Reporting on reddit

Gideon Grudo and Tyler Krome

Gideon Grudo and Tyler Krome are cheap journalists.


Grudo wrote the open-source story reddit revolts below, with Krome assisting. They want you to reprint, revise, repurpose, or rewrite it – without their consent.

Why give away their work? Says Grudo, a former SPJ national board member…

reddit is home to hundreds of millions of people who are interacting with media, posting about it, and commenting on it. Here’s a direct line to your readers. Almost 600 subreddits were created yesterday. That’s the kind of community engagement I deem coverage-worthy.

Grudo believes mainstream media need to cover reddit no differently than they would cover cops and city commissions. (He also believes in lower-casing the name, which annoys the hell out of me. But he’s just following what reddit does to its own name.)

Over the July Fourth weekend, reddit had its own fireworks. Thousands of reddit users exploded in protest when the social media network’s leadership fired one of its most popular employees.

Since reddit has 164 million users, the story was covered by mainstream media unaccustomed to dealing with the mysterious website – where not only are the users anonymous, so are the “mods” who oversee reddit’s forums and the “admins” who oversee the mods.

Just before the holiday, reddit headquarters – an equally shrouded group – fired a woman named Victoria Taylor without warning or comment. Taylor was popular among mods as reddit’s communications director, so in protest, thousands of them intentionally turned off their forums.

Here’s how The New York Times led its story…

Hundreds of sections of reddit, the popular online message board, were unavailable Friday in what appeared to be a protest by many of the site’s moderators after the abrupt dismissal of a high-ranking company employee.

But The Times never spoke with reddit leaders, admins, or mods. CNN sought comment from reddit leaders and got as far as, “A spokeswoman from Reddit explained in an email to CNN…”

A day later, TIME got what appeared to be an emailed apology from reddit’s CEO (“I want to apologize to our community for yesterday”) but no chance to interview her.

From USA Today to The Huffington Post to the Los Angeles Times to The Daily Beast, mainstream media quoted directly from reddit postings, whether from anonymous users or from reddit leaders themselves. Alas, no media outlet I perused actually interviewed anyone.

But Grudo and Krome did. Just in their spare time.

Devin Desjarlais and Victoria Taylor

Devin Desjarlais worked twice with Victoria Taylor.


Taylor’s job was to host celebrities on reddit’s wildly popular “ask me anything” series. When Breaking Bad actor Aaron Paul did an AMA, he worked closely with two women: Taylor and Dejarlais, a social media director who worked with Paul.

“She was always thinking one step ahead,” Desjarlais told Grudo. Her reaction to the firing…

“Oh man, redditors are not going to like this,” followed by “I wonder why?”

Taylor was “on top of her game and had a very good understanding of what needed to be done to facilitate the conversation,” Desjarlais says. “Working with her made the AMA process far smoother than it would have been because she had the understanding and the ability to move roadblocks like no one else could.”

Desjarlais concludes: “She had her hand in every corner of reddit and, from the looks of things, was very busy and involved from the ground, up. It seems like she had a system – and it’ll take a while for someone to pick that up.”

Grudo and Krome also spoke to reddit mods – on voice calls as well as by email. They went old school to report on the new school. Below is their behind-the-scenes look at how mods conduct their business, and why they revolted over July Fourth weekend…


reddit revolts

By Gideon Grudo, with help from Tyler Krome

XX.

tl;dr

reddit’s complicated.

We interviewed several mods, some on the record and some off, to get an idea of how this site works. Through the interviews, screenshots of private messages, and some number crunching, we figured out some cool—and really uncool—stuff. For example, we rounded out what it would cost to run a subreddit if reddit paid its mods. For another example, we found that subreddits can get filled with sexist and ugly chatter with little to no oversight.

The blackout didn’t happen because one person got fired. It happened because mods were sick of being ignored. All of that could very likely change, but the folks we talked to aren’t getting excited yet.

ps: As we were putting final touches on this story, reddit came out with a new subreddit to support mods, the lack of which is covered extensively in the story below. We’re all looking forward to how that’s going to work and affect reddit’s universe. But it’s too early to tell if it’ll fix all of the issues we’ve found through our reporting.

reddit

Alex Baldwin stayed cool as Reddit burned down around him.

Baldwin (not Adam, not Alec, but Alex) is the leader of a small subreddit called Kotaku In Action (KiA).

He and a dozen other mods didn’t veil their subreddit in support of the blackout—they chose instead to keep the conversation going.

“We talked about the possibility of KiA going down, but seeing as lots of people were already discussing the blackout,” he said, “we decided to remain open so they could talk about it, and so we could document the events.

Baldwin isn’t sad it happened. It just might save KiA—which serves largely as a platform for those intimate with the GamerGate movement—from the wrath of reddit.

“I was glad to hear that the issues KiA was having with the admins weren’t because we were being singled out or anything,” Baldwin told us. “It was long overdue, and it certainly got the attention it was seeking.”

While reddit is still figuring out how to clean up the mess it made last week, it might eventually get back to cleaning house, too. It started with making mincemeat of five subreddits early last month, sparking Baldwin’s fear of a shutdown.

The Washington Post explains the early June bans…

The site permanently removed the forums Wednesday afternoon for harassing specific, named individuals, a spokesperson said. Of the five, two were dedicated to fat-shaming, one to transphobia, one to racism and one to harassing members of a progressive video game site.

reddit allegedly pulled the trigger on those subreddits with no notice or advance warning. That’s going to be different now, the 23-year-old University of North Carolina student said.

“reddit has more important things to worry about at the moment,” Baldwin said. “But I don’t think that’s really impacted any decision on whether or not KiA will be banned. If anything, it’s probably made sure that we’ll be informed before we get the axe.”

The relationship between KiA’s mods and reddit may be strained, but the relationship itself is hard to define. Why are mods like Baldwin afraid of a shutdown, and why were so many other mods so angry last week?

Surely, it goes deeper than the sacking of one employee.

XX.Before you enforce rules, you need to write them.

Baldwin’s fears of losing KiA are magnified by the scariest thing of all: Ignorance. There is no log of clear and concise rules to show mods how to moderate.

For example: Do public social media pages constitute personal information (it’s against the rules to post those in comments)?

“A lot of times we’re just taking shots in the dark,” Baldwin said. “Recently, we had to delete a link to someone’s LinkedIn page because we considered it personal information. But we don’t know where the line needs to be drawn. Better to be safe than sorry.”

Outside of the folks working out of reddit’s California headquarters, no one really knows these things.

From his first days on the job, Baldwin—and every single mod on reddit—never received any training or hard guidance from the headquarters of the social web giant in any permanent sense. There’s no infrastructure for that kind of communication.

No one was listening. And if someone was, you never really knew if you were going to get a reply. Imagine emailing Comcast with a question about your service. Would you expect a reply?

Baldwin believes the blackout might change all that, but he ain’t holding his breath.

“I’m hopeful that something good is going to come out of this,” Baldwin said. “At the same time, I’m not entirely trusting of the admin team. I’ve seen a lot of talk but not a whole lot of action. To me, it seems like the things they were saying were just to get the major subreddits back online and I’m not totally sure they’re going to stick to their word.”

XX.When the site turns black, it ain’t green.

Each new blacked out subreddit came with yet another affirmation for Baldwin and his crew: They aren’t alone. The site-wide meltdown didn’t materialize out of thin air—the sparks of revolution rarely do.

The revolt—taken together with its desire to go legit and start making some real cash—doesn’t bode well for reddit.

Forbes explains it well…

The fundamental problem reddit has is that its community has constantly been at war with ways management has tried to monetize the site. You would imagine that a site with 7 billion monthly page views might be rolling in dough, but due to reddit’s incredibly limited monetization strategies, they’ve never really been a profitable business.

