Why Facebook Bugsmenot and helps me heart my Westie

OK, so we screwed up.

By we I mean the people such as me who were running news Websites.

When we did it, you rightfully hated it.

What’s remarkable is that Facebook is doing it and you love it so much you can’t get enough of it.

And I think it has some tremendous — and positive — implications for online advertising revenues.

Back to the beginning.

We screwed up by suddenly deciding one day in 2004 (or sooner or later) that we would club you over the head with a two-by-four and forcibly prevent you from seeing content on the site until you registered. When you registered, we asked you to tell us your income, whether you like music or sports, your age and give us all sorts of personal information.

Speaking as one who was on the receiving end of a bazillion vitriolic emails, I can say definitively that you hated it. I would come in each morning and start answering emails with “I am sorry …. but ….”

Believe me, I felt your pain.

The reason we launched registration, of course, was money.

I’m sorry to say that it wasn’t really all about you personally. It was about the collective you, and how much more we could charge advertisers when we told them about your fabulous demographics.

Right. Except that every other news Website did the same thing, so we were no better than anyone else. And sadly, you sliced out into such small groups that it was almost impossible to figure out how to price the ads targeted to your group.

And we spawned a growth industry: BugMeNot.com was born to quickly give you a password on request so you could get around all that crap. And with that, the reliability of the underlying data came into question.

Along comes Facebook. And it lets you create a page. And join groups. And join more groups. And even create groups. Facebook makes it easy for you to self-select into tiny niche slices and voluntarily – eagerly! — give out that very information that you hated giving to news Websites.

Take my eclectic list of groups.

I heart Westies. I heart my Westie Portia
I heart Dobermans. Trust me, I’m a journalist. Dallas Times Herald Diaspora. I’m not in any political groups, but I’ve been severely tempted by He’s not Kinky, he’s my governor. I did join my neighborhood, Mahncke Park, in San Antonio.

When I created a Facebook ad to find home for two puppies, I had the option, for another buck or two, to target the ad to a specific group.

Holy cow! For not much money I could make sure people a few blocks from my home who are dog lovers and have a good sense of humor see my ad? I seriously like that.

And so should the real estate agent down the street. And so should the deli around the corner. And so should the woman up the road who is running for Congress. And so should my friend over in Austin who is looking for people to work on an out-of-state campaign.

One more thing. Newspaper people on the content and editorial side never liked to acknowledge how many people bought the paper for the ads. Sacrilege!

Guess what? If I am on the I heart Westies page and I see an ad about a shampoo to help with their notoriously dry and itchy skin, I think that’s a good thing. Not an intrusive ad.

God forbid, I may actually think of it as content. Because I am there because I Heart Westies. To me, that ad is information.

I know. This is heracy. But it BugsMeNot.



Buc-ee’s in Luling, Texas is fast becoming the Wall Drug of the 3.5-hour stretch of Interstate 10 between Houston and San Antonio.

They’ve got a couple dozen billboards along the highway, including one that says, “Eat here, get gas,” and my husband’s favorite, “Ice. Made from scratch.”

Since we drive the route often to go see my favorite oncologist, it’s become a tradition for us to stop in just to see if the restrooms are as clean as they claim. (To quote another billboard: “Clean restrooms or your money back.”)

What they really need on their Website is a Flickr feed for photos of their billboards …

Tonight I succumbed to two fridge magnet versions of the billboards at the checkout. One says:

“Ice. Beer. Jerky.
All 3 Food Groups!
46 miles”

True story.

I was “Rove’d,” but he didn’t leave prints

Jay Rosen has some provocative things to say today about how well Karl Rove played the press corps and how, in his opinion, members of the media aren’t writing everything they know about Rove’s wily ways.

I really, really respect Jay, but I think he’s gone coastal on us here — East Coastal. News flash: There is a media outside of D.C. and New York, and we sometimes do work that’s above average.

My former colleague at the Dallas Morning News, Wayne Slater, co-authored a dandy little book about Rove called “Bush’s Brain.” The book is loaded with detailed stories of how Rove worked the media, and how members of the Texas media wrote about what Rove did and how he used them or tried to use them against his political opponents.

The book quotes an article Slater wrote for the News in 1999, in which he named Rove as the newspaper’s source of damaging information about a former Texas State Railroad Commissioner. When that news was published in 1992, it ended the woman’s political career.

