Win Woodward


Want to interview this guy?

You can argue Bob Woodward is the nation’s most famous reporter – the pinnacle of shoe-leather journalism in an era of celebrity dilettantes who pursue their brands more than stories.

If you believe everything old becomes new again – kind of like comic-book heroes and crystal meth – then maybe old-fashioned journalism will make a comeback. We’ll find out in October in Washington, DC, when Woodward is a keynote speaker at the nation’s largest college media convention.

Woodward will be interviewed by five students whose parents were still in school when he made his name covering Watergate.

It’s a risky move for the Associated Collegiate Press, which organized this convention. If you’ve ever watched a White House or NFL press conference, you realize just how many dumb questions pro journalists ask.

But ACP executive director Laura Widmer is undaunted.

“At ACP in D.C., we don’t just want to teach journalism, we want our students to experience journalism,” Widmer says. “What a great opportunity for a college journalist to be onstage and interview one of the most famous reporters of our time. That’s an experience they won’t soon forget.”

To land this gig, students need to apply just like they would any other job. SPJ will help review the resumes, clips, and cover letters. If you’re interested or know someone who might be, click the photo below for more details. Got questions not answered here or there? Email me.


Drone Tour 2016



* No SPJ membership required. We’re cool like that.

CNN: less international


The world just got a little smaller.

And not in a good way.

According to Adweek, CNN’s entire international desk – based in Atlanta – is closing, and more than two dozen employees will “have to reapply for their jobs.”

My first thought was, “Less journalism in the world.”

But assistant Region 3  director Sharon Dunten, who lives outside Atlanta, thought, “Less journalists in my city.”

Here’s her report…

Welcome to the Best Former Journalists Club.

Welcome to the Best Former Journalists Club. As a member, you are Pulitzer Prize winners, beloved columnists, middle-age TV anchors renown for their news styles, or maybe a copy editor who is celebrating her 62thbirthday. A member may be a producer who has given 60 hours a week for decades to make sure their station gets the “breaking news” first.

Your day starts out like any other day … editing copy and growling about the strict AP style rules you live by as a professional. Or maybe you are the producer who fights off the daily urban traffic jams to arrive just in time to address the evening broadcast lineup. Just another day of the news. Another day of working in the industry that you love.

You know many journalists who have lost their jobs during the bloodbath of downsizing newsrooms as the Great Recession swept through the country. You take a deep breath and count yourself lucky.

But then the “layoff “alarm arrives early and quickly through texts, emails or phone calls. Sorry, your luck has run out. You are one of many facing the guillotine today. You are losing your job — maybe, sort of.

On Monday, Feb. 8, CNN International announced a layoff for most of its employees in Atlanta. Downsizing is mentioned and Oh! “you can re-apply for your job.” What does that exactly mean? And will moving to a different continent be part of the re-hire? You know journalism is changing, and job loss is a part of it. But working for CNN in Atlanta was always seen a plum job; a milestone in your career to work for the first 24/7 news network. Thank you Ted Turner! But Ted doesn’t own CNN anymore. Time Warner does. And along with the CNN International staff, Atlanta bleeds with you.

The lit CNN sign looks smaller as its red neon light twists through the CNN logo on the top floor of the the CNN Center building. Its huge CNN monument on the sidewalk stands predominantly for another time when news was produced to serve the viewers and not only its stakeholders. The center now sits in the shadow of the new mammoth Mercedes-Benz Stadium where the Atlanta Falcons will call home. The news institution that helped build Atlanta into a mega city is fading away in the new Atlanta skyline along with hundreds of CNN Atlanta employees.

Registering for trouble


This guy has a great idea.

Michael Pitts is a Republican state representative in South Carolina. Yesterday, he introduced a bill called the South Carolina Responsible Journalism Registry Law.

Pitts wants the state to license journalists – and if they fail his standards and flout his law, they can spend up to 30 days in jail.

In the past 24 hours, Pitts has been mocked by the left (Mother Jones) and doubted by the right (The Daily Caller). After all, it’s odd for a small-government Republican to expand government into the newsroom.

