The Poynter

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Several months ago, I attended a workshop for up-and-coming journalists of color at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, on behalf of my employer, Automattic, the VIP division of which is a regular, enthusiastic supporter and financial sponsor. The VIP team was on their annual Grand Meetup, so they’d asked if I would attend on their behalf. Being a geek of all things journalism, I’m fairly sure I said yes before Steph had even had a chance to finish typing the question in Slack.

Mid-October in St. Pete is lovely. The sun burned bright yellow everyday and closed the curtain every evening with a warm glow. The first early morning I walked down the wide avenue on which Poynter is located, I was struck by how radiant the building appeared in the face of the rising sun. It seemed a good omen to the day.

One evening, the institute hosted a dinner and cocktail hour offsite, featuring the legendary Marty Baron of the Washington Post as the guest of honor. I held back during the meet-and-greet at the end, thinking that I would have the opportunity to chat with him even for just a few minutes the next day at the workshop, but as it turned out he was only in town for that one evening, and I missed my chance. I’d known about him for years, had read articles about him, and of course had seen Liev Schreiber’s portrayal of him in the movie Spotlight, so I was appropriately awestruck even just sitting in the same room with him. I’m geeky enough to have blushed and felt a momentary thrill when one of the executives from the institute, who presented Mr. Baron at the dinner, also thanked my employer and myself for attending and participating. When he sought me out in the small audience and mentioned my full name — pronouncing it correctly! — in his acknowledgments, Mr. Baron nodded and smiled in my direction and I returned the gesture with the goofiest smile on my face.

Mr. Baron’s empty chair at the workshop was right in front of mine!

But the most memorable moment of the week for me was when I took a cab to the institute my last morning. I had brought a couple of big boxes containing mugs and other branded swag for the workshop attendees, so I wasn’t about to hoof it the quarter mile to the building. The hotel concierge kindly called me a cab, and within minutes a tall, gangly man in his late fifties or so bounded out of his car and deftly hauled my boxes into the trunk while I slipped into the front seat.

He had a lively story, one of those classic only-in-Florida stories of men washing up from elsewhere on a Florida beach hoping to find both sunshine and fortune. He found plenty of both, but kept one and not the other. Now he’s driving a cab, but he retained a deep affection for St. Pete and its quirky culture and couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

When we arrived at the institute, though, and he’d finished helping me bring my boxes inside the lobby, I pulled out my wallet but he waved his hand in dismissal and shook his head.

“No, no, this one’s on me.”

I stood there in confusion. This man just told me his life story and how he’d come to Florida and built a thriving business, only to lose it all through a series of misfortunes and mistakes, and now he’s driving a cab to earn a living. I was not here to dispense charity but to pay for a service he’d so ably and cheerfully rendered.

He shook his head again, then pointed a sunburnt, slender finger to the building behind me, the one that radiated in the morning sun.

“No, the Poynter does good work. You do God’s work here. I love what you do and I love that they’re here, and it’s an honor just to take you here.”

I tried to explain that I wasn’t actually part of the Poynter, that I’m not even a journalist and am part of a company that sponsors the institute, but he continued to shake his head and wave me away. He walked back to the driver’s side and winked at me before sliding back into the seat and driving away.

In this terrifying era where the powers that be expressly point angry fingers at journalists and call them the enemy; when the president of the United States regularly encourages his supporters to see the media as the opposition, even goading them to verbally abuse them, it was a moment of grace and inspiration.

Can we just leave HRC alone? Please?

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Just when she thought she could grieve in peace, along comes yet one more reporter who couldn’t resist taking a photo of Hillary Clinton…staring at her phone. Clinton is sitting alone at a restaurant table, presumably having just finished breakfast, and she’s…staring at her phone.

She’s not surrounded by handlers, adoring fans, the press corps, or Secret Service agents. She’s just doing what a lot of us are probably doing right now: staring at her damn phone. But because she’s Hillary Freakin’ Clinton, it’s apparently newsworthy enough to at least this reporter that she felt the need to not only snap the photo but post it to her verified Twitter account. Because, you know, there just aren’t enough photos of Hillary post-election doing everyday things.

