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Archive for April, 2011

Using social media to pitch your stories

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

So I’m giving a presentation in a couple of months in Washington, D.C., called “Achieving Authenticity and Publicity in the Twitter Age.” Sounds fancy, eh? Basically, what I hope to get across is this: Standing out and getting noticed on online social networks — and therefore getting publicity for your institution — doesn’t happen easily. It is, for want of a better term, a process. That process is long and involves talking, listening, interacting, being engaged and having staying power on various social platforms. And this process is important, because these are the online spaces where reporters and editors are now inhabiting — places like Twitter and Facebook have become the new public square.

So, here are a few pieces of advice for those wanting to use social media to gain publicity for your institution (or client) that will likely find their way into the presentation.

1. Educate yourself. Social media has made the world one big network, so in many ways it’s never been easier to connect with a journalist — and just as important, to see what they’re doing. Typically I like to pitch reporters with whom I already have a relationship, but I’m always looking to forge new ones. Obviously, relationship-building is not something that you can do with a snap of your fingers. So before I send a pitch to a writer or editor I don’t know particularly well, I’ll try to find out as much about them as I can. A good place to start is their bio page on their personal or media site. In many cases, those pages also have compilations of the writer’s last 10 or so stories, which can help you to zero in even more on what type of news they’re interested in.

Next, I put Google through its paces. Most likely the top hits coming back will be for the journalist’s Facebook and Twitter pages, maybe even their LinkedIn account. These are great ways to educate yourself on your target’s likes and dislikes — maybe they’re fans of the Boston Red Sox or Top Gear, enjoy gardening, ride their bike to work, or love mystery novels, soccer and country music. These are all possible entry points that can be keyed upon in a potential pitch.

Also: By scanning through a journalist’s work history on LinkedIn, I can quickly see if we might have and old colleague or two in common. I spent 15 years as a reporter and editor working for Gannett and Lee Enterprises newspapers, and a common colleague can serve as a great entry point to get noticed (as well as a good reminder to catch up with said colleague, because undoubtedly, it’s been too long). I did this once with a high-ranking editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education after learning he and I both worked for the same editor in Gannett at one time or another. It definitely got his attention and helped in my quest to land my pitch.

2. Interact. The tactics described above would be creepy and stalkerish if not for this part. Get in there, take advantage of the information you’ve just gained and the social-media access you have with journalists, and be an active part of the networked journalism society. Retweet journalists’ tweets. Reply to their tweets. Maybe even send a brief personal message to them on Facebook, complimenting them on a particular piece of recent work along with a friend request. That way, when you’ve got a story they might be interested in down the line, you’re not hitting them out of the blue, but as a Facebook friend and Twitter follower. Journalists will appreciate it, and you’ll find your pitch-to-placement ratio start to tighten, as well.

Then, when a journalist writes a story with one of your sources in it, tout it — and the journalist — loudly and proudly on those same social media channels. And then the cycle begins anew.

3. Monitor, monitor, monitor … and then pounce. Some of my successes using social media haven’t come from a classic “pitch” at all. I’ve just sat back and watched some of my favorite reporters on Twitter and ascertained what they were working on, then matched that information up with what sources on my campus I might be able to put in front of them.

An example: When news of the new Congressional reapportionment scenario came out in late 2010, I noticed on Twitter that a reporter CNN was assembling a story on the political ramifications of the new alignment … so I quickly let him know about a UNL political scientist who studies the effect reapportionment can have on the average voter. Within the hour, my source was in’s main story. Besides hustle, the key element in that example — and all successful placements via social media — is that I was able to help the reporter, and wasn’t pitching the reporter. It’s the online equivalent of catching lightning in a bottle, but it can be done.

4. Be a real person. That is, manage your social media presence as a human being, not a brand or an institution. People connect and identify with people, not faceless monoliths. This is hard for some people, particularly those who are new to social media or who might not be of the share-everything generation that dominates most online platforms. But I’m convinced it’s absolutely essential to your long-term success. The most important thing is to stick with social media and spend time with it — you might not even realize it, but as you’re scanning and clicking and reading, you’re learning the subtle nuances between being a faceless link farm and an actual, living and breathing person with thoughts, opinions and feelings. Today’s social-media users are savvy — they can recognize a drive-by tweeter or Facebooker a mile away. So save everyone some time and energy, and just be you. Or an online facsimile of you, anyway.

