Two weeks in Kenya opens our American eyes, melts our hearts

A little departure from my usual blogging as a corporate communicator to a more personal reflection as a citizen journalist…

My wife and I returned to America a week ago from a medical mission to Kenya. We ended our two-week stay in this impoverished country with a couple hours in an relatively upscale shopping mall in the capital city of Nairobi as a bit of a decompression chamber on the way back to the modern world and a chance to buy one more souvenir. As we would find out when we landed in Chicago after eight-hour flights from Nairobi to Amsterdam and Amsterdam to Chicago, less than 24 hours after we departed a terrible terrorist attack began in a very similar mall in Nairobi. Our hearts and prayers go out to the people of Kenya, who have so little, and especially to those killed or injured in the attack. The terror continued for days until the Kenyan military rooted out the last terrorists in the mall and could clear out the boobie traps they had set to try to increase the toll of lost innocent life. We ourselves never felt in any danger while guests of the poor but beautiful country. And, of course, we are thankful we had left before this madness began.

Our time in Kenya was eye-opening to say the least. For two weeks, Mary (a physical therapist) worked alongside doctors and nurses on our mission and the medical people at a hospital in Naivasha (about 40 miles from Nairobi) and at the clinic at Upendo Village, a community established by a visionary nun, Sister Florence Muia, to provide comfort and treatment to women and children suffering from HIV/AIDS. Many of the patients Mary saw were burn victims (including many young children and IMG_0494babies with severe burns from falling into the open fires and boiling kettles on the ground that serve as their family kitchens. She spent hours in “debridement,” cleaning the open wounds of the burn victims each day. The desperate crying of babies in such pain as she worked on their wounds will stay with Mary for a long time. But also the soft “thank you” from each mother as she held her baby for Mary to treat. Conditions at the hospital were horrendous compared to what we expect–most of the little beds held two patients. In the men’s ward, a sick prisoner with open wounds was shackled to the bed frame, guarded by heavily armed police, and sharing the narrow bed with another male patient with an entirely different malady. Mary could add many, many hard-to-believe stories that are not for the faint of heart.

I spent the two weeks working with the construction team mixing and pouring cement floors to add a little bit of modernity to four simple houses that earlier mission teams had built outside Naivasha.IMG_0531 This involved carrying dozens of wheel barrows of gravel, sand and cement mix on to a dirt surface and mixing it by shovel before we added water, then filled five-gallon buckets of concrete mixture that we poured into the dugout floors of the primitive houses. Again, I could tell you many stories that would make you scratch your head–and to be thankful for the many comforts we all take for granted in the comfort of the First World. It was hard work, but rewarding and much appreciated by the people whose homes we were improving.

Still, I think the biggest impact we made was in the goodwill shared between strangers–the warm smiles and waves we gave and received from those curious at the white people who had come to visit them. Especially the children, who would look at us with wide eyes and burst into wide smiles when we smiled and waved at them. One such incident I will long remember occurred toward the end of the first week there. The construction team was working on a house in a little crude farm worked by a multi-generational family. I was feeling the onset of diarrhea (despite my drinking only bottled water and beverages and avoiding fresh salads and vegetables that might have been washed in contaminated water). I moved over into the shade beside the house and sat down to rest. A little girl came over and began talking to me rapidly in Swahili which I of course did not understand. All I Jon and friend in Kenyacould comprehend was her warm smile. I spoke back to her in English, which she didn’t understand either. She began putting pebbles and acorns in my hand and letting me put them into her hands. We played like this for a long time, perhaps an hour, and I began to feel better. I’m grateful for this little girl who came over to cheer me up.

You may wonder why we traveled so far when there are people in need in our country, indeed in our own communities. We do try to help those close at home as you undoubtedly do as well. But we also know that there are many safety nets, public and privately offered, to help the needy here in America. There are no such safety nets for many of the wretchedly poor people of the Third World. And even more importantly, there is great good that comes from these poor, nearly forgotten people seeing that someone cares enough about them to travel from far-away comfortable places to help them, if just for two weeks. And, too, there is much we can learn from these patient, generous and hard-working souls so happy to welcome us into their homes.  We in America take so much for granted!

Journalism moves beyond straight reporting; PR pros must adjust

The practice of  journalism is rapidly evolving with huge implications to the media relations practitioner.

Remember the ideal of a fair-and-balanced, impartial, “just the facts, ma’am” news reporter? Gone like yesterday’s newspaper.

So says Columbia University’s Tow Center of Digital Journalism in a lengthy report “Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present.”

