Free speech in peril in Paris, Texas

A ruling today by a judge in Paris, Texas looks to me like it could have serious ramifications for the First Amendment rights of bloggers and whistleblowers.

I first read about the case of The-Paris-site in this article by R. G. Ratcliffe (thanks for the onpass, Willie!):

AUSTIN — Paris, Texas, population 26,490, has become an unlikely Internet frontier with the filing of a defamation lawsuit by the local hospital against a critical anonymous blogger.

The lawsuit is testing the bounds of Internet privacy, First Amendment freedom of speech and whistle-blower rights.

(read more)

The next chapter is posted today on The-Paris-site, prefaced by a lovely quote from the courtroom scene in Arlo Guthrie’s song, Alice’s Restaurant, which seems absurdly appropriate.

I’d love to read some reaction to this from some of my favorite lawyers, including the folks who hang out in the First Amendment corner. While I’ve exercised that amendment as much as possible in my career, I certainly don’t have my ticket to practice.

Somebody tell me: Is this as troubling as it looks?

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Beaver redemption

I had a delightful conversation yesterday with Don Wasek, co-owner of Buc-ee’s, and an acknowledged novice blogger.

“I am new at this,” he said in an email responding to my complaint that the Buc-ee’s blog had lifted my words. Then he asked if he could call me for some advice.

We chatted on the phone for a good bit, talking about blogging and the whys and hows. He said he uses the Buc-ee’s Blog to post the testimonials and comments that pour into the corporate Website from Buc-ee’s fans. (By way of explanation, the other co-owner of the convenience store chain is “Beaver” Aplin.)

Wasek explained to me that he didn’t use people’s names with their comments because the woman who set it up for him told him not to use people’s names without their permission. But he said he really thinks it’s more believable when you use people’s names.

Well, we sure agree on that one. I suggested he start soliciting permission from people who send in comments so he can use their words with their names on the blog — most of them would probably love it.

As for other bloggers, I told him that we like being picked up and quoted by blogs like his. The blogosphere works best when you quote other blogs in your blog and you link out to them. That helps people find your blog, and it lends credibility to your blog.

So I walked him through the blockquote format and showed him how to link out to another blog, in this case, to mine. (It’s all better now, he even spelled my name right!) I also suggested that he do the same link thing on another post he had on the blog quoting a story about Buc-ee’s from my alma mater, MySanAntonio.com.

As we were winding down, he asked if all of my students at UNLV just communicate through blogs. I chuckled and explained that I was teaching the students to use blogs to commit journalism.

But I said I’m thinking that we also need to teach the marketing and public relations students how to blog, since corporate blogging is a fine art at places like Dell and Google.

And then, maybe we could offer up a student intern to be Buc-ee’s blog guru for the summer. Ya think?

The dam beaver stole my words

I’ve been doing this journalism gig for a good while now, and never before have I had to take on an imaginary beaver for a very real case of plagiarism.

Buc-ee

But Buc-ee’s gone and done it now. He stole the words right off of my blog and stacked them over here.

If the beaver had spoken to anyone who knows me, he might have realized what a huge mistake it is to steal words from me. I take it very, very seriously.

As I’ve told my students at the beginning of each semester, in the 10 years or so I spent as an editor, I only fired three people; two of them were fired for plagiarism, one online and one in print.

Last fall, a few students didn’t take that warning seriously. Four of them stole other people’s words and turned them in as their own in class assignments. One stole from a story written by a reporter for the Associated Press, another stole from a story in the Las Vegas Review Journal and another stole from both of them and from the student newspaper, the Rebel Yell, taking words from a story written by another of my students!

They flunked the class. I was very happy to give them the grade they earned for such thievery: an F. Those students are now on academic probation, and if they do it again, they will be kicked out of school.

So what to do about the beaver? I can’t fire him and I can’t flunk him (though he has already flunked himself).

I can do something even better: turn him into a teaching tool!

