Supporting N.C. journalism through public notices and legal ads

So far, 15 bills mentioning the word “newspaper” have appeared in the N.C. General Assembly this session. They range from bills honoring the Rev. Billy Graham to bills allowing cities and counties to publish public notices digitally.

Legal advertisements and public notices, required by law, have been a little-noticed subsidy of local newspapers since Ben Franklin’s time. In the last few years, talk has increased about eliminating the requirement of placing some public notices in newspapers because of the cost to government and the dwindling reach of newspapers. Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute wrote a good roundup about legal notices a year ago. I wrote about legislative bills affecting legal notices in North Carolina in 2011.

Some N.C. towns have already eliminated required print legal ads. This year, more towns (Greensboro, Morrisville, High Point) and counties could join them. With the changing face of journalism, including new digital startups, enhanced TV station websites and pay models at established media outlets, North Carolina should rethink how we write laws that require public notices. Our government’s goals should be leveling the playing field, supporting strong independent reporting regardless of the source, and providing government transparency about how legal ads and public notices get placed. The original intent of the ads – notifying people efficiently about government actions that affect their jobs and lives – must remain a key goal. Government websites cannot reach that goal alone.

The word “newspaper” appears 310 times in North Carolina’s general statutes. Rules requiring public notices grew organically over time, lack uniformity and tend to favor established newspapers. Sometimes, another news organization has broader reach, more reporting resources or more local reader engagement. In many cases, the rules allow non-elected officials to choose winners from among news sources, possibly fostering a spoil system that erodes trust.

The North Carolina Press Association keeps its eye on legislation affecting newspapers, and it has opened its doors to new journalism startups including the nonprofit Carolina Public Press in Asheville and the Raleigh Public Record. It must consider its own members’ interests and will likely lobby for rules that continue existing subsidies through legal notices to newspapers, especially newspapers of a certain size. While that support could erode this year, that issue shouldn’t be the only question on the table. Figuring out how to foster the growth of new news startups should also be a consideration in the General Assembly.

Federal agencies like the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission are studying how to preserve journalism as old business models fail. Journalism school deans from across the country, including the University of North Carolina’s Susan King, have written a statement urging the IRS to quickly approve nonprofit status for emerging news sites as a way to foster innovation in journalism.

At the same time, our N.C. General Assembly members should bring independent, thoughtful approaches to encouraging quality, local reporting, from for-profits and nonprofits.

Steven Waldman, writing in a special report, “The Information Needs of Communities,” for the FCC in 2011, made one suggestion:

“One possible solution that would benefit all parties would be for governments to save money by hosting public notices on their own websites and paying a lesser amount to run banner ads on other sites about the notices and linking back to the government site. The municipality would be able to spread information about the public notices to a broader range of audiences than they would by just publishing them in a particular newspaper. They would generate more traffic for their own websites, provide ad revenue for local news operations and advance the cause of government transparency.”

Posting public notices and legal ads on town and county websites furthers open government. But to reach people in our fragmented information age, using multiple methods (including print for some areas), at lower costs, seems like the right solution. Our new laws should be fair, encourage innovation and provide flexibility as technology and news sources change.

Here are some samples of the words in existing bills filed this legislative session in the N.C. General Assembly:

“The County shall advertise a notice for interested parties to submit qualifications in such form as the County may require for possible selection as the private developer or private developers in the public‑private project in a newspaper having general circulation within the County.”

“Advertise the sale by publication in a newspaper having general circulation in the county in which the property is situated. [AND] Make the following information about the property being sold available to the public both on its Web site and by mail. …”

“…sealed bids shall be solicited by advertisement in a newspaper widely distributed in this State or through electronic means, or both, as determined by the Secretary to be most advantageous… .”

“The secretary‑treasurer shall annually, at a time and in a law magazine or daily newspaper to be prescribed by the Council, publish an account of the financial transactions of the Council in a form to be prescribed by it.”

