Central New York is Cold and They Know It

You may have seen this latest marketing gambit by the city of Ithaca, N.Y. and their travel and tourism website. It involves and unlikely message for most travel marketers: “Don’t come here, go to Florida, instead.”

As someone who spent four cold years just 30 minutes north of Ithaca in Syracuse, let me tell you. They are right. February are dark days for central New Yorkers. It’s been at least a month since they’ve seen more than a day above freezing. They’re digging out from yet another snow storm that would grind any other area of the country to a full, week-long halt. And the sun, when it makes a rare appearance, seems to only make things colder (All former or current CNY residents know that clouds are actually positive because they trap what little heat the area has).

And so, the Visit Ithaca site decided to have a sense of humor about all of this and gently suggest that maybe this isn’t the best time of year to visit. Maybe you might want to consider a warmer climate for your February travels. Oh, and, by the way, it’s a great place to visit in Spring, Summer, and especially early fall, when the gorges that the area is famous for (Ithaca is Gorges t-shirt, anyone?) are lit up with fall colors.

Most tourism bureaus would shy away from this, seeing it as a risky move. But honesty and integrity go a long way, and so has this campaign. It’s now trending in some areas on social media, and people who never even knew where Ithaca was are visiting the site and poking around. Next time your agency suggests something a little out of your comfort zone, don’t be so quick to say no. You might just have the next viral campaign on your hands, or at the very least, you might have the ability to convey that you have a sense of humor about yourself and your destination/brand.

And no one will hate you for that.

Owning Up to It; or, how not to model your customer service after the airline industry

Yesterday morning, I was laying in bed, wishing that I somehow got a miraculous second Sunday instead of having to haul my butt into the cold and go into the office.

To kill time (re: make myself impossibly late to the office), I was looking through my twitter feed on my phone and came across an article that had unexpected connections to my life.

This Washington Post Article, by Travel Columnist Chris Elliott, outlined how airlines use the “force majeure” excuse to prevent them from owing passengers any compensation for flights that were cancelled or re-routed. In the past, airlines used this excuse, which essentially means “due to forces outside our control,” for weather related events, or political events (i.e. war) that affected flights. Some call this the “act of god” excuse.

Now, it seems, airlines are deploying this excuse even when the cause for delays, cancellations or reroutes are seemingly in their control – maintenance issues, employee strikes, etc. The columnist, who often acts as an advocate for jilted passengers, notes that travelers do not have to settle for this excuse and can often get past it simply by asking “why?”

And so, everyone hates the airlines. Even passengers who have generally good experiences hate the process and experience of flying. Seriously. If you’ve ever sat in an airport waiting area during a flight delay, you know this is true. And I think part of the reason is because the airlines are increasingly refusing to take responsibility for their role in any delay or cancellation, because they owe passengers compensation for events that are their fault. And so passengers feel like the relationship is adversarial, rather than a customer service transaction like it should be.

The lesson here is this: don’t be like the airlines. Take responsibility for events that were in your control and let clients know that you will work to do better next time. No one is perfect all of the time, and the vast majority of clients would rather have a hearty apology along with a plan to improve than a million excuses on why it’s not your fault.

Treating the client-agency relationship like a partnership rather than a battle earns trust for those times when you do have forces outside your control that affect projects. For example, my car this morning looks like a glazed donut – there is a thick layer of ice that has totally encased it after a storm last night. That, combined with a slick, steep driveway, means I won’t make it to the office today. But clients know that I don’t use excuses like this often, and so their trust in me allows them to laugh at my iced-in car with me, instead of feeling like I’m just making excuses not to make my deadlines.

If the airlines went back to their policy of only blaming weather/geological events on “force majeure,” they could probably go a long way toward earning back the trust of their passengers. After all, we’re all in this giant airborne metal tube together, and we just want to get home safely.

Hosting Your Site or Why Your Developer Really Wants to Handle This For You

A few months ago, I attend WordCamp in Raleigh. One of the earliest sessions discussed how to turn this whole web design and development hobby into an actual, pay-the-bills kind of job. The head of that session explained that he handles the hosting for most of his clients – not actually physically hosting their sites on his own machines, but he purchases and administers the remote hosting from reputable third party companies and passes along the cost to the client.

At the time, the only think I could think is why would a client pay you $60 a month when they could easily set up a hosting account for somewhere around a fifth of that cost. It felt, frankly, like a little bit of a money grab and was, in all fairness, explained as a great source of passive income. I quickly forgot about that as an option and moved on.

