Thursday, February 24, 2011

Living at the Speed of Light

The pace of life gets faster every year. Don't you think so?

My mother, and her mother before her, used to warn about "burning the candle at both ends." In other words, don't stay up late and get up early and not get enough sleep in the middle. So what do I do? I stay up until 1:00, 2:00, 3:00 in the morning and get up at 7:15, on weekdays at least. There never seems to be enough hours in the day to accomplish everything.

Are you old enough to remember when we thought computers would make things easier and we'd have so much more freetime? They certainly made communication faster, but are the quick emails, Facebook updates, tweets and text messagesthe kind of quality communiques that our parents and grandparents exchanged? Heck, I still have letters from my teenage years, when I had penpals, that are more substantive than any communication I've had in the past ten years.

Do you recall the days, not so long ago, when only doctors and a handful of real estate agents had a mobile phone? Have theymade us more productive? No, they just make driving or crossing the street more dangerous, because at least a third of thepeople behind the wheel at any given time will be holding a phone to their heads or reading a text or typing a message andpaying no attention at all to what's going on around them.

A prophet named Mother Shipton wrote to following couplets during the first half of the sixteenth century:

Around the world men's thoughts will fly,
quick as the twinkling of an eye.
And water shall great wonders do,
How strange, and yet it shall come true. 

All those years ago, she saw it coming. Did you?

It used to be forever between Easter and Christmas, and now the days, months, years just whiz by as though the Earth is speeding up in its journey around the sun.

Or is it just me?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

An Open Letter to My Credit Card Company

I’m actually returning your call. Someone tried to call me twice today, so it must be urgent.

Oh, that’s really odd, because I received a “courtesy call” last night, and I told the representative that I was not interested in your credit protection service and that I did not want to be signed up for anything. Then I called and spoke to another representative and asked her to add my name to your no-call list.

While I understand that no-call list may not transfer instantaneously to your call center – although there’s no reason why it couldn’t – the fact that I rejected your credit monitoring service yesterday should clearly have prevented me from getting another call the very next day touting the same service.

And you know what? I had basically the same conversation with two of your representatives maybe a month ago. A young man called, and I listened to his spiel and then said I didn’t want to be signed up for anything, not to sign me up to get the so-called “free” credit report because I didn’t want to bear the burden of having to call and cancel after “first month free.” And then he said he’d send out the information in the next couple of days. And I said no. And he said he’d send it out, and I said he’d better not. And then I hung up and called back immediately to verify that I hadn’t been enrolled in anything.

The other thing that’s really ticking me off tonight is that my husband answered the phone both times this evening; I was not at home. He’s on the account. His name is on a credit card that has the same account number embossed on it; his name is on the checks that come to you whenever a payment is made. Yet, the callers ask for me and when my husband politely asks the nature of the call, the representative chatters, “Courtesy call from [financial institution].” Click.

It’s one thing to call every year or maybe even every six months, but come on. How many times do I have to tell you that I’m not interested in your credit protection scheme? You dangle the carrot of a free credit report, when in fact it’s not really free. It comes with the onus of having to call and cancel the service in order to prevent having to pay a monthly fee that I don’t want to pay.

And really, your automated credit monitoring service doesn’t cost much to operate. You pay a human for a few minutes to enter my account information in the system (or maybe to check a box and turn the service on), and then your computers watch for inconsistencies.

How about providing a free (really free – no strings attached) copy of my credit report. You could send it with information about how your credit monitoring service works and a rate card, so I could see how just a few cents a day could buy me peace of mind. Come to think of it, you could easily offer credit monitoring as a free service, and you’d probably save money. You’d no longer have to pay a call center full of people to dial and redial and redial, asking the same people if they want the same service today that they said no to yesterday and last week and last month.

Finally, when I traveled out of the country, my other credit card company, the one connected to my checking accounts, called me a few days later to make sure the charges were legitimate. I didn’t have to pay them to do that. They did it in appreciation of my business. You could do the same and maybe counteract some of the negative publicity your company has been garnering during the recession.