We wanted to figure out what the blackout cost reddit. Here’s what we found…

Three-hundred and sixty-three subreddits participated in the blackout. That amounts to 153,329,940 subscribers losing access to their subreddit of choice.

We scoured a few posts, like this one, to come up with this data. For every subscriber, a subreddit gets an average of 0.5 page views per day. You can see the ratio of page views to subscribers for any subreddit (along with other interesting traffic statistics) like this.

Reddit makes a lot of money off its ads. One particular kind are “self-serve” ads, sold by pageviews: For between $1.50 and $5.00, your ad will be seen 1000 times on reddit.

So what did the blackout cost reddit? Our conservative estimate, based on the available numbers, is that it cost them $137,996 per day in lost self-serve ads alone. This doesn’t include its revenue from larger, commercial advertising campaigns or user donations flooded out by the shutdowns.

Pretty pennies force reaction. reddit has been able to assuage most of the mods enough to bring back subreddits from the dark beyond, but issues remain unresolved.

Before we get to the issues, let’s introduce the main players: the mods and the admins.

XX.

Mods are people like you and me.

Baldwin—who goes by TheHat2 on the site—and a dozen other people moderate what happens on KiA.

This comprises a myriad of responsibilities from deleting stuff on the site like harassing comments or spam posts to banning repeat violators to electing new users into the moderating ranks—it’s a lot of work.

He and his colleagues are called mods, and everything they do, they do for free.

Mods are the backbone of reddit.

They hold it all up. And they do it for the most part without any assistance from the headquarters of reddit, which offers no training or guidance to moderators. In fact, communications between mods and the people who work for wages at reddit to deal specifically with the site—these are the admins—are very strained and limited (more on that later).

Without these people who voluntarily and regularly complete “humble duties within a particular community,” according to reddit’s page about moderation (which the various mods we spoke to said they had never heard of), the place would become “one monolithic overall community.”

Mods ensure that subreddits stay in focus, acording to reddit:

As an example, imagine a /r/swimming and a /r/scuba. People can read about one topic or the other (or subscribe to both). But since scuba divers like to swim, a casual user might start submitting swimming links on /r/scuba. And these stories will probably get upvoted, especially by people who see the links on the reddit front page and don’t look closely at where they’re posted. If left alone, /r/scuba will just become another /r/swimming and there won’t be a place to go to find an uncluttered listing of scuba news.

The fix is for the /r/scuba moderators to remove the offtopic links, and ideally to teach the submitters about the more appropriate/r/swimming subreddit.

The moderation page doesn’t mention what’s left of reddit without these volunteers. For one thing, there’d be a fair level of chaos. So said KiA mod Daniel Sollie Hansen—redditor AntithesisD—a soon-to-be computer science master’s student from Norway.

“The community as a whole can’t really define what is harassment or what is personal information,” Hansen said, citing as examples some of the red flags mods find in comments and take action on. “As a moderator, you answer to the community,” he added. “It’s a question of accountability.”

So if the mods are accountable to the community, who’s accountable to the mods?

reddit

Admins are people like you and me.

The admins that run around reddit doing whatever it is they’re doing are all profiled on the company’s team page, complete with an alien avatar and favorite subreddits.

It kinda looks like a high school yearbook page.

Here’s the gist about the team:

reddit has 66 current and 38 former employees listed. These include everyone from CEO Ellen Pao to an “anti-evil engineer,” so we gotta assume not everyone on the list is running around the site interacting with mods or with the community.

Although the company is based in San Francisco, only 76 percent of its staff currently live there, based on our calculations. The rest live around the country, and a few abroad: There’s an admin in Ireland and another in Australia.

Recent hires appear to be focused on modernizing and monetizing the company (no surprise there): Three new mobile developers got picked up in the last year, along with a new VP of sales who joined the team in January.

While the company as a whole is fairly diverse, the specific teams in the company are a little more segregated: 88 percent of its technical staff, for example, is male, and every community manager but one is white. Two of the avatars are wearing fedoras (there’s a subreddit for those, but it’s currently blacked out).

We could go on, but it’s better to do that later with more input from reddit (what do you say, folks?)

What we do know is that admins tagged as community managers are definitely admins who talk to mods. There are six of those.

Six people. For all of reddit.

XX.

Mods say the admins neglect them. Here’s what that looks like.

Mods have cited throughout the blackout that admins’ neglect of them is one of their top concerns.

We asked the mods at KiA for examples. They had several.

On May 1, 2015, Baldwin reached out to admins about a sensitive issue.

He was concerned that some pro-GamerGate comments on KiA were inaccurate and potentially highly insensitive.

“We’re wondering if ‘deadnaming’ (using the pre-transition name of a trans person) counts as personal information, despite that name not being confirmed as theirs),” he wrote, adding that there’s no evidence of a transition, either. “We’d like your take on it, so we can dictate sub policy appropriately.”

Pretty serious stuff.

He immediately got a reply from u/LordVinyl to say the admins would look into the matter. (Lord’s blurb description on reddit’s team page is “I respect music copyrights because one cannot pirate vinyl – /r/VinylMasterRace – You may address me as Lord.” His favorite subreddits are /r/vinyl, /r/mancave, and /r/atheism.)

Then nothing happened. No response. For days. Then weeks. Then months.

Screen Shot 2015-07-03 at 4.53.11 PM

Baldwin followed up on June 27. He’s yet to get a response.

Other attempts to get help from the admins might not even get this much of a reaction.

A post sent out in late June has received no reply at all. And this one asks for help so the mods can “keep any instances of harassment and abuse out of r/kotakuinaction.”

Screen Shot 2015-07-03 at 4.53.28 PM

One of the promises to come out of the revolt is a singular contact for mods seeking help from admins. This person (krispykrackers) has supposedly been vested with the responsibility of listening to and responding to mod concerns and questions.

“It took something like this to spur them to action,” Baldwin said. “That it had to come this really shows how out of touch the admin are with the mod community.”

XX.

We don’t know what kind of training the admins get—or whether it matters.

We know mods don’t get training. But we weren’t sure about the admins.

When Baldwin turned to admin to get help, he didn’t know to whom he was turning.

His question about trans sensitivity, the one that got ignored, was answered by someone whose favorite subreddits had nothing to do with LGBT-related issues. If you’re looking for someone to consult you about how to treat trans issues in a public forum, then someone who publicly cites /r/mancave as one of three favorite places on the site might not be the smartest choice.

Or maybe Lord is an expert on these matters (we reached out to him to find out about his expertise but haven’t received a reply yet). There’s no way to know. When mods send a message to the admins, it goes to a general inbox where anyone might pick it up and deal with it.

How do they parse out those responsibilities? How should they?

“I think whichever admin handles concerns regarding reddit policy should know all the do’s and don’ts well enough to make the right calls when questions come up,” Baldwin said. “So, they should know site policy, what’s fair game and what isn’t, to the point where it can be uniformly applied and so that there are no contradictions on how it’s enforced.”

Is that even possible, though? Policy that transcends cultural divides sounds complicated and confusing. Is it on reddit’s shoulders to invent it?

Baldwin thinks it is. Slowly, he explained, as specific concerns get addressed, their resolutions can be used to mete out the new ones. You know, kinda like the justice system’s use of case law.

“They’d have to make some kind of guideline, like, ‘what absolutely is not allowed on reddit.’ For other items that may be more open to interpretation, it should be noted once a decision is made, not unlike setting a legal precedent,” he said. “As long as no wires get crossed along the way, and mods don’t have to work in uncertainty, it should be fine.”

