Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Fun with headlines

I always like it when incongruous headlines show up together. Here are some that tickled me today:
Bush's theme on Iraq: victory, not pullout
U.S. military secretly placing favorable stories in Iraq papers
Think one has anything to do with the other? Well then, how about:
Traumatic stress is taking root along Gulf Coast
House budget-cut bill exempts drug makers
(okay, so you need to read the fine print on this one: turns out the exemptions are for mental health drugs, keeping their prices high)
Then, my favorite headline of the day:
Sharp objects might be allowed on planes again

You can play this game too. The only rules are: the headlines have to appear in the same issue of a publication (preferably on the same or facing pages), otherwise the entertaining irony factor is lost. Post your finds here!

P.S. When I read these headlines to my husband: 1) he didn't see the irony, and 2) he didn't think they were at all funny. Maybe you had to be there (in my warped brain, perhaps?) If you agree with Tom, you can tell me that too.

A call to action

If you're worried about the future of newspapers and journalism -- or the future of our democracy without them -- you might want to click over to a recent commentary and call to action by John McManus of

In his commentary, McManus writes about the recent threat to San Jose and 32 other cities across America posed by a wealthy Knight Ridder investor's move to force the newspaper chain's sale to increase profits.

Double digit returns apparently aren't good enough for Bruce S. Sherman, CEO and chief investment officer of Private Capital Management (PCM), who stands to reap a personal payout of up to $300 million by selling out the Merc and other papers in the Knight Ridder chain. And since, as McManus notes, PCM is also the largest shareholder in six other U.S. newspaper companies...well, you can see the writing on the wall if this goes through.

Does it make you angry that one greedy profiteer is in a position to ruin the daily news for newspaper readers nationwide? (And that's not counting the audiences of the radio/ TV/cable broadcasters who rip 'n read, or base their stories on what appears in print.)

Wish you could do something about it? Well, here's a letter of protest (and a promise of boycott), drafted by McManus, that you can send to Mr. Sherman. Or, in case you'd rather e-mail him, his address is

You might also consider sending a letter to the editor at the Mercury News...while you still can.

All things pod

Sometimes, I'm a little slow.

For example, I'd had my iPod for over a year before I finally realized that if I just bought a dock I could plug in some speakers and play all my music without the aid of a CD player (or those cute little white earbud headphones that really don't fit in my ears all that well).

Like I said, sometimes I'm a little slow.

Now, walk past my office and you're likely to catch a waft of music seeping out my door (or blowing out, depending on my mood and whether or not the classroom across the hall is in session).

Mostly I just let it shuffle, so you could hear anything...from John Mayer or Martha's Richard Thompson or Youssou N' oldies like Patsy Cline (one of my Mom's favorites; I used to sing along when I was a kid)...or even a bit of choral music from Chanticleer.

But some folks are really cooking. The other day I read how some club DJs are leaving their CDs and such at home and just taking their iPods. (I guess they also figured out about the dock and speakers.) And some people are podcasting -- creating their own digital audio shows and posting them on the web for others to download. What's more, some of them are even making money at it!

I don't know if you saw Podcasting Riches, an article by reporter Michael Bazeley in the Tech Monday section of the Mercury News, but it had a great article about people who are making money off podcasting. He quotes two Midwesterners whose podcast radio show is attracting enough advertisers that least one of them could quit his day job, and two women whose "mommycast" has attracted a $100,000 one-year sponsorship deal from Dixie Paper Products. Amazing!

Which gets me thinking...that maybe the Borg-like Clear Channel will finally meet its match...not in another media behemoth, but in a growing army of colorful and idiosyncratic podcasters. And maybe they'll replace this homogenized, automated, targeted-to-death crap that most radio has become and bring back the real thing...real music, real people, combined in ways that can still surprise and delight.

It really is a brave, new world out there. And for all our worries about radio and newspapers, and the future viability of careers in either, there are also some interesting opportunities cropping up.

So keep your eyes and ears open...and if an opportunity comes along to try something new, grab it! You never know how it might turn out.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Is evangelism the new PR?