There is, of course, a thin line between authenticity and noise in places like Twitter and Facebook. Staying on the right side of that line depends on what kind of audiences you’re working with and what kinds of social spaces you’re inhabiting online. If you’re trying to reach journalists, watch their online “mannerisms” and learn how to speak their language. It’s not as nebulous as it sounds, but developing this skill requires is one key thing: time.

5. Caution! OK. Just because you have a powerful new medium in which to connect with journalists and create publicity for your institution, and you’ve started to rack up some followers and notoriety among your social media circles, doesn’t mean you should regularly cold-tweet or Facebook-message journalists you don’t know to pimp your stories. Understand, too, that not all social-media platforms are the same — what may be appropriate for Twitter (more public and a little more informal) might not be cool on Facebook (more personal and one-to-one) or LinkedIn (all business and formal). Think twice before trying to fire off “traditional” press-release-based pitches to journalists on these platforms; it rarely works, and usually has a boomerang effect. In other words, use social media to connect and cultivate; use email (or — gasp — the phone!) to close the deal.

That’s the long and short of my presentation, anyway. I’m sure it’ll crystallize in the coming weeks. But for now, I’d be interested in hearing any thoughts on what I’ve missed and what else I might want to include. Don’t be shy.

UNL scholar discovers thousands of new Walt Whitman papers

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

As a clerk in the U.S. Attorney General’s Office in the 1860s and 1870s, Walt Whitman had a firsthand view of the legal, cultural and ideological challenges facing the nation after the Civil War. That experience, most believe, shaped his later works of poetry and prose.

Now, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln researcher has discovered nearly 3,000 previously unknown Whitman documents from that era — a trove of information that sheds new light on the legendary poet’s post-war thinking, as well as Whitman’s published reflections on the state of the nation that soon followed.

“This was an age of high hopes but also big problems, and Walt Whitman was there in the thick of it,” said Kenneth Price, Hillegass University Professor of American Literature at UNL, who recently uncovered the documents in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. “He was not a passive observer; he was participating, on a daily basis, in issues that were shaping what the nation would be like after the war.”

The documents, which were revealed at a news conference at the National Archives, consist of Whitman’s handwritten clerical work from 1865 to 1873, when he was a scribe in the attorney general’s office in the nation’s capital. For more than two years, Price pored over a range of documents, including large, bound 900-page letter books in the archive, discovering for the first time thousands of official federal letters that were written in Whitman’s hand.

“I had a hunch there might be three, four, maybe five documents still there. I looked through hundreds of pages without finding anything, and was starting to get bleary-eyed,” Price said. “Then, there it was, a page entirely in Whitman’s handwriting. Then, a few others. Then, a whole string of them, all in Whitman’s hand.”

Watch video of Price discussing his discovery.

In his clerical work, Whitman hand-copied letters and papers authored by federal officials on issues ranging from Reconstruction to the enforcement of new civil rights amendments to the myriad consequences of westward expansion. The government kept the copies in the massive letter books as an official record of the correspondence.

Those letters, though not officially authored by Whitman, likely felt his influence, Price said. At the same time, the weighty national issues passing through his office and his desk almost certainly had an effect on Whitman.

“These ideas passed through his mind, passed through his fingertips, and no doubt were absorbed into his consciousness,” Price said. “These are fascinating documents – they show, down to the exact day, when Whitman was aware of certain things and what issues he spent time on.”

These documents shaped “Democratic Vistas,” Whitman’s seminal 1871 analysis of American democracy that is arguably his greatest work of prose. Casting a skeptical eye on the nation’s character and values while sharing a vision for an ideal democratic society, “Vistas” remains one of the most penetrating examinations of American society ever written.

The newly discovered documents “were crucial for (Whitman’s) writing of one of the most important meditations on the meaning of American democracy,” Price said. “They’re also vital for understanding Whitman’s late poetry. Anyone writing about the latter parts of his career is going to want to figure out what the relationship was between what he knew and when he knew it, and what he had to say in ‘Democratic Vistas’ and his later poetry.”

See examples of the newly discovered documents in Walt Whitman’s hand.