Among other things, I’m teaching blogging this semester, and there’s been some discussion in class about whether the rules are different for bloggers. The short answer is no. Whether you are published in a newspaper, have your story broadcast on television or radio, or if you post in a blog, the same basic rules apply.

Here’s my simple version of the most important rules of journalism:

Rule No. 1: No stealing other people’s stuff.

Rule No. 2: No making stuff up.

Now back to the beaver. I’m sending this blog post to the email address on Buc-ee’s corporate Web site. That’s because Buc-ee’s Blog doesn’t have any contact information and has the comments field disabled on its blog.

I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, I’d love to see some student comments here after we talk about Buc-ee’s blunder in class today.

Update: Here is the text of the note that I put into the comment area of Buc-ee’s corporate Website this evening:

 

Hello!

I am writing to alert you that the blog that is being compiled under your auspices (Buc-ee’s Beaver Blog http://buc-ees.com/wordpress/) is not properly crediting people who have written about Buc-ee’s.

I am a journalist, and the post I wrote about Buc-ee’s, was purloined and posted, word-for-word on the Buc-ee’s Blog in a manner that made it appear as if Buc-ee’s had written the words.

I have written about the plagiarized post here: https://charlotteanne.wordpress.com/2007/09/17/the-damn-beaver-stole-my-words/

I would be quite happy for you to properly quote my work *with proper attribution,* and I will update my audience (and the students in my journalism class at the university) once you have done so.

I look forward to hearing from you,

Sincerely,

Charlotte-Anne Lucas

 

 

 

Hey, check this out!

The Project for Excellence in Journalism just released a nice summary of the content on user-driven news sites Reddit, Digg and Del.icio.us, but I think the authors of the report missed the point.

The report found little or no overlap between the stories that were pushed to the top of the page on the user-driven sites and the top news stories chosen on those days by mainstream media. The authors concluded — wrongly, I think — that the news agenda is different for the user sites than it is in the mainstream media.

Here’s an excerpt from the overview:

In a week when the mainstream press was focused on Iraq and the debate over immigration, the three leading user-news sites — Reddit, Digg and Del.icio.us — were more focused on stories like the release of Apple’s new iphone and that Nintendo had surpassed Sony in net worth, according to the study. …

  • The news agenda of the three user-sites that week was markedly different from that of the mainstream press. Many of the stories users selected did not appear anywhere among the top stories in the mainstream media coverage studied. And there was often little in the way of follow-up. Most stories on the user-news sites appeared only once, never to be repeated again in the week we studied.

What’s wrong here? I think the authors aren’t thinking about the bigger context and how people behave. We know from the pageviews that Iraq is genuinely big news and people pound the Web for news stories about it.

But don’t confuse important with interesting or odd or useful.

I won’t go to the effort of Digging or emailing a big or widely distributed news story. That’s because I assume people already know about the story, and what is more uncool than proving in public that you have a firm grasp on the obvious?

The odd, unusual, or personally relevant piece, now there’s something I’m likely to pass along, or to Digg.

Those of us who ran news Websites loved comparing the headlines of the “most popular” stories on the site to the headlines of the “most emailed” stories on the site. On most days, those are two very different lists.

That’s also why I keep a Digg feed in my Netvibes start page; not because that’s where I get all of my news, but because that’s where I can count on getting something that I won’t find anywhere else. If I were running a news Website today, I’d offer readers an RSS feed of the “most emailed stories” list, and I bet it would sell.

It’s not that Web news consumers have a different news agenda than mainstream media, it’s that we have a wide variety of interests and we fit into multiple niches. The user-driven Web sites make it easier for people to highlight something that isn’t already well-known, and they make it easier for the insatiable me to graze over more corners of the news buffet.

It’s sort of like leafing through the inside pages of the dead tree edition and serendipitously finding something that made you say, “Hey, check this out!”