But let’s not get tangled in speculation. Here’s what’s obvious…

reddit

Some mods think admins should be trained to deal with policy.

The mods don’t parse out anything you throw at them.

You the reddit user send them a message, it drops into a general inbox (it’s called modmail and we’ll get to it later), one of them picks it up and runs with it. You hope the mod you get is the best mod for the job.

And there’s no way for mods to know the same thing about the admins when they reach out for help. But it’d sure be nice, Baldwin said.

“Yeah, I’d absolutely be okay with admins having set roles, or at least all of the ones that handle community concerns to be versed in those sorts of things,” he said. “What I want is for all their decisions to be uniformly applied. No miscommunications, no double standards, just the same policy across the board, fairly applied to everyone.”

So here’s the common denominator: No one knows if they’re talking to the right person. And it’s not explained on the site (at least not where it can be easily found).

Oh, yeah, by the way: Not even the cofounder of the website knows how to talk to his people.

reddit

If you want a new A/C unit in your office, make sure the boss sweats.

The directionless messaging doesn’t just frustrate the mods.

When the revolt was in full swing and Alexis Ohanian (reddit’s cofounder, aka kn0thing) wanted to have a chat with all the mods, his options were limited. There’s no infrastructure for him to speak directly with all of them.

There are a few subreddits that mods attend regularly, but they’re relatively small. There’s /r/modclub with less than 3,500 subscribers and also /r/modhelp with just under 7,000. Is that enough? We couldn’t find stats on how many moderators exist, but we can say this: There are over 671,000 subreddits and each one needs at least one mod to operate.

To be fair, many of these could be empty and inactive and probably are. Many mods operate in more than one subreddit, too. One  mod we spoke with operates in four active subreddits and several inactive ones.

So what did Ohanian choose? He chose /r/modtalk. That’s not linked because you may as well not click it. It’s an invitation-only subreddit, private and from what we’ve been told by several mods: cliquey.

Here’s what Ohanian posted in this behind-closed-doors subreddit (it may have appeared elsewhere. CNN quoted from it, for example:

kn0thingtomodtalk

Here’s the top voted comment in this thread:

replytoOhanian1

And here’s the second top voted comment:

replytoOhanian2

ICYMI: “By making us have to go out and find your announcements,” /u/hedgefundaspirations said, “you’re ensuring that we’ll miss a lot of them, especially people that aren’t subscribed here or in defaultmods.”

So to simplify it all, reddit’s cofounder had to use a locked and private subreddit to inform mods that he and his team are here to fix the problem of communicating with only a small number of mods.

Okay.

reddit

Admins come, they see, they tell you to delete content.

Baldwin, Hansen, the rest of the KiA mods, and mods of other subreddits we’ve spoken to, sometimes get told by admin to cut something out.

On Jan. 2, 2015, the admin /u/ocrasorm contacted the mods at KiA to tell them to remove a post that he said broke the rules, kinda.

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 1.14.51 PM

The mods were confused. What does “we do not like the idea of” mean, anyway?

The post in question was a call to arms for people to contact various companies and implore them not to advertise on Gawker’s website, citing unethical journalistic behavior. This is normal practice for many activist subreddits and it’s called email campaigning. One of the mods points back to the battle that many sites, including Google, waged against SOPA and reddit’s part in it.

Soon the back-and-forth changes. Ocrasorm changes his mind, retreats, and said his “wires were crossed.” The post is okay, he said, but only with certain types of contact information (general inboxes, like contactus@company.com as opposed to personal ones, like spokesperson@company.com).

But what are the rules? Ocrasorm never made mention of any. Are they arbitrary? Are they hard? Can he link to them?

In a long Q&A comment that Ohanian posted over the weekend to answer a slew of questions in one place, he answered one about KiA specifically and the Ocrasorm confusion:

The question about KiA: Speaking of /r/kotakuinaction, why are they disallowed from organizing email campaigns to corporations? (Famously, being told that posting a PR person’s company contact info at Volkswagen is not allowed) – and what rule of reddit does this violate?

Ohanian: We definitely need to re-think this rule. Adding to the list. Organizing an email campaign to target a PR person’s public corporate email seems like it should be reasonable. There are a few of rules we need to clarify.

Clarify is a good word. Let’s talk about clear rules.

reddit

On reddit, you can break the rules without knowing what they are and get banned for it.

What are the site rules? These might be them, buried at the bottom of the site and titled reddiquette (get it?), which is as much a guide for regular users as it is for moderators. A search inside of reddit.com for “how to moderate a subreddit” yields little.

After sifting through the backend of KiA and some of the interactions between admin and moderators (before the #redditrevolt, even), one thing is clear: Nothing is clear in the world of reddit moderation.

How does a mod operate when he doesn’t have a clear set of guidelines?

“We’ll just err on the side of caution,” Baldwin said.  “We’re too frightened it’ll come back to bite us even if we turned to the admins.”

Hansen finds that mods just use their heads to get through most situations, like which posts to mark as spam or which to delete or which to deem so outrageous the poster needs to be banned. The recipe is vague.

“A little bit reddiquette, a little bit moddiquette, and a lot of common sense,” he said.

Baldwin offers: “Don’t be a jerk is the guiding principle for a lot of our rules.”

We already know that admins show up and tell mods to remove posts sometimes, regardless of jerkiness.

We already know that reddit shows up without notice and bans subreddits which, as disgusting as they were, weren’t told which rules they broke.

We already know what happens when you run around chopping off heads without justifying your actions: Things get dark very quickly.

reddit

Baldwin and Hansen are pretty sure KiA is doing the right thing. And to reddit, it’s certainly the right price.

They feel they’ve obeyed the “informal” moddiquette offered up by the admins.

They respond to complaints. They attend to reports of misbehavior. They say they’re squeaky clean.

But what is their job exactly? We mined the backend of their subreddit KiA and figured out a little bit of what it takes to keep a subreddit with almost 50,000 subscribers running.

In an average day, the 13 human mods of /r/kotakuinaction perform 360 moderation actions, and compose over 800 words of messages to users, not including the times they run around the subreddit itself, post within comment threads, and fiddle with the programming and design of the subreddit.

“Human mods” because the subreddit, like many, uses a bot called Automoderator—computer code that filters and flags content that is in blatant violation of the subreddit’s rules. It performs an average of 102 actions every day by itself.

Some of the actions can be completed very quickly—e.g., verifying that a flagged comment doesn’t contain a prohibited link, or marking an obviously spammy comment as spam. But actions also include things like editing the subreddit’s wiki page, or taking the time to determine whether or not a user deserves to be banned. We can’t know how long the mods deliberate philosophically over what to do in specific situations. Our numbers are based solely on the time it takes to complete the action itself.

If the moderators are experienced and quick, these actions might take around 15 seconds apiece, on average. Combined with a generous writing pace of 19 words per minute, this means that every day, two hours and 12 minutes go into making a subreddit work, or 71 minutes per week, per mod. If reddit paid its mods $9/hour, the minimum wage in its home state of California, they would owe the mods of KIA $7,227 every year for their work. But if you’re thinking of the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour, those savings drop to $5,822.

Doesn’t sound like too much, right? It isn’t. But let’s step out of the forest. KiA is one of over 671,000 subreddits. And we know that lots of those are inactive. Here’s a more modest estimate of active mods:

There are three subreddits where mods hang out: /r/modhelp, /r/modclub, and r/modtalk (the invite-only one). Modhelp has 7,012 subscribers, modclub has 3,450 subscribers, and modtalk has 1,100 subscribers on the dot, according to a mod we spoke to.

