April 6: Catch Me at the Conference on World Affairs

Heads up – on Tuesday, April 6, 2004, I’ll be moderating a panel entitled Alternative Media: Attack of the Blogs. If you happen to be in Boulder on that day, please drop in! (See end of this item for location and time.)

I’m pretty jazzed about this opportunity – even though, as moderator, I’m only supposed to let the panelists talk and manage the Q&A, not present my own perspective or answer questions. That’s OK, since I’ll definitely be blogging about this in CONTENTIOUS after it’s over.

This panel is part of the annual Conference on World Affairs, a unique weeklong event at the University of Colorado, Boulder, that’s free and open to the public (April 5-9, 2004). I love this event – it’s my yearly local brain-food festival. Check out the schedule – the list of topics and speakers is extensive, diverse, and provocative.

More details about my panel…
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On Writers, Editors, and Technology

Over the past few months I’ve received a few comments from CONTENTIOUS readers that basically say, “I love your content, Amy – but this RSS stuff is a bit too technical for me.”

I can sympathize with this to some extent. I’m primarily a “word geek” by nature too, not a technology geek. I’m not a programmer, and learning new software is never on my list of favorite things to do.

But there’s a very good reason why I’ve been presenting so much “technical” material…
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Strong Words Free Your Mind

In my work as a writing coach, one of the most common difficulties I see is this: People often don’t recognize when they have a clear, compelling idea. Consequently, they churn out volumes of muddy, convoluted writing in a labored attempt to get to the point. Sadly, they often fail to arrive at that destination despite all their hard work.

A big part of the problem, I’ve found, is that many writers try too hard to shoehorn their very first attempts to grapple with their topic into language that would sound appropriate for the finished piece. This is rather like trying to apply varnish before designing the table. It also pretty much kills a writer’s potential for clear, creative thinking.

Relax, folks. All good writing is really just good editing. Your initial rough draft is supposed to be rough, so don’t worry about whether it sounds appropriate. Just focus on letting your ideas form and flow. Here’s a trick to help you do that…
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Does Online News Kill Your Ability to Focus?

Today, while flipping through a local print newspaper, I happened across a reprint of this column by Joan Silverman, “To truly grasp the printed word, you gotta hold it.”

Silverman writes about how, for awhile, she abandoned print news almost entirely in favor of online news:

“When I canceled my subscription to the hard-copy edition of the newspaper, I never looked back – that is, until a recent morning. I opened my e-mail headlines from the daily paper and spotted a half-dozen stories of interest. As I looked at the articles, however, I found that several were fairly long. Suddenly I felt a sense of dread, as if reading had become a form of punishment. And there’s the rub. For anything beyond casual browsing or skimming, I think I may hate the computer.”

Believe it or not, I can really relate to this…
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Sites I Wish Offered RSS Feeds

While RSS feeds are currently popular with weblogs and many news sites, they aren’t yet commonplace on many other kinds of sites that could benefit from them.

Below is a list of some Web sites I regularly consult for my professional work and personal interests that I dearly wish offered some kind of RSS feed. I’ve described how each could specifically be using RSS to offer unique value to its online audience. I’ll be updating this list periodically, and will announce developments here in CONTENTIOUS…
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Sorry, My Server Was Down

Apparently, the server that houses CONTENTIOUS was down from midnight to 6:45 am mountain time on Thursday, March 25. If you tried to access this site between those hours, you probably got a “page not found” error.

CONTENTIOUS is now back online. Sorry for any inconvenience.

Journalists Outraged by VNRs – Finally!

UPDATE MARCH 15, 2005: More than 20 federal agencies have been caught producing and distributing VNRs…)

Earlier in CONTENTIOUS, I wrote about the controversy that erupted recently over a video news release (VNR) created by the US Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a public relations campaign to increase public support for new Medicare legislation. This VNR took the form of a fake news broadcast, complete with fake reporters asking scripted softball questions that yielded equally scripted softball answers.

Apparently, these spots aired on dozens of US newscasts. The source and nature of the footage was not identified. That’s outraged a lot of journalists, and many journalism organizations and publications have recently given voice and weight to that outrage. (See list later in this article.)

I’m glad to see this outrage, since I’ve long believed that when news organizations air or publish any PR-supplied materials without clearly identifying the source, they are misleading their audience as well as abdicating their public and professional responsibility.

In my opinion, VNRs are not evil – unscrupulous journalists are. Airing an unidentified VNR falls into the same ethical pit as reprinting a press release as a straight news story. It’s bad journalism, plain and simple. And it happens far too often, in all kinds of news outlets.

I do wish that, in general and on an individual level, journalists would be more forthright about acknowledging the news media’s longstanding complicity in this particular ethical problem…
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Everyone: Urge Your Favorite Sites to Offer RSS!

Are you as frustrated as I am at how many top-notch online venues still fail to announce their fresh content by RSS feed?

If so, I’ve just made it easy for you to ask them to start publishing RSS feeds. I’ve written a form letter that anyone is free to copy and use in order to urge their favorite Web sites and e-mail publications to start publishing RSS feeds.

I firmly believe that if enough people start pressuring online publishers to offer RSS feeds, then more and more online publishers will do so. This works to the benefit of both the online audience and the publisher.

So feel free to copy and paste my form letter and send it out to all your favorite sites and e-mail newsletters. Also, keep in mind that RSS is a good option for more than blogs and news sites – it can be a great way to follow event listings, statistics, and just about any other kind of information that gets periodically updated.

Let me know what kind of response you get!

Here’s the form letter…
(NOTE: I’ve created a similar form letter specifically for journalists to use)