February 11, 2011

Andy Carvin has spent much of the past 18 days curating news and information about the protests in Egypt, at times sending more than 400 tweets a day. Now he’s using his personal brand to generate donations to local NPR stations.

Earlier today, just before President Hosni Mubarak resigned, Carvin tweeted: “Wanna support my #egypt tweeting? Pls donate to your NPR station http://n.pr/b7N0RZ then tweet amount & station w/ tag #gave4andy. PLS RT”

He tweeted this, he said, in response to all the people who had thanked him for his tweets throughout the past few weeks.

“Some have said I was like a human news wire, and that was their main source of information during Tunisia and Egypt’s revolutions,” Carvin said by e-mail. “Others said I was playing the role a broadcast anchor would’ve played if this had happened 30 to 40 years ago, pulling snippets of info together to create a useful narrative.” Some, he went on to say, even asked if they could support him financially.

Carvin didn’t ask for permission before launching his ad hoc pledge drive, but said NPR has been supportive of his efforts. Since he sent the tweet this morning, several people have made their contributions known on Twitter.

Carvin’s mom donated money, and friends and strangers have donated to stations around the country. Video blogger Steve Garfield donated a generous $1,200 to WBUR in Boston.

“I’m a friend of Andy, and found myself continuously going back to his Twitter stream over the past few weeks to find out what was happening in Egypt,” Garfield said via e-mail. “I wanted to support NPR in some way for letting Andy explore this new way of reporting.” Since the donation, he’s gotten a tweet, a direct message, and a phone call from WBUR thanking him for his support.

Jillian York, who works at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, also donated to WBUR. “Andy’s excellent coverage and willingness to engage — and even show his own opinions and sense of humor sometimes — is what inspired me,” York said via e-mail.

Carvin says his solicit for donations is an “elegant solution” to giving people a way to channel their support for him.

“I already draw a salary from NPR, so it wouldn’t have been appropriate for me to accept it personally,” he said. “And I wasn’t comfortable telling people to give to a charity I might endorse, because that might raise some eyebrows as far as journalism ethics are concerned.” He pointed out that NPR is not supposed to solicit donations from the public and instead asks people do donate to their local stations instead.

Stations have been responding to people’s donations on Twitter. Sam Fleming, managing director for news and programs at WBUR, said he’s been pleasantly surprised to see so many donations come in as a result of Carvin’s tweet. The $1,200 donation, he said, was especially surprising given that individual donors normally don’t donate that much.

“It’s pretty cool that this many people on a Friday afternoon would have the time and the wherewithal to respond” to Carvin’s tweet, Fleming said by phone. “I’m gratified and I’m thinking, what does this mean? Is this an effective way for us to fundraise in the future?”

Perhaps this is a valuable experiment, he said, in figuring out how to solicit donations beyond local stations’ annual pledge drives. “Obviously the more we get that off the air and the more effective we can be in social media — either by tweeting or by using Facebook — the better it is for listeners that have already given,” he said.

Kinsey Wilson, NPR’s senior vice president and general manager of digital media, also spoke to the implications that Carvin’s fundraising efforts might have.

“I can’t begin to tell you what our policy will be on this, but it’s exactly the kind of experiment from which we can learn a lot,” said Wilson, who is a member of Poynter’s Board of Trustees. “Inevitably the question arises, what happens in the digital media world to people’s willingness and capacity to donate? [Carvin] may have hit upon at least one nice solution to that.”

Carvin’s tweets about Egypt and his solicitation for donations also raise interesting questions about branding. Although he was tweeting about Egypt from his personal account and not NPR’s, his tweets may have nonetheless helped extend NPR’s brand, especially among those who know that Carvin works for NPR.

“We live in an environment in which individuals become brands, and my feeling is that can co-exist very comfortably within a larger media brand,” Wilson said. “Andy stands out certainly as somebody who understands on a profound level how people use Twitter, and its value and the directional guidance it can give to the professional and amateur sources out there. That only benefits NPR stations in the long run.”

Carvin said he “had no idea” people would take him up on the offer to donate to their local stations, but would like to think that they see what he’s been doing as a serious form of storytelling and journalism.

“People support NPR member stations because they feel like they have a vested interest in their success, whether they’re a music station or a news operation,” Carvin said. “And because they’re invested in what we do, they want us to keep thriving, no matter what new medium gets thrown our way. So it appears people have done it to show they take my work as seriously as they do for the rest of public media.”

Now that Mubarak has stepped down, Carvin hopes to scale down the number of tweets he sends out each day, but doesn’t plan to stop covering what’s unfolding in Egypt.

“The stories of the new Egypt, the new Tunisia and the new Middle East are just beginning,” Carvin said. “I don’t want to miss whatever happens next.”

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As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website, Poynter.org, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the…
Mallary Jean Tenore

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