We average those to get 3,854 mods. This isn’t accurate (for many reasons), but it lets us come up with an idea of what mods save reddit.

So, 3,854 mods multiplied by $7.25/hour gives us 27,941.5/hour.

Per year, that’s $1,714,490. That’s a lot of money reddit’s saving on the backs of people who can’t even get help figuring out if letting a LinkedIn account link stay online will cost them their subreddit.

So why do it?

“It’s nice to have this feeling that you are helping people,” Hansen said. “You’re kind of a mix of a guardian and a servant.”

Hansen became a mod after responding to a sticky post on KiA asking for mod applicants a few months ago. The post asked those applying to jot down their timezone.

“I’m GMT+1 (Norway), and I tend to always have reddit on in the background when I’m on the computer,” he wrote in his application, adding “(which tends to be fairly often).”

Whoa. Timezones?

reddit

Even mods have to sleep sometimes.

KiA mods, you see, were looking for new colleagues who’d be awake while they were snoozing. Someone had to take the midnight shift and watch over the users during twilight hours. Without finding international help, the subreddit would be helpless for as long as it took the mods to get their beauty sleep.

He got the job, partly due to that important GMT+1: “If you’re still interested, respond to this,” the job acceptance post read.

Hansen replied quickly, “Holy mother … I would be honored!”

Mods have to find their own way to deal with a subreddit that never sleeps on a site that never sleeps.

Admins sure did. Remember that conversation KiA had with Ocrasorm? The one about email campaigning? That admin is in Ireland, one of two outside the US.

Ireland’s GMT+0, in case you were wondering.

reddit

Looking onto redditor pastures…

It’s hard to see where reddit is going next. Is it going to redesign its site in some frenzied attempt to legitimize it and lose its entire userbase like Digg did? Is it going to clamp down and shut down tons of subreddits and clean up its act?

Probably not.

“I think there’s a small chance that Ellen Pao will be losing her jobs and that several admins’ heads will roll,” Hansen said. He may be right. The petition to kick her out is almost at 200,000 as I write this sentence. Her public apology on reddit July 6 didn’t meet the kindest responses.

“As for KiA, I think we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing,” Hansen said.

Baldwin is careful and hesitant to trust the admin.

“Until we’re stopped, anyway,” he said in reference to Hansen’s prediction. “I think we’re gong to see an exodus of sorts. I can’t imagine that people will stick around reddit after something like this. And I feel like some screw up is just around the corner.”

Maybe it is.

“reddit’s greatest strength is its community,” Baldwin said. “Once you don’t have that, everything else falls in on itself.”

Email Gideon Grudo at ggrudo@gmail.com.

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Iowaaaahh!

The city of Muscatine, on the Mississippi River, has just over 20,000 residents.

Call it a full court press.


A dozen students in a small Iowa town have sued their whiny college for censoring the campus newspaper and firing their adviser.

But they’re not waiting around for a judge to rule – the wheels of justice grind exceedingly slow, and these (mostly) women want to burn rubber.

So they’re starting their own newspaper.

And you can help.

Clockwise from top: Mary Mason, Alexis Huscko, Tarsa Weikert, Omar Ocampo

Meet these pleasant people.


Two words you rarely see together are polite journalist, but that describes the entire staff of The Calumet, the student-run newspaper at tiny Muscatine Community College. (Enrollment: under 2,000.)

They’ve never ambush-interviewed anyone, asked leading questions, been passive-aggressive, or stretched the truth to make their stories sexier.

No, they just wrote mostly nice and innocuous stories that still got them in serious trouble. Why? No one knows, but it’s both funny and sad.

Here’s an example from editor Mary Mason (top left)…

A building had 13-15 door handles that weren’t working, and students wondered why. So we wrote a story explaining the handles cost several hundred dollars each to fix, and that they had to be specially ordered. The administration felt the story was negative.

It gets stupider…

Rick Boyer is gonna hate this photo. So share it with your friends.

Meet a silly censor.


This is Rick Boyer, MCC’s chairman of the math and science department.

A few months ago, The Calumet listed all the faculty who had won grants – not what you’d call hard-hitting investigative reporting. But Boyer sure took it that way.

The harmless and even boring story (which you can read here) ran with smiling photos of the winners, which the school made readily available.

The next day, Boyer called the newsroom and, according to the students’ lawsuit…

asserted that The Calumet did not have the right to use his photograph and that The Calumet must obtain his consent in the future before using his photograph or a photograph of anyone else on campus. Boyer then hung up.

Perhaps Boyer has a body integrity disorder. Or maybe he’s a fugitive from justice. Either would explain why his LinkedIn and his Facebook profiles have no photos of his face. So I’m running Boyer’s photo here, with the hope he’ll call and yell at me, too. (Mr. Boyer: my Skype handle is michaelkoretzky.)

I don’t know why a math professor needs to approve all the photos in a student newspaper, but that’s not as weird as this…

Ladrina Wilson got promoted to dean for abusing rules to protect minorities. Maybe she'll become a college president if she accuses students of murder.

Meet a sinister censor.


This is LaDrina Wilson, who was MCC’s “equal employment opportunity and affirmative action officer” last year.

I’m not exactly sure what her job was, but I do know she wasn’t very busy. How else to explain her investigation into The Calumet’s staff?

Wilson went after the students for a hard-hitting story about…who gets named “Student of the Month.”

Seriously.

The Calumet reported on one woman who was named Student of the Month twice in one year. Who chooses? The Student Government adviser – who just happens to be the woman’s uncle.

That adviser filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint against The Calumet’s adviser, James Compton. How that story makes the adviser a discriminating boss is beyond me, but Wilson launched an investigation. MCC even hired a private investigator to interrogate Compton and the students.

“The student journalists felt pressured and intimidated,” the lawsuit says.

Wilson’s investigation eventually concluded the students did nothing wrong by reporting on who gets chosen Student of the Month. Imagine that.

Then Wilson got promoted. She’s now dean of students at another Iowa community college. Which infuriates this guy…

Frank LoMonte can't figure out why MCC hates its student newspaper so much, but it really bugs the crap out of him.

Meet an angry attorney.


This is Frank LoMonte. He runs the Student Press Law Center, which defends high schoolers and college students from hyper-sensitive principals and presidents.

He spent hours investigating MCC. His take…

You can say a lot of bad things about the people who run Muscatine Community College, but one thing you have to give them is: They keep their promises. They promised the editors of The Calumet that if they published a story about how an unhinged MCC administrator threatened the newspaper – for publishing his head-shot photo without his express consent – that the newspaper’s adviser would lose his job. And sure enough, they were good to their word.

LoMonte concludes, “You really can’t get a more open-and-shut First Amendment violation than this one, and yet MCC has decided to waste the taxpayers’ money hiring lawyers to try to defend the indefensible.”

He’s most irate about a nice-guy newspaper adviser losing his job because he stuck up for this students…

James Compton

Meet the assailed adviser.


This is James Compton. He’s an English professor who advised The Calumet until he was fired – by email from a dean.

“I still have my job there teaching English,” Compton says. He admits to feeling “guilty relief” at no longer working with the student newspaper: “Being questioned by a private eye was never one of my professional goals.”

He’s being replaced with a part-time adjunct professor “who will have no workplace protection,” Compton says. “This breaks a run of full-time teachers as adviser that began when The Calumet started up in 1951.”

Compton is a quiet, laid-back guy who says, “I have no specifics as to what I’ve been guilty of.” His best guess? “I believe anything the students researched and reported – if it wasn’t outright positive – was viewed as an attack on administration and those close to them.”

Still, he saw the students get results. Remember those broken door handles? “They watched maintenance attempt to fix multiple broken door handles in a building the same day another reporter had interviewed the head of maintenance.”

