Corporations Hiring Their Own Reporters

from the business-model-fun dept

A year ago, I was fascinated by the news that Miller Brewing Company had hired its own journalist to create a news blog all about beer. It wasn't just about Miller, but about the overall beer/brewing market. To me, this was a fascinating, if very narrowly focused, example of where content and advertising are merging in a good way. In such a scenario, if it goes well, everyone can benefit. The reporter did plenty of real reporting, even breaking stories about competitors. Everyone knew that the site was from Miller, so there was nothing secretive about it, and anyone could take that "bias" into account. But it was an interesting model for advertising, content, reporting and journalism... all wrapped up in one. Unfortunately, it looks like it didn't work out. Without much of an explanation, the blog shut down last fall. Perhaps the market was too niche. Perhaps the economic collapse was an issue.

Still, that doesn't mean the idea itself is bad -- and, in fact, we're actually helping some companies do something quite similar via the Insight Community (if you want to know more about that, just ask). So it's interesting to see yet another example of this in action as well. Salon's Future of Journalism blog points us to a Fast Company story about a journalist who left a newspaper job to take a job with Carpenter Co., makers of cushioning. But he's not reporting on that. He's reporting on life in Stephenville, Texas, (which isn't even where the company is based). But the idea is to create interesting and compelling content that's worthwhile just as content.

Of course, it certainly makes Carpenter look good ,as well. And, there's a new music business model hook involved in all of this, as well. Apparently, Stephenville is where the singer Jewel lives, and part of this whole effort is to help market her new album, which (conveniently) has a tie-in to Carpenters' bedding cushions in that the album is called Lullaby.

Now, I'm sure some will naysay this whole thing, and insist that it's not journalism, it's bad advertising and it's a bad business model for music to boot. But, honestly, I have trouble seeing what the problem is here. It's a neat experiment (for a limited time) where everything is entirely upfront (no one's being tricked), new music is getting paid for and promoted, interesting journalism work is being done and the company footing the bill gets some nice promotion, without having to ram a marketing message everyone would ignore down their throat. That seems to be a win, all the way around. Obviously, we're a bit biased, since we're powering some similar efforts by other companies, as well, but that's why we started doing such things with the Insight Community. It makes a ton of sense and solves a bunch of different problems in one single effort. Once again... we're reminded that if there's a need, business models will be created to solve that need. And this one is clearly one we believe in. Still, for those who still think this is somehow a bad thing for journalism, can someone explain how it's any different from the fact that GE employs a ton of journalists by owning NBC? Or that Disney employs a ton of journalists in owning ABC? This is the same thing, but on a much smaller scale.


Reader Comments (rss)

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  1.  
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    Mikey (profile), Aug 4th, 2009 @ 2:13pm

    Does anyone proofread your articles? I'll do it for $15/article.

     

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  2.  
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    Anonymous Cowherd, Aug 4th, 2009 @ 2:14pm

    The problem with this

    ..is that it's a Jewel album.

     

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  3.  
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    Albert Nonymous, Aug 4th, 2009 @ 2:21pm

    The problem is ethics

    Your argument seems to be something along the lines of "everybody is doing it, so how can it be wrong?".

    You use the term "journalist" in the article. But the activity you describe seems to be just another form of advertising. The term "journalist" does not apply any longer, because even though the person in question is doing things that a journalist does, those things aren't done for the same reason. Calling someone in the employment of a company whose primary focus is "business" a "journalist" is like calling a corporate sponsored ombudman a "judge". The general activity is the same, but the motivation and goals are quite different. We already have a term for this kind of thing: shill.

    From Wikipedia:

    "A shill is an associate of a person selling goods or services or a political group, who pretends no association to the seller/group and assumes the air of an enthusiastic customer. The intention of the shill is, using crowd psychology, to encourage others unaware of the set-up to purchase said goods or services or support the political group's ideological claims. Shills are often employed by confidence artists. The term plant is also used."

    Seems to me a new variant of the above is someone who does acknowledge an association to the seller/group but assumes the air of unbiased party by taking on the mantle of "journalist". Sorry. I don't buy it.

    It may be a good form of advertising to support your new business model, but it's not journalism. Or whatever name we invent to describe ethical, unbiased reporting to replace the one that's been subverted.

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 4th, 2009 @ 2:24pm

    Re: The problem is ethics

    I think that as long as everyone is OPEN about their biases there is no problem because, face it, every journalist is biased.

    If they are fully open about things that can bias a story, I am more likely to trust more of their story (but I'm still going to fact check and check other sources) and come back for more information.

     

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  5.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Aug 4th, 2009 @ 2:29pm

    Re: The problem is ethics

    You use the term "journalist" in the article. But the activity you describe seems to be just another form of advertising. The term "journalist" does not apply any longer, because even though the person in question is doing things that a journalist does, those things aren't done for the same reason. Calling someone in the employment of a company whose primary focus is "business" a "journalist" is like calling a corporate sponsored ombudman a "judge".