News today is increasingly parsed together by computer algorithm, viewed on smart-phones, reduced to snarky headlines and tweeted and retweeted within like-minded communities. “Citizen journalists” provide instant on-the-scene accounts devoid of fact-checking. (Here‘s another excellent perspective–from Naureen Aqueel in Pakistan–on the integration of cit-j into the new newsroom.)

The result, say the authors of the report:

The journalist has not been replaced but displaced, moved higher up the editorial chain from the production of initial observations to a role that emphasizes verification and interpretation. …

Working between the crowd and the algorithm in the information ecosystem is where a journalist is able to have most effect, by serving as an investigator, a translator, a storyteller.

Today’s professional journalists must dig deeper, add perspective and nuance. They must inject their personalities into the stories they cover. (Back in the day, they called that “New Journalism”–e.g., Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. What’s old is new again.)

The Poynter Institute’s Jeff Sonderman reflects on the Tow Center “manifesto” in a thought-provoking column today (thereby demonstrating this new ideal by adding clarity and insight):

This is an era for the journalist who uses critical thinking to interpret and analyze, whether it’s working with data sets, interviewing aggressively or calling BS on conventional wisdom.

This is an era for the journalist who knows how to put herself into her work. Not, necessarily, her opinions or biases — but her personality, energy and voice. “The more we feel engaged with a journalist through his persona, the more we want to hear what he has to say about the world,” the authors write. “Public persona was once the exclusive territory of the high-profile columnist. Now it is part of the job of every journalist.”

The Tow Center report focuses, of course, on the implications for journalists. But what does all this mean to the PR pro?

My take? We should think about potential news coverage two ways.

  • Hard news”  like earnings and personnel announcements should be kept brief and to the point. What the old dogs among us will remember as “inverted pyramid.” Get the principle facts in the first sentence or two, uncluttered with hyperbole or fluff. Follow that with a single hyper-pertinent quote from the appropriate senior person. Then provide a link to a more detailed summary that leads to another link to the full text. Remember you are writing for news aggregators and your Twitter community. Don’t feel put out that they will read only a sentence or two plus one quote. Be happy you have their momentary attention and work to regain it again and again. (And work diligently to quickly correct misinformation through traditional media, the news aggregators and directly to your followers.)
  • Feature stories and in-depth reporting requires a different approach. Get to know the reporters who cover your company and industry (this hasn’t changed; PR has always been a people profession). Understand each individual’s expertise, interests and quirks. Be on the look-out for ways to invite a writer in and participate in the story. The pay-off is obvious–if the journalist enjoys the experience, so will the readers/viewers.

- Jon Harmon

Restoration of Internet, cell service in Egypt would be sign populist revolution being accepted by government

The Mubarak government shut off all Internet access in the country early Friday morning (shut down made possible because of single Internet provider in Egypt unlike most countries). By Saturday, unconfirmed reports had some Internet transmission restored, although cell phone service is still out.

Like the images of protesters riding jubiliantly on tanks, the return of Internet and cell phone service could be a sign that powers within the government are siding with the populist uprising. With incredible pressure on Mubarak to resign, the world is watching to see how a power vaccuum may be filled. Transition government until national elections can be held? Will the people prevail pushing Egypt to emerge as a more democratic republic? Will radical fundamentalists seize power? How will the uprisings continue to spread throughout the Arab world?

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Popular discontent sweeps through Arab world despite crack-downs on social media

Watching the massive protests in Egypt live on Al Jazeera English is fascinating but disconcerting. By all accounts a genuine ground-swell of protest, with no identifiable leader.

What will be the outcome of this tsunami of disenchantment?

Like Tunisia, where the government of President/dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben-ali was toppled two weeks ago, the insurrection seems to fueled by the economic and social discontent of young people.

And like the protests in Iran in 2009 over that country’s rigged national election, social media has been a galvanizing force, even as the besieged leaders have tried to “turn off” Internet access and cell phone transmission. The images and the stories inevitably get out, and take on even greater meaning.

In Iran, the jubilant, youthful energy of the “Green party” protesters in 2009 did not lead to regime change. Indeed, “President’”Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to be recognized as the legitimate head of state nearly two years after the highly dubious elections. Will the apparent success of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings provide a new spark to the young populists in Iran?

And, what of the upheaval in Lebanon and Yemen? Will all this popular discontent lead to greater freedoms or provide an opportunity of instability for new fanatical regimes to seize power?

The world is watching. And thousands of on-the-spot images from cell phone cameras and other forms of citizen social media provide not only a fascinating window into the chaos but a galvanizing force as well.