“The Charter Board shall distribute information announcing the availability of the charter school process described in this Part to each local school administrative unit and public postsecondary educational institution and, through press releases, to each major newspaper in the State. … ”

Disclaimers: I am not employed or paid by any of the news organizations in this post. I’m a former employee of the Charlotte Observer, and I’m working on a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina in digital communications. These words are my own.

Fact checking, words, images and stories

Charlotte has a starring role in a new video from Mitt Romney, focusing on jobs and unemployment. And that’s good: Voters have consistently said through polls and other venues that the economy is the most important issue for many of them this election season.

Here’s what’s interesting:

Media outlets and civic organizations have ramped up more fact checking this year of candidate’s claims, because in politics, spin and distortion are often the name of the persuasive game.

Online social sharing and the reach of Youtube make videos incredibly powerful, with views for that one video growing from 300 or so on April 18, (the day Romney visited Charlotte) to 6,000 or so on April 19 and 40,000 or so on April 20. (I’m not linking here, on purpose, to avoid becoming part of something I might measure for class work.)

The facts of jobs and unemployment in the video are fairly indisputable, though not the full story, as detailed by Kirsten Valle Pittman of the Charlotte Observer in an excellent fact check box on April 19. But the questions about how we measure economic health, jobs and unemployment are nuanced and difficult to explain in visuals, short headlines and blurbs. In explaining those nuances with words and narrative, the visceral emotions of the ad get lost. And the ad’s accuracy becomes difficult to question because it sticks to facts in its few words.

But our economy and our jobs have changed dramatically, and our measurements don’t tell the full story. When we focus on measurable facts, as candidates, as journalists, as voters, we miss the nuance of change. Some have said we become what we measure, or we encourage what we measure, and some have even suggested alternative methods. Chip Conley, in a TED video,  has examined the question of whether we should measure things differently, playing off the Gross National Happiness factor. Certainly that idea would get laughed out of the political arena this year as falling into the spin and distortion category, not quantifiable (yet).

As graduation season approaches, the stories of a couple of college seniors at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte strike me as more telling about our current economic uncertainties and likely won’t show up in the unemployment data: One has an occasional job laying carpet, and that pays the bills. Freelance journalism on the side feeds the soul and the resume. Another senior has occasional freelance assignments, but the gas costs to produce the stories eat up any profit. He wants a job, any job, that pays enough to give him economic independence. (I was at the same spot, long ago, for a couple of months right out of college. I was waiting on President Reagan’s words of hope to trickle down. They did, somewhat, eventually.)

But back to the video ad: The shareable, visceral appeal of video political ads has long been about audio and visuals, with techniques like foreboding music, heart beats, grainy black and white images contrasted with vibrant color. This ad uses some of those techniques, and connects North Carolina viewers with a familiar landscape, drawing contrasts from ugly, empty loading docks to shiny, crisp uptown skyscrapers. That contrast will be easy to find in Charlotte and North Carolina, over and over in this campaign season, and existed long before the current economic downtown. But viscerally, it tells a story that goes beyond data.

Melanie Green has written about a concept called “transportation,” or feeling immersed in a narrative story, and how that immersion builds trust and positive feelings. The Romney ad visuals have the capacity to transport North Carolina people (and Florida people, in another ad) by showing them familiar sights, and thus perhaps building trust and liking.

So while reporters and others in the civic arena rightfully draw attention to “facts” that are measurable and verifiable, the growing reach of video and visual messages can strongly influence trust of candidates in this campaign year. Fact checking narratives can’t address those video techniques easily. Presentation of narrative, pointing to specific methods in video ads and even linking to specific timed spots in ads, can perhaps increase critical thinking about the ads. But as always, dry narrative has a tough battle against emotional, visceral images. Qualitative storytelling is as strong as ever, perhaps stronger with video’s growth online, and emphasis on facts has a role but cannot tell the full story.

Rex Hubbke of the Chicago Tribune says Fact has died. Journalists will strongly disagree, and my professors will still strongly encourage quantitative measurement. But we cannot deny the growing power of qualitative, visceral stories. In 1974, Eudora Welty wrote a short critical piece, “Is Phoenix Jackson’s Grandson Really Dead?” I’m mining the online libraries to try to find a copy, but I think her answer to readers inquiring about the facts in a story she had written was this: It didn’t matter. Phoenix believed her grandson was alive, and that’s what the story was about.