9/11 again

Lights from Ground Zero

Lights from Ground Zero

Thanks to my dear friend, colleague and adopted sister, Holly Hegeman, who saved and republished on her blog today the words I wrote when I was an editor at TheStreet.com to describe that awful September morning:

At 8:26 a.m. I sent an Instant Message to our market columnist, Bill Meehan, asking if he’d be sending me his column at midday. His reply was a simple, “yup.” A few minutes later, television started carrying live images of the inferno coming out of the top of one of the World Trade Center towers. Then another columnist for the site pinged me with a frantic question: “Isn’t that the building Meehan is in?”

I looked at the television again, then pulled up Meehan’s Instant Message window to ping him and see if he was OK. But I was too late. The IM window said it all: Wmeehan100 signed off at 8:49:35 AM.

There I was in my office in San Antonio, Texas, watching television images of a tower burning half a country away. And yet the message on my computer screen made it personal. Horrifying. And close enough to touch.

Here’s to Holly, to Tony Dwyer, Chris Edmonds, John Raess, Herb Greenberg, Adam Feuerstein, Jim Seymour, Gretchen Lembach, Todd Harrison and the others who shared that day on AIM, and who rose to write about it on TheStreet.com.

It seems like yesterday.

Dead tree dinosaurs and the fabulous future of the news bidness

I once said that I left newspapers in the late 1990s because I didn’t want to be encased in amber.

That’s cold, I know, but true.

I’ve worked for more than my share of “former” newspapers. And at the surviving papers today, I’m seeing many bosses do the blame game and have ugly public panic attacks as their print products teeter on the abyss of irrelevance.

No doubt some will fall in.

But while some newspapers are shaky, I’m an incurable optimist about the news business, and here’s why: There’s more evidence that people are hungry for news and they will take the time to hunt it down and pounce on it when they find it.

My colleague Steve Yelvington recently pointed to a new report from McKinsey & Company that he said left him “glum about the newspaper business.”

The other day, when commenting on the MinnPost.com announcement, I said “we may be heading for a world in which nothing is dominant.”

Now comes a bit of research from the management-consulting firm McKinsey & Company that demonstrates what I meant. The charts are hard to read, but here’s the nut graf: “The research — an online survey of 2,100 consumers in the United States — found that the respondents divide their time among as many as 16 news brands a week. ‘Brand promiscuity,’ it appears, is the norm. Such findings have implications for media companies as they refine their products and strategies.”

Yes, the report says a serious bunch of people in the U.S. — about 24 million — have largely abandoned newspapers. But they haven’t abandoned news, which they are getting from other sources, including the Internet and blogs.

How much do they crave news? Check out Akamai’s Net Usage Index with a worldwide News Consumption meter. (You can even download a hypnotic little widget for your desktop to monitor who’s consuming the news, when and where.)

Now blend that demand with the McKinsey & Company report, which says some news consumers will go to as many as 16 places to find what they’re looking for!

That tells me news niches are here to stay and we need to let the notion of a mass medium — the all-things-to-all-people newspaper — sink into the amber.

Even back in the day, frankly, no one paper could sate my hunger for news. I needed at least two newspapers, some magazines, some newsletters, some radio and some television.

That’s because there is no one mass that works for all of us. Each of us is a mass of different niches.

Thanks to the wonders of Ajax, I can now have my 25 current favorite niches fed into little modules on my Netvibes start page. Among other things, I have the local weather, my three favorite news feeds, an online magazine, a half dozen journalism and news blogs, a Flickr photo montage of photos tagged “San Antonio,” a YouTube feed of video tagged “politics,” and a dynamic Craigslist search for something I’m in the market for.

And if the local news organization does something smart, like offering me a feed of content that I can’t get anywhere else – content about my neighborhood, for instance – then it will earn a piece of real estate on my Netvibes start page.

But if it continues to do stupid, dying newspaper tricks like cutting costs by eliminating the neighborhood sections and making it harder to find (I’m not making this up; they really did that where I used to work), well then, it belongs in the rear view mirror.

I think the future of the news business is bright. And I think it’s going to be a whole heck of a lot of fun finding new ways to tell true stories in a world of very hungry niches.