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Mainstream media flunk test but don’t even know it

The continuing controversy over the community activist group ACORN is either a non-news event created (or at least stoked) by Fox News and conservative talk radio, or a national scandal that shows how mainstream media ignores news that’s inconvenient to their entrenched biases.

It all depends on the which media archetypes you subscribe to. That is, what story line you buy into.

Western mass media have long embraced the role of watchdog for the “little guy” against abuses of power and proudly adopted the moniker, ”The Fourth Estate” (a term apparently coined by Thomas Carlyle in the 19th Century to refer to the check that media provided against abuses of power by the three vestiges of power in England: the clergy, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. It works as well in American parlance to the watchdog role media provide against corruption in government, manifested by the three branches of the Federal Government — or, more broadly, against corruption by the powerful: politicians, corporations and the wealthy.)

But the distinction within that last part of the previous parenthetical reference is important — some want their watchdogs to be watching out for abuses by a menacing and over-reaching Federal government, and others most want protection from rich and powerful interests manifested by “evil corporations” and “the wealthy.’

Mainstream media in America (network news, newspapers and news magazines) have largely adopted the broadest definition of power abuse to stand guard against — government AND corporations and the rich. Within this archetypal framework, media begin by viewing corporations and the wealthy suspiciously, until proven otherwise, while public interest groups, charities and other non-profits are viewed from a favorable starting point, until proven otherwise. Perhaps that tilt is required to be fair and balanced, if you assume that the voices of corporate and moneyed interests generally are louder than the voice of “the little guy.”

Nevertheless, it is the pervasiveness of this bias in ”mainstream” American media that created the opportunity for conservative radio hosts and Fox News commentators to find a large audience who don’t want a liberal filter on their news. (Plenty of them want to listen only to right-wing boosterism, but you have to believe a whole lot of people just want it “straight.”)

But what’s really interesting about the ACORN flap is going largely unreported, even on the Poynter Online, a fantastic source of journalistic self-critique and introspection. (The only item I could find on Poynter was this rather self-righteous explanation from the Austin American-Statesman about why it had been so late in covering the ACORN controversy.)

What’s really interesting is how the ACORN stings demonstrate the sudden rise in influence of a new ”Fifth Estate” — largely unfunded citizen journalists with the self-appointed mission to report news from their own perspective, and often, to dramatize what they see as bias or blindness in traditional media.

Anyone with a cell phone camera is a potential cit-j, sometimes augmenting traditional news sources in important ways. for example, on-the-scene reports from Iran’s citizen-journalist dissenters have helped keep world attention on Iraq’s rigged elections, long after that country’s crackdown on traditional media reports. But cit-j’s are also stepping forward in this country to cover “news” that isn’t covered in mainstream media. The videos that have brought national scandal to ACORN were not elaborate or particularly well produced. And they cost next to nothing. In an age of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, it no longer takes the resources of a major news organization to reach an audience of millions.

Of course, members of the “Fifth Estate” by and large didn’t go to journalism school and have no editor looking over their shoulders making sure that information they report is well-researched and truthful. And that raises a new challenge for the Fourth Estate — to provide a check back on information put out by the Cit-j’s, without automatically discounting its value and assuming that if it was dug up and disseminated by amateurs it isn’t worthy of reporting in the mainstream.

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I’m trying to adapt to social media, but spare me the inane tweets

A couple of interesting pieces in the WSJ this week provide some useful perspective to social media mania.

In The New-Media Crisis of 1949, Terry Teachout, takes a look at the havoc new media is wrecking on today's traditional media — including television programming, the music industry, as well of course as newspapers. And he compares that with the mortal blow television struck on radio. Lest we forget: "Video killed the radio star." The lesson from Teachout (is that really his name?) is that those who don't adapt to the new media will be made irrelevant. But those whose skills can be adapted to the new media will continue to shine, some brighter than before.

Resisting change is futile, he says.

Americans of all ages embraced TV unhesitatingly. They felt no loyalty to network radio, the medium that had entertained and informed them for a quarter-century. When something came along that they deemed superior, they switched off their radios without a second thought. That's the biggest lesson taught by the new-media crisis of 1949. Nostalgia, like guilt, is a rope that wears thin.

The second piece comes from Elizabeth Bernstein's On Relationships column "How Facebook Ruins Friendships." She takes a shot at inane Tweets and Facebook postings:

I don't give a hoot that you are "having a busy Monday," your child "took 30 minutes to brush his teeth," your dog "just ate an ant trap" or you want to "save the piglets." And I really, really don't care which Addams Family member you most resemble. (I could have told you the answer before you took the quiz on Facebook.)