Fast forward to the last three weeks, during which I have fought tooth and nail for clients to give me access to their FTP and hosting accounts so that I could make significant changes to websites. (P.S. why does everyone suddenly want a website facelift in January? Is this a new resolution trend, like going to the gym more and trying not to eat exclusively from the office snack machine?)

The first client involves a third-party go-between who doesn’t understand exactly how this all works. The second client hosts their site themselves and was extremely hesitant to give me access to their servers. Because of these back and forth and a general misunderstanding of how websites actually work, I am now three weeks behind on at least one of those projects.

And so I say to you, person who wants someone else to handle their website, please allow me to handle not only the design and development, but also the hosting. I promise I won’t gouge you on prices, and you get the added benefit of me being the person that handles server issues, instead of someone in IT, or even you yourself.

Brainstorming and UX Development

Nothing quite strikes dread in the heart of the account executive like a Vice President inviting clients in for a “brainstorming session” to involve account, design and creative. These sessions, which have the potential to devolve into multi-hour, tangent-filled meetings where the client or creative over powers all other discussion to rail on about “this is how we’ve always done it” or “I’m the expert here.”

Which is 100% not the reason why we’re holding the brainstorming session to begin with. The very nature of brainstorming, love it or hate it, is to get new, out-of-the-box ideas out on the table. These sessions are often held when nothing else is working, or when new clients come online.

Brainstorming, in many cases, takes place for all the wrong reasons.  Some managerial level employee went to a leadership conference or read a book that said that effective teams hold brainstorming sessions and so we do them.  But the art of brainstorming isn’t that simple. Effective ideas meetings require experienced leadership, a culture of creativity, and, yes, structure.

In the world of user-experience (UX) focused design, these brainstorming sessions are of crucial importance. But they’re never free-for-alls with no goals or structure. Some lessons that any organization can take from these designers are:

1. Start with a purpose in mind – what problem are you trying to solve? What goals are you reaching for?
2. No ideas are bad ideas – this is said by everyone and acted on by practically no one. We all judge each other, that’s human nature, but the worst offenders on this topic are often leaders or creative types who feel that their processes or prestige are being threatened by a process that values all ideas
3. Create a structure – set a start and (loose) end time; use brainstorming activities to add value to ideas; never just sit in a room for an hour and throw out ideas – this is almost never effective and leaves many people sitting in the room feeling overpowered by the more dominant personalities.
4. Act on ideas – creating a work structure that shows participants that their ideas (collectively) will be acted on at some point encourages buy-in from everyone. Who likes going to a meeting where nothing happens with any of the topics discussed in there? In other words, don’t brainstorm just to brainstorm. Have a clear action plan in place and share that plan with your fellow participants.

Brainstorming works best on teams or in organizations that have more horizontal power structures, but even the most rigidly traditional company can create a temporary horizontal team by making the goals of the session clear to all participants and then actively valuing everyone’s contribution. Not everyone will contribute equally. Some participants will come up with initial ideas, others are much better at building on the ideas of their colleagues. The ideal team leader will assemble a team with a variety of strengths and encourage active participation by all team members.

A New Chapter… Again…

As many of you may already know, exactly a month ago, I quit my job and moved 7 hours South to Asheville, N.C., for a fantastic new job in Advertising. That’s right, I am now a real, live Mad (wo)Man.

I first got the inkling that I wanted to leave Washington sometime last summer. There was a time when I was in love with the city of Washington, D.C., but like many great loves, it fizzled, and I found myself focusing on all the ways that Washington had failed me in our relationship. It’s public transportation system never picked me up on time. I fought lines at the grocery store, the post office, the Chipotle, pretty much everywhere, actually. I started to think that maybe it was time to move on.

At about that time, I visited my friend Sarah in Asheville and it felt like home. I started making plans to make a move and in December everything started to come together, including a job offer from that ad firm I mentioned earlier.

Fear not, readers, for this does not mean that I no longer plan to write about Journalism or the media. It does probably mean that most of my posts will no longer be thinly veiled case studies from work, however…

So… keep reading… and come visit me in the fantastic Western Northern South (blog to come…).

Government Shutdown; Or Why News Teams Need Slack

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past nine days, you know that the federal government is shut down. There are a million stories about why it’s shut down, what exactly is affected, and how Congress is going to get themselves out of this mess.