Sincerely Yours.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Plagiarism in the News

2011 - British newspaper The Daily Mail is accused of copying large sections of a story from The New York Times without attribution. The Mail responded by removing the suspect passages and by exchanging the Mail reporter's byline with the generic "Daily Mail Reporter." [Source: MediaPost]

2005 - Nearly a dozen publications respond to allegations that stories contained factual errors or had been plagiarized, at least in part. [Source: Regret the Error]

2003 - Reporter Jayson Blair resigns from the New York Times amid allegations that he plagiarized certain details of several stories and fabricated other details. Accusations of inaccurate reporting were made by staffers at the college newspaper where he had served as an editor and reporter. [Source: Wikipedia]

1998 - Associated Editor Stephen Glass is fired from The New Republic after Lead Editor Charles Lane investigated complaints about a story's veracity. The senior staff subsequently learned that more than half of Glass' articles for the publication contained inaccuracies or, in some cases, were complete fiction. [Source: Wikipedia]

I'm sure I could go back and back and back through the history of journalism to find examples of plagiarism, inaccuracies and outright lies. Over 100 years ago, publisher William Randolph Hearst allegedly sent this message to artist Frederic Remington on assignment in Cuba: "You supply the pictures. I'll supply the war."

I blame two factors for the seeming increase in faulty and unethical reporting.


News changed on September 11, 2001. Everyone was after the latest facts, first about the terrorist attacks of the day and later about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Where for years, viewers could choose between three major broadcast networks and a couple of cable news channels, suddenly half a dozen news options on cable were vying with the networks for a rapidly dwindling pool of viewers. The internet gives people instant access to information from eyewitnesses, the man on the street, bloggers, and YouTube videos.

I remember on 9/11 hearing reports coming in about a possible truck bomb near the White House, I believe it was. At least one jet airliner was missing and a plane crash had been reported in Pennsylvania - but no one knew yet that the downed plane was the missing plane. Reporters were talking to witnesses in New York who reported hearing a missile or seeing a small plane crash into the first World Trade Tower.

As that day and that story and the related stories went on, it seems to me that the 24-hour-news stations decided it was more important to report every little tidbit and then verify it later than to verify it before putting it out there. They wanted to be able to say, "You heard it here first." Mistakes never seemed to be acknowledged; they just stopped reporting them.

I was working in local news at the time; we were still in the business of getting our facts straight before going on the air.

In the ensuing years, too, we've seen more and more opinion presented as news. Many outlets have an obvious bias. The parent company of the news organization I worked for from 1999 to 2007 owned quite a few TV stations. I worked for an ABC affiliate, and we often used network-produced packages on major stories. After awhile, the parent company required us to run certain pieces produced by their Washington bureau in lieu of reports produced by the "liberal media" at ABC.

The sensationalism and rumor-mongering were fueled by ratings. The proliferation of cable news channels along with ever-increasing web-based sources for news and information have led to furious grasping for audience. Newspapers struggling to stay afloat, TV stations and networks scrabbling for ratings, and new media fighting for revenue will do or say anything to get people talking about them and tuning in.


At the same time as all these media outlets are trying to one-up each other in order to lure bigger audiences, they are trying to cut costs. I don't know how much any organization is losing. I know some newspapers have folded, at least in the traditional print sense; they may still be present online. That could be because they're operating in the red or maybe they're breaking even, but that's not what any business is about, even the business of information. Business is about profits.

In order to minimize cost, thus maximizing income, staff is being cut. I doubt that most newspapers have proofreaders or copy editors anymore. When I worked in TV news, I was lucky to have anchors who read over the scripts before the show and questioned anything that was obviously incorrect or even looked a little fishy. I read the stories that reporters turned in for my show. I wrote a lot of stories from Associated Press wire copy, press releases, and/or interviews collected in the field by videographers working alone. In those cases, I counted on my anchors catching me in any mistakes.

Honest, legitimate mistakes can and do happen. That's why it's important to have a team all watching out for each other. When I worked on the production side, doing graphics and supers, I'd read over the script, not just the notes on what words I was supposed to put on the screen. I'd question anything that didn't seem to match up. I'd look up spellings of streets or names or I'd just ask the producer to check it. Did I make mistakes? Of course. I know how to spell cemetery now, after I typed it cemetary on an over-the-shoulder graphic that went out on the air.

Unfortunately, a lot of people nowadays are so focused on their own jobs or texting their friends or checking their email that they go through their day with blinders on, never understanding that the whole organization would function better with a little teamwork.

But, I digress.

Every time I turn around, I hear of someone else laid off from the daily paper. I'll talk with a local reporter or editor and find out they've had yet another duty piled on their already overfull plates. In addition to writing the stories and prepping them for publication or broadcast, now they have to post on Facebook and tweet the headline with links to the website, where they were the ones required to reformat and post the story.