Thanks to Prof. Steve Greene for sending me a link to "Spreading the Word," an article on corporate evangelism in the current issue of U.S. News online. They're talking about a new approach to marketing by establishing personal relationships with customers...especially those early adopters who influence others. Evangelism isn't your old-fashioned, one-way, top-down marketing. According to the article:
"It's not about creating a better megaphone," says Bill Hamilton, CEO of TechSmith, a software developer with 100 employees in Okemos, Mich. "To be successful, companies need better conversations with their customers."
The article notes that some companies, like Vespa and Microsoft (see my earlier post on Robert Scoble), are already using bloggers as company evangelists. They see evangelism as "a way of actively creating word-of-mouth advertising or marketing, turning your passionate, influential customers into a volunteer sales force."

Asked what advice he would give to a company like Wal-Mart that has a PR problem, Consultant Ben McConnell, coauthor of Creating Customer Evangelists, offered the following advice:
  • Find customer evangelists through online searches and store surveys.
  • Start blogs and podcasts to humanize the people behind the company's too-opaque walls.
  • Talk openly and frankly about controversial issues like employee health benefits, the company's impact on state Medicare programs, outsourcing, and the hiring of illegal immigrants.
He offered one caveat: PR spinmeisters should be forbidden from being involved.

However, I think that's bogus. As an old PR dog who's learning some new tricks, I don't see why PR folks can't make good evangelists (as long as you remember that there's a difference between PR and "spinning"). Most PR practioners are good at establishing and maintaining relationships, and that's really what we're talking about here.

So, what do you think?

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Spirals & Tipping Points

It's rare to see a full-blown spiral of silence come undone. But that's exactly what happened this week.

After years of being squelched, opponents of the Iraq war found their voice in Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., an ex-Marine and a Vietnam veteran who proved to be unsmearable. His blunt critique of the Iraq war, and his call for a quick pull-out, provided the tipping point, making it safer for others to wade into the treacherous waters of open criticism of the war.

Thus, the tightly wound spiral of silence on Iraq, which has held public criticism of the war at bay for three years, started to come undone.

So, what's all this about a spiral?

The Spiral of Silence is a theory of media and public opinion developed by in the 1980s by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. In essence, it says that most people would rather keep their opinions to themselves than risk being perceived as being out of step with the mainstream, or risk being ostracized for their views. And the fewer contrary views are heard, the more people perceive themselves to be in the minority…and the fewer of them are willing to speak up. Thus, the spiral of silence tightens.

Of course, spirals of silence don't just happen. They usually have some help. In this case, the Bush administration did a masterful job of suggesting -- sometimes subtly, sometimes with all the subtlety of a sledge hammer -- that it was unpatriotic to question the Iraq war or its conduct.

For the most part, it worked. After all, who wants to be accused of hurting troop morale or of aiding and abetting the enemy? So most criticisms of the war were muted or silenced. People with opposing views mostly squelched themselves. And the Bush administration was able to shrug off the criticisms of lonely liberals and people like Cindy Sheehan, the Vacaville woman who lost a son in the war, as being partisan attacks or hysterical outbursts.

Then Murtha spoke out. His comments proved to be the tipping point…and the spiral came tumbling down.

You could watch the administration's desperate attempts to restore the spiral of silence: the initially harsh response from the president, the now-predictable accusations of disloyalty from the vice president, and even name-calling from a junior congresswoman who tried to imply that Murtha was a coward.

This time, though, it didn't work. They'd overplayed their hand. No one bought the image of Murtha as a traitor or a coward. The congresswoman, Rep. Jean Schmidt, apologized; the president, speaking in China, tempered his tone…he respects Murtha, of course, and his right to say what he thinks, he just doesn't agree with him.

Suddenly, it was safe to go in the waters again…and critics of the Iraq war began speaking their minds…and the U.S. Congress began discussing how best to get out of Iraq.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

New JMC Blog

I think I'm getting carried away with this blogging thing...I just started a new JMC blog, The JMC Journal, to take the place of the old "What's New" JMC web page online. It's faster and easier for me to add news on the blog, and that should make it easier to keep everyone up to date. Check it out!

