclaiming amazing “facts” about Sarah Palin and “Senior McCain Advisers” throwing her under the bus. Some of these “facts” that came out, according to unnamed and uncorroborated McCain sources, included the juicy bit about Palin not actually knowing that “Africa was a continent” and the report that “South Africa was just the southern part of the country of Africa”.

The New York Times explains that the whole thing was an elaborate hoax taken in and spread by traditional media and exacerbated by bloggers who didn’t fact check or question the claims.

Let me break away from the reporting of facts here to explain a few significant truths.

  1. Believable lies have Truthiness.
  2. People tend to believe that which reinforces their expectations.
  3. Modern Day journalism is about being first, not being right.
  4. Bloggers are journalists too. Some of them suck though, just as some journalists suck.
  5. Trust yet verify.

Believable lies have Truthiness.

Reading the story from the Times, it is obvious to me that the hoax was easily playable because there was some cause to believe that Palin may have caused some significant problems internally for the McCain campaign. In fact, the hoax may be even more playable because there may be very verifiable claims in there (I don’t know, I’m just saying).

In essence, if the premise of argument is not verifiable truth, then it is supposed truth (or truthiness, in the words of Stephen Colbert) and supposed truth is shaky ground (e.g. if 1 multiplied by 0 equals 0, and 2 multiplied by 0 equals 0, then 1 must equal 2). Believable lies are built entirely on truthiness.

People tend to believe that which reinforces their expectations

The only explanation for a two-party system in America, from the perspective of non-Washington party elites, is to provide Americans a set of beliefs where they can buy in unequivocally to one party or another. Never was that seen more clearly than in this election where the political machine painted both candidates in certain ways and supporters, in some cases, nearly were sent into a frenzy over those expectations.

Ideas that Obama had terrorist ties were planted, stirred and we saw it at McCain rallies. Ideas that McCain was misogynistic were often bandied around by feminists and accented by stories about names that he would call his wife.

See, people tend to latch onto the evidence that supports their worldview. Palin was so vilified as being stupid that a Carl Cameron report, without verifiable evidence, implicating Palin as geographically awkward fit the expectations of the woman, and so was passed on as fact.

Modern Day journalism is about being first, not being right

In an era of 24 hour news cycles, news organizations (and news bloggers too) have taken the tact that it’s better to be first than right. Usually, that works out to some degree. However, there are notable instances where the information passed along as fact was incorrect,

Examples of this was the infamous “Rathergate” story, where President George Bush was implicated in a National Guard service scandal that was quickly refuted with real investigative journalism. CBS admitted they were wrong 12 days later and retracted the story.

Recently, we saw this same effect in the tech and business space when rumors were circulated that Apple CEO Steve Jobs had a heart attack and Apple stock slid as a result. The rumor was later debunked and CNN, who reported the story first in the major news circuits, pulled the story back.

Bloggers are journalists too. Some of them suck though, just as some journalists suck

The ongoing debate over journalism in the blogosphere is a little tired. It’s my opinion that, regardless of credibility, research, J-school training, etc, anyone who reports “news” is a journalist. Journalists don’t get credibility from their George Washington University journalism degree, but by being right, thorough and objective. Not being right, not being thorough or being biased does not eliminate the status of “journalist” but it does affect the credibility of the journalist.

With that premise, bloggers can be journalists. In the Palin story, it seems that bloggers can be pretty shoddy journalists at that. In a marked contrast to Rathergate, where bloggers researched, fact-checked and eventually debunked the Dan Rather story as bogus, bloggers latched on to Carl Cameron’s claims of Palin stupidity. In keeping with the idea that believable lies have some elements of truth, they may have taken the report in good faith without research or simply verified some aspects of his claims and claimed truthiness on the rest of the story.

To me, reporting and disseminating reports that are partially true is as bad as reporting and disseminating blatant hoaxes. Bloggers on the right and left side of the political spectrum were guilty. Very few questioned the story on it’s merit, and those who did (like me) didn’t write our thoughts out in such a way to challenge the premises. Shame on us as well.

Trust yet verify

Reagan, whether you liked him as a President or not, had tremendous wise and insightful things to say about a wide variety of issues. One of his more famous quotes was, “Trust, yet Verify”.

