Blog it (well) and they will come

Students in my Digital Storytelling class zoomed into the prime time blogosphere this week, providing live, multimedia coverage of the Democratic presidential debate and the accompanying mayhem at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Besides making more than 150 posts to the UNLV Presidential Debate 2007 blog, many of the students published audio, photos and text directly to the blog from their cell phones, using a new, free tool called Utterz.

The 17 students also provided solid journalistic coverage of the week’s events, including writing about CNN’s shabby behavior on campus. The post about CNN consistently ranked as the second most popular one on the blog after it went up Tuesday evening.

As of Friday morning, the blog was less than 100 hours old and had received more than 1,100 pageviews. Stats from our host, WordPress, show that the audience is coming from WordPress tags, MySpace bulletins, emails and link-love from places like Utterz and from my alma mater site in San Antonio and from my own Facebook profile, where I’ve posted and linked to it.

The students have been required to maintain a personal blog all semester, and this breaking news group blog was part of the plan in the syllabus all along. (Translation: They are being graded on their work, so there was some incentive — besides the sheer fun of it — to participate enthusiastically!)

Some aspects of the blog came as little or no surprise, because we spent a lot of time in class discussing things such as:

  • Transparency and ethics. So when I accidentally broke the blog Thursday evening, I wrote about it. That’s transparency — letting viewers know what’s going on, particularly when you’ve just screwed up.
  • Journalism. They know one of my basic rules is “quote ‘em if they can’t take a joke.” So when representatives of CNN acted rudely in public, the students wrote about it here, here and here. They told the truth. (New basic rule: Don’t underestimate students who buy their pixels by the barrel.)
  • Finding and telling true stories in different mediums. So they were as comfortable as could be expected when I didn’t give them any more specifics on their assignments than “don’t bore me,” and “tell me what happened,” and do it with text and audio and photos and video.
  • Marketing, search engine optimization and visibility. So when it came time to do this blog, they tagged the blazes out of their posts (and sent out bulletins on MySpace!) — and they got your eyeballs.

But one thing I hadn’t expected was how much time we would spend in class wrangling with technology. It amazed me how difficult it was to even get a blessed piece of audio off of a digital recorder and onto the students’ blogs.

So after I talked to Randy Corke, the co-founder and president of Utterz when I was at BlogWorld last week, I decided the student bloggers would try something I hadn’t planned on or tested because it sounded like just the pixie dust we needed to make this blog fly.

Utterz lets you use your cell to send in photos, video, text and audio, then it mashes them together and plunks the finished product right down into a blog post. If there’s anything else like this out there, I sure hadn’t heard of it. Update: Here is a linknk to what somebody a lot smarter than I am had to say about Utterz two months ago.

Because these students are almost digital natives and all the way fearless, they tried it on deadline, and they not only made it work, they made it sing. One of them immediately waded into a crowd of demonstrators, interviewed people with his cell phone and had the audio up on the blog in less than 10 minutes — it was his first live “radio” interview. Holy cow!

(Here is a list on Utterz of all of the student posts tagged UNLV — you can see the good, the tests and the things we can learn from.)

How long have I been waiting for something like this? I told Randy a story about something that happened long ago and far away, in Phoenix, where my husband was the assistant city editor in charge of the cops and courts team at the Arizona Republic in the mid-1980s. His reporters were lugging those huge, shoebox-shaped Motorola “mobile” phones around to crime scenes out on the sticks, and they also had those whiz-bang Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100s to file their stories.

One day my husband asked the Motorola representative if they couldn’t come up with some sort of gizmo to make the two devices physically connect to each other. The dude from Motorola just shook his head dismissively. “No one would ever use that,” he said.

And then there was the year of deadly hurricanes, Emily, Katrina and Rita.

As content director at MySanAntonio.com, I launched what I jokingly referred to as the world’s first interdenominational, multimedia hurricane blog. We pulled off the unthinkable: We got television reporters and newspaper reporters and newspaper photographers to all get along inside the same blog, and to file like someone else’s life depended on it.

We had it all — except the technology to easily pull it together. In the end, the “man behind the curtain” at that blog was one of my Web editors taking dictation over the phone because we had no other way to get the television meteorologist’s spoken words to go from a cell phone in a satellite truck in the field directly into the blog.

Well, now we do. And that’s not just a baby step toward real independent and mobile journalism.

Billionaire Mark Cuban says bloggers should shun ads, sponsors

Easy for him to say.

Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA Dallas Mavericks and a net worth north of $2 billion, also happens to be a blogger. So when he came to speak at the BlogWorld Expo in Las Vegas, a couple hundred bloggers showed up and listened up.

Cuban said a lot of provocative things, but what I’m still shaking my head over his is “get-thee-to-a-nunnery” attitude about blogs and money.

“Should you worry about revenue?” Cuban asked the audience.

“No. 1, if you get a sponsor, your customers always own you,” he said. “No. 2, I have no doubt in my mind that a blog that has Google ads — it cheapens it, and it won’t get read.” He acknowledged that he’d outlined a “no win situation,” but added, “it is reality.”

So should bloggers take a vow of poverty for life? “Once you start getting some traffic, then you can make a decision (about advertising), but (not) in the beginning,” he said.

Cuban called bloggers who take ads “sellouts,” and included those who bring in sponsors or sell themselves to aggregators in the unapproved column as well.

“Are you still a blogger if you are getting paid to do it for somebody else?” he asked. “I don’t think so,” he answered. “What’s the difference between someone getting paid to write for Huffington (Post) vs. writing for the Dallas Morning News?”

Cuban clearly sees blogging as a higher order. “Blogging is a way for truth to come out — blogging is a way for alternative ideas and opinions to come out.”

In part because he sees his blog as a way to counter the mainstream media, he doesn’t have a lot of regard for newspapers turning their reporters into bloggers. “I don’t get it,” he said. “Either you are a reporter or you are not. To me, you got to keep them separate.”

Working for the man, so to speak, “your brain is gonna change,” he said. “If you take the step to get paid to blog, you are going to lose your ability to be perfectly honest. Because somebody wants something for their money … You go to work, you got a boss, you can’t be brutally honest.”

He celebrates the fact that with his blog, “instead of talking to one or two people I got to talk to a whole universe of people.”

But at the same time, he says a blog is “just an application.” And he’s not a fan of user-generated content. “When it is easy to create, then everybody does it,” he said. “The longer the tail, the longer it takes to crawl up to even the ass, much less to get to the head.”

With such an ocean of information to choose from, Cuban said he has set up RSS feeds on about 500 blogs and newsfeeds, and goes to the homepages of about 10 sites daily.

One of the automated feeds he said he gets is through IceRocket.com where he has a vanity search for his own name and misspellings of his name.

OK, so what would the billionaire like to buy next?

He likes Facebook. (And Facebook likes him. Mark has 4,459 Facebook friends as of this writing, along with a relatively private public profile.) “I look at my own Facebook page, and no place else is like that. Facebook is where you are who you are. Facebook has the opportunity to be ginormous.”

“Facebook, if I could afford it, I would buy it in a heartbeat.”

Blogging, journalism and ethics

Just a quick note that I will be on a panel at Blogworld Expo in Las Vegas this morning talking about blogging ethics.

This should be a great discussion, and I will recap it here later today. As the students in my Digital Storytelling class at UNLV know, we’ve spent almost as much time on ethics this semester as we have on the storytelling aspects of blogs and journalism.

And then there was the time when an imaginary beaver turned into an ethics teaching tool right here on my blog

As is always the case, I know I’m gonna learn something today!