A Case for Journalism AKA #amazonfail

Just before Passover, the JTA created an uproar among Jewish bloggers for saying, “Without a strong JTA, the storytelling will be left to bloggers, twitterers, and non-professionals. Is this the best way for our future Jewish stories to be told and recorded?” I was one of the voices in the uproar. Apologies were written, tempers quieted and after a week I have sorted out what upset me so much.

Had the JTA said, “Without a strong JTA, the REPORTING will be left to bloggers, twitterers, and non-professionals,” I don’t think I would have been as angry. It was the use of the word storytelling in the place of reporting that lit my fuse. Storytelling is what I do, I’m not a reporter. I’m not a journalist. Between my degree in Chemistry and my time filing reports about sexual assault, underage drinking and violence as a student housing professional, I have a strong respect for recording the facts as observed or collected.

Storytelling to me is something totally different. An art and a way to form bonds. But this post isn’t about storytelling, it is about the case for journalism.

About the same time as the JTA email, I saw Bill Adee from the Chicago Tribune speak about the use of social media at the newspaper. It wasn’t just what Adee said, but also the questions he got from long-time reporters and PR professionals that has made me more aware of how I get the news and who I trust to get me the facts and do fact-checking.

Setting the Stage

Yesterday I started to see a tweet-storm forming around the hashtag #amazonfail. I won’t even go into why I hate hashtags, but once I saw it trending I followed links to blogs to see what the story was.

Short-version: GLBT books were delisted from Amazon sales ranks. Amazon sales ranks are extremely important in the publishing world and the delisting of GLBT books was confusing at best, homophobic at worst.

Late in the evening, I saw a tweet from BL Ochman that said, “#amazonfail clearly, Amazon is not monitoring its brand on the weekend. this will be a major PR disaster by morning.”

I responded, “@whatsnext They could be very well aware of what’s going on and trying to figure out how to respond. Big orgs are battleships, not tugboats.”

BL replied, “@leahjones an Internet company can’t afford to let this kind of storm go on with no response #amazonfail they should have a crisis plan.” And, “my favorite #amazonfail tweet so far is by @sanetv “Amazon, the internet company that does not understand the Internet.”

And my final Tweet on it was, “@whatsnext I do agree with that, it’s surprising Amazon has little to no social media presence… You’d think cust serv would be here.”

Deep breath.

I hate tweet-storms like this. When I was at Edelman, I was surprised to learn how long it can take to get all of the parties in a company aligned on one answer. Legal departments, outside counsel, public relations departments and agencies, the C-suite and other players. Coming from the floor of an ice cream parlor where I was trusted to make the right choice on my feet, it was a major learning curve for me. It has given me appreciation for the amount of time it can take a company to publicly respond.

It’s kind of like listening to your parents argue over your punishment behind closed doors. They aren’t ignoring the situation, they are deciding how to respond in a united front. It isn’t immediate.

An example is Motrin Moms. The tweet-storm about the offensive ad started on a Saturday and by Sunday afternoon Motrin had an executive out on blogs commenting and on Monday the ad was pulled and a new response published. Sunday isn’t a typical workday, yet the company was able to pull together the parties to get some sort of a response over the weekend. For a Sunday afternoon response, I assume they started talking on Saturday night. They were accused of not monitoring the situation, but you can’t respond on a Sunday if you weren’t monitoring.

This weekend’s tweets-storm took place over a holiday weekend for two major religions, the bulk of it on Easter. I imagine Amazon had a helluvah time getting the players on the phone to decide what to do.

Should Amazon have a greater presence in social media? Yes. After thinking about it, I was surprised to realize that they aren’t doing customer service on Twitter and that I can’t name an Amazon employee on Twitter. Should they have a crisis plan? Yes. I’m sure they have one and that the ball got rolling on Easter morning.

Where’s this going?

In the midst of the outrage that grew on Twitter and among blogs yesterday, who was doing the fact checking? Who was calling sources at Amazon to get the facts and get an official response? The only tweet where I chose to weigh in on amazonfail are pasted above, until today when I tweeted a link to a story below in PC World. I don’t think it is fair or right to tweet-lynch a company when they haven’t had a chance to respond. I didn’t want to weigh in based on rumors, I wanted the full story.

  • The LA Times has been blogging about it and in the second post had an official, “no further comments at this time,” from Amazon.
  • The WSJ Blog quotes Amazon’s comment to Publisher’s Weekly about the ‘glitch.’
  • PC World covers the hacker that took credit and includes a comment from, “Amazon spokesperson Drew Herdener responded via e-mail shortly after this story’s publication. He initially described the issue as “an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error.” When asked specifically whether Amazon had any stance on the hacker’s claims of involvement, he responded only by stating that it was “an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error by *Amazon*””njjjjjj

Here’s what I want.

I want fact-checking. Either by journalists or bloggers, but fact-checking.

I want fact-checking before tweet-lynching.

I want companies and agencies to be given a moment to respond and some understanding that companies are made of people who celebrate holidays, too.

I want companies to empower employees to be online ambassadors, so that the next time a company is in a tweet-storm, someond can raise their hand (without fear of losing his job) and say, “I’m calling my boss. Watch this space.” Dell learned the hard way, why don’t companies learn from them?

I want more transparency into things like Amazon rankings, which are so incredibly important within the publishing world.

I want to live in a world where we would never suspect a company like Amazon to make a homophobic move like this.

At the same time, I suppose it is chicken-egg here. The #amazonfail outrage forced Amazon to respond, even though at least one author noticed the delisting February and had been trying to get it resolved. The same way that the blogger outrage about the JTA story forced the JTA to think about how it communicates about the changing media landscape. I suppose I want a world where companies quickly and personally respond to problems like this. I do expect companies to have greater communications agility and a greater sense of social responsibility.

I’m afraid this post will upset people. I think bloggers can write journalistic quality pieces. That bloggers have and will continue to break stories. This was just the example I needed to realize that we need people reporting and investigating. I don’t know what form that takes in the future or what business model will support it, but I hope we find one soon.

UPDATES 4/14 at 10AM

Jacqui a friend and editor at Ars Tecnica tweeted on Monday, “Amazon PR told me that the #amazonfail incident was “embarrassing” and “ham fisted.” Deets coming on Ars Technica in a half hour.” Full story from Ars Tecnica now available.

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