But I see promise in Pitts’ proposal. Sure, there are problems, but there’s also opportunity…


PROVISION: Before working as a journalist for a media outlet in this State, a person shall provide a criminal record background check to the media outlet to determine journalistic competence.

PROBLEM: Because Rush Limbaugh was booked on drug charges in 2006 and cut a deal with prosecutors, his popular radio show would be banned in South Carolina. Like him or hate him, Limbaugh shouldn’t be censored. Pitts’ conservative constituency would surely agree.

And yes, Limbaugh is a journalist under Pitts’ broad definition: “‘Journalist’ means a person who in his professional capacity collects, writes, or distributes news or other current information for a media outlet, including an employee or an independent contractor.”


PROVISION: A person is not competent to be a journalist if…the person has demonstrated a reckless disregard of the basic codes and canons of professional journalism associations, including a disregard of truth, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability.

PROBLEM: Who decides? Pitts’ bill doesn’t say, and it can’t be him – because he’s already been caught in a “disregard of truth” and a lack of “public accountability.”

In September, The Pulitzer Prize-winning Post and Courier reported that Pitts spent “nearly $6,000 jetting to Alaska, Oregon, South Dakota and Montana to hobnob with ‘sportsmen legislators.’

“Pitts said the summits were ‘mostly business’ concerning hunting and fishing laws and initiatives. But photos from these events show Pitts and others proudly posing with freshly killed pheasants and other game.”

While that’s not illegal, it’s surely unethical. And weirdly, Pitts serves on the House Ethics Committee. It must be easier to legislate ethics for others than to practice them yourself.


PROVISION: A person who works as a journalist without registering…for a first offense, must be fined not more than twenty-five dollars; for a second offense, is guilty of a misdemeanor and must be fined not more than one hundred dollars or imprisoned not more than fifteen days, or both; and for a third or subsequent offense, is guilty of a misdemeanor and must be fined not more than five hundred dollars or imprisoned not more than thirty days, or both.

OPPORTUNITY: SPJ can boost its membership.

As the SPJ board member representing the southeast United States, I’ll offer South Carolinians this perk: If you can’t get licensed because you’ve behaved no better than the sponsor of this bill, I’ll match you with an SPJ member who lives outside your state.

You’ll write under that SPJer’s byline, and I’ll keep records attesting that the stories are really yours. When you apply for other jobs – hopefully in other states – you can show off your best work, and I’ll back you up.

Even if you earn the Registry Office’s blessing, you might not want to pay the “application fee,” which has yet to be announced but will be “an amount determined by the office.” You, too, can use the SPJ Byline Exchange Service and save.

But to use this free service, you must join SPJ. Since SPJ membership costs only $75, that’s cheaper than a second violation and might cost less than the application fee.

Finally, I’ll offer to pay the $25 first-offense fine for any unlicensed South Carolina journalists who report on their failed attempt to get licensed and thus get fined. I love it when stories eat their own tails.

Alas, the South Carolina Responsible Journalism Registry Law has zero chance of passing – even Pitts admitted as much to (unlicensed) reporters. Too bad. I was hoping he’d register public information officers next.


Say what?


Here’s an irony: Media maligning SPJ.

Last week, someone told me about an article that ripped this fine organization.

(To be specific, it was a tweet from the “crown regent of tactical shitposting.” Just how barren was my life before Twitter?)


One of my few deeply held personal convictions is, “Never trust a headline in ALL CAPS unless a war is ending or a man is walking on the moon.” So I was skeptical before I began reading.

If you’ve already clicked the link, you’ll notice it ran on WorldNetDaily, a conservative website that most journalists can’t stand — not because of its right-wing politics, but because of its crappy reporting.

However, one of my other convictions is to judge each story on its own merits, whether it runs in The New York Times or the National Enquirer (maybe because I’ve freelanced for both).

SPJ makes an appearance about halfway down, after a man named Colin Flaherty agreed with the statement, “black activists and elected officials pressure editors to ignore or downplay black violence.”

The story continues from there…

The Society of Professional Journalists aids the cover-up, according to Flaherty, by telling their members to not report the race of people involved in violent crimes.

“The SPJ chapters all over the country give seminars on this,” Flaherty said. “Their national magazine writes stories about this, all saying the same thing: Race has nothing to do with violent crime, so do not report it.