Yes, I realize that, having lived in the public eye for most of her life, Clinton shouldn’t really expect to just disappear into obscurity, no matter how much she might wish to do so. She has both loathed and loved being in the spotlight, and has been willing to sacrifice more than any of us could possibly imagine so that she can perform public service and catapult herself to one of the highest levels of government as Secretary of State.

Most of all, though, she’s willingly sacrificed her dignity a million and one times as our national punching bag. Louis C.K.’s eloquent, brilliant summation of Hillary’s qualifications as president, which he shared on Conan shortly before the election, pretty much nails the role she’s played in the political arena for decades:

Folks, after all of what this fierce, terrifyingly smart woman has endured on our behalf for most of her life, can we just let her be for awhile? Surely she deserves at least that. She’s earned the right to grieve and recover on her own time, on her own terms, whether she wants to do it in the privacy of her home or the privacy of a quiet moment at the breakfast table in some restaurant. No one is doing the nation any favors by projecting her unguarded moments on our collective psyche, as if she still owes us anything. If anything, we owe her a debt we can never really pay back.

Must read by Masha Gessen: Why We Must Protest | Literary Hub

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Why protest? The question hangs over the marches in New York and Los Angeles, the hug-ins in San Francisco, the school walkouts in California and Oregon, and the planned “Million Woman March” on Wa…

Source: Masha Gessen: Why We Must Protest | Literary Hub

Journalism's last throes?

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The New York Times just announced that, in order to shore up their revenues, they will be increasing prices from $5.00 to $6.00 for the Sunday edition, and from $1.50 to $2.00 for weekdays and Saturdays. They will also be shuttering the Boston Globe.

After the close of the Rocky Mountain News, which I used to read quite often when I lived in Grand Junction, CO, no one should be surprised that even some of the oldest and most established newspapers are suffering and threatening closure. It doesn’t make it any easier to watch all of this carnage, though. I love newspapers — used to read several a day — but even I admit that I’m cutting back on my newspaper-buying. The Dallas Morning News daily is now $1.00, while the Sunday editions are $4.00. Doesn’t sound like much, but when you have an alternative and you’re a self-employed person with a limited budget, the online editions are awfully tempting. That does mean, of course, that I’m the reason why these folks are losing their jobs, why cities are saying goodbyes to their only newspaper, but hard decisions aren’t just the purview of big corporations. We individuals have to make them as well.

Some people have said that the newspapers themselves are to blame for allowing their content to essentially be distributed for free on the Internet, while requiring folks at coffee shops and grocery stores to actually fork over their dwindling dollars for a paper copy. I agree. The only way that the remaining newspapers can survive is to return to the pay-for-content subscription model, since those advertising revenues will never return. People who’ve grown accustomed to free content will holler and howl and bitch and moan, but remember what everyone said about Napster and the demise of the music industry after the former was shut down by the authorities? Now, the industry is as healthy as ever, and plenty of people not only don’t mind paying for music on iTunes, they’re doing it in droves.

Newspapers will always have a role to play in our society. Sure, bloggers like me and tons of Web sites provide just about any iota of information you could possibly want about what’s going on in the world, but think about it: where do these folks get much of their info? Citizen journalists with Flips and digital cameras around the world supply us with lots of on-the-ground photos, videos and content, but nothing beats the kind of quality writing and analysis that experienced professionals provide. I know of wonderful commentators and bloggers online whose talent and skill rival those of a Nicholas Kristof, but they’re few and far between, and their own relatively limited resources will never allow them to have the kind of breadth and depth and reach of a, say, New York Times.

I still have faith that newspapers are here to stay. The question, though, is whether or not they recognize their continued relevance and make the changes necessary to shore up what remaining resources they have to transform themselves and their failing business model into something that will weather this economic storm,

Journalism’s last throes?

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The New York Times just announced that, in order to shore up their revenues, they will be increasing prices from $5.00 to $6.00 for the Sunday edition, and from $1.50 to $2.00 for weekdays and Saturdays. They will also be shuttering the Boston Globe.

