Washington Post, What Happened to You?

Washington Post, what happened to you? You’re the paper of Woodward and Bernstein, a beloved local institution and a veritable fourth branch of government.

Coming home after a Saturday night carousing, I used to love to see the trucks lined up outside your building on 15th Street. Back then (the 90s), the paper was printed right next to the Post’s HQ. Blue trucks would be double-parked along the street, waiting to deliver the news to the region.

And if I stayed out late enough, I could pick up the fat slab of Sunday’s paper while it was still technically Saturday night. There was a weird thrill to this, getting the news ahead of everyone else. The Sunday paper was an event, something everyone read.

This is all gone now. Where once stories were reported, fact-checked, edited and edited again before the presses rolled, news these days emerges in electronic form, often-rushed and incomplete. This is a good thing. I am for more news, more information, for the great cornucopia of the web. No more gatekeepers, let the public decide what matters.


But the Washington Post is an institution. It is a brand expressing journalistic quality and integrity. When they publish something, I expect it to be true.

I don’t expect the Washington Post to be running a digital sweatshop, where young journalists are expected to churn out regurgitated news items in the mad pursuit of impossible traffic goals.

How does this fit into the great tradition of the Post? The strength of the paper is its ability to really delve into issues. Why are they trying to be like some smarmy blog?

And getting a few hits on your site – what is that really winning you? Traffic rushes in to click on a link and then rushes off to some other site.

At the What’s Next DC conference, I watched Katharine Zaleski, the paper’s digital news director, give a presentation on the strategy. Coming from the Huffington Post, she brought a relentless focus on metrics. News was to be measured. And the measurement was site traffic. She had charts showing how traffic to the site had increased as the Post increased its “buzziness,” with efforts like news aggregation and blogging.

Does the Washington Post really want to emulate The Huffington Post? Do they want to “surf the trend waves on the Internet”? Shouldn’t the paper be making waves rather than trying to catch them?

And are ephemeral bursts of web traffic the right metric to follow? If so, why not just turn your site over to cat videos? But the Post is more than that, isn’t it?

Stay true to your mission – quality journalism. It’s what you do best. Stop trying to be cool. Don’t go for viral. Avoid “buzziness” and all its advocates.

Instead, simplify. Be the Apple of newspapers. Don’t add more web gimmickry to your cluttered and unusable web site. Focus on what you do best.

Don’t measure web hits – look at engagement. How long do people stay on the site? How many stories do they read? Try to duplicate the loyalty readers once felt toward the paper that they lovingly held in their hands. Better to have 100,000 devoted readers than a million casual followers.

No more second-rate social media. It’s beneath you, Washington Post. Simplify, focus on your strengths and pursue engagement with readers to be true to your news-breaking legacy.

I Wish I Had Tweeted More: Confessions of a Social Media Skeptic

SXSW 2007I was there at the beginning.

In 2007, Twitter leapt into geek consciousness at SXSW Interactive. Monitors had been placed in the halls of this tech conference, displaying what people were tweeting about. I thought it was an interesting curiosity, like watching telegrams in real time. Little bursts of text scrolled across the screen, as people shared opinions about the workshops that they were in.

Imagine, prior to this epochal event of just five years ago, we had no easy way of getting real-time information from our friends, unless of course we talked to them. And when we went to events, we were fully present, listening to speakers without constantly checking our electronic devices. We paid attention, more or less. Or nodded off. Or wandered away, in search of something more interesting, guided only by instinct. Continue reading “I Wish I Had Tweeted More: Confessions of a Social Media Skeptic”

Should You Yammer?

I’m quoted in this article on AOL Government about using internal social networks. Imagine a company-wide version of Twitter or Facebook and you’ll have a good idea of how an internal social network works. They’re non-hierarchical, open environments where employees can share information.

Perhaps the best known of these systems is Yammer. It’s billed as an “enterprise social networks” but looks and operates so much like Facebook that people can start using it immediately. If you know how to post updates and respond to friends on Facebook, then they you quickly figure out Yammer. Continue reading “Should You Yammer?”

Execution Trumps Strategy at What's Next DC

Execution trumps strategy, according to Rachel Tipograph, social media director for the Gap. She was a very wise speaker on the “how” of actually getting things done in large organizations. Creating meaningful experiences online is more important than endless rounds of strategy and planning. As I listened to her speak at What’s Next DC, I watched heads bobbing in agreement around the room.

Execution > Strategy. Which is how I feel about conferences devoted to social media. How can you develop the perfect social media strategy in an ever-changing environment, especially when success is determined by the audience? It’s better to dive in, create something, and see what works.

I was at What’s Next DC thanks to my own bit of execution – I made a pithy comment on the importance of storytelling on GovLoop and won a free ticket to this conference on digital marketing. Continue reading “Execution Trumps Strategy at What's Next DC”

Don't Outsource Social Media to Interns

I’m old enough to remember the early days of the web. Back then (not too long ago, the 1990s), organizations didn’t take this online medium seriously. The web site paled in importance to the newsletter or magazine, at least according the leaders of the time. After all, who reads things on a computer? The Internet was a place for nerds and geeks, for them to discuss Star Trek trivia and learn arcane HTML codes.

If you ran a company or a nonprofit, you really didn’t need a web site, or so people believed. And if you wanted a web site, you could have your nephew build it. He could make something flashy and “cool” like MySpace.

I see the same attitude today toward social media. Why should an organization invest in Facebook or Twitter? Let the interns handle it…

But would you trust an intern to be the voice of your organization? That’s the point I made in a recent article in AOL Government. If you accept the fact that social media is important (and you should, because that’s where the audience is), then why would you hand over these communication efforts to those who know the least about your company? Do you trust college kids to spread your message, respond to questions and interact with potential customers? Do they know the hot-button issues within your company? The language that you use with customers? Your customer service standards and policies? The things that they’re *not* supposed to talk about?