“This is weird because this same group with the same reporters are constantly writing about black colleges, black churches, black funeral homes, black police officer groups, ad infinitum. But black violence? Nothing.”

That would be awful. If it were true.


Colin Flaherty is a controversial guy.

WND says he’s “done more reporting than any other journalist on what appears to be a nationwide trend of skyrocketing black-on-white crime.” The Southern Poverty Law Center calls him a “marginal media figure.”

I’m going to lean toward marginal, because I‘ve served on the SPJ board since 2008 (with one year off to preserve my sanity) and have never heard about any of this. I’ve also been a chapter president, and we never gave “seminars” about not reporting stuff.

So I emailed Flaherty to ask him how he did his reporting. He replied, “check out the article in Quill on the topic.” That’s it. That’s all he wrote me.

Quill is SPJ’s bimonthly magazine for its members. I found this article from last month: Finding Your Voice: Reporting on Inequality Fairly and Ethically. It’s a lot more nuanced than Flaherty implies.

In fact, to be honest, it’s kind of boring. It uses terms like “perception cycle” and “responsibility continuum” and has sentences like this: “This continuum illustrates the hierarchy of influence that ultimately leads to disparate social outcomes.”

I emailed Flaherty again and asked if this was the story he was talking about. He replied…

was invited to write a reply to the Quill about it. which i did. which they never used or replied to. and it all began when the quill ran a review of my book from thomas sowell. without mentioning my book. you have a ton to go on. so go for it.

That’s weird, because Quill has no record of Colin Flaherty or Thomas Sowell. (The latter is a conservative economist.) Maybe Flaherty is right, but I can’t find any evidence, and he’s not offering any. So there’s a ton of something going on. If I had to guess: Flaherty is mostly upset that SPJ didn’t pimp his book.


But there’s no crying in journalism.

The world won’t shed a tear for a journalism organization getting railroaded by a media outlet. SPJ won’t shed a tear, either.

That’s because we’re real familiar with shoddy journalism. Hell, if we weren’t, we never would’ve written the SPJ Code of Ethics.

But here’s what sucks: While we’re accustomed to this crap, most regular citizens aren’t. Once they get this treatment personally, or their heroes do, they distrust all journalists forever.

That turns to downright hatred when readers ask those journalists for proof of their reporting, and they get arrogance rather than explanations.

I’ve always said and still believe: “Nothing is more hypocritical than a thin-skinned journalist.” Now I’m adding “dangerous.”

The mall and the media

TV news report on Mall St. Matthews in Louisville, Kentucky

When is a brawl a riot? When is it a race riot?

Around 7 p.m. Saturday, up to 2,000 “youths” rampaged through a mall in Louisville, Kentucky. But was it a riot?

The local FOX and  ABC affiliates hedged their headlines with quote marks: Kentucky mall shut down after police respond to numerous “riots” and Police: ‘Riots’ shut down Mall St. Matthews early.

National media settled on a less racially charged word: TIME and NBC used brawl. But none of these outlets reported the race of the “rioters,” which was obvious from some of the cellphone videos shot by shoppers inside the mall. Many were black.

That omission bugged Breitbart, the popular conservative website…

The story has received a great deal of national exposure, but the mainstream media coverage has consistently left out the race of the “youth” that went wilding through the mall, as well as consistently using the number 2,000 as the number of people involved in the incident. The reporting is part of the pattern of misreporting on stories about large groups of black youths goings on rampages nationwide in the past few years.

Earlier this year, Breitbart was slammed for “race-baiting” by liberal sites like Salon and New Republic. I wonder if both things can be true: Breitbart is right to call out the media for censoring itself, while simultaneously catering to the racists in its readership.

Below are just some of the objectively offensive comments I culled from the more than 2,000 on Breitbart’s mall article. Nearly all are uncontested by other Breitbart readers or Breitbart itself, which is a shame — because all conservatives aren’t racists, just as all liberals aren’t socialists.

Oddly, on many Breitbart posts about Muslims, the comment section usually includes something like, “When will Muslims call out the violence in their own community?”