Too much annoying detail can poison your opinion of friends and, especially, casual acquaintances. And she opines that quick responses can be dangerous to relationships at times, when a cooler, more thoughtful response might be better.

I wrote earlier this summer that Twitter was "growing up" providing useful insight and access to information from on-the-spot citizen reporting. But there is still plenty of room for restraint. Wouldn't it be great if we were spared all the stupid, boring Tweets from even the trusted-to-be-newsworthy people we follow?

I continue to promise to Tweet only when I have something to say. Followers will be spared details of my breakfast this morning (cold cereal and a banana for those hanging breathlessly — NOT! —  on worthless detail).

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Hope for reform in Iran rests on social media

Repressive official forces in Iran, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei put a stop to wide-spread protests of disputed official results of the country’s presidential election. It appears a 10-day cooling off period is being enforced, after which reform-minded protesters may have sufficiently lost momentum to prevent substantial opposition being voiced to the clerical regime.

In the meantime, officials in Iran have shut down Facebook use and cell phone texting transmission, and confiscated cell phones protesters have used to capture and post video of the protests and police brutality in suppressing them.

Incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has long used social media himself, as noted in my post here in 2007. Ahmadinejad came to power as a populist who at the same time made it clear to the ruling clerics that he was their man. For a time, Ahmadinejad breathed new life into the clerical regime’s sagging popularity. But his hardline ways have been rejected by increasing numbers of citizens, particularly women and young people.

For his part, opposition candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi has quite limited credentials as a reformer. A hard-liner himself, Moussavi was included among the four candidates the ruling clerics allowed to be placed on the ballot from 200 initial candidates. But only when he began to modify his rhetoric to express some support for reform did his “green” campaign catch on, with women and students his most vocal supporters.


Photo: AFP

It seems unlikely that the entrenched powers in Iran will allow any real scrutiny of the highly suspect election, The bigger question is whether large numbers of reform-minded citizens will continue to openly push for truly Democratic change in Iran. Hopes rests firmly on the power of social media to connect Iran’s citizenry to each other and to supporters around the world. Call them citizen journalists or the Facebook generation — they are the best hope for lasting change in a repressive nation.

Are we about to witness a historic moment in Iran, similar to the popular unrest in Eastern Europe in 1989 that led to fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Bloc? Or, more likely, is Tehran similar to Tiananmen Square the same year, where student protests captured the world’s attention but did little to erode the repressive hold of the Chinese government?

- Jon Harmon

Future of journalism? With newsrooms shedding jobs, where are j-school grads going to work?

The lasting effects of the credit crisis-fueled recession are widely over-stated. Too often pundits and others with a microphone (or mouse-pad) extrapolate conditions from the past quarter or two into the infinite future. In most cases, they will be proven wrong when they say that changes in behavior are permanent.

Time magazine’s cover story, “the New Frugality,” argues that tough times are changing forever the way Americans spend and save. We’ll see. It’s a little too early to say just yet. Remember in early March when we were told by every financial authority that stock-market dynamics had changed for good and that we should get used to lower annual returns when the bull market returns — and don’t expect to recover losses for 10-12 years? Six weeks later the S&P 500 is up 25% from the March 9 low. (But don’t take that as a sign that big returns are back for good, either. This morning, a big selloff is sweeping the market. That could change by this afternoon … or signal the Bear is back, maybe even for a whole week or more.)

The change you CAN believe in are fundamental shifts that were already underway Before the Fall of Lehman Brothers (BFLB). The auto industry, for example, was dealing with over-capacity, high commodity prices and other increasing costs including massive legacy health care obligations. The twin blows of very sharp spikes in fuel prices last summer followed by the liquidity crisis knocked the wheels off the auto companies — and then the recession spread and sales really dried up. The result is a tremendous acceleration of change throughout the industry. And, this we can be certain of, the auto industry ISN”T going back to BFLB.

Another trend that the recession has accelerated is the demise of the newspaper. Craig’s List and similar sites had already taken away the lion’s share of a newspaper’s most dependable revenue — classified advertising. Circulation numbers were already in free-fall. But then the recession led to wide-spread cuts in corporate advertising dollars that have devastated display ad revenues, along with further reductions in subscriptions brought on by consumer’s “new frugality.”

In 2008 alone, 15% of newspaper newsroom jobs were eliminated, according to the NY Times in “J-Schools Play Catch-Up.” The article details how journalism schools have added courses on the future of journalism in the Internet age including how-to courses such as ”Multi-Media Story-telling.” (Not sure what took so long. Force for Good readers will recall “Next Practices: Story-telling Wins Out,” from March 2007).