Belief matters, and story matters, and sometimes facts don’t. Regardless, we still need to check those facts, and perhaps we can find more persuasive ways to encourage others to do so too.

 

My next adventure with CJR

I’m spending much of 2012 reporting on media in North Carolina for Columbia Journalism Review’s Swing States project. CJR reporters in key states are serving as watchdogs for local press coverage of political rhetoric and money.

North Carolina is one of those swing states, has a governor’s race in play and also has a controversial proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. The state has traditionally voted Republican in presidential elections, except in 2008. More locally, (in case you hadn’t heard) Charlotte is hosting the Democratic National Convention in early September.

I’m excited because the work fits with my studies through the University of North Carolina’s master of arts in technology and digital journalism. The program launched in August 2011 with a great group of about 20 students from across the state and beyond. (Learn more.)

The CJR work is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to study high-profile media stories in class and in real life, in my hometown and home state. I’ll stay in Charlotte, with road trips when appropriate. Last semester, I worked on a research proposal of how voters really get the information they use for election decisions, and the CJR work will allow me to keep focusing on that key part of our civic society. Pew research provides tons of information; I want still more.

Lots of people helped me make this move. In particular, thanks go to Fiona Morgan, research associate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. Fiona has written a groundbreaking case study on the information ecosystem in the Triangle, and she continues to lead thinking on news ecosystems. She invited media leaders from around North Carolina to meet each other and Tom Glaisyer of the New America Foundation recently in Durham, signaling the growth of some interesting conversations.

Since starting the master’s work, I’ve also juggled a day job in the new production hub for McClatchy at the Charlotte Observer. Essentially, I’m used to a job and a half. The CJR work is a contract gig, so I’m talking with some people about other projects that fit well with my class and CJR focus without creating ethical conflicts. (The McClatchy hub is hiring. Email Hope Paasch.)

This move also gives me more time to continue work with the Greater Charlotte chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. We’re working on building a chapter that is platform agnostic, reaching out to existing groups with affiliated skills and interests.

In the past, my focus has been on community journalism (“hyperlocal” in some circles) and business models. I’ll always have a passion for those topics. But this year, in this place, politics offers the greatest opportunity for learning. Already, people like Dr. Michael Bitzer of Catawba College have helped me to study up with generous links on Twitter and elsewhere.

So now comes The Ask. I’m counting on y’all to share your thoughts on media coverage of politics in North Carolina. Some folks have started a Twitter tag, #unasked, that can help issues bubble up. What else should I know about? Reach me here, or soon at the Swing States project, or email me.

The Stop Online Piracy Act and U.S. Rep Mel Watt

Rep. Watt on Youtube

Rep. Mel Watt during SOPA hearings.

Congress is considering a bill that would place restrictions on the Internet, and Charlotte’s Rep. Mel Watt is one of the co-sponsors. Industry heavyweights like Google have lined up against the bill, which has other heavyweights like the Motion Picture Association of America on the other side.

Watt’s coming under some heat because of his statements during discussions about the bill, which could resurface Dec. 21. He has said, “It’s not worthy for us to be talking about who got bought off by whom.” That statement, of course, sent people to look at his political contributors. Here’s a summary.

From Phoenix Woman at Fire Dog Lake:
“Mel Watt Has Over 130,000 Reasons to Like SOPA.”

Alex Howard, government 2.0 correspondent for O’Reilly Media, reported in real time from the markup hearings on Dec. 15 for the bill. Here are two tweets of his from his @digiphile account, with more than 110,000 followers:

Alex Howard tweet 1

Alex Howard tweet 2

Others responded to Watt’s “I am not a nerd” statement during hearings:
“Dear Congress, It’s No Longer OK To Not Know How The Internet Works.”

Here’s Watt saying, “I am not a nerd,” on Youtube, with reaction.