Well, Breitbart, when are you going to call out the racism in yours?


What really matters

Gideon Grudo and Tyler Krome

Black Lives Matter doesn’t matter this much.

At Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, the private liberal arts school is in the middle of a very public controversy.

Last week, the student newspaper ran a column called Why Black Lives Matter Isn’t What You Think. Written by staff writer Bryan Stascavage, it opined…

It boils down to this for me: If vilification and denigration of the police force continues to be a significant portion of Black Lives Matter’s message, then I will not support the movement, I cannot support the movement. And many Americans feel the same. I should repeat, I do support many of the efforts by the more moderate activists.

Stascavage ended with…

At some point Black Lives Matter is going to be confronted with an uncomfortable question, if they haven’t already begun asking it: Is this all worth it? Is it worth another riot that destroys a downtown district? Another death, another massacre? At what point will Black Lives Matter go back to the drawing table and rethink how they are approaching the problem?

In the days since, Wesleyan activists with Black Lives Matter have done a lot more than write a letter to the editor. The Boston Globe has reported, “Wesleyan students want to shut down their own newspaper for its Black Lives Matter coverage.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education added that slightly less reactionary students are demanding, “space on the newspaper’s front page should be devoted to submissions from minority voices.”

That led Argus editors to post a staff editorial apologizing for “our carelessness in fact-checking. The op-ed cites inaccurate statistics and twists facts.” However, they didn’t list those stats and facts. They also apologized “for the distress the piece caused the student body.”

This entire mess distresses Frank LoMonte. He’s executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

“It’s totally legitimate for them to protest the paper if they feel ill-served,” LoMonte says of the Black Lives Matter students. “But it goes too far to insist that every issue set aside front-page space for a minority-perspective or to threaten the paper’s funding.”

LoMonte continues….

Obviously, a private college isn’t legally obliged to continue funding the paper, but it would set a terribly intimidating precedent if making readers mad resulted in being de-funded. Would the readers really be better served by no newspaper at all? Obviously not. If the dissenters want to come up with a better newspaper, great, they can apply for funding and compete in the marketplace.

LoMonte’s days are spent defending student journalists from censorious administrators. In this twisted case, he’s defending students from students – and he has Wesleyan administrators on his side.

“Debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are made uncomfortable,” wrote Wesleyan president Michael Roth. “We certainly have no right to harass people because we don’t like their views. Censorship diminishes true diversity of thinking.”

Attention Wesleyan Black Lives Matter: You know you’ve lost your campus’s hearts and minds when frequent enemies are aligned against you. Even worse, you know you’re toast when Gawker makes fun of you with “lmao.”

As an SPJ national director, I’ve emailed the shell-shocked Argus editors, offering to help them any way I can. But since everyone is piling on the student protesters, I want to make them this public offer…

If Wesleyan’s Black Lives Matter will stop trying to shut down their student newspaper, I’ll help them start their own. 

As LoMonte says, media can “compete in the marketplace.” I’ll help raise money for web and print publishing, and I’ll  assist with all the boring logistics so the students who hate The Argus can create a media outlet they like.

This isn’t a shtick, ploy, scheme, or bluff. The last time I offered to help students start their own publication, they raised more than $5,000. I truly believe anyone who commits an act of journalism not only informs their readers but also themselves. That’s my only greedy self-interest.

So all it takes is this: Any of 147 students who signed the Wesleyan petition complaining The Argus “neglects to provide a safe space for the voices of students of color,” I’ll help you create that safe space. But you have to maintain it. I hope that matters enough for you to email me.

Ethics, smithics

Gideon Grudo and Tyler Krome

There are ethics, and there are smithics.

Kevin Smith sits on the board of SPJ’s foundation, called Sigma Delta Chi. Yesterday, he endorsed a candidate for SPJ office.

Smith posted on the Excellence in Journalism convention app…

Rebecca Baker deserves your vote for secretary-treasurer. As past president, board member I know her commitment and visions and I support her leadership of the Society.

Should a director of SPJ’s foundation publicly endorse a candidate? When I said this was “bad form,” Smith replied, “I have every right to endorse my friend for office.”

Not really. Not according to Smith’s boss, SDX chairman Robert Leger.