Then there was the urinal…

“Tarsa Weikert saw the head of maintenance replace a broken urinal within hours of her interviewing him. The urinal had been broken for nine months.”

And more importantly, this…

“When there was a report on a parking lot feeling unsafe at night due to darkness, they saw the electric truck appear the day after publication to install new lights.”

Yup, sounds like a rowdy gang of anarchists to me. Now they’re doing this…

The Spotlight is going to be a very nice newspaper published by some very nice students.

Meet The Spotlight.


While the students wait for their lawsuit to mosey its way through the legal system, they’ve launched their own print newspaper, called The Spotlight.

It debuts next week. Printing the paper will cost around $500, so SPJ Florida and SPJ Region 3 have offered to match any donation up to that amount. That gives The Spotlight enough cash to cover their first two issues, and enough time to sell ads to pay for the issues after that.

Will you donate a dollar or five? Click here or on any photo…

Unless they’re shy, all donors will be listed on The Spotlight’s website and printed in the dead-tree edition.

Says editor Mary Mason: “Our goal is to get people talking, to start a dialogue.” They already have…

The Spotlight is going to be a very nice newspaper published by some very nice students.

Meet the future.


You might be asking yourself, “Why should I give a crap about – and my money to – a dozen courteous reporters in Iowa?”

Frank LoMonte sums it up best…

What we’re seeing at MCC is perhaps the most unsubtle and heavy-handed example of the escalating war on journalism at campuses across America. The message to colleges must be that when you attack a newsroom, you’re kicking a hornet’s nest – you’re not going to be able to control what comes out, and it’s going to sting real bad.

Help us create a buzz, both in and out of Iowa.

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Bloch and tackle

Don't mess with Emily Bloch

Emily Bloch was just plagiarized. So why is she smiling?


Because the 21-year-old college editor proved a local reporter copied her story, proved he had done the same to others, and stood up to the publisher who vaguely threatened to sue her.

That all happened last week. By Friday afternoon, the plagiarizing reporter was suspended and the publisher had announced an internal investigation.

Not bad for a week’s work.

Here’s what happened, and what we can learn from it…

Bloch is the newly elected editor of the student newspaper at Florida Atlantic University, and not long after she reported about a police investigation into a student rape off campus, she discovered The Boca Raton Tribune had done the same – lifting entire paragraphs from her story.

Her faculty adviser emailed the Tribune, politely asking for elaboration. No reply. A few days later, Bloch called but couldn’t get past the receptionist.

So being a journalist, Bloch investigated her plagiarist and – to no one’s surprise – learned he had done it before. His targets included not just a major regional daily but national sites like Wired and The Daily Beast.

Bloch wrote a column on the University Press website that began like this…

At FAU, if I get caught plagiarizing a paper, I’ll get an F. It would go on my transcript and on a repeat offense, I could get expelled. But if I do it at The Boca Raton Tribune, I’ll get a paycheck.

Ouch.

Bloch promoted her column on social media, and Poynter staff writer Ben Mullin tweeted it, as did best-selling author Jeff Pearlman to his 49,000 followers. A local website called Rise Miami News covered the story, quoting Bloch: “Copying and pasting whole paragraphs from my story is pretty ballsy.”

Not surprisingly, within hours of Bloch’s column going live, the publisher called her — to demand the story be spiked. She didn’t back down. The publisher called the newspaper’s faculty adviser and mentioned calling a lawyer. He didn’t back down.

By the time I spoke with the publisher Friday afternoon — because SPJ Florida and Region 3 like to spend money on lawyers defending journalists — he realized his threats weren’t budging his targets. So he announced the reporter was suspended and he was investigating.

“She brought up very good points,” the publisher told Rise Miami News. “We want to teach young people good journalism, and this is not the right way.”

Bloch did it the right way. Journalism can not only comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, it can punish a plagiarizer.

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College Top 10

CT10

Meet the best college journalists in the South.


They’re the 2014 winners of the College Top 10, a unique journalism contest run by SPJ’s Green Eyeshade Awards – itself a unique contest.

For more than 60 years, the Green Eyeshades has recognized the best pro media work in the southern United States. It’s one of the oldest regional journalism contests in the nation.

Instead of simply rewarding one good story on one particular topic, the Green Eyeshades sought the best students who were consistently good at one thing. They had to submit multiple pieces on a single subject.

Alas, this year’s entries were terrible, except for a handful. Below are those few.

The judges didn’t declare winners in half the categories: design, movies, music, science, and sports. Why? Because nearly all the entries were solid and safe and just good enough. And that’s not what this contest is about – nor is “solid and safe” how you pursue a fulfilling career. Unless, of course, you want to work for 40 years to be “just good enough.”

Here are the winners who rebelled to excel…


Dylan Bouscher, Florida Atlantic University

Best Student Government reporter: Dylan Bouscher


Judging comment: This was tough: Reward one of the reporters who quite capably and incrementally covered SGA but never took a risk? Or recognize the only reporter who shot for the moon and hit the target, albeit with a glancing blow? Dylan Bouscher was the only entrant to feature video, which is novel because SGA is not a beat that lends itself to alluring B roll. The results were as good as one could reasonably expect. As for content, Bouscher tried mightily to explain complex topics, not always successfully. But he’s a reacher, and he’ll eventually eclipse his peers who are too timid to fail – and thus will never learn and excel.


Boucher’s comment: Growing up, I hated being told no. Once I started covering Florida Atlantic University’s Student Government and administration, that changed. Being told no to interview and records requests, from students and administrators whose paychecks I helped fund, only unleashed my passion and curiosity for watchdog reporting further. But my best stories didn’t result from hostility. They came from leveling with people: students and classmates trusting me to be human about the corruption and mismanagement. Doing that made working for the student newspaper by far the most fun and enlightening aspect of my college experience.


Max Jackson, Florida Atlantic University

Best photographer: Max Jackson


Judging comment: I judged this category last year and had the same problems this year: Great photogs who shoot the same darn thing everyday. Attention next year’s applicants: Take a hint from Jackson. He sent in a perfectly passable (no pun intended) pic of a quarterback looking downfield, but he also submitted a moving portrait of a dwarf at a medical marijuana debate – not your typical assignment. His third photo was the opposite – the school’s mascot with a bunch of kids. That’s usually a shoot and scoot, but Jackson captures a great moment, and his technical skills are beyond dispute.


Jackson’s comment: One of the most rewarding aspects of photography is that ability to capture a moment in time that will never occur quite the same way again, which I think many photographers would agree with. Each time I pick up my camera there is no certainty of what I will capture, whether it is the winning touchdown, or getting the perfect golden hour.  On the other side of that, is the knowledge that you need to “nail this shot” because there are no reshoots in live action photography. This passion I have developed, almost an addiction, has and continues to take me places that I never could have imagined the first time I held a DSLR.


Hannah Jeffrey, University of South Carolina

Best feature writer: Hannah Jeffrey


Judging comment: A surprisingly strong category – and from what I hear from other judges, the only one. The winner in this close race was Jeffrey, and not for any major philosophical reason like the other category judges have remarked. It’s simply that Jeffrey did the best across the board: She found fascinating people, got them to talk like normal people, and wrote about them for all people. It’s also interesting how she keeps her articles short and punchy, using subheads to great effect and generally eschewing the feature writer’s penchant for look-at-me composition and length. A humble feature writer!


Jeffrey’s comment: I’d argue features are the most satisfying yet most difficult kind of stories to write. Your reporting has to be thorough and extensive or else you won’t get the whole story — the feature interviews I’ve done that stick out have lasted a a few hours, at least. But features are all about picking out the good stuff, giving some color and making people care. You could hear a story, think “that’s a great story” and move on. But if it’s a really great story, it deserves details and attention.