I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water. There are tremendous pieces of grassroots journalism happening in the blogosphere. Stories are being broken. Questions are being raised surrounding ethics, corporate governance, technology startups, etc.

Likewise, mainstream media continues to do a “good” job in bringing the news to people (Although, for fans of The Wire, producer David Simon challenged the media because, in his opinion, the real stories are being left unreported while the less important stories get too much airtime).

For bloggers, imagine the position you would have been in if you would have stepped up to the plate and pushed back on this story. You may have gotten hateful comments from readers who want to believe that Palin is just that stupid, but at the end of the day you would have been vindicated and seen as objective, hard hitting and thoughtful.

For news producers, imagine if you would not have run with the story. You would have maintained credibility, saved yourself the embarrassment of having to print or issue a correction, and you wouldn’t have looked stupidly petty.

For readers and consumer of information, imagine if you would have stepped back and simply not believed everything that was fed to you. Imagine if you could have looked at your television or computer screens, scratched your heads and said, “Something is fishy about this story”.

The lesson here is that everyone needs to do a better job. This is not simply a free press issue. Do what you want. It is a credibility and authority issue. Fox News, already perceived as being a propaganda piece of the Republican party, decided to either be perceived as not-that mouthpiece, or played a cooperative game with a fringe of the GOP looking to protect themselves for the next election cycle and in doing so, looked even more foolish. Bloggers look like idiots and amateurs for not knowing better. Readers willingly let their feelings and opinions be used as a pawn in a much larger political game.

All I can say is be careful next time. Your credibility – all of you – is on the line.

The Power of Bloggers

I subscribe to a handful of blogs that are completely unrelated to my niche. The reason behind these subscriptions are varied: historical niche coverage that I’ve done (for instance, politics when I got started), friends or associates, really killer blogs related to specific sports teams, etc. There’s different reason. Largely, though, my RSS reader is a smattering of technology news, analysis, business, etc combined with a growing number of search feeds from Technorati, Google Blog Search or Icerocket.

One of the blogs I do subscribe to is Outside the Beltway which is one of the few political blogs that stuck after I stopped covering politics. Occasionally, James covers a topic that has crossover into the Technosailor market. This was one of those posts.

I still think the political space is different than the rest of the blogosphere and is a bit myopic (okay, a lot!), but there’s some great stuff. In his article, James notes that back when he began blogging in 2003(?), bloggers liked to write about blogging.

Unfortunately, it’s still that way today. Am I doing it now?

Largely, he makes a good point inadvertently, that the great blogs today are blogs that have something to say. They might be seen as “media”, depending on the niche. They might be seen as Journalists, depending on the niche. In the tech space, I’d call Gigaom a journalistic property, more than a blog. TechCrunch is largely a media organization, but I do question the journalistic legitimacy of a “publish now, correct later” site (something that Mike acknowledged in a Mesh Conference keynote last year and numerous other times as well).

I don’t want to get broiled down in the question of what is journalism and what is not? I don’t really want to discuss the “media merit” of any site, really.

More importantly, there is an evolution that takes place where a blog goes from a blog to a media property. It’s hard to tell, at least for me, what that point is. Is it when a site gets more than one author? Is it when there is a certain “rate of fire” on posts per day? Per week?

Is it pageviews and eyeballs? Is it simply a nomenclature thing where the Editor stops considering and calling the site a blog and starts referring to it as something else? Is it advertising? Is it the presence and participation in a network?

What’s the difference? Where is the line?

I think it’s obvious that some sites are “media” while others are not, but where and how does this evolution take place?

I expect other people to have different theories than I do, and that’s okay. My feeling is that it’s a combination of all of those things, but mostly it’s how the site is “sold” to readers? I see, for instance, as a media property. Yes, it’s a blog? But is it?

We’ve recently refreshed the layout of the site to be more of a newspaper look, thanks to a large degree of influence from Huffington Post and The New York Times – both significant, and undeniable, “media outlets”.

Is that enough though? Probably not.

I’ve also hired other writers and contributors with an eye on hiring more as I’m able to recoup costs via advertising and other sponsorship. This is another ingredient, or at least that’s what Google News believes, since it does not accept any sources that don’t have multiple authors.

What’s the difference? Where is the evolutionary point?