Leger says in April 2012, a committee “discussed a policy covering SDX Foundation board members’ role during SPJ officer and director elections.” The results? Leger told me…

The committee concluded a policy wasn’t needed and offered the following guidance statement: “Sigma Delta Chi Foundation board members are cautioned against actively participating in SPJ election campaigns.” The minutes indicate the board approved the guideline.

Those minutes don’t indicate if Smith voted against it, but he’s definitely violating it now. Sure, it’s not an ironclad rule. But it’s at least unethical to brazenly flout this guideline.

Thing is, Smith is the previous chairman of SPJ’s Ethics Committee, and he’s a journalism professor. It must be easier to teach ethics than to practice them.

So what happens now? Probably nothing. Smith knows the best defense is to be offensive. When I confronted him on the EIJ app, he publicly accused me of doing the same with Baker’s opponent, Jason Parsley, who hails from my chapter…

Since South Florida endorsed him and your fingerprints are all over that chapter I can’t imagine you weren’t involved in that process…So let’s dispense with the conflicts of interest lecture. You’ve always been good at double standards and bad form.

SPJ Florida’s president and past president corrected Smith – because I had nothing to do with that endorsement. As an SPJ national board member, I’ve been following our own guideline: “Current national SPJ board members should remain neutral in all elections.”

I even interviewed the candidates and wrote equally nice things about Baker and Parsley. (I was less kind to other candidates.)

But I guess I’m just not very good at smithics.

There’s no debate


In SPJ, every vote really counts.

You can win a national SPJ office by just a handful of the few hundred ballots cast online, because most of SPJ’s 7,200 members don’t vote.

The ones who do must decide by reading vague statements or contacting the candidates themselves. SPJ doesn’t host any debates, online or in person.

So as a public service, I posed three crazy questions to four candidates — the only ones in major contested races. Rebecca Baker and Jason Parsley are running for secretary-treasurer, while Bill McCloskey and Alex Veeneman are running for at-large director.

Skip to their answers by clicking here and avoid my screed below.

I asked the candidates about recent SPJ controversies. Of course, I started these controversies, so I probably care about them more than you do. Still, there’s illumination in their answers that transcend the topics.

For example…

  • Incumbents can be more daring than challengers. Baker is a current board member who’s willing to reform SPJ more than Veeneman, who’s running for the first time. In fact, Veeneman’s positions mirror those of incumbent McCloskey, which makes me wonder: Why vote for a new boss if he’ll be the same as the old boss?
  • How you say No is revealing. Baker and Parsley answer with scrutiny and nuance, McCloskey and Veeneman not so much. When you say “no,” it helps to offer counterproposals. New ideas excite voters. No ideas excite no one.
  • The most intriguing response is the last one. Veeneman doesn’t answer the question. Instead, he attacks the messenger — odd for a journalist. If you’re going to do that, also be a journalist and report. Because I’ve already done exactly what Veeneman asks. I told him as much and offered him a chance to rewrite his answer — because I’m not at all offended. (How hypocritical would that be?) Alas, he never replied.*

Finally, lest anyone accuse me of leveling personal attacks (which seems silly, but an SPJ president once accused me of libeling SPJ)…

I disagree with Bill McCloskey on most major issues facing SPJ, yet he’s one of my favorite fellow board members, and a man I deeply respect.

I mean, who wants to serve on a board of like-minded people? Where’s the fun in that? Plus, I’ve been known to be wrong once or twice. (Well, maybe just once…)

Still, I wish McCloskey (and Veeneman) would show a little more verve in their analysis of SPJ’s condition. Being conservative doesn’t mean being calcified. SPJ is still shedding members at a rate of a couple hundred per year since McCloskey and I first got on the board in 2008. “Stay the course” isn’t working.

Thus endeth the sermon for today. Here are the candidates’ answers, uncut and unedited…


Rebecca Baker (secretary-treasurer) — I’ve been a vocal supporter of the name change since it was first proposed nearly two years ago. I think renaming SPJ is an important step to show that we are truly an inclusive organization for journalists of all stripes and that we hold “professional journalism” at the core of our mission. Other journalism groups, such as RTDNA, have changed their names to reflect the changing landscape of the business, and I believe we should do the same.