Staff cutbacks lead to sloppy reporting, typos, and mistakes. Did they lead to every case of plagiarism and fictionalizing listed at the start of this post? No, of course not, but they certainly aren't helping. Not having enough staff to cross check and verify facts makes it easier for the falsehoods to slip through.

I worry about the future of news. People need someplace they can trust for accurate, unbiased facts so they can make up their own minds about the important issues of the day. I fear we are losing that.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Discover Your Life's Purpose

Have you ever paused on the journey through life and wondered if you're doing what you're meant to be doing, living the life you're supposed to live? I most certainly have. I've often looked back at the meandering path my life's taken, wondered at the unexpected joys I've experienced around one turn, speculated on what might have been if I'd traveled a different route.

Looking back is one thing. Look ahead, especially as the years pile up, and you may begin to question your choices and direction.
  • Have I left my mark in the world? 
  • What should I or could I have done differently? 
  • If I had made different choices at certain points in my life, would I have missed some of the really wonderful things that have happened? 

If you are dissatisfied, it's not too late to accomplish some of your goals or achieve a few of your youthful dreams. You just have to take action NOW, before it is too late.

A few weeks ago, I read a book called Chazown by Craig Groeschel. The title is pronounced khaw-ZONE; it's the Hebrew word for vision. Groeschel is a Christian minister, Waterbrook Multnomah is a Christian book division of Random House, and the book's focus is on finding God's purpose for your life.

I'm not a very religious person; I have beliefs, but I don't go to church, and I'm not much for God talk. However, the kind folks at Waterbrook Multnomah invited me to join their "Blogging for Books" program, and who am I to turn down the opportunity for a free book to read? That said, if you're a deeply spiritual person, you will find this book to be a detailed guide on figuring out what you should do next in your life. If you're not deeply spiritual, or if you are a deeply spiritual follower of a non-Christian religion, if you are able to get past the God talk, you will find good advice on finding purpose to drive you through the rest of your life.

The cover of Chazown, in addition to the title and author, features three short sentences:
  • Define Your Vision.
  • Pursue Your Passion.
  • Live Your Life on Purpose. 
The book begins by asking you to write your obituary. If you died today, what would people say about you? What have you accomplished? Have you changed the world around you? Have you been a positive influence on the lives of your friends, family or total strangers?

See, that's one of the things I've been thinking about the past few years. As I mentioned, I'm 45, and the day when my obituary will be published is rushing towards me. Yikes! If I want it to be a good one, I'd better get cracking.

But where to begin?

Craig Groeschel says you should start at the end. Write the obituary you want. Do you want your loved ones to remember you for the time you spent working late at the office, the hours you spent posting photos on Facebook, the mundane cell phone conversations ("What are you doing?"). Or do you want to be the person who taught children self respect and responsibility by coaching a ball team or volunteering at your local school? Do you want to be remembered for raising money for your favorite charity? Collecting coats for the homeless? Giving your time and talents to renovate a community center?

See, you can't just say, "I want to be remembered for helping people." That's too vague. You need a specific goal, and then you know what you have to do to achieve that goal.

In his book, Groeschel helps you create a specific plan so that instead of living life each day as it comes, you live it with a purpose. Each short, easy-to-read chapter helps you narrow down the choices and focus your vision.
  • First, you'll define your core values (examples: loyalty to family, passion for justice), identify your spiritual gifts (giving, teaching, service), and realize how your past experiences (a menial job, an oops moment) have prepared you for the road ahead. 
  • The next step is to identify where those three areas overlap, identify your Chazown, and set down a focused description in a few words. 
  • Next, the book helps you analyze five key areas in your life now: your relationship with God, relationships with people, financial situation, your health, and your work; and helps you relate them to the accomplishment of your Chazown.
Along the way, Groeschel shares stories from his own life, examples from his parishioners and friends, that show you how these esoteric ideas apply in real life. Key thoughts are set apart from the rest of the text so they're easy to identify. Each section is summarized with review questions, kind of like in a textbook, to help you think through and retain what you've just read. The book also contains an appendix of worksheets, and throughout the book, you're referred to extra support materials on The Chazown Experience website.