What the bill does: Lifehacker’s quick version: “All About SOPA: The bill that wants to cripple your Internet, very soon.”

The deep dive on the bill, from Zack Carter at the Huffington Post.

Discussions about the bill could resurface as early as Dec. 21. Here’s where it stands.

Current contributors to Watt’s future campaign efforts include the Communications Workers of America, Microsoft, Cisco, the Motion Picture Association of America, News Corp., Qualcomm, and the Recording Industry Association of America.

Here’s more from OpenSecrets.org on Watt’s campaign finance numbers.

Happy birthday, Charlotte Observer. Applause for your staff.

Charlotte Observer newsroom staff at a picnic circa 1980

Charlotte Observer newsroom staff members pose at a picnic circa 1980.

The Charlotte Observer celebrates its 125th birthday today with a fine retrospective section.
Here are three posts I’d like to add to the mix, celebrating some key people in the news organization’s development in the last 30 years.
Roger the rock, the copy desk chief who shaped standards of accuracy and ethics at the paper for about 20 percent of the paper’s life.
Steve Snow, a driving force behind the news organization’s early jump to online, with a vision of what community should be.
The Motley Crew of 1980, otherwise known as the Boomers when they were young. Their spirit lives on, and some like my first boss, Greg Ring, have survived in the newsrooms to pass on standards to the next generation.

The people of The Charlotte Observer made it strong. Let’s hear a round of applause.

N.C. legislators turn back effort to take legal notices out of newspapers

screenshot of legalnotices.org
A legislative committee turned down efforts to stop requiring local governments to place legal ads in newspapers this week.

Polls in North Carolina of county plus town and city governments show local governments spent about $6 million last year on legal ads and public notices, according to the Associated Press.

Discussions about the notice requirements ran hot and heavy among Charlotte Twitter people. Discussions centered on the print and online circulation numbers for established media as well as the lack of online access for specific groups.

The Charlotte Society of Professional Journalists will likely put the issue on the agenda of a future meeting.

Here’s the full story on legal notices in newspapers in North Carolina.

TriadWatch has used freedom of information requests to gather some numbers about public notices and legal ad spending. Here’s part of what they found, matched up with audited print circulation numbers for the newspapers that benefited:

The City of High Point spent $49,000 on public notices in Fiscal Year 2009-2010.

The High Point Enterprise had a Sunday print circulation of 18,300, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation for the six-month period ending March 31, 2011.

The City of Greensboro spent about $128,000 in public notices in two local newspapers since January 2010.

The Greensboro News and Record, which has received about $96,000 from the city since January 2010, has a published Sunday print circulation of about 86,500, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation. Online numbers would be higher. (I don’t know if they provide legal ads online.)

The Carolina Peacemaker, which received about $31,000 from the City of Greensboro, appears to have a print circulation of about 5,000, weekly, though those numbers could be out of date. On its own site, it lists a readership of 60,000, likely including online numbers.

Circulation numbers, in print and online, are difficult quantitative measures of reach these days. Some news organizations have free print products with large circulation numbers not included in the ABC numbers. Many news organizations measure their online reach in ways that are not comparable. Much of the Twitter discussion in Charlotte the past week centered on these numbers; I’d suggest moving the conversation up a level or two to look at all the possible futures of public notices before focusing on specific ways to compare influence and reach.

Noted by TriadWatch: The Charlotte Observer partners with legalnotice.org to display legal notices in a somewhat searchable way, supported by advertising. The screenshot above is from a search through the organization. The “About” page gives little details about the company. The company also provides subscriber services.

Worth consideration: More granular, searchable, open information could enable more detailed search information, provided in more accessible, easy-to-use interfaces, available to more readers and new companies, perhaps even local startups.

Here’s traffic data from Alexa for legalnotice.org:

“There are 829,298 sites with a better three-month global Alexa traffic rank than Legalnotice.org. Visitors to the site view 2.9 unique pages each day on average. Visitors to the site spend approximately 45 seconds on each pageview and a total of two minutes on the site during each visit. Search engines refer approximately 22% of visits to the site. Legalnotice.org has been online for more than twelve years.”