Arizona State J school

The J-school’s new-found emphasis on the future is long-overdue. Enrollment numbers continue to be strong at most university j-schools; many show increased enrollment since the economic clouds rolled in. Where are all those j-school grads going to work?

The next generation of grads are going to have to help find new solutions — both in monetizing on-line news sites of major news organizations and in creating new outlets for professional journalists. And time is running short.

The future of news media is uncertain, to say the least. But, safe to say, it is never going back to the old way.

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Does anyone still read a printed newspaper?

Whether you get your news on a printed page or over the Internet, it’s hard to miss all the hand-wringing over the future of newspapers.

A TIME magazine cover story“How to Save Your Newspaper” by Walter Isaacson is drawn from lectures he is giving, beginning at the University of California – Riverside this week.

And there’s plenty more on the topic at the Poynter institute and the Columbia Journalism Review.

After some initial reluctance back in the day, most newspapers today provide a wealth of timely reporting and other substantive content on-line — free of charge. It’s an attractive way to consume the news. Why wait for the next day’s paper when you can get news on any subject on-line now? And why pay for a subscription when you can read most columnists, editorials, etc. for free on-line? And why restrict yourself to your local newspaper when you can get news from any locale on-line?

If you have a wireless router in your home, you can take in the morning news out on your porch or deck on your laptop and get caught up quickly on whatever you want to read while you sip your morning coffee or afternoon lemon-aide.

But world-class reporting and writing is by no means free. So where is the business case for on-line news as subscriptions for printed papers dwindle and ad revenues dry up?

Up until the Sept. 15 default of Lehman Brothers kicked off a severe recession, news organizations could recover a decent amount of revenue in on-line advertising. The Internet model was to provide content for free, build a huge audience and sell ad space in crawlers and pop-ups. But that seems so 1999 today. The bubble has burst.

The question is will people pay something (anything!) to subscribe to online services of top news organizations — like the New York Times, Washington Post and maybe your local newspaper? It’s worked for the Wall Street Journal and a few others, mostly financial sites like Barron’s and Motley Fool, who have successfully protected a unique space well enough to charge for it. But will enough news consumers opt to pay for quality reporting to keep the premier news organizations afloat — or will they die off and leave us with only Yahoo! news and MSN? And if we’re only left with news aggregators, what news will they aggregate? Are you ready to turn over the Fourth Estate to bloggers, aka citizen journalists? I’m all for cit j’s to supplement the news, but I still want an aggressive, knowledgable and experienced media pool doing most of the heavy lifting.

The key will be for each news provider to demonstrate unique value that consumers will be willing to pay, at least a nominal amount, to read.

But won’t we lose something vital if there no longer is a printed newspaper we can touch and feel?

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Shoe-throwing journalist makes life more dangerous for the fourth estate

In the 1960s, Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe created the so-called “new journalism” by actively becoming part the dynamic stories they were “reporting” on. But they were novelists, not hard news reporters. Journalists representing news agencies are not supposed to violently interrupt a news conference to demonstrate contempt for a head of state. That would be crossing into crazed Keith Olbermann territory or perhaps Michael Moore boorishness – not the place for a respectable professional chronicler of the news.

So when Muntadhar al-Zeidi hurled two shoes at U.S. President George Bush at a press conference in Iraq, he crossed a line of journalistic professionalism that underscored societal differences in defining a journalist’s role, particularly in places with less than full protection of free expression.

The shoe-hurlling journo quickly became a hero in much of the Arab world where he was seen as honorably expressing disgust for Bush and American intervention in Iraq. All the more demonstrating that in much of the world, journalists do not necessarily aspire to stay apart from the fray but may in fact revel in it. And it underscores the dangers Western-style journalists face in trying to report in lands where press freedom is not held sacred – you begin to understand a bit how it can be that professional journalists find themselves accused of spying or anti-government activism. Indeed, the degree that al-Zeidi’s tantrum is legitimized undercuts the ability of dispassionate journalists to get free access to the stories they need to cover.

And so it is that the Committee to Protect Journalists, an organization I have long admired and often written about since the early days of this blog, remains silent on al-Zeidi even as accusations grow that he was beaten by Iraqi police, reportedly breaking a rib and sustaining other injuries. Sticking up for al-Zeidi and calling for his release would chip away at CPJ’s commitment to journalistic sanctuary based on neutrality. - Jon Harmon