    By that definition, everyone who works for NBC, ABC, Fox and CNN are not journalists. They're all owned by "businesses." Yet, somehow people recognize that they're hired to do journalism.

    Furthermore, it's pretty clear that they're not "shilling." Shilling is (a) pretending no association and (b) specifically pushing people to support a company.

    Neither of those things are true in this case. Everything is completely out in the open, and the guy was hired to report on a small town, not on anything specifically having to do with the company. It seems about as far away from shilling as possible.

     

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    Ononamus, Aug 4th, 2009 @ 2:35pm

    Thats sort of what techdirt is for me. I come here for a specific kind of news, even though the person reporting on that news is biased (who isn't?) I don't always share that bias,But It's news I'm usually interested in. Its always good to see someone else's point of view.

     

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  7.  
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    Dark Helmet (profile), Aug 4th, 2009 @ 2:49pm

    Re: Re: The problem is ethics

    "By that definition, everyone who works for NBC, ABC, Fox and CNN are not journalists. They're all owned by "businesses." Yet, somehow people recognize that they're hired to do journalism."

    I was about to blast that definition for the same reason until I read your response and realized that I actually agree with your interpretation of what he said. NBC, ABC, Fox and CNN AREN'T journalists any longer. They may have been hired under the auspices of being journalists, but they day they allowed their producers to shape the story, and the producer had any inkling of advertising revenue in mind (and the buzz their stories create are a large part of how producers are judged), then that all went away.

    Honestly, I don't know what the answer is. Maybe we just accept the fact that journalism as a mass market thing is gone and ain't coming back. Because I can hear someone in the back shouting "just have a public, government run news organization to keep business out", and statements like that make me simultaneously laugh and cry in a way that makes snot shoot out of my nose. And no one wants to see that.

    "Furthermore, it's pretty clear that they're not "shilling." Shilling is (a) pretending no association and (b) specifically pushing people to support a company."

    Agreed, it isn't shilling, but it ain't journalism either. And here's why: if during his/her investigation of the story/town/whatever, she interviewed Jewell and found out that when she was a kid, she'd been hurt because Carpenter Co. cushions in her home were filled with fiberglass and syringes, a JOURNALIST would report it through her journalistic medium. When Carpenter Co. owns that medium, I'm fairly certain that reporting doesn't happen.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 4th, 2009 @ 2:51pm

    Re: Re: The problem is ethics

    I suppose I'd argue that this is now considered acceptable because the term "journalist" has been co-opted and diluted. I personally don't consider those who work for NBC, ABC, Fox and CNN to be journalists. How are those acronyms different from, say, Pravda?

    There is a reason people lament the loss of people like Walter Cronkite. There is a reason people feel that Jon Stewart is a better source of information than the organizations you mention.

    People no longer trust these institutions, even if they once deserved trust.

    As far as shilling goes - read my post again. The point is that this may be a new variant of shilling that doesn't use the "pretending no association" technique but rather uses the "yeah, I'm associated, but I'm a journalist (so trust me, I'm unbiased)" technique. One layer of misdirection doesn't invalidate the claim. Wearing a mantle of non-bias out in the open is just a more devious way to shill, if you can get away with it.

    You'll have to do better than that to get by my B.S. filter.

    Sorry, dude.

     

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    Mike Masnick (profile), Aug 4th, 2009 @ 2:53pm

    Re: Re: Re: The problem is ethics

    And here's why: if during his/her investigation of the story/town/whatever, she interviewed Jewell and found out that when she was a kid, she'd been hurt because Carpenter Co. cushions in her home were filled with fiberglass and syringes, a JOURNALIST would report it through her journalistic medium. When Carpenter Co. owns that medium, I'm fairly certain that reporting doesn't happen.

    Wouldn't that be the scoop of the century, though? You don't think such a story would *quickly* get out and become big through other means?

     

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    Dark Helmet (profile), Aug 4th, 2009 @ 2:55pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: The problem is ethics

    Yes, but the point isn't that it's going to get out, it's that the story doesn't come through the corporate-paid blog. Therefore, what DOES come through that site HAS to be seen as what the company ALLOWED to come through, and that is NOT journalism.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 4th, 2009 @ 2:58pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: The problem is ethics

    And that somehow magically turns the person who *didn't* report this a "journalist"? Because those who exercise those "other means" somehow rub off on the selective reporter, so he's now suddenly a journalist by association?

    Pretzel Logic. I've suddenly lost a great deal of respect for you. You seem little different from everyone else, because even if your motivations are good, you seem to lack the cognitive ability to understand your own motivations and philosophies enough to make consistent arguments.