After the close of the Rocky Mountain News, which I used to read quite often when I lived in Grand Junction, CO, no one should be surprised that even some of the oldest and most established newspapers are suffering and threatening closure. It doesn’t make it any easier to watch all of this carnage, though. I love newspapers — used to read several a day — but even I admit that I’m cutting back on my newspaper-buying. The Dallas Morning News daily is now $1.00, while the Sunday editions are $4.00. Doesn’t sound like much, but when you have an alternative and you’re a self-employed person with a limited budget, the online editions are awfully tempting. That does mean, of course, that I’m the reason why these folks are losing their jobs, why cities are saying goodbyes to their only newspaper, but hard decisions aren’t just the purview of big corporations. We individuals have to make them as well.

Some people have said that the newspapers themselves are to blame for allowing their content to essentially be distributed for free on the Internet, while requiring folks at coffee shops and grocery stores to actually fork over their dwindling dollars for a paper copy. I agree. The only way that the remaining newspapers can survive is to return to the pay-for-content subscription model, since those advertising revenues will never return. People who’ve grown accustomed to free content will holler and howl and bitch and moan, but remember what everyone said about Napster and the demise of the music industry after the former was shut down by the authorities? Now, the industry is as healthy as ever, and plenty of people not only don’t mind paying for music on iTunes, they’re doing it in droves.

Newspapers will always have a role to play in our society. Sure, bloggers like me and tons of Web sites provide just about any iota of information you could possibly want about what’s going on in the world, but think about it: where do these folks get much of their info? Citizen journalists with Flips and digital cameras around the world supply us with lots of on-the-ground photos, videos and content, but nothing beats the kind of quality writing and analysis that experienced professionals provide. I know of wonderful commentators and bloggers online whose talent and skill rival those of a Nicholas Kristof, but they’re few and far between, and their own relatively limited resources will never allow them to have the kind of breadth and depth and reach of a, say, New York Times.

I still have faith that newspapers are here to stay. The question, though, is whether or not they recognize their continued relevance and make the changes necessary to shore up what remaining resources they have to transform themselves and their failing business model into something that will weather this economic storm,

Would you care if your town lost its only newspaper?

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Grand Junction has a relatively healthy media community: we have two newspapers, including one daily and one tabloid that publishes three times a week (that would be the Grand Junction Free Press, my personal choice and for whom I’ve written the last two years); a biweekly business tabloid; a senior-news tabloid; a Things to Do tabloid; a student newspaper published by the Mesa State College journalism department; and a gorgeous glossy monthly, the Grand Valley Magazine. That doesn’t include the much smaller community papers, including the Fruita Times and the Palisade Tribune. The Free Press, as many know, went from a Monday-Friday circulation schedule to Mon-Wed-Fri recently, in light of economic conditions that have hit the Western Slope, but it remains very popular and continues to publish the kind of community news and announcements that everyone clamors for.

Considering the relative size of the city, then, Grand Junction’s media community is surprisingly robust. Dallas, for example, has only one newspaper, the Dallas Morning News, and more than one media pundit has predicted that the neighboring Fort Worth Star-Telegram will close and soon be folded into the greater Belo empire. The Irving Daily News used to be published 2-3 times a week, but the Morning News eventually either drove it out of business or took it over entirely; now the Morning News simply comes out with a local edition once a week, distributed only to the subscribers in that area. The same thing happened to a number of other community papers in the greater Metroplex, although a few hearty souls managed to survive and somehow thrive.

You could get D Magazine and its many isotopes (D Home, D Weddings, D CEO, etc.), but they all come from the same small publishing group and share the same staff. There’s the so-full-of-itself-it’s-annoying-but-you-can’t-help-reading-it Paper City, but it’s unabashedly by and about the creme de la creme of Dallas social elite, so the rest of us read it just to be able to lick the pages, so to speak, and wonder what it would be like to be able to wear haute couture.

You could also get The Dallas Observer, the scrappy, award-winning independent weekly whose elegant, breezy, and downright eye-popping prose trumps that of the boring ol’ News anyday. It’s my and B.’s favorite, and we’re so glad it’s still there.

But still, for a metropolis with millions of people, Dallas suffers from a scarcity of great writing and great reporting. The handful of talented writers at the Observer and the News have more than enough to fill their column inches, but the Big D starves for more.

