Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Washington Post Strikes Bloggers Again?

Well, if they wanted to generate some hits and drive the ad revenue from the internet, there is nothing like putting the hex on some bloggers to get a good head of steam up on the internet and drive visitors there.

Far be it for me to cut the revenues of the Washington Post and not keep them out of a future of bankruptcy, from Castle Argghh! a link to what looks like hit job number two from the post: Army Buying PR

Word comes from RL that the Army has hired PR firm Hass MS&L of Detroit to offer "exclusive editorial content" to blogs willing to run government propaganda.

"The Army believes that military blogs are a valuable medium for reaching out," account executive Charlie Kondek has written to a number of pro-military blogs in a January 6 Email.

"To that end, the Army plans to offer you and selected bloggers exclusive editorial content on a few issues you’re likely to be interested in," Kondek says. The Email has been mentioned in Black Five, One Hand Clapping and Fuzzilicious Thinking.

I'm not sure I know what the think of this. Military families are increasingly relying on soldier blogs and support networks based on blogs to keep in touch, and maybe this is an innocuous way for the Army to push its "public affairs" content to the new medium.

I responded with a comment that starts out with:

I guess I take issue with a few things that have been said about this. First of all, the title is misleading because you are implying these blogs will take money for this effort:

The Army's Buying PR

Update: Fuzzilicious, one of the Posts "hit" people, responds here and here

The rest of the comment posted to the Post in the "read more" section here.

I know your first sentence talks about a PR firm that the military has hired and I'm sure somewhere in there the intent was to talk about the military using and paying for a PR firm, but since the rest of your post was about blogs, you and I both know that you are implying these blogs are "bought" in some way. It sounds like the same hatchet job that the Post did on Bill Roggio.

When in truth, the military working with PR firms is not new news (except maybe in the media who are now acting all surprised when I'd bet my last dollar this paper and many like it have been approached with stories or received over the "wire" reports pushed, ranked or otherwise indicated by PR organizations - is the media "bought"? Or, because they choose which of these stories to print and follow up on, are they still independent?)

Second, from my perspective, this sounds like an end-run operation of the media itself that has been hostile to blogs as some sort of "rabble" to try to discredit blogs (what are you saying? See, they aren't all "independent" thus are untrustworthy as opposed to papers like the Post?)

Third, you'd be really surprised to learn that the military has been doing more than hiring PR firms. For instance, after linking to several stories from Centcom, a very nice PAO sent me an email and pointed out that there were icons and other nifty features on the site that I could use and would I consider giving them a link on my side bar? (Oh, no, the Nazis in the government had a site meter and could see what IPs and web addresses had visited their site! Er...wait a minute, doesn't every website basically do that, like this paper? I mean, I know I have a site meter that provides me a list of "referrers" whenever I want and I regularly go see who's referring to me and why and, hey, sometimes, I even end up linking permanently to those sites and vis-a-versa...it's all a conspiracy I tell ya!)

As a blogger, I actually didn't have a problem with this. Yes, I realize they were asking for "free publicity" but three factors were at play: 1) I do link to them and people read my blog to get a round up of stories and a few comments or, when I have time, longer analysis of the situation, so why should I hold them hostage to only seeing the links to the military site whenever I feel like discussing it? What if they wanted to read information themselves on a regular basis after they saw comments from me? Thus, good reason to put a permanent link on the side bar; 2) If I put a link on my sidebar, I don't have to go searching through a long list of "favorites" or do a search to locate the site again, I can just hit it myself on a regular basis to see if there were any interesting stories that went along with my general theme for the day (kind of like the media and news wire services except I get to by pass the media and decide for myself, and, oh, I don't get paid); 3) The military offered me no money nor made any pitches about PR or gave me any sob story about lack of information getting out, the email was in fact nearly a mirror of many emails that I had gotten from other people asking me to give them a link on my side bar or the many emails I had sent fellow travellers requesting the same. A very common practice on the internet for both commercial and non-commercial entities (see the links to other stories and advertisers on this page of the online Washington Post; same goes for personal websites except there is a whole lot less money- if any- being exchanged)

An interesting fact for myself, that I'm sure will apply to these other bloggers, linking to Centcom on my side bar did not make me link directly to anymore stories from there than I had previously. I still read the site and still decide if I am going to link or talk about any story. the only difference is, providing the link, if I don't provide a story from there, my readers can do an "end run" around me and go read things for themselves. Shockingly, the very thing that the internet is best at: free flow of info and freedom of choice to read or not (something that papers like the Post just aren't very good at comparatively speaking).