    Ah well, this is the internet.

     

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  12.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 4th, 2009 @ 2:59pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: The problem is ethics

    In my perfect world, Carpenter Co.'s competitors would quickly find out about it.

    I think the answer to a biased source is to get as many different sources as possible...

     

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  13.  
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    Dark Helmet (profile), Aug 4th, 2009 @ 3:01pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The problem is ethics

    "I think the answer to a biased source is to get as many different sources as possible..."

    Great, now I've got TONS of biased sources. It's like the US congress all over again, where we've multiple sides on an issue that all amazingly have completely opposite "facts".

    Yeah, no thanks....

     

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  14.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 4th, 2009 @ 3:08pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The problem is ethics

    but all the sources will be biased anyway. even in the "good 'ol days" reporting was biased. these days you can only tell how biased things are based on who they are pissing off and how badly they are pissing them off. if people from all sides are getting pissed then it is pretty accurate, but that doesn't mean it is unbiased.

    my father used to have a saying, in any fight there is one for each side in it and then there is the truth.

    with lots of biased sources (that are preferably very OPEN about their bias) people can use their brain and figure out the truth because honestly, no one currently tells the pure truth.

     

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  15.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Aug 4th, 2009 @ 3:17pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The problem is ethics

    Yes, but the point isn't that it's going to get out, it's that the story doesn't come through the corporate-paid blog. Therefore, what DOES come through that site HAS to be seen as what the company ALLOWED to come through, and that is NOT journalism.

    Well, does NBC not report negatively on GE? I've seen them do that. Why? Because they know they have to in order to be credible. I could see the same thing happen here.

     

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  16.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Aug 4th, 2009 @ 3:19pm

    Re: Re: Re: The problem is ethics

    As far as shilling goes - read my post again. The point is that this may be a new variant of shilling that doesn't use the "pretending no association" technique but rather uses the "yeah, I'm associated, but I'm a journalist (so trust me, I'm unbiased)" technique. One layer of misdirection doesn't invalidate the claim. Wearing a mantle of non-bias out in the open is just a more devious way to shill, if you can get away with it.

    But that's the point. They're NOT saying they're unbiased. They're saying they're biased and that's fine, so long as you know the bias.

     

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  17.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 4th, 2009 @ 3:31pm

    This is the magic point where news becomes advertising, another reason why there should be a seperation between media and subject. Miller can run a blog about beer, but that blog should be clearly labeled as advertising and marketing, because that is exactly what it is.

    If anything Mike, you should be upset because these guys are trying to abuse CwF to a purely commercial end, with no social or real connection, just somewhat less than clearly playing friend.

    It was reported a while back that Ford employees were doing the same, posting positive reviews of their cars on other blogs, adding comments, and running their own blogs without always clearly indicating their connection to the product. I don't know where that one ended up, but I think it was in Businessweek a while back.

    It isn't a question of biased or unbiased, it's a question of using something that looks like news and using it instead to promote a product (or heck, push an agenda that someone is paying to have pushed). Sort of like the boat guys that killed off Kerry's presidential bid. Who actually paid for that?

     

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  18.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 4th, 2009 @ 3:57pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: The problem is ethics

    Do you not understand what you're saying? Try this:

    "But that's the point. [The police] are NOT saying they're unbiased. They're saying they're biased [in the service of the local mob boss] and that's fine, so long as you know the bias [they will pretend to enforce the law unless the local mob boss tells them otherwise.]"

    Just like there is no such thing as "a little bit pregnant", there is no such things as "a little bit biased" in certain professions. And we're not even talking about "bias" here. Everyone has their own opinions and philosophies, but that's different from reporting the facts even if they conflict with one's own personal beliefs. Being obligated to selectively report the facts depending on what the parent company decides is acceptable is NOT journalism. There is no "little bit biased". If you can't trust a little bit of what they report, you can't really trust any of it.

    (And note I use the term "facts", not "opinions". Opinions aren't subject to the same rules about bias - that's why there is a special section in the paper called "Editorials". But nobody calls that journalism or reporting.)

     

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  19.  
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    DJ (profile), Aug 4th, 2009 @ 4:30pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The problem is ethics

    "I've suddenly lost a great deal of respect for you."

    You clearly didn't have enough respect for him, in the first place, to identify yourself. So I say nothing gained, nothing lost.

    GTFOY

     

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  20.  
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    DJ (profile), Aug 4th, 2009 @ 4:39pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The problem is ethics

    "But that's the point. [The police] are NOT saying they're unbiased. They're saying they're biased [in the service of the local mob boss] and that's fine, so long as you know the bias [they will pretend to enforce the law unless the local mob boss tells them otherwise.]"