This is not one of those stories.

This is a story about why a news team needs slack, which can also be described as people sometimes doing nothing, which is why managers don’t like slack. There’s no such thing as an average day in the newsroom, but most news managers try to keep their staffing at a level where, on a regular day, everyone is pretty busy, but there is some slack in the system. There is a person who can take on an additional task, such as a quick breaking news story or one added event to cover.

Slack is relative. Large teams often have more slack, while small teams by nature have less. A team with 10 people working Monday-Friday can often find at least one person to volunteer to come in for a weekend shift or work a late night once in a while. This works best when every member of the team is equally inclined to volunteer, since each member then knows they only have to do it once in a while.

A team with four members will have less slack than this team of 10 and will need a good manager to determine what is possible, but with enough slack built into the system (i.e. not using your team of four members to do the work of six or more), the team can still be flexible and dynamic.

Where this system falls apart, however, is when that one-time added event or breaking news event becomes two solid weeks of breaking news with no end in sight.

Enter the government shutdown.

While many people in D.C. are staying home, wondering if they will be getting a paycheck next week, my team and I have been busier than ever. We have been trying to cover breaking news 16 hours a day, 7 days a week with a staff of four for two weeks. My best prediction is this will last through next week, when we will be trying to cover the same number of hours and stories with just three people on all but one day, and potentially into the following week, where we will be covering the same hours with three people all week.

Because of the sheer number of hours in the day divided by the fact that we each work 8-hour shifts, you can see that there is very little overlap. Add in a few meetings or technical problems (such as, say, a streaming video issue), and you see a team stretched very thin. At some point, something has to give.

Or else you end up with people who are burned out, frustrated with each other and the management, and just generally feeling taken advantage of.

Because the hiring process takes weeks (instead of hours, which is about as much warning as we get that we are going to need extra staff), it seems to make more sense to have one too many people than one too few. If there was a perfect number, then this wouldn’t be the news business.

When you are rock climbing slack refers to the amount of loose rope you have. It is the amount of room you have to climb higher before someone needs to give you more slack in the rope. It is also how far you are going to fall if you lose your grip. That is why it is important to have just the right amount of slack so you feel like you can reach higher and cover more rock, while still feeling like you have the support you need to reach and fail.

And finding that balance in your staffing is the key to being able to cover breaking news without sacrificing your staff or the quality of your product.

Have I Read Everything on the Internet?

I work in news. Some days I can barely make it to the refrigerator to grab my lunch. Other days, I do practically nothing. It’s the nature of the business. On the latter days, a former coworker and I used to joke that we’d “finished the Internet,” as in, “I’ve read everything on the Internet, want to go get a smoothie?”

Obviously it is impossible to read everything on the internet, in a literal sense, but lately I’ve been finding these strange loops in my reading habits online, where I find myself back at an article that I’ve already read, though my path to get there was different.

An example:

Wired Magazine recently celebrated 20 years of publishing by producing a special issue with some of the best articles from the past 20 years. This anthology included Disneyland with the Death Penalty by William Gibson, from the Sept./Oct. 1993 issue. I am a tablet subscriber to Wired and read the article, along with most of the special issue, during one of those slow days at work. Just last weekend, I picked up a book that I had purchased after reading an article on the Nieman Journalism Lab site about journalists learning to code. That book: a collection of essays, forewords and speeches by William Gibson, Distrust that Particular Flavor.

Not being good with names, and not being a particular fan of science fiction, I had no idea who William Gibson was, until I made it to about the halfway point of the book, and came across “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” again, which got me thinking about this particular circular phenomenon.

In this case, the reference came from two different media entities, but just as often I find that I read an article straight off the homepage of something and a few weeks later circle back to it through a Facebook or Twitter recommendation. Sometimes it’s been so long since I read the article the first time that I end up reading several paragraphs before the deja vu feeling sets in.

Some days it feels like I could never read everything I want to read on the homepages and twitter feeds of my favorite news sites. But on other days I find myself wondering if there is really that much new out there. When you narrow your sights from “everything on the internet” to everything worth reading on the internet, the list sometimes seems very short, indeed.

News Euphemisms

I was reading this excellent piece on the Republican position on Latinos and immigration, and how that affects their electoral strategy when I came across this sentence:

“Every election cycle, more of them will become eligible to vote, while the oldest, whitest and most Republican generations age out of the electorate on the other end. (‘Age out of the electorate’ is a euphemism for ‘die.’)”