Roberto Roldan, University of South Florida

Best administration reporter: Roberto Roldan


Judging comment: A disappointing category doesn’t mean the winner is disappointing. Roldan is unafraid to take on administrators, whether it’s questioning how they hide tuition hikes or hide expenditures behind “direct support organizations.” Roldan does a yeoman’s job explaining complex topics without oversimplifying or sensationalizing. Other entries in this category tackled big and important topics, but they failed in the execution: lacking clear narratives with impenetrable background. It’s not the reporting that’s so hard in government reporting, it’s the explanation – the why should I care? Roldan simply answers that question better than his peers.


Roldan’s comment: As journalists we talk a lot about holding those in power accountable, but a lot of times we relegate our time to stories that are safe, don’t piss people off and are quick turn around for the 24/7 news cycle. Most of my stories that dealt with issues of transparency and accountability in student government and university offices fell on deaf ears (so it goes), but one or two stories caused administrators to make measurable changes toward increased transparency — the ultimate reward for good journalism.


Cassidy Alexander, University of North Florida

Best columnist: Cassidy Alexander


Judging comment: Too many columnists are timid, both in topic and tone. Alexander is willing to mock a city council president (for his objection to a nude picture in a contemporary art museum) and riffing of her school’s attempt to create traditions. (“The university seems to have missed a very important point – a tradition is not something you can just compose into a list and announce at a party.”) She’s also willing to build from there, adding creative thinking to breezy writing.


Alexander’s comment: I see columns as opportunities to interpret the news for an audience that doesn’t always have the time or the background knowledge to do it for themselves. Bad things happen every day when people don’t understand what’s going on. It’s my responsibility to my audience to make things as clear as possible for them, no matter how daunting the topic is. When I’m mad about something and my writing makes someone else angry too, I’ve done my job. That’s what change happens.


Think you can do better? Enter the College Top 10 next year and prove it. Questions? Email me.


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Losing his faculties

This older gentleman? A teenager is wiser than he is.


Ed Meadows is president of Pensacola State College in the Florida Panhandle. He made the most headlines of his long career just last week, when he told the 18-year-old Spenser Garber, co-editor of the PSC student newspaper, three silly things…


1. Garber shouldn’t cover the school’s contract negotiations with faculty. That will only “distract students from their studies.”


2. If faculty leaders update Garber on their negotiations, everyone is violating the law. Besides, Meadows said, “What benefit would it be for students to know?”


3. It’s impossible for Garber to write a balanced story on faculty negotiations – because Meadows refuses to speak to the newspaper. “Good journalism requires two sides to every story and, unfortunately, I can’t give you the other side,” Meadows says. Therefore, nothing should be written at all.

The story quickly bled beyond the Panhandle’s borders.


It traveled at the speed of sound from a higher-education website (Gag Order in Sunshine State) to a campus watchdog group (Fla. college censors student reporters, tells them to stick to ‘basketball games’) to a student legal center (Fla. community college president discredits student newspaper’s reporting, gags faculty) to a student rights group (Pensacola State Official Offers Embarrassingly Bad Justifications for Censorship of Student Media).

But Garber has grown increasingly uncomfortable with the coverage’s hyperbole, which peaked when Gawker got involved (Florida College President Is Either a Thug or a Moron).

When I spoke with Garber last week, two things impressed me…


1. He’s not easily intimidated. At 18, he’s more fearless than many older college journalists I’ve known. In (too) many cases, students crumple at the first sign of conflict, trading defense of the First Amendment for some vague sense of self-preservation – which, of course, is exactly the opposite way to achieve that goal. So Garber says he’ll keep covering the stories his readers want to know about.


2. He’s not easily excitable. Garber is adamant that he’s not out for blood. He doesn’t want Meadows fired over this. Meadows is wrong, he says, but no one has threatened to shut down the paper or prevent him from writing what he wants. Garber struck me as the most mature person in this dust-up: He’s disappointed in Meadows but not angry at him, and he’s calmly trying to add some nuance in an echo chamber of online hyperbole.


I asked Garber, What would you want to tell journalists about what’s happened? Below is his open letter he wrote over the weekend.

Journalists of the United States…


The past few weeks have been stressful to say the least. By trying to do my job as a journalist, national news sites like Gawker and Inside Higher Ed have picked up a story that isn’t really true.

On October 31st, a letter was sent to the Faculty Association of Pensacola State College. That letter was CC’d to the Corsair in an e-mail. In this e-mail, sent by lawyer Mike Mattimore, two laws were outlined stating that no college organization shall exploit students for personal gain. One specific law, Florida Statute Section 447.501(2)(f), had been ruled unconstitutional a while back.

Here’s where the misunderstanding started. I kept trying to tell the administration that the original information I obtained about a PSCFA straw poll was not from a PSCFA member. It wasn’t even a person that works at the college. They insisted that I had to get the information from a PSCFA member, even if it didn’t come from one that told me (these meetings are open meetings, anyone could have seen the straw poll vote).

After the letter was sent, things got blown out of proportion fairly quickly. Some people interpreted the letter as a restriction of the Corsair’s freedom of the press. That isn’t true. The letter was outlining the legality of the PSCFA talking to the paper, which puts the fault on the PSCFA, not the Corsair. Since the college’s realization of the unconstitutionality of Florida Statute Section 447.501(2)(f), they have changed their stance on the PSCFA’s ability to talk to the Corsair.

It is unnecessary to interview President Meadows about the “gag order” sent to the PSCFA, as it is a moot point. It is unnecessary to interview me about the Corsair’s restriction of freedom of the press, as it is nonexistent. There is no real news in a story about the faculty and administration negotiating a contract. If you want an update on the story, there will be a Board of Trustees meeting on November 18. Afterwards, there will most likely be a story uploaded to the Corsair’s web site.

Best Wishes,

Spenser Garber
Co-Editor at Pensacola State College

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Schick Piss Fuck

The opinions expressed below (and above) are not necessarily those of the management of this blog.


Then again, they aren’t necessarily the opposite, either.

The man expressing those opinions is David Schick, a college journalist I’ve written about a few times before.

He’s a little nuts, I won’t lie. But I’ve always said this about mentoring students:

It’s easier to dull a sharp knife than sharpen a dull knife.

In other words: The biggest asshole on campus can mellow into an adult who keeps an edge, but how many college cowards grow up to take the right risks?

So I like the guy. Here’s Schick’s latest shtick, in his own words. Make of it what you will…

Last month was Free Speech Week. And when it comes to the First Amendment, I’m more than an advocate – I’m a fanatic.

To celebrate, I decided that I wanted to pay tribute to a couple of my favorite cases regarding free speech. One day last week, I wore my old Army battle dress uniform and made some minor alterations to the back. I spelled out “Fuck The Draft” in duct tape on the back.

The reactions were mixed. Some people just scoffed at the profanity, others asked me why I was wearing it—the real reason why I wore it, to educate people on the famous U.S. Supreme Court Case, Cohen v. California—and one of the Communications Law professors at my school laughed and actually took a picture with his phone.

In my first class, a philosophy course, one student told me that I could be tried under the Sedition Act and sent to jail for wearing it. You know, the Sedition Act that was passed in 1918 and repealed in 1920? That one.

On another day I paid homage to the late George Carlin and his Seven Dirty Words. In sharpie marker, I wrote out, “Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, Cocksucker, Motherfucker, Tits,” on my journalism schools’ t-shirt they hand out to new students.