    Hey I can do that too:

    Being [a dumbass shows that you are] obligated to selectively [twist arguments and then] report the [now doctored] facts ... on what the parent company decides...."

    It's amazing what you can do with some brackets and ellipses, isn't it? Why, you can COMPLETELY CHANGE SOMEONE'S ARGUMENT TO FIT YOUR OWN!!

     

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  21.  
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    DJ (profile), Aug 4th, 2009 @ 4:41pm

    Re:

    "This is the magic point where news becomes advertising"

    Really? Wow, I guess you're right with this site just riddled with ads....

    STFU and GTFOY

     

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  22.  
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    DJ (profile), Aug 4th, 2009 @ 4:48pm

    Re: Re:

    "you should be upset because these guys are trying to abuse CwF to a purely commercial end..."

    Just so we're clear "CwF + RtB = $$" is a freaking business model.

    Which means that your argument ACTUALLY reads "you should be upset because these guys are trying to abuse [your proposed business model] to a purely commercial end"

    Which is just like saying "you should be upset because they're trying to pass your Terrier off as a breed of dog."

    I truly love pointing out when stupid people argue so vehemently about something they don't understand.

     

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  23.  
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    DJ (profile), Aug 4th, 2009 @ 4:51pm

    Re:

    I'll do it for $6!!

    Sorry dude, just business.

     

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  24.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 4th, 2009 @ 5:11pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The problem is ethics

    Terry L. Triplett. Current state of residence: Connecticut.

    Is that better?

     

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  25.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 4th, 2009 @ 5:37pm

    Re: Re:

    DJ, seriously, are you related to RD? You two both seem to get awfully agressive at times.

    I don't have a problem with advertising. Ads are fine. When what is suppose to be content becomes advertising (without notification) I have a read problem.

    Perhaps you haven't noticed, but in print they have to run "paid advertisement" on pages that look too much like content. Informercials have to run those "this is a paid announcement for", because it isn't just morons in a hurry that make the mistake (which is what the advertisers are counting on).

    As for CwF, the very basics of it is honesty. I guess that once they learn how to fake that, they have it made, right?

     

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  26.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 4th, 2009 @ 6:15pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The problem is ethics

    It's even more amazing how one can attempt to invalidate an argument merely by using sarcasm and SOME CAPS FOR EMPHASIS! Who needs logic when you can just wield punctuation in a masterful way. It's the text equivalent of talk radio.

    The argument still stands. Publicly acknowledging a bias doesn't make you more trustworthy merely because you didn't hide it. The point of the institution of journalism is in part that there is pressure to have no bias and you can be called out if you do. There is an acknowledgement of bias as a fundamental human weakness and a mechanism (like a code of ethics) to compensate for it. Being a paid corporate information disseminator throws all that out of the window.

     

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  27.  
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    Dark Helmet (profile), Aug 4th, 2009 @ 6:17pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The problem is ethics

    "Well, does NBC not report negatively on GE? I've seen them do that. Why? Because they know they have to in order to be credible. I could see the same thing happen here."

    The difference is that the two are so far removed from each other that I'm not sure even THEY know their corporate cousins, never mind the masses. When NBC goes negative on GE, people don't see it as cannabilizing, they see it as two separate groups.

    However I do believe that at the higher levels you're onto something with:

    "Why? Because they know they have to in order to be credible"

    I think you're right in their motives, but why is it that complicated? Why are they making a point to APPEAR credible? Why isn't the motive "Because it's a legitimate story"?

     

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  28.  
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    Dark Helmet (profile), Aug 4th, 2009 @ 6:38pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The problem is ethics

    "It's even more amazing how one can attempt to invalidate an argument merely by using sarcasm and SOME CAPS FOR EMPHASIS! Who needs logic when you can just wield punctuation in a masterful way. It's the text equivalent of talk radio."

    Aw dammit, but I do that shit ALL THE TIME!

     

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  29.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 4th, 2009 @ 8:43pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The problem is ethics

    "my father used to have a saying, in any fight there is one for each side in it and then there is the truth.
    "

    That's funny. Extreme has the same saying. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/III_Sides_to_Every_Story

    Oh,and Nancy Leson. http://blog.seattletimes.nwsource.com/allyoucaneat/2009/01/20/there_are_three_sides_to_every.html

    Are you related?

     

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  30.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 4th, 2009 @ 8:44pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The problem is ethics

    Fun, isn't it?

     

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  31.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 4th, 2009 @ 10:11pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The problem is ethics

    Oh, and who are you, by the way? Got the stones to de-anonymize? Or is DJ just another word for anonymous?

     

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  32.  
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    britmic, Aug 5th, 2009 @ 2:56am

    ummm ...

    Real news is what someone somewhere wants supressed. Everything else is just advertising. I don't believe everyone knows this.

     

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