Ed Folsom, Carver Professor of English at the University of Iowa, said Price’s discovery was “a stunning find.” For years, he said, scholars had suspected documents Whitman copied as a clerk might be buried somewhere in government archives, and several made unsuccessful attempts to find them. No one, Folsom said, expected the wealth of information that Price finally turned up.

The discovery “will revolutionize our understanding of Whitman during the explosive Reconstruction years, since we will be able to track, on a virtually daily basis, just what social and political issues he was thinking about and working on,” Folsom said. “These newly discovered documents will allow biographers, critics, teachers and students to add a rich texture and deep background to our understanding of Whitman’s post-war work.”

The discovery was made possible in part by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, which provided grant funding to advance research on Whitman’s correspondence.

The letters will be published in the online Walt Whitman Archive, a long-term effort to edit Whitman’s work on the web, which Price and Folsom co-edit. Price said he anticipates that 2,000 of the documents will be made available to the public by September, with the remainder released the following year.

“It’s interesting,” he said. “Whitman was a scribe and now we’re re-inscribing digitally the documents for which he was originally a scribe.”

Reach Kenneth Price at (402) 472-0293 or

Study: Undergrads view music piracy much differently than other theft

Monday, April 11th, 2011

What’s the difference between stealing a CD from a music store and ripping off music online? The music industry and law enforcers say that there is none: Theft is theft, whether it’s physical or digital.

College students participating in a newly published study, however, said that while they were unlikely to shoplift and viewed that behavior as immoral, they were not exactly motivated to follow the laws governing digital music piracy – a finding that underscores the difficulties of enforcing such laws and to find new ways to discourage the theft of all types of digital content.

In the study by University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers, nearly 200 undergraduates were asked to react to a hypothetical fellow student either shoplifting a CD or illegally downloading one. Students who reacted to the shoplifting scenario endorsed various motivations to obey the law – morality, influence from family and friends, fear of getting caught and an inherent obligation to follow the law – significantly more than those reacting to the downloading scenario.

“We examined theoretical explanations for law-abiding behavior that have been traditionally used to account for compliance, and found weaker support for these explanations when it comes to digital piracy,” said Twila Wingrove, the study’s lead author. “The results suggest that students perceive shoplifting and digital piracy differently, despite the fact that they are both forms of theft.”

The study’s data was collected in the mid-2000s, during highly publicized efforts by the music industry to deter piracy that included filing lawsuits against some offenders. In fact, fear of penalties was the traditional compliance factor that was most strongly related to participants’ reporting reduced downloading behavior.

Still, while hearing about the lawsuits had some effect on students’ motivations to obey downloading laws, many still saw little chance of being caught and perceived that downloading and file sharing wasn’t as serious as stealing music from a store.

Why? The very nature of music piracy is likely the largest obstacle to curbing it, the authors say. There is no risk of physical harm to a victim and no physical object as a target — making it easier to deduce that digital music theft is harming no one at all. Also, there is widespread social support for the behavior within the internet community and on college campuses.

The attitude could bleed into other industries that have digitally downloadable content, such as motion pictures, video games and online news outlets that have recently put up paywalls, the research suggests. The study hints similar enforcement problems as the music industry’s could set in.

“Interestingly, while respect for legal authorities is generally found to be significantly related to compliance with the law, this relationship did not seem to exist for college students and music. It wouldn’t be a stretch to speculate that a similar disconnect might exist with regard to other digitally available forms of media, like television and movies. This is an avenue that should be explored in future research,” she said.

Vicky Weisz, co-author of the study, agreed: “We have much to learn about the rapidly changing digital world and the views of younger generations about the legitimacy of the constraints on that world.”

A deterrence strategy with threats of penalties and fines, as the Recording Industry Association of America undertook in early 2004 with the lawsuits, may work as a short-term fix. Whether that fear of punishment can be sustained over time, however, remains to be seen.

“We studied college students who grew up with internet access at a time when the internet was considered an access point for free information and media and when there were no convenient, popular methods to pay for online content,” Wingrove said. “As more industries begin to restrict content and to streamline the purchase of content, perhaps these attitudes will shift and people will have lower expectations of entitlement, but that is a process that will likely happen very slowly.”

Wingrove, who is now at Appalachian State University, conducted the research while at UNL along with Angela Korpas of the Department of Psychology and Weisz, of UNL’s Center on Children, Families, and the Law. The study appears in the journal Psychology, Crime and Law.