Remember the Communications Law professor who laughed before? Well, now I was “over the top.” I shook my head. Where did he draw that line? I wondered. Clearly “fuck” was okay in reference to a notable Supreme Court Case, but the addition of the other six “dirty words” in reference to a comedy sketch was no longer celebrating the First Amendment.

I carried on because “over the top” is how I am about the First Amendment. For me, there’s really no room for saying that one set of speech is okay but another is not.

And it may be cliché, but to correctly quote Evelyn Beatrice Hall (often attributed to Voltaire), even if “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

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Beating the system?

What’s the opposite of a restraining order? And can I get one against Tom Owens?


Owens is the county commission candidate in rural Georgia who got a restraining order against a freelance journalist. That was two weeks ago. Last week, justice prevailed and the restraining order was lifted.

There are certainly bigger crimes against journalism than the one Owens perpetrated against a writer named George Chidi. But few are as curious and even fewer are as devious.

I had one lengthy phone call with Owens on Oct. 9, during which he professed more than once, “I love the media! And the media loves me!” He said I could contact him anytime, and if he wasn’t campaigning or dead, he’d call me back right away.

Since then, he’s lost not one but two court hearings in as many days. After repeated calls and emails, he finally got back to me once over the weekend. Despite more emails and voice mails, he never replied.

What a shame. I really wanted to talk to him because I’ve learned he’s a crazy genius who stumbled upon the perfect crime.

Owens told me he “feared for his life” because George Chidi “acted like he had mad cow disease” whenever they met. 


So Owens sought what’s officially called a temporary protection order. A judge granted it – as well she should have, Chidi admits.

“She did what she was supposed to do, and that’s the problem,” Chidi says. “All the biases in the law are toward granting a TPO, as it should be. Because if you don’t, you end up with women getting beaten and killed.”

No one anticipated a candidate would seek a restraining order to get a reporter off his back. Owens did, and because a judge is supposed to err on the side of the accuser, he had a week free of Chidi’s searing questions about his past.

“Problem is, there’s no punishment on the back end for people misusing the law, especially when the purpose is violating the First Amendment,” Chidi says. “And there’s no mechanism in the law to prevent this from happening again.”

In 90 minutes, everything Owens accomplished for a week was undone.


First came a magistrate’s hearing on Tuesday. Owens and his team defended their restraining order by seeking a stalking charge against Chidi. Their evidence was this anti-climactic video, which Owens told me all about but refused to show me because he wanted the magistrate to see it first…

“The magistrate saw the video, and then his demeanor changed fundamentally,” Chidi says. “The magistrate said, ‘What is this? Did you really think this supports a stalking charge?” And [Owens] kept saying, ‘He made me feel afraid, he’s devious.’ The hearing was over in 30 minutes.”

The next day, a judge wanted to know why the restraining order should stay in place since the stalking charge was denied. An hour later, it was unofficially lifted.

“I’m totally off the hook,” Chidi says, “but we’re still waiting on the formal ruling – which I’m sure will be Get the fuck out of here in Latin.”

So did Owens get away with one? Chidi thinks more than just journalists are irked about his abuse of the legal system.

“I don’t think he’s fully understood the damage he’s done to himself,” Chidi says. “He may not have the competence necessary to understand how incompetent he is.”

SPJ Georgia president Sharon Dunten was at the second hearing and was equally stunned.

“It was one of the most bizarre hearings I have ever witnessed,” she told me. “Owens didn’t have counsel. He attempted to represent himself. The judge basically had to do everything for him, including questioning his witnesses. I think she wanted to make sure everything was neat and tidy so the possibility of an appeal would be out of the question.”

Dunten added: “When I arrived outside the courtroom, an odd man was speaking to someone about how George was gay, the N word, and a Muslim lover. He later was one of Owens’ witnesses.”

That afternoon, Dunten’s board of directors heard her report and issued this statement…


SPJ Georgia is pleased that Georgia journalist George Chidi is free to work as a journalist again. Minutes after leaving the courtroom, Chidi settled into a corner booth of a local Decatur pub and opened up his laptop to start writing professionally again.

Thanks goes to the legal team of attorney Tom Clyde, board member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, and Executive Director Hollie Manheimer for fighting the final step of releasing this outrageous restraining order against Chidi. Clyde is an attorney for Kilpatrick Stockton LLC of Georgia.

Thank you also goes to SPJ national for their prompt response for a journalist who was clearly facing a violation of the First Amendment.

So what happens now? Chidi is finishing his book on civic engagement in Georgia, which is why he was pursuing interviews with Owens in the first place.

“I think this will be its own chapter,” Chidi says.


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What Owens knows

Tom Owens and I agreed on one thing he told me last night. After that, not much else.


“I’m not against a free press,” he said during our 15-minute call. “But a free press should be respectful of people, not screaming and hollering.”

“Certainly,” I replied. “And if you got evidence that George Chidi screamed at you, I’ll change my strong opinion on this issue.”

The issue is a restraining order Owens convinced a judge to sign on Monday. It bans Chidi, a freelance journalist, from communicating with Owens or getting within 100 yards of him. Yesterday, I offered to lead a restraining order extravaganza.

A few hours after that post, Owens and I spoke. I asked him for details on what Chidi did. The candidate for DeKalb County commission said the two men were at a candidates’ forum when “George acted like he had mad cow disease and was screaming and making everyone uncomfortable.”

Of course, Chidi denies he did anything more than his job.


He notes that Owens released a video from a subsequent encounter at another candidates forum – which purports to show Chidi being threatening but really just shows a reporter being slightly annoying because the candidate keeps ducking his questions.

I was genuinely appreciative of Owens for speaking with me when he obviously knew I didn’t agree with him. I asked if he had more damning evidence than just his word and the words of his campaign pals.

“We have a lot more video that was taken,” he said. The video is from that first forum and shows Chidi’s “obnoxious behavior.”

“Can I see it?” I asked.

“I don’t want to put it out in the public domain yet till we get to court,” Owens said. “We gonna have us a probable cause hearing.”

Owens also says Chidi threatened him another time, but “there are no witnesses to it, when he got up in my face and quietly said, ‘I’m gonna kill you.'”

Owens says he “fears for his life” but is also angry: “When you approach me and tell me you’re gonna destroy me, I don’t have to take that, sir.”

Owens says the big hearing in front of a judge is 9 a.m. Tuesday. That’s when he shows the video. If it proves him right, I’ll be the first to report it – I hate when any profession circles the wagons and doesn’t admit when one of its own behaves badly.

But if this as-yet-unseen video shows nothing more revealing than the public video does, Owens needs to drop his restraining order or have a judge do it for him. If it stands, so will Georgia’s journalism community.


SPJ’s Georgia chapter will cover the hearing.


SPJ Georgia president Sharon Dunten issued this statement from her board…

It has been a turbulent couple of months for journalists in the Atlanta metro area as a Dekalb County Commissioner, Elaine Boyer, admitted to stealing more than $90,000 from taxpayers during the past two years. As new candidates announce their intention to replace Boyer’s position on the county commission, Atlanta and Georgia journalists are closely vetting the new candidates, including Georgia journalist George Chidi.

SPJ Georgia supports Chidi for vetting Tom Owens, who is running for the empty commissioner position. As part of the vetting process, Chidi approached and asked Owens questions at two public forums, sent emails and left messages on voicemails.

In return, Owens found a judge to grant a temporary stalking protection order against Chidi, who was just doing his job. In addition, days later when Chidi did publish a blog about Owens online, he was served a notice of civil contempt for violating the TPO.

Since when does a county temporary protection order require a journalist not to publish an article online or in print?

SPJ Georgia will be closely following any developments until this controversy is resolved.