And take this paragraph from “Bush’s Brain,” in the chapter Battles and Wars:

As Slater and other journalists traveling on the Bush Campaign knew, using operatives to attack opponents, leaking harmful information, or turning rumors into weapons, as was being done against McCain, was not a new tactic for Karl Rove. If traveling reporters did not know how Rove had used those tactics in the past, they did now. In campaigns at the state level, he had also used surrogates to blast opponents with leaks, whisper campaigns, and rumors while his clients remained above the fray. A Rove candidate was always able to honestly argue that he was running a clean, issues-oriented campaign because Rove stirred up the dirt without involving his client. He made phone calls to reporters, supplied documents, and produced third-party groups with damaging allegations. This approach, already a template for the modern electoral campaign, was refined by Rove with a deadly new precision.

There are many instances in the book where Slater names names and quotes reporters talking about specific things Rove did. Slater also quotes Rove in a sizzlingly threatening conversation over an article that Slater wrote about him in the News in 1999.

I’m not among the reporters quoted in the book, because when I was “Rove’d” he left no fingerprints, only whispers. It was 1994, and I had just finished interviewing Texas gubernatorial candidate George W. Bush for an article about his business background. Among other things, I asked Bush if he was aware that Harken Energy, where he was a director, was about to report a lousy quarter when he sold his stake in the company. When Bush sold 212,140 shares in June 1990, Harken stock was $4 a share. Weeks later, when the company announced staggering losses for the second quarter, the stock tumbled to $2.38 on the news.

Bush had maintained that even though he was on the Harken board’s audit committee, he wasn’t privvy to the company’s financial woes, and therefore hadn’t purposely sold ahead of the bad news. But fellow board member Stuart Watson had told me in an earlier interview that he and Bush had insisted on being kept abreast of all gory details of the struggling company.

“You bet we were. We were both trying to keep that company on the straight and narrow,” Watson had told me.

Watson subsequently told me he got a phone call from someone in the Bush campaign and at the urging of the caller, he telephoned my editors at the Dallas Morning News to say he hadn’t said what I quoted him saying.

Fortunately, the tape recorder I had put in plain view on the coffee table in the Watson’s living room when I interviewed him was working just fine. I had Watson’s words preserved, and quoted him accurately in the article I wrote.

Can I say for sure that it was a Rove “disinformation” trick? No. And that’s my alibi for not writing about it at the time.

But some folks in the Texas media did write about Rove’s bullying and disinformation tactics with reporters, both in news articles at the time and later in books. It irritates me no end that people in other time zones weren’t paying attention.

And that brings to mind another one of Molly Ivins’ fabulous lines:

“The next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States,” she wrote, “please, pay attention.”

There’s no such thing as off-the-record for journalists

Linda Greenhouse’s snit-fit over C-SPAN’s attempt to record her appearance in Washington D.C. at a journalism educators’ conference Friday is a stunning show of arrogance and cluelessness.

(Here’s the take on it by Columbia Journalism Review, and here is this morning’s limp defense of her move by Slate.)

In an interview with the AEJMC Reporter, Greenhouse denied the suggestion that she threatened to walk out unless C-SPAN’s cameras left:

“I have absolutely nothing against C-SPAN,” she said. “I never turn down an invitation from C-SPAN.”

But she said the panel would not “have the same kind of intimate conversation” if the discussion was televised.

Greenhouse followed up with a letter of explanation that’s quoted here.

OK, so Greenhouse is saying she didn’t want C-SPAN to broadcast her comments because she wanted to have an “intimate” conversation with 50 or so professors in “private.” So did all 50 journalism education professors in the audience agree not to tell anyone what she said? Hardly. She never asked that the discussion be off the record, according to the CJR account.

If she just assumed the event was off the record once the cameras left, then that’s just plain stupid, or arrogant, or both. And it is also assuming a level of control over the audience (and fellow panelists from Slate and the Washington Post) that — if it ever existed — certainly is nonexistent today.

No one can accuse Greenhouse of being afraid of TV. But it does sound like she wanted to say something different to this “intimate” crowd, something that she is afraid to take responsibility for on a broader stage. Journalism is no place for such cowardice.

Everything that a journalist does is on the record — whether it is the questions asked at a news conference or the negotiations with a source over obtaining whistleblower information. While the source may consider the conversation private today, what the reporter did or said, and the terms of the agreement or conversation can become painfully public. Just ask Judy Miller.