Here are directions on how to subscribe (per JMC grad student Ryan Sholin -- thanks!): just copy this link,, and paste it into the “Add a feed” box in your in your favorite feed reader software. If you’re using Firefox or Safari, just click on the orange or blue icon that pops up in the URL bar when you’re on the page, and add it to your Bookmarks/Favorites.

Well-Known Blogger Visits JMC

When JMC alum Bob Scoble talked with JMC faculty this week, he didn't pull any punches. The first thing he did was predict that his 11-year-old son would never read a newspaper; instead, he said, he'll get all his news online.

The well-known Microsoft blogger (a.k.a. Scobleizer) talked about the changes he sees coming in the media industry, and how he thinks JMC should change its curriculum to better prepare students for this new media world.

Scoble recommended integrating print design and production with broadcast journalism, and suggested we build a partnership with the computer science department. He also advised us to teach students how to use RSS feeds, news aggregators and other online tools, as well as new advertising technologies.

"The new world is…find some way to build a brand and build traffic," Scoble said. "The business model is changing completely."

So what will J-school students need to know? You'll still need to know how to write and tell stories, and how to take photos or shoot video, Scoble said. But that's no longer enough. The old media already have plenty of experienced hands who have those skills…and they're laying them off.

What new grads will need, Scoble said, are basic computer display skills. You don't have to be a computer programmer or know how to build it, but you do have to understand how things work, where to find it and how to combine it.

"You still need all the same skills to gather news, but you have more tools now. There's a new way to do journalism," he said.

The next generation of journalists (and PR and marketing professionals) are going to need to be able to explain in an animated, graphic way how something happened or how something works. And, Scoble added, the news media is going to need people "who know how to blog and have a conversation" with the public.

If you'd like to read more about Scoble's visit to JMC, check out blog postings by JMC alum Steve Sloan (who also provides an audio link) and JMC grad student Ryan Sholin. And here's a direct link to what Scoble wrote in his blog about his JMC visit.

So, what changes do you think are needed in JMC's curriculum?

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Focus Structure

There's a good example of focus structure in today's Mercury News. Check out the opening paragraphs of Juggling child care providers to see how reporter Michelle Quinn used one mother's experience to personalize and localize a U.S. Census report on the difficulties of arranging child care.

Bad Week for the Mercury News

As I read today's Mercury News, I saw the notice -- the natural consequence of declining advertising revenues and recent layoffs. The MN is stopping publication of The Guide, its Wednesday supplement focusing on neighborhood news. The notice read:
This decision is a reflection of difficult economic challenges faced by the Mercury News and the newspaper industry in general.

Of course, the MN promises to continue to carry many of the local stories that used to appear in The Guide in its daily sections, but it's going to be tough to do with falling ad revenues, fewer pages and fewer reporters.

A premonition of the cutback appeared in Tuesday's business section: an AP article, Newspaper circulation falls 2.6%.
The an acceleration of a years-long trend of falling circulation at daily newspapers as more people, especially young adults, turn to the Internet for news and as newspapers cut back on less-profitable circulation.

Today's MN business section had more bad news: a recent patent application indicates that Google's next target may be classified advertising.

Google's next gobble: classifed ads? suggests this will put Google in direct competition with eBay and craigslist...but the biggest loser in this scenario would be the daily newspapers, which have been losing classified ad revenues to online companies for some time.

Not exactly a fun time to be in the newspaper industry.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Trends & Transitions

The front page of today's Mercury News has a good example of a trend/issue story, Floating an Idea for Energy Needs (if you want to view it online, just be sure to this week or else you'll need to pay to access it). It's about proposals to build new liquid natural gas (LNG) terminals off the California coast.

The story opens with an extended scene-setting lead. Notice the descriptive "telling details" in the first two paragraphs, and how the first four graphs use long, mostly complex sentences. Then comes a change of pace. The writer uses a transition word, "but," and a short sentence to get the reader's attention:
But LNG generates as much emotion as energy.

In this one short sentence, the reporter, Paul Rogers, not only gives readers a "heads up" that he's changing gears, he also introduces them to the conflict that drives this story: the state's need for more sources of energy vs. a local community's protests against these proposals.

Good technique, good story.