It got me thinking about my favorite news, public policy, and academic euphemisms, those little phrases that reporters and academics use when they want to say something (often something crass or disturbing) but need to maintain a modicum of dignity.

One of my (morbid) favorites is “placed himself deliberately on the tracks,” used by WMATA and the Washington Post whenever a person commits suicide by jumping in front of a subway train (almost always on the Red Line, almost always shortly before rush hour). I think the reason I find this one (morbidly) amusing is that while it is a much more verbose way of saying something that is a little unseemly, it doesn’t leave nearly as much to the imagination as NBC News reporter Benjy Sarlin’s gem above.

What are your favorite news euphemisms?

The Cable Industry

On a recommendation from someone, somewhere (the exact source has escaped me; another issue of my infinite reading list – see below), I just finished reading an article from the December 1996 issue of Wired about the laying of transoceanic cables (Mother Earth, Motherboard, 4.12).

This article, written on the cusp of the internet revolution, describes a cable being run from Cornwall to Japan, crossing over land, but mostly buried at the bottom of a very complicated ocean. The writer, who describes himself as a hacker-tourist back when few people knew what hackers were to begin with, focuses on the technology that made these transoceanic cables possible.

But one particular part of the article hit home to me. For five of the last six years, I have worked for a cable network (the television kind). In one of the myriad positions I have held at this company, I used to request out of town, and sometimes international, video feeds.

In 2013, there are multiple ways we get these feeds. Some come off of a satellite dish in the sky. Some come to use via FTP (across the web). Some still come to us via microwave signals, which require a line of sight. Our newest technology is video feed via cellular signal, which, as a new technology, is spotty at best. But the vast majority of our coverage, from across the street at the U.S. Capitol building to across the ocean in London, comes to us via fiber link, or physical cable.

I have booked fiber feeds and cross-connects too numerous to count, but I never really thought about what this meant until I read this article from 1996. There are literally cables running across the ocean, carrying the BBC’s coverage of the British House of Commons to my building in Washington, D.C. There are cables in the White House and in the Capitol, there are cables in most of the “think tanks” and in the State Department and Pentagon.

There are buildings, like the one the author describes in Alexandria, Egypt, where people literally connect this fiber coming in from one location to one going out to another location, creating a world encircling network of fiber cables.

In the modern era, we take for granted that these fiber networks work, and have significant built in redundancies to prevent an interruption of service. But not so long ago, at a time in most of our lifetimes, this was not guaranteed. It amazes me to think that these systems only exist because a very talented team of engineers, cable layers, and sailors physically laid the cable that enables our nearly instantaneous around-the-world communications.

What amazing everyday feats of engineering and science are we performing right now that children born today will completely take for granted? What will we be unable to live without?

Infinite Reading List

I’m currently reading James Gleick’s 2011 book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, which tells the story of how information came to be, and came to be classified and organized. I’m just starting the book, but the chapter I read today, on the process of recording and organizing words and definitions into dictionaries, was fascinating.

A large part of Gleick’s explanation, at least in the early part of the book, has to do with how everything we think about through history is informed by our current circumstances. He likens it to trying to explain horses as four-legged automobiles without wheels. Words, he says, for much of human history were oral, not written, and it was only with the invention of the printing press that humans felt the need to create lists of words with standardized spellings and definitions.

In the chapter on dictionaries, Gleick notes that during the early production of what became the Oxford English Dictionary, the editors put out a call for readers to cover 16th and 17th century literature. At that point, they believed that the entirety of human literature was finite.

The modern editors face an infinite, ever-expanding amount of written knowledge. I can relate.

It seems like no matter how much I read, my reading list just keeps getting longer and longer. And now, with web tools like Pocket and Instapaper, I can quantify just how infinite my reading list is. I save long-form articles in Pocket, I use Chrome bookmarks to save websites that require more interaction or specific notes, I have a Google Doc Spreadsheet of books that I have saved from lists, book reviews, and interviews I see, I have a stack of paper magazines a foot high and a stack of virtual magazines on my iPad twice that size. And everyday, through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other sources, I discover new articles and websites that I never would have found before.

Sometimes, on particularly slow news days, a coworker and I joke that we’ve “read the whole internet,” and sometimes, especially when it comes to news of the day stories, it feels that way. But mostly, I feel like I’m buried under piles and piles of reading that I want to do, but may never get to. And each day, the piles get bigger.