As for expanding SPJ from a “trade organization” to an “advocacy group,” I believe SPJ has shown itself to be an advocacy organization in many ways, such as lobbying for a federal shield law and, on a local level, sending letters to state lawmakers opposing open records restrictions and other measures that limit the free flow of information. I think SPJ can be both a trade group for members that offers networking, training, and career advice as well as advocates for the First Amendment and a free press.

Jason Parsley (secretary-treasurer) — I believe in the movement behind the name change and I would vote in favor of it. But I don’t believe that will solve the larger problem, which is SPJ’s culture. SPJ can be an advocacy group without changing its name, while changing the name won’t turn us into an advocacy group. The name change itself is not the solution to the problem. It’s more important to elect new leaders that have different perspectives. If we continue to elect the same people again and again we will get the same results over and over again.

Bill McCloskey (at-large director) — There is no need to rename SPJ. A poll of the members shows there is little interest in such a change. SPJ is an advocacy group. Stepping up our advocacy and making it more effective has been a goal of the current board and we a slowly moving towards meting that goal.

Alex Veeneman (at-large director) — No, SPJ should not be renamed the Society for Professional Journalism. SPJ is already involved in advocacy. Journalism is not a trade. It is a profession (and hopefully a calling). Example.


Rebecca Baker (secretary-treasurer) — I believe the delegate system needs to be revised to reflect the 41 percent of SPJ members who do not belong to a particular chapter. I am a member of an SPJ membership task force that is tackling this very issue. The task force has just received the results of a survey of unaffiliated members about what, if any, changes to the delegate system should be taken and soon will be discussing what actions to take in light of those results. In my view, SPJ can either scrap the entire system and allow the member-elected Board of Directors to make all decisions for the organization, or expand the delegate system so unaffiliated members in each region have representation on the convention floor with chapter delegates. Whether either of these options—or a different one entirely—is chosen, I’m sure there will be an extensive discussion about it on a national level.

Jason Parsley (secretary-treasurer) — Yes and no. I believe all members should have an opportunity to vote on major decisions like the name change and the code of ethics. But I don’t know if every decision needs a full vote. Engaging the average SPJ member can be difficult. For instance in the last election only about 8 percent of members voted. That is an abysmal number. Having said that it is unacceptable that the voting period is only open from Friday to Sunday. SPJ’s leadership must do more to involve its members, including extending the online voting period. I don’t believe this would even be an issue if SPJ leaders listened more to members’ concerns, suggestions, ideas, desires, needs etc. So the larger issue here is electing leaders that will listen with an open mind and take suggestions, even ones they don’t like, into consideration.

Bill McCloskey (at-large director) — No. The delegate system is the only efficient way to have issues thoughtfully considered and arguments made in support and against proposals. Many chapters study the issues before the convention and send their delegates to convention with instructions on how to vote.

Alex Veeneman (at-large director) — While I believe it would be a good thing for everyone to be involved and to vote, it is not realistic. Just as in any electoral process, only a minority of members will vote.


Rebecca Baker (secretary-treasurer) — To be honest, I don’t have a particularly strong opinion on this issue. I think SPJ board members have the freedom to recommend committee chairs or voice opposition if a chosen committee chair is unqualified or problematic in some way. However, if there was a strong push from the board to take the reigns on this issue, I would not oppose it.

Jason Parsley (secretary-treasurer) — The president should have the power to appoint them, but they should be confirmed by the full board.

Bill McCloskey (at-large director) — I believe it is a president’s prerogative to select those who will help him or her handle the governance of the Society. The current president decided to ask the board to approve her selections, which it did with no debate.

Alex Veeneman (at-large director) — As a sitting director running unopposed for re-election, if this issue concerns you, why haven’t you addressed the entire Board?

* Veeneman says he did indeed send an updated reply. I didn’t get it, but I believe him. See his comment below.

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



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.


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.


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?


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.


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.”


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…


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.


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:


Here’s the top voted comment in this thread:


And here’s the second top voted comment:


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.



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 as opposed to personal ones, like

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.


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 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.


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?


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.


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


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