This book will help you look at your life with a critical eye and guide you towards living with meaning and purpose. Maybe you're just starting out in life, or you're coming through a bad period and need to make positive changes, or perhaps you're frustrated and unsatisfied with your accomplishments. If you read this book with thoughtfulness and intent, you will learn about yourself and find ways to lead a more fulfilling life.

I received a review copy of Chazown through Waterbrook Multnomah's "Blogging for Books" program. The opinions expressed in this review are my own.

Friday, February 11, 2011

One-Page History of Doctor Who

Doctor Who fan and artist Bob Canada created this infographic and posted it on his flickr page. Nerdist featured it, then other sites picked it up and so on and so forth. Bob commented that this version is updated with corrections and suggestions made by some of the thousands of people who've seen the artwork. This is the final version, "for now," and he plans to make it available as a poster.

While we're waiting on confirmation of when the spring series will begin, here's a tidbit for North American fans. Panini (the sticker book people) are publishing a magazine called Doctor Who Insider. The first issue should hit newsstands April 7.

Also, check out the BBC's Back in the USA page. It features photos of the Doctor's recent visit to the American West, as well as a recap of past adventures involving American locations and characters.

Friday, February 04, 2011

My two cents on social media marketing

Lee over at My Sentiments ExactLee wrote a great post about public relations, marketing and blogs. Here is my response:

Thank you for this, Lee. I've been blogging for quite a while and no one ever visited. Of course, I wasn't out promoting my blog. It was more of a daily diary for me, and I hoped someone would notice it. For the last three years or so, I've been visiting a lot of blogs to enter giveaways, and I started reading some of the blogs, like yours, more regularly, because they speak to me, I feel like I have something on common with the person or people behind them.

It didn't take long for me to start becoming a little envious of the opportunities that some of the bloggers are getting. I haven't kept up my "post to my blogs every day" resolution, but I have posted at least once a week on each, which is an improvement. I started hosting a few giveaways as well, to build my traffic count.  I mean, a niche audience is one thing, but no audience isn't going to do anything for someone trying to sell a product.

I can see where the PR people are coming from. I mean, I work in public relations myself, at a local non-profit theatre. I belong to an organization of PR professionals, and I read some marketing trade publications, and one of the things we all think about and talk about is how to qualify what we're doing. ROI (return on investment) is all important. Social media may be "free" but it costs time. Someone has to recruit the bloggers, create the electronic press kits delivered to them, pack and ship the review samples, pack and ship the prizes for the giveaways, deal with the missing package or item that got broken on the way.  The sponsor has a budget for each promotion, which may involve using staff or outsourcing to an agency that specializes in using social media. So let's say they're giving away a $100 prize and it costs $10 in postage, boxes, labels; it takes 10 minutes to pack the box, toss in the "congrats" letter, print an invoice, and slap on the label. At $12 an hour, that's $2 in cost.  Assuming the $100 retail is double what it cost the company to produce, you're already up to $62 for each prize winner. And that's not counting the cost of making arrangements with the two-dozen bloggers who are going to post the reviews, following up on their posts to get copies of everything for the file.  The CEO or the CFO for that sponsor wants to know that the $2500 they spent on that promotion is going to bring them actually cash money customers.  A sudden spike in orders may be an indicator, but what if I don't buy it for three months until I have some extra money? What if I use a coupon - how does the marketing person prove that the blogging promotion worked and it wasn't just the coupon that did it?

They produce numbers. 25 blogs hosted giveaways. The total readership of these blogs during the period of the promotion is x-thousand people, therefore those x-thousand people were exposed to the production. Y-hundred people commented, therefore they have decided that they want the product, and if they didn't win, they might buy it.

If you tell the CEO that the social media promotion reached a potential 250 new customers, he's not going to be as impressed as if he reached 25,000, even if his niche product is perfect for the 250, and the 25,000 figure if they win, they can sell it on eBay.

Remember, a lot of these people are used to running ads on television or in newspapers, where millions of people might see it. We know that newspapers are folding, readership is down, people are watching TV by Tivo or Netflex or Hulu, so they're not seeing as many commercials. They used to mass messaging not personal messaging.

I think we're going to see this turn around, but it's going to take a major shift in mindset, because it is time intensive, and time is money.  So the front line PR people have to do as much as they can with the small amounts they're allotted, then they have to give the big guys the kind of results they can appreciate, so they can get more money to do the job right.

That's my two-cents, for what it's worth.