Bully

Boy, I feel for Abigail Pardou. Why? Here’s how Washington Post’s Marc Fisher sets the scene:

As much as any elected official in Washington, Harry “Tommy” Thomas, the D.C. council member from Ward 5, carries himself like a good old-fashioned machine politician. Son of a council member, Thomas is a cheerful and omnipresent face in Northeast, a ward-heeler who prides himself on bringing home the bacon in the form of park facilities, schools and other city projects.

Abigail Padou is the editor and proprietor of Brookland Heartbeat, a bimonthly newsmagazine about the neighborhood near Catholic University. The paper, mailed free to 10,000 registered voters in the area, is a non-profit run entirely by volunteers and supported by a small group of local advertisers.

Last week, for reasons Padou cannot fathom, Thomas posted on his web site a letter to the editor and to all Ward 5 residents accusing the Heartbeat of salacious headlines, biased reporting and a conflict of interest. Thomas was so angry about a story that ran in the paper last July that he demanded a retraction and threatened to go after one of the Heartbeat’s most important advertisers, the Long & Foster realty company. “Long & Foster will be held accountable for its role in underwriting the Brookland Heartbeat,” Thomas wrote, “as well as the businesses that support the publication.”

The article that got Thomas’s goat is a nicely reported, fully sourced, and utterly unsensational story that examines what Ward 5 gets out of Thomas’s position as chairman of the Council’s committee overseeing libraries, parks and recreation. The story’s conclusion: The ward gets very little.

I can relate. To read Fisher’s piece, Thomas is bullying Padou unfairly.

Here in the little town where I live, there are from time to time controversial issues that come up and in my community blog, I try to write about them. I don’t hide my opinions (nor do any other contributors to the blog), but over time as the site has grown people begin to view it much like a newspaper. So I have started to get angry emails (and hear about angry tirades in meetings) about the site’s (and my) supposed bias. These are the same kind of notes that any editor of any newspaper gets, and when I am properly detached I view them as evidence that I am probably on track.

Let me be clear: I never set out to write slanted coverage, and I make a point of trying to lay out my own biases (if any) in any article. This feedback is more a byproduct of the fact that there are controversial issues on which people disagree deeply — not because of anything I have actually done.

But, I am also a neighbor, and so when I am in another frame of mind, such emails can hurt. I don’t have a thick skin.

These kinds of notes can push me to back off, because it feels more trouble than it’s worth to cover some issues. However, I know that I need to lean against that — otherwise the angry cranks become bullies.

Still, sometimes it can be a drag to keep one’s positive attitude. It can be harder than it looks to stay in today’s public square! You become a target.

Study: Religions Losing Ground

An important new survey on Americans’ religious behaviors and attitudes was released this morning. The American Religious Identification Survey was first fielded in 1990 and was updated in 2001 and now in 2008.

The survey shows that just about across the board, Americans are less religious today than they were two decades ago. From USA Today:

The percentage of people who call themselves in some way Christian has dropped more than 11% in a generation. The faithful have scattered out of their traditional bases: The Bible Belt is less Baptist. The Rust Belt is less Catholic. And everywhere, more people are exploring spiritual frontiers — or falling off the faith map completely.

These dramatic shifts in just 18 years are detailed in the new American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), to be released today. It finds that, despite growth and immigration that has added nearly 50 million adults to the U.S. population, almost all religious denominations have lost ground since the first ARIS survey in 1990.

Of special interest is the “none” category — people who answer they have no religion or spirituality. That share is 15%. From the article:

So many Americans claim no religion at all (15%, up from 8% in 1990), that this category now outranks every other major U.S. religious group except Catholics and Baptists. In a nation that has long been mostly Christian, “the challenge to Christianity … does not come from other religions but from a rejection of all forms of organized religion,” the report concludes.

Here is a presentation by Barry Kosmin, study director, about the “Nones.”

Giving A Presentation

This morning I am in historic Williamsburg, Virginia giving a talk to the opening session of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership’s Political Leaders Program. We’re in the Wren Building, which dates to the 1600’s. I feel a little bit in awe.

I also want to do a good job. This is the kickoff of a ten-month leadership program, and Sorensen depends on me, in part, to set the right tone. So I want to do right by them.

Yesterday, Seth Godin — and expert presenter, among other thing — blogged about the two elements of a great presenter. They are: respect (from the audience); and love (to the audience).

[E]very great presenter earns the respect of the audience (through her appearance, reputation, posture, voice, slides, introduction, etc.) and captures the attention of the audience by sending them love. Love takes many forms. I love you enough to teach you this. I love you enough to help you. I love you enough to look you in the eye.

I am going to try to keep this in mind. Thanks, Seth.

Stamped

I take a dim view, ordinarily, of the silly habit large organizations have of naming everything. If there’s a big, multi-day story, news networks will give it a name and a logo. New pieces of legislation have to have stupid acronyms that remind the reader of fourth-grade English homework (think of the USA PATRIOT act). Every time a major politician goes on a trip, it has to have a “theme” and a name emblazoned on the podium and behind the speaker.

So you’d think I would take a similarly dim view of the government’s plan to add a logo to all the projects that are underwritten with stimulus money.

 

From ABC News
From ABC News

But I actually think it’s a pretty good idea. Here, the logo is actually being used in teh way it is supposed to be: as a reminder, a branding mark.

 

My beef with the incessant titling of things is that it always seems more driven by bureaucratic issues than by real-world concerns. Ordinary people do not need a title for a presidential trip, and they don’t think of the budget as a book . . . they think of it as “the budget.”

