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Online media: Site for blacks attracts slurs after arrest of professor


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POSTED: Monday, July 27, 2009

It was probably inevitable that in the furor over the arrest of the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., some people would resort publicly to the ugly racial slurs that have largely disappeared from polite conversation.

But it is hard to imagine a more incongruous place for such comments than The Root, an online magazine of politics and culture largely by and for black people, where Gates is editor in chief.

Yet there they were last week, in comments on an interview with Gates, who was arrested at his home in Cambridge, Mass., on a disorderly conduct charge that was quickly dropped.

A few commenters used grotesque racial epithets, others crudely parodied black speech, and some proudly called themselves racist. One used the screen name of James Earl Ray, the man who killed Martin Luther King Jr.

Those probably should have been removed, said Terence W. Samuel, deputy editor of The Root, but he added that worse comments had been taken down.

“For the most part, as long as the comments are not threats of violence, and the most vicious, nasty, racist comments, we leave them up,” he said.

Comment sections have become double-edged for many publications: They encourage community and reader involvement, but they also allow offensive speech to seep in. Some publications do not allow comments online, or block them for articles on certain heated topics. Screening comments for offensive speech is a commitment of labor that most sites cannot afford.

The Root, owned by The Washington Post Co., takes a common middle ground, allowing readers to publish comments instantly, and later removing some that prompt complaints.

“We end up, because of the nature of our site, talking about some pretty intense stuff,” Samuel said.

The Gates affair generated heavy traffic and thousands of comments, so it took longer than usual to sift through complaints.

“But we’ve invited this conversation,” Samuel said, “and nine out of 10 days, it’s a great conversation to be having.”

— Richard Perez-Pena

Getting bloggers to pay heed to a floor mop

A technology convention may not be the natural venue to introduce a household cleaning product. But to harness the viral marketing of social media, Procter & Gamble sponsored an event last week before the BlogHer 2009 conference in Chicago to present its updated Swiffer Wet Jet cleaning mop, which will be shipped to stores around Aug. 1.

The company was the title sponsor of the Swiffer SocialLuxe Lounge, billed as a pampering party. More than 500 BlogHer participants stopped by on Thursday afternoon, which offered makeovers, a blogging awards presentation and stations to recharge phones and hand-held devices.

One of the main stations at the event had a campy theme that allowed bloggers to test the new Swiffer and dress up as their favorite housewife character, like Lucille Ball or Marge Simpson.

“These bloggers are influential,” said Beth Feldman, founder of RoleMommy.com, who was one of the six bloggers who organized the event.

Even if bloggers did not write about the product, many sent messages through Twitter, posted updates on Facebook or reached out to their readers in other ways. More than 1,000 photos were uploaded from the event, thanks to another sponsor, Eye-Fi, Feldman said.

“It’s not just about blogs anymore. It’s about the numerous ways you can get the word out to people that can make an impact,” she said.

Companies are increasingly sponsoring blogging events, underwriting the travel costs for bloggers to attend tech conventions and even paying bloggers hundreds of dollars for postings or viral marketing campaigns.

But Procter & Gamble strictly underwrote part of the cost of the event itself rather than paying for any positive press, the company said. Bloggers who attended could request samples of the products for their trials or giveaways and provide their honest opinions, said Mark Mercurio, assistant brand manager for Swiffer.

“Word of mouth is a very powerful tool,” said Mercurio, who added that the company monitored other feedback, like Amazon.com customer reviews and opinions from focus groups. “Consumers are increasingly investigating products online.”

Andy Sernovitz, a blogger who monitors ethics, praised the guidelines set up by the BlogHer organizers.

That does not mean, however, that paid content was a rarity at the Chicago conference. The BlogHer convention site offered plenty of giveaways and gift certificates worth hundreds of dollars that were underwritten by corporations.

— Pradnya Joshi

A cartoon buffett, teaching children about money

The renowned investor Warren E. Buffett often speaks animatedly on television about financial responsibility. Soon he will actually be animated for a children’s series on the same subject.

The Web series, called the “Secret Millionaire’s Club,” will make its debut on AOL’s Web site in the fall. Buffett said in an interview that the short episodes would aim to “entertain kids and deliver a message.”

A new children’s media company called A Squared Entertainment is producing the series. Andy Heyward, a longtime creator of children’s entertainment, and Amy Moynihan, a veteran of brand marketing, founded the company this year. They are working with AOL to introduce a number of celebrity-backed Web shows for children, including shows with Buffett, the supermodel Gisele Buendchen and the planner extraordinaire Martha Stewart.

In “Secret Millionaire’s Club,” the animated Buffett will play a mentor to a group of children who go into business (a candy store, naturally). It is a revival of a project Heyward tried to develop several years ago.

So far Buffett has recorded the audio for the first episode. It’s pretty easy lifting; Heyward “never gives me very difficult parts,” Buffett joked.

Buffett said the objective of the series — to instill healthy financial habits in young people — “appeals to me enormously.”

“Kids are forming habits, and habits are strong things,” he said, recalling a quote attributed to the poet Samuel Johnson: “The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”

“Certain financial habits are not necessarily intuitive,” Buffett said. “If a young person is exposed to the logic of certain behavior, you’re going to get through to some of them.”

Among other topics, the episodes will address the value of patient investments and the risks of credit cards. “The most important message, really, is that the best investment you can make is in yourself,” Buffett said. The episodes are intended for 6- to 11-year-olds.

The investor said he spoke with one of the animators Friday morning. He said he asked him to “make me look like George Clooney, but I think that’s too difficult for them!”

— Brian Stelter