So yes, I’m moving from an amazingly media-friendly community to a shrinking one, and yes, I realize the irony in that statement considering the recent layoffs at the Free Press and the still-ongoing sale of the other paper in town, the Daily Sentinel. Am I going to miss that richness of local content, the gee-willikers tone of reporting and the proud, zealous efforts to elevate that local content above all others?

Hell yes.

Would I care if my town — and even though I’m leaving soon, I still consider it “my town” — lost either of its newspaper? Oh god, yes. I would care if we lost the Sentinel, and I would weep buckets if we lost the Free Press. I grew up at a time when Dallas had not only two newspapers (the Morning News and the venerable Dallas Times Herald) but two editions, a morning and evening. It’s more than mere nostalgia, too. I really do believe that newspapers represent the best and worst of a community, a demilitarized zone where neighbors as well as enemies can bring their grievances and concerns in the most democratic of all institutions and come to civilized solutions. It’s where we go to learn about our world, our neighborhoods and wards and villages, about births and deaths and all the terrible and wonderful stuff in between. Sure, we have the Internet, but with very few exceptions, the really good articles and essays unique to one’s town or neighborhood could really only be found in print. You can find a million people more than happy to sound off on the latest mayoral misstep or the shenanigans at City Hall, but only a tiny fraction will really have something worth reading.

It’s devastating to know that few people would care if they lost their town’s only newspaper, and not at all because I’m a journalist and freelance writer. I’ve had a unique opportunity to contribute to the local news, but it’s unlikely to happen in Dallas, where a kajillion out-of-work, frustrated journalists with far more experience than I are competing for the few remaining slots at the only game in town. But I do care deeply about the newspaper, not the least because — despite what some of the respondents say in the Pew survey linked above — local TV news shows bleed mediocrity. I rarely watch the local news here in Grand Junction, and I’m likely not going to change once I’m back in Dallas.

TV news reporting barely skims the surface of the news, and it certainly never strays beyond offering up the most basic of facts. To really understand the context of what’s happening, I turn to the local newspaper, where reporters and editors cull the sound-bites to uncover bits of the truth. Sometimes they get it right, but more often than not they give the reader more insight than she could ever hope to get from watching a ten-second video on the 10 o’clock babblefest. And with the newspaper, at least you’re spared all the “banter.” Oy, the banter. Is it any wonder that they’re referred to as personalities and not reporters? (I suppose that’s still a step-up from Hairdo, but not by much.)

I remain optimistic that cooler, more practical heads will prevail and that the “death of journalism,” as declared by gloomy prognosticators, will be nothing but a mere bump in the road. I refuse to believe that we are creating a world that will no longer recognize quality writing, critical analyses and solid investigative reporting. I can’t imagine that we will soon live in a society that will rather get crappy content online so long as it’s free, rather than pay for the really good stuff that we used to take for granted. It may be naive of me to believe that such a world couldn’t possibly survive, much less thrive, but I have faith that we’re a lot smarter than that.

National Public…Newspapers?

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My favorite editor and I had our semi-bimonthly-whenever-we-have-a-chance breakfast meeting this morning, and inevitably the conversation turned to the state (fate?) of newspapers and print media in general. He had been asked to talk to a journalism class at the local college and, considering that he just came off a month of layoffs and pay cuts, it apparently wasn’t exactly the most inspiring presentation to make in front of people who hope to have his job (or something like it) someday.

We got to thinking, though, about what kind of newfangled business model newspapers and magazines can adopt in the future that will ensure their survival. The New York Times published an op-ed piece in January from David Swensen and Michael Schmidt advocating the transformation of newspapers from for-profit enterprises dependent on advertising to nonprofit, endowed institutions “like colleges and universities.” An online commentator has already derided that proposal, but I can see the merit in it. One of Jonathan Weber’s complaints is that endowed institutions would be beholden to the tastes and opinions of a small group of people, i.e., the donors. That would indeed be a problem if the organization were only endowed by a small group of people, but most endowed institutions receive funding from an enormous pool. The bigger the institution, the better.