As I am a reader of these blogs that you mention, I am aware of the content that they provide already and none of them are parrots of some military line, all have posted on different subjects (for instance, Fuzzilicious blogs a lot about the project she is involved with Project Valour IT that provides voice activated laptops for wounded soldiers) and they aren't always "good news". They blog about what hits them at that moment and I am thinking they will continue to do the same, just as I have, ie, be independent and decide whether any information provided fits with their current thoughts or stories they are talking about.

Thus, whatever you are implying here about the lack of independence of blogs is just dead wrong. They aren't going to become some dreaded automaton "wire service" for the media just turning out the stories fed to them on a daily basis. You have one part right and that is that blogs have been independent and will stay so unless they are a "corporate blog" and then all bets are off.

Fourth, why are the main stream media folks so upset about this? The military is doing an end run around them and looking for other outlets for the news. There are a few issues that have been at play since the beginning. The media is a commercial entity. It needs to make money to stay alive. It only has so many reporters, so much space and so much time to put out their product. Ipso Facto, the media tries to cover the widest gamut of stories in order to attract the widest variety of readers so, by necessity, it cannot cover all the stories. And, Mr. Arkin, as a consumer of news, I find your ascertions that there are plenty of good news stories out there kind of funny. It's true of course that there are "good news" stories, however, noting my "consumer of the news" description, I'm well aware of how many "good news" stories come out compared to the latest three paragraphs about political strife inside the war zone and out, bombings, dead and wounded, etc, etc, compared to "good news" or any other news about schools being built, reconstruction or our military interacting with and working with the locals to build a better Iraq. As a matter of fact, funny enough, most of us who comment on military subjects now refer to Afghanistan as the "forgotten war" since there is such a dirth of news coming out of there from the MSM- yeah that's sarcasm - so I found that comment a little disengenuous.

Of course, the other end run is the media filter, often referred to as "investigation" and "editing" which means that the stories coming out will a) not be controlled by the media and b) not include the media's own analysis (spin?) of the story; c) be straight from the military's mouth without any aggregating information (oh, no, propaganda?).

Well, here's a shocker for Mr. Arkin and his readers here: did you know most of those three paragraph blurbs you get from yahoo, CNN, FOX and even this paper are cut and paste jobs from (ready for this) press releases provided by PR firms; PR officers for corporations, poltical offices and other organizations (including the Republican, Democrat and various political and lobbying organizations); AP, AFP, UPI and other "wire" services that do the reporting for them; public affairs press releases from the military and, shockingly, press releases from terrorist groups via other outlets like the internet or those "wire" services I noted above where the groups send info just like they were any other organization?

If a reader is lucky, some poor schmuck might take the time to call the PR or PAO listed on the story to get a few more details, but more often than not these stories are just what came off the wire (and plenty of AP stuff are cut and paste press releases themselves).

So, again I say, this is rather disengenous of Mr. Arkin to imply that this process that by passes the media is some how going to be worse than the current process, some how threatens anybody's independence, some how will be any more or less of a "propaganda" effort than it already is and is "buying" blogs.

I mean, do any readers of this newspaper or watchers of the cable or network news really think that these organizations have 100,000 reporters covering every story and catching blurbs from politicos and other folks around the globe 24/7? Did I mention that the media is a commercial entity? Anybody think they'd be profitable if they had to do that?

The most "editing" that goes on with some of these stories is that some copywriter cuts and pastes the parts of the press releases they think are the most important. The rest of the story gets dumped on the editing floor along with any press releases that don't fit with the days agenda or simply are deemed less important (or less able to catch readers attention thus less of a revenue driver)than the stories they choose to cover (remember, commercial entity, limited space and time, must make money).

So, here's the deal, this paper will continue to operate as it always has. It will cut and paste news wire stories and press releases, pay for columns from people such as Mr. Arkin and, when its in the budget and fits the days news, pay for stories that are hopefully well researched and as well sourced as many stories from blogs from the few free lancers and "investigative journalists" covering these stories. The difference is, there will be a new source of information out there that will most likely take a small percentage of readers from this paper and thus cut into its revenues (and the potential salary for writers like Mr. Arkin).

Now THAT is threatening.

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