But a recovery-funds logo is a nice reminder and can actually be a branding mark. It can help organize disparate things (all the different, specific programs being supported with recovery money) into a unified whole. This is palpably different than the typical use of titles and “themes” that I described above, which is all about spin.

By contrast, this is actually helpful and can serve a civic purpose.

Real World Social Media Workflow — How Much Time Do I Spend Listening?

Social media maven Beth Kanter has been attending a conference on nonprofit use of technology. One of the speakers was Wendy Harman, who runs social media for the Red Cross.

Beth has a great recap of that session here, with these key takeaways:

  • First thing every morning, [Wendy] spends a couple of hours listening – reviewing hundreds of mentions that have been captured in their monitoring radar using a variety of free and professional tools, including Radian 6.   Wendy estimates it’s about 1/4 of her time presently.   I suspect it took more of time in the beginning as she developed her work flow and got over the learning curve – and of course was able to upgrade her tool set.
  • Senior management is not turned off by the term listening.  She often writes social media manifestos, filled with examples, pros/cons, and shows tangible, measurable results from their social media strategy.
  • She has a social media elevator pitch in case she encounters one of the senior people at the organization in the elevator: “I’m the social media lady who builds relationships with our community online.”   Perhaps she extends that to include “that results in increased goodwill, improves our reputation, and donations.”
  • She and the others on staff are no longer afraid of negative comments or posts.  “The opposite of hate is indifference, if someone bothers to post a negative comment it means they care.”  She was also pleasantly surprised about how much was positive.  Negative comments are an opportunity to educate and improve what they are doing.  “It is about being polite and honest.”
  • Wendy balances her personal/organizational social media profiles.  When she uses her personal social networking or twitter account, her rule is not to say anything that would embarrass her mother.
  • Challenges include dealing with the tidal wave of information that they have to analyze and manage. One of the values of a professional tool is that it saves a lot of time in the work flow.  Focusing on the how to represent learning in a visual way.  Laura Lee Dooley shared this example (bookmarked posts of people talking about her organization fed into Wordle)
  • Their community now knows that they are listening and the conversation has changed from talking to how we help you.
  • They have an extensive social media participation policy that has helped spur adoption internally.

Looking at my own workflow, I realize that my mornings are often spent “listening” — yet I don’t call it that. I have seen it as time I am wasting and that I ought to minimize. Now I see I ought to perhaps consider boosting it a bit.

Looking For Mr. GoodBlog

My friend Adam Pagnucco, who writes a blog on Maryland Politics called, natch, Maryland Politics Watch, had a fascinating post just the other day.

Actually, it wasn’t by him — it was by his wife, Holly Olson. In it, she chronicles the history of her husband’s involvement with MPW and blogging, and announces there are going to be a few changes. Seems the two have a bun in the oven, and Adam’s been asked to scale back a few of his bloggiest traits.

Holly ends the post with this: “[T]his would be a great time for all of you wanna-be bloggers to step up to the plate and start providing guest posts. There are plenty of insightful, witty, and thoughtful readers out there who could offer a post or two a month. So let’s keep MPW alive and active — but let’s do so as a community endeavor. After all, I know that you all will continue to need your political fix — baby or no baby.”

This struck me because in mid-2007 I started a blog about my town called Rockville Central. It’s a sort of civic experiment, trying to open up new spaces for people to communicate on local public issues. It’s been successful (at least along most of the the measurements I care about) but it has fallen short in one aspect: not as many other people have followed suit as I suspected might. There was one other Rockville-based online information source called Rockville Living when I started (a very good site by the way). There are other info sources for the county, and some arts-related things, but not many new sites have cropped up that are just centered on the city.

I think there should be more and I have hoped that folks would emerge with their own blogs, looking at various aspects of what’s going on. But it hasn’t happened to the extent I’d like to see. At least not yet.

Now, to be fair, I have not been explicit about that hope the way Holly is in her post. I will be watching to see how other individuals respond to her call. So far, though, I have seen a small uptick in “outside contributions,” but it doesn’t look like Adam is working any less hard.

Maybe, over at my end, it’s time to start suggesting the idea to certain people directly!

Run A Local Newspaper?

Yesterday two things converged that really got me thinking about localism.

First, I published my analysis of Rockville Central’s reader survey. It was my first chance to see what the readers of my hyperlocal news site really thought about my volunteer work over the last eighteen months or so. It was very gratifying, and at the end I wrote: “[It is] clear that many, many of you who took the time to respond see Rockville Central as ‘yours.’ That means so much and I will always try to respect that.”

Second, I ran across a fascinating tips-from-the-trenches piece on what it’s like to take over and run a local newspaper. This piece included a great sidebar:

You Want To Buy A Weekly?

Find an owner/operator who is retiring. Don’t worry about quality. You can improve the content and revenue yourself. 

Financing was tough before the credit crunch, and it’s next to impossible now. So you may have to do an owner-financed deal or pay for this out of your own pocket. The price of a paper depends on its annual revenue, so if you’re looking for a deal, think small and rural.

Pack a lunch. You won’t have the time or the money to eat out for the first few months. (Perhaps years.)
 
Consider your business skills. You can create great journalism, but do you know how to run a circulation program and print labels? Keep track of ads and expenses? You have to take a hundred bags and bins to the post office — who will do that? 

Be humble. Readers don’t care if you won Pulitzer or interviewed governors. They care about their community, whether you make it better and whether you spell their name correctly.

Be true to yourself. This is tough. You’re running a business and you’re a valuable member of the community, but you have to uphold your core values.

All sounds very much like the advice I gave anyone thinking of starting their own community news blog!

It’s all got me thinking: Is it time to develop a real business model for Rockville Central, and embed it even further as a local institution?