Also from Alexa: 170 sites link in to legalnotice.org, and its traffic rank in the United States is 143,925.

For this legislative session, the issue is off the table. But it will arise again.

We should talk more and include experts in a variety of fields. We need to move beyond thinking the issue of the cost of public notices and legal ads is merely two-sided, with established media on one side and with cash-strapped taxpayers and governments on the other.

For Gen Y: Social media tips for organizations

xkcd map of social media

A crop of students are moving off to summer internships, paid and unpaid, and many have social media as a chunk of their work. It’s a task that many organizations are happy to outsource or delegate, especially to the digital natives.

But, as you know, doing it right is different from just having a thousand friends on Facebook.

Add to that wave the number of rising seniors or recent graduates who want to leverage social media for their resumes and job searches. The work requires a shift in thinking from using Facebook for personal reasons. Most digital natives have certainly learned the power of Facebook for organizing and the pitfalls of TMI on social networks, but there’s always more to learn.

The first step: Recognize that managing social media for an organization is different from using the tools for personal use.

Plenty of advice exists. Finding the good advice is hard.

Here are some pointers to sources, sprinkled with tips:

From Mandy Jenkins, DC social news editor for the Huffington Post: Social media guidelines to live by. Her full blog: Zombiejournalism.

From Sara Gregory, recently of The Daily Tar Heel: Visual fun slideshow of Twitter tips for journalists, good for anyone.
All posts by Sara Gregory tagged “Twitter.”

Shortening websites addresses for Twitter: Use bit.ly on a separate tab, and sign up for a bit.ly account. You can add a plus sign to the end of any bit.ly shortened url to get specific data about the number of clicks on the link, and you can get other data with a bit.ly account.

From Noel Cody, recently of Reese News at UNC: Best practices for live tweeting.

How to spot spam followers on Twitter (and there will be spam followers on Twitter). This post is a bit outdated as bots and spam morph constantly, but it’s a starting point.

Important Twitter spam tips: Don’t click on links sent to you via @ or direct message from someone you don’t know (just like Facebook). Look at the stream of their other tweets first to decide if they’re real or if they’re a bot or a spammer repeating the same message to many people. Beware photos of pretty women or even women who look like your mom. They’re often disguises. Always judge Twitter people by taking a good look at their stream of recent tweets, not just one tweet.

Personal or pro? Draw a line between your personal use of social media and your professional use, but feel free to explore where that line should fall. Trust your gut. Make good choices. You get to decide when or whether to use your network of 1,000 friends for the benefit of your organization. Don’t exploit your real friends, but evaluate when they want to know something that you’ve learned through your work. Consider separate accounts, for personal and work. You can inject personality into professional accounts, but be smart.

Listen and read: Use social media for listening, reading and smart searching, not just broadcasting. Use advanced search tools through Twitter search to look for keywords. Pay attention to what others are saying about your organization. Keep in mind that growing companies (and future jobs) are specializing in the analysis of content in social media, so learning how to search smartly will serve you well.

On Facebook, read up on the strategy, timing and best practices from people who know what they’re doing and keep up with changes (which seem to happen all the time). Suggestions: Why Facebook users unliked you, by Scott Hepburn, Walk through Facebook privacy settings, from Jeff Elder and how to use Facebook for an organization from Facebook itself.

Good organizations will give you advice from those who have gone before, room to experiment and a list of their own rules. Read them. CEO John Paton of the Journal Register has a strong list of social media rules.

More broadly:

Making the most of your internship, from Steve Buttry:

Steve Buttry about journalism, Twitter and other social media. You can use the search button to just focus on social media.

UNC’s Andy Bechtel about editing and headlines (a writing style quite similar to tweets), plus UNC student posts on his blog.

Twitter software clients:
Twitter for iPhone (simple, fast, mobile)
TweetDeck, as an app downloaded to your computer or your phone. More complicated than basic Twitter, but good for searching, categorizing and filtering when accounts get large
Cotweet Multiple accounts, multiple users.

Image: From XKCD, used through a Creative Commons license.