People who’ve never worked for a nonprofit often mistakenly assume that the agency’s funding comes primarily from grants large and small. That may be the case for very small, single-person start-ups, but in order for most nonprofits to survive the long-term, they must obtain on-going funding from non-institutional donors. That’s why an Annual Giving or Annual Fund program is so critical to any institution — college, university, the Red Cross, or the local homeless shelter. Most grants eventually end, and most are restricted in their requirements, i.e., they can’t be used for general operating expenses but must instead be used for specific programs. Indeed, many foundations specifically state in their guidelines that funds cannot be used towards endowments. Also most institutional donors require that the recipient organization have a way to fund their operations long after the grant monies expire. That’s where the Annual Giving campaigns come in.

Would such a model work for newspapers? I got to thinking about National Public Radio. I used to work for the NPR/PBS affiliate in Dallas — I’ve been a huge fan of public radio since at least my college years and loved my time at the station. NPR or even PBS fans will be familiar with the public broadcasting model; anyone who’s ever listened to the membership drive spiel knows how it all works. Most of the funding for NPR and its affiliates come from its membership, and several times a year the stations all hold on-air fundraising drives to solicit donations and new members. They get some limited revenue from ancillary ventures — e.g., a local station produces a documentary about, say, global warming, the broadcasting license for which is purchased for a fee by other stations interested in airing it — but the majority of a station’s funding comes from Listeners Like You.

Would such a model work for newspapers? Radio has a more intimate relationship with its audience, of course, with its announcers and deejays. I know that I felt as if I had known KERA’s Sam Baker forever, long before I actually met him in person and became his colleague, simply because I woke up to his voice on my radio every single morning. The Dallas folks are especially good at working the mic, as they somehow manage to make even the pledge drives fun to listen to. (Now that’s a personality.)

But would it work for newspapers? Can, say, a public media organization operate on a membership basis much like NPR and PBS, with members pledging to support the paper’s operations via monthly or annual monetary gifts? The business department would no longer employ advertising reps but rather professional fundraisers (which is what I did at KERA) who go out into the community and solicit donations from individuals, or who work the phones and computers like they do during public radio/TV drives and request donations telephonically and electronically. And reporters and editors can do their jobs as they always have done, “without fear or favor.”

[The “media” and public perception is that public broadcasting is a bastion of liberal reporting and commentary, but what we found when I was at KERA was that we had an almost equal number of people calling and writing to us complaining that we were giving too much airtime to conservative, right-wing commentators and reporting. That demonstrated to us that we were doing our jobs, providing balanced, thoughtful journalism. Our varied listener/viewer audience would not have allowed us to lean in one direction or another simply to satisfy the political sensibilities of one person or group. Indeed, the fundraising side of the building interacted very little with the reporting side (much to my disappointment, because you know that I would have much rather worked on the reporting side, but I digress). It’s the same situation with newspapers — the business side ostensibly is entirely separate from the content/editorial side. To be otherwise would be to invite justified accusations of perceived bias in reporting because of advertiser influence. At KERA we fundraisers took comments and complaints from our donors — from the $35/year donor to the $10,000/year donor — and duly passed them on to the content folks when necessary, but only for informational, FYI purposes, never to influence their coverage.]

I could see a situation where newspapers might try that type of model (among many, I’m sure, and some that we have yet to imagine). The traditional model that has worked for years is obviously dying, so it would behoove all of us who work in journalism to overcome our inertia and timidity in trying out new technologies and systems and pursue new ideas and strategies. The nonprofit, public-broadcasting model may end up being completely inappropriate for newspapers (pledge drives via print may not be nearly as compelling as they are on TV and on the radio, for example), but like the ailing healthcare system, it’s either sink or swim. We try different things and see if they work rather than sticking stubbornly to a template that’s clearly no longer viable. Eventually — maybe — we’ll find the answer.