How a journalist asks a question can be as important to the context of the story as the answer. A reporter once handed me an audio recording of his interview with a mentally retarded inmate on Texas’ death row, to accompany his story online. When the reporter asked me to edit out his questions before posting it on our Website, I was mystified. “I don’t want people to think I sound stupid,” the reporter said. But he assumed we would leave the prisoner’s words verbatim. Really, now? Dude, your questions are on the record!

Even the way a journalist votes in an election can be on the record. Think not? If you choose to participate in party politics and vote in a primary, your choice of flavors becomes a matter of public record. And it can be held up to public scrutiny. Former Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham, a Republican, once neutralized half of the capitol press corps at a news conference when he revealed (in front of television cameras) that several reporters had voted Democratic in the gubernatorial primary, and therefore must be biased against him.

When someone speaks in front of a room full of 50 people, there is no pretending that it is “private,” or that your lips are moving but you aren’t making a sound.

Journalists, of all people, should expect that their words and actions will be held up to the same accountability standard as for public figures.

And if you’re afraid to stand behind your words, then pick another profession where it’s OK to be a coward.

Update: The AEJMC met the day after the Greenhouse incident and said its open meetings will be open in the future. Here’s the story from the association’s site:

The AEJMC board has made it official: Journalists are welcome to cover the association of journalism educators in the future.

That’s good. But I still say its some kind of kinky to call a gathering of 50 journalism educators “intimate,” and any reporter who thinks their remarks are off the record in a crowd that size is a fool.

Facebook, the dead tree edition and cute puppies

The other day I found something extremely cool hidden in plain view on Facebook, something that may spell more gloom for online newspaper classifieds, and which might even take a chunk out of eBay and Craigslist.
I found myself in possession of two extra puppies, thanks so some lout who dumped them in our yard during a thunderstorm.
We brought the 6-week-old girls in, dried them out, bought them a bag of designer puppy food and then began recycling newspapers the old fashioned way, in the bottom of a dog crate.
They were cute as all get out (think puppy breath!), and they looked right at home sitting on the front of the NYTimes’ Sunday Styles section.

(So that’s why we still subscribe to the dead tree edition!)

But we couldn’t keep them, because we already have two dogs and a cat. So we needed to find them new homes. I used the occasion to shoot my first video with our Canon PowerShot and then tried out iMovie to make my first very amateur (read: atrocious) video for the puppies’ debut on YouTube.
Hedging our bets, we put a color poster of the adorable duo — nicknamed Mocha and Latte — in the local Starbucks, in a shameless solicitation for new owners.

But what worked was Facebook. I put up an ad, and included a link to the girls’ first slideshow.

I got the first phone call in less than 45 minutes, and had four more inquiries by the end of the day. OK, so Craigslist does that too, right? Well, not quite right.

My brother’s best friend, Mary Giovannini, who runs the Website of the Haines, Alaska animal shelter, cautioned me immediately about giving puppies away for free, fearing they would be scooped up by someone who would then sell them to an animal testing lab.

But because of Facebook, I could give the puppies to someone who, while I didn’t know them personally, came with a profile and a resume and references of sorts. Each of the people who were interested in the puppies opened their profile to me so I could get a sense of who they were. At the same time, they could see who I am — a journalist and a professor, with friends from here to kingdom come who will track you down if you so much as harm a hair on those puppies’ heads!

Less than 48 hours after the ad went up, Hillary came by our house and got the latte-colored, smaller pup, whose name is now Daisy.

When Brittany sent me a message the next day about the pups, I replied that there was one left. Thanks to a prompt from Facebook, I was able to add my answer “to the FAQ” on the ad. Nice! how many times have we told people looking at our Craigslist ad that we really did mean that the motorcyle does not run … really! I would love to be able to automatically append my answers on Craigslist as an FAQ, what a timesaver!

That night, Brittany and her mom came by, and they took the little cutie whose name is now Peanut.

Now both young women are sending me messages in Facebook with updates on Daisy and Peanut. And they’re sending me puppy pictures! I could never do that through the newspaper classifieds — or Craigslist, or eBay.

Facebook gets something that is really, really important: When I know who someone is, I feel a whole lot better, whether it is sharing content or a “business” transaction, like finding a new home for two very lucky puppies.