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NO RESTRAINT

This Vietnam veteran is afraid. Of a reporter. Next week, we’re really gonna scare the crap out of him.


Tom Owens is running for an empty commission seat in DeKalb County, which is next door to Atlanta. On Monday, Owens filed a restraining order against a freelance reporter who kept asking him annoying questions.

Such as…

• Did you really threaten to kill the imam of a mosque that opened behind your house? Did you really offer to leave him alone if he bought your house, appraised at $100,000, for a cool half-million?

• What’s your take on a police report that says a city councilman in the small town of Doraville accused you of “showing up on his doorstep to berate him for offering condolences to the victims of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting”?

• After you pled no contest to stalking in nearby Forsyth County, you were ordered into mental health counseling and assigned 30 days of community service. Did you complete both?

Somehow, Owens found a judge crazier than he is to issue the restraining order.

Pity George Chidi. He’s a reporter with a restraining order.


Chidi freelances for various publications and is writing a big book on civic engagement in Georgia. Owens had successfully ducked Chidi until last Sunday, when Chidi showed up at a public candidate forum where Owens was speaking.

Owens had a friend record this “evidence” of Chidi’s intimidating behavior…

…but on his YouTube page, Owens claims this is tame in comparison to their first encounter, which happened in a church: “He was unidentified and stated he wanted to ‘destroy’ me in his introductory statement.”

Sadly, there’s no evidence of that, and Chidi denies it.

“I never said it,” Chidi told me this afternoon. “I looked him in the eye and said, ‘You’re not going to like this story,’ but that’s as far as it ever got.”

Chidi says the same guy who shot the video above also recorded him at that first encounter. “But he hasn’t released that,” Chidi says, adding with just a hint of sarcasm, “I wonder why.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, Owens filed his restraining order the same day Chidi posted an unflattering column about the candidate. Yesterday, Chidi says, “the sheriff’s office dropped off a notice of civil contempt” because he had violated the restraining order by “contacting third parties via social media.” Whatever the hell that means.

Chidi had to get a lawyer so he won’t end up in jail. He has a hearing on Oct. 22. Chidi’s laywer is from the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and is representing him for free. But Chidi is losing time and money dealing with this, so he’s crowdsourcing on his own.

I emailed Owens earlier today, but he hasn’t replied yet. Maybe he’s afraid of me. Maybe he’s asking for yet another restraining order. You want one, too?

We’re looking for journalists who can’t show restraint.


To highlight the ridiculousness of a candidate for public office successfully getting a restraining order against a reporter with zero evidence of threatening behavior, I’m looking for a few Georgians who’d love a restraining order from Tom Owens.

All you gotta do is approach Owens at any of his next several campaign events and pose the three questions above.

I’ll provide you the intel on those appearances, and I’ll pay for any legal expenses you may incur. If you indeed get slapped with a restraining order, I’ll even pay for you to get it framed for your home or office.

If several journalists pepper Owens with the same questions Chidi did, and if he doesn’t file restraining orders against all of them, it’s sure to convince a judge − even one in DeKalb County − that Owens fears not for his personal safety, but his political future.

Email me journoterrorist@gmail.com.


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White guys: all is Wells

Want to nominate someone for SPJ’s “highest honor”? Better buy stamps.


The Wells Memorial Key recognizes “a member who is judged to have served the Society in the most outstanding fashion during the preceding year or over a period of years.”

You can nominate anyone you want, but they don’t really encourage it. The website says…

Submit all nomination materials unbound on 8 1/2 x 11 paper.

That’s right. Dead trees, not digital. They don’t make it easy for you. I think they like it that way.

Old white men, mostly.

Over the past 10 years (2004 to 2014) only one woman has won a Wells Key. In the previous 10 years (1993 to 2003) seven women won.

The last African-American to win was back in 1992. Last Sunday, another white man won a Wells Key. He’s the fifth in a row.

The Wells Key is perhaps the only awards program getting less diverse with each passing year.

If an award’s winners lack diversity, it’s a good bet the judges do, too.

The Wells Key is bestowed by SPJ’s “executive officers,” led by the president. Since 2000, only two women have served as president. A third started her one-year term just last weekend.

It probably won’t shock you to learn: The five consecutive white-guy winners were all former presidents.

One Wells Key winner suggested the ex-presidents win because they’re the ones who are “willing to do the work.” But it’s also true we tend to more easily recognize effort when it’s being done by people who look like us.

As an SPJ board member, I want to diversity the Wells Key winners by adding more judges. Last weekend, I made a motion to have SPJ’s entire 23-member board bestow the honor.

That’s not an ideal solution, since our board has only one Hispanic, one Native American, and no African-Americans. But at least we have 10 women and a mix of old and young. It’s a start.

It’s also a fight.

After I made my motion, old white men immediately (and condescendingly) undermined the idea…

• You’ll wilt under the workload – Past president Dave Cuillier said culling through all the nominees “is time-consuming” and “a lot of hard work.” (Apparently, lots of people mail in sheets of paper.) He doesn’t want to burden us.

• You can’t keep a secret – Wells Key winner Robert Leger, who’s president of SPJ’s foundation, said the award’s signature feature is its surprise – the winner isn’t announced beforehand. Leger said the board would let the winner slip and ruin everything.

• You got better things to do – Cuillier also suggested my motion was “ticky tack.” He suggested we stick to “bigger issues.”

I’d quote you exactly what both men said, as well as some other men, but for some reason, SPJ’s recording of that part of the board meeting cuts off. It’s the only board meeting video on the SPJ website that does that.

Regardless, these arguments offended me and at least a few others….

• The board already works hard. In fact, we could easily delegate more mundane governance so we’d have more time to look at “bigger issues.” I wouldn’t be the first SPJ board member to wonder if presidents load up their agendas with minor items so the board doesn’t have time to delve deeply into protected traditions.

• This is a big deal. How can deciding “SPJ’s highest honor” not be considered a “bigger issue”? How is diversity not a “bigger issue”?

• We’re not gossips. The SPJ board is loaded with journalists who have protected juicier sources than a Wells Key winner.

After much debate and urging, I amended my motion. It now simply instructs SPJ’s senior leaders to devise their own plan for expanding the Wells Key judging. They have until April.

When I asked if that would make the deadline for next year’s winner, the answer was a very squishy “maybe.”

My fear…

The old white men will simply delay, wear down, and outlast the reformers. That’s so common, it’s almost a cliche.

The fact is, there are nearly as many Wells Key winners in leadership positions as there are non-winners. SPJ’s foundation, called Sigma Delta Chi, has four officers – and three are Well’s Key winners, as are 10 of its 29 members. That’s a lot of status quo firepower.

Thing is, I haven’t even gotten to the most controversial part. First, I wanted to get my original motion through before I proposed this…

SPJ should mimic the NFL.

Since 2003, the National Football League has operated under something called the Rooney Rule. It requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for high-level coaching positions.

The Rooney Rule doesn’t set quotas. It simply forces you to consider people who don’t look like you. And it’s worked. NFL teams have hired more minority coaches since the rule passed.

I want a Rooney Rule for SPJ.

There are many Wells Key winners I deeply respect (even though they might not respect me after this post). David Carlson, Steve Geimann, Irwin Gratz, Bill McCloskey, Mac McKerral, just to name a few.

SPJ wouldn’t be where it is today without those old white guys. But it needs more than old white guys if it’s going to survive tomorrow.

If you doubt that, here’s what one Wells Key winner told me – and the entire foundation board – when I mocked the paper-only application process…

It’s hardly burdensome to ask for hard copies.

Yup, that’s how you endear yourself to the next generation of journalists.

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