Structure and Software

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I’m constantly surprised at how much I’ve been able to keep up with my NaNoWriMo responsibilities. It’s amazing at how much one can get done when one creates a detailed schedule, no? I used to keep an hour-by-hour schedule when I first went to college. I wrote it all out every night for the next day, in half-hour increments, sort of like this:

5:30-6:00 Wake up, shower, eat breakfast
6:00-8:00 Study
8:00-9:30 Anthropology
9:30-11:00 Study
11:00-12:30 Algebra
12:30-1:00 Lunch
1:00-5:00 A&P Lab
5:00-7:00 Work
7:00-7:30 Dinner
7:30-9:00 Study
9:00-10:00 Read
10:00 Bed

It’s pretty specific, but I find that, being the chronic procrastinator that I am, this is what I need to plan out my day. Otherwise I could end up, say, at 5:00 and wondering, Where the hell did the day go? Oh yeah. Emails and watching The Daily Show on Comedy Central’s Web site. Riiiiight.

It doesn’t always work out perfectly, but so far it’s given me the chance to keep up (for the most part!) with NaNo. And this weekend I’m going to see about upgrading my old cell phone and my trusty-but-hefty day planner into either a Palm Centro or a Blackberry. I’m finding that my shoulders have reached an allowable weight limit, and my planner — sooo useful though it may be — is giving me shoulder and neck pain like crazy. That, plus my TMJ, is keeping my physical therapist nice and busy. Hence, the move to a PDA that will hopefully (hopefully!) keep me more streamlined and even more organized. Am I asking too much out of a little handheld device? Probably. I mean, it’s called a smartphone for a reason.

I’ve taken up a couple more projects this month, so that’s both keeping me busy and financially afloat. I don’t remember if I’ve mentioned this before, but I found a nifty little online software program called Zoho.com (I think I mentioned it on Twitter) for project management (among other utilities, but PM is what I use it for most often). I tried the free option (1 project at a time), but found very quickly that I actually have more projects that need juggling and would therefore need to upgrade. For $12.95/month on the Standard Business Plan, I can have up to 10 projects and 2 GB of file storage. Not bad, eh? Especially since I can write it off on my taxes as a business expense (Gawd, I love deductions). Although I worked as a PM Assistant several years ago, I’m still learning my way around project management and know that I haven’t even come close to mastering even this relatively simple program, but so far I’m totally loving it for allowing me to keep track of everything on my little plate.

Everyone else seems to use Microsoft Project, which I did have loaded on my business laptop years ago during my corporate days, but I never did really get beyond playing with it, since I was laid off not too long after I was promoted to that position. At the time everyone hated it, thought it was more unwieldy than Photoshop (is that even possible?), but lately I’ve heard fewer complaints and more compliments. Good on Microsoft, but considering the cost, I’ll stick with Zoho.com for now unless and until something better comes along.

Okay, back to the daily schedule. Structure, structure, as my writing teacher used to say!

Help a Reporter Out

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No, I’m not talking about me. (Although I appreciate any offers of help. Especially those involving the ingestion of lots of rich, dark chocolate, or even the disposal of lots of rich, green money.)

Peter Shankman is a high-energy PR guy based in NYC whose pet project, Help a Reporter Out (HARO), has become the go-to place for journalists looking for sources and experts/ordinary people wanting to become sources. Are you doing an article for Cosmopolitan about the most popular sex toys in use among, uhm, fundamentalist Christian couples? (What? I’m just flying by the seat of my pants here. Cut me some slack.) Post a request on HARO, and he’ll get you in touch with tons of potential interviewees out there.

You can also participate by signing up and offering to be a source. All you have to do is submit your name and email address, and a couple of times a day you’ll get a list of HARO requests from reporters and freelance writers all over the country. You don’t have to be an expert in anything esoteric (although they welcome that, too); you can just be Joe Schmoe wanting to — say it with me, folks — Help a Reporter Out. This morning’s list, for example, a request from a reporter doing an article for Bloomberg for anyone looking to buy a used or new Toyota Prius, and another one asking respondents what they would love to see in their game room for the 2008 holiday season.

So that’s your good deed for the day. I don’t know Peter personally, but check out his Web site/blog/Facebook/Twitter account sometime. Seriously, the man doesn’t sleep. Or at least he doesn’t appear to. He’s a very strange but seemingly friendly man. And that’s good enough for me. 🙂

Oh, and don’t forget about my cool giveaway of Robert W. Bly’s Getting Started as a Freelance Writer Expanded and Revised Edition! The deadline is Tuesday, July 22nd, so make sure you post your comment to enter the contest!