And what happens when the interns leave? They take all that hard-won knowledge about your organization with them, as well as valuable expertise in social media. And they may take the Twitter account as well.

Social media is too important to be left to a transient workforce. Companies and organizations should take a deliberate approach to this dynamic new tool. The keys to the social media kingdom shouldn’t be in the hands of someone who just walked in the door.

Your voice online should be controlled by someone who both knows your company and is familiar with the culture of the web and social media. Look around – you probably have someone already with the requisite experience and interest. They’re probably doing something perceived as more important. But what’s more important than representing your brand in a medium that reaches millions?

The "Now, Discover Your Strengths" Approach to Social Media

Now, Discover Your Strengths is one of the very few personal improvement books worth the money. It’s been superseded by the awkwardly-titled StrengthsFinder 2.0 but the message is the same in the new book:

You should concentrate on what you’re best at. Don’t try to improve your weaknesses, instead sharpen the skills that you do better than anyone else. It’s a countervailing message in this age of self-improvement. It says to drop what you suck at (I’m never going to be a great basketball player) and work on what you do best (writing and photography). Continue reading “The "Now, Discover Your Strengths" Approach to Social Media”

Birthing a Book the National Geographic Way

I had the privilege to work with Janice Hall Booth. She’s a very inspiring woman who wrote a great book, Only Pack What You Can Carry. It’s like Eat, Pray, Love but is about someone who actually went out into the world and did something 😉 Her message is that you can find your personal mission through solo travel.

Janice has been a whitewater rafter, a photographer, a nonprofit executive and an avid adventurer, always willing to push the limits of what’s possible.

Only Pack What You Can Carry
Only Pack What You Can Carry

But perhaps her most challenging adventure was getting a book published! She’s been blogging about this and has now put the publishing story together in a handy PDF. Find out how she was discovered and what it was like working with National Geographic. It’s a warts and all look at the publishing world, told with her trademark honesty.

And I make a brief cameo at the end, as Janice’s new media coach. While I gave her checklists to follow and guides to blogging, my advice was really simple – use the tools that you’re most comfortable with to tell your fascinating story.

Why I'm Not at SXSW This Year

SXSW 2007
SXSW in 2007

SXSW Interactive is an annual conference of social media and web geeks in Austin. It’s a huge, exhausting event that takes place over a long weekend in March and is popularly known as the conference that introduced Twitter and other new forms of communication.

The criticism now is that it’s gotten too big and too corporate, dominated by giant corporations trying to be hip. And that it’s gotten to be such a chaotic moshpit that it leads to network outages.

I went to SXSW in 2007 and 2008, just the right moment before it became mainstream. The conference taught me to love the brilliant minds at 37signals, whose radically hopeful ideas about the future of work cannot arrive soon enough. I learned that project management should be as simple as possible. Gantt charts and MS Project should be avoided in favor of clear goals that everyone can understand. REWORK is their vision for the ideal work environment, where meetings and busywork are eschewed in favor of collaboration and results. Their philosophy is subversive and attractive for anyone stuck in boring meetings or lengthy conference calls. Continue reading “Why I'm Not at SXSW This Year”

Lessons from the Fire – Part One

So, late one afternoon, my building caught fire. My apartment was fine; other people weren’t so lucky. This is part one of lessons learned. Check out part two for my thoughts on the importance of communication after the fire.

I got the call around 6:30 PM.

“Oh, Joe, I think your building is on fire.”

It was a friend of mine, John Hanshaw, who lives nearby. He could see my apartment building and said that it was surrounded by fire engines.

I really didn’t believe him at first. DC sends out fire trucks for everything. They roll not just for fires, but for medical calls as well. This is because the ambulances are unreliable and sometimes can’t find the right address. The thinking is that the local fire company knows the neighborhood better.

But this makes the city a “land of sirens”, with fire trucks constantly racing down streets, sirens blaring. After a while, the commotion becomes so much background noise. Continue reading “Lessons from the Fire – Part One”

More Thoughts on Transparency Camp 09

Some more random thoughts about Transparency Camp 09. Here are my big take-aways from the conference.

Excitement: There’s a tremendous amount of enthusiasm among enlightened advocates of government transparency, fueled by the election of Obama and the mainstreaming of Web 2.0 tools like blogging. There’s a real can-do spirit, which is in marked contrast to continuing bad news about the economy. 

The Importance of Free Beer: How do you get people to hang out after the formal sessions of a conference, for a further exchange of ideas? You offer them free beer, of course (courtesy of Peter Corbett). I saw this at SXSW too. The convivial sharing of booze leads people to make connections they never would’ve made.

Twitter is Useful: This micro-blogging service was a great utility during the conference. Attendees tagged their tweets with #tcamp09, which enabled anyone (even people not at the conference) to see what attendees were saying about the sessions.

Macs are Everywhere: I was pleased to see so many Macs at the conference. The facility at GW had outlets at every table and wifi was available as well, which led to a proliferation of laptops, the majority of which were Macs.

Education is Needed: Advocates of open and accessible government need to learn more about the near infinite complexities of government policies and procedures. A host of rules limit what government can do online. Also, there’s not “one government” as Jeff Levy from EPA repeated over and over. Different government agencies have different IT policies and requirements. Pity the poor developer who wants to create a web application for all of government. 

As someone with a background in government and nonprofit web sites, I got a tremendous amount out of this conference. Attending events like this, you come away with renewed excitement about the possibilities of the web and a host of new ideas to explore.