In my early days as a journalism trainer, I made my mark by compiling helpful handouts. I thought I had a lot of good ideas on the topics I trained on and I compiled tip sheets that people told me they found helpful.
That approach (and sharing those handouts liberally online at No Train, No Gain) built my reputation in the journalism training field more than anything I did. So when I decided to do a blogging workshop this week, my first inclination was to develop a handout with all my tips and advice on blogging. I could have done that and almost did, but two things held me back:
- I’m not that experienced at blogging and still learning a lot myself. I feared that my own advice might be too shallow and obvious (though I’m amazed at how often people express gratitude for advice that I consider obvious, so I will include some of mine).
- My old style of handouts – advice handed down from the experienced trainer – was too much like the one-way we-know-what-you-need communication of newspapers and not at all like the conversation that good blogging becomes.
So I decided to crowdsource the handout (which I’m not going to hand out anyway, just encourage them to read on the blog, so let’s call it a shoutout instead). I emailed lots of good bloggers that I know – bloggers who write about journalism and journalists who blog about their beats. I asked some Gazette bloggers as well as people throughout the industry. I asked for advice on my blog and on Twitter.
What I’m going to do here is organize and edit some of the best advice (as you might imagine, I received some tips more than once) here. I’m essentially using people’s words, but I’ve condensed here and there or edited a few lightly to fit this format, rather than the email responses that many of them were. I’m going to link to everyone’s full responses. Some are already in the comments on my earlier post asking for help and I’ll post and link to the advice that I received by email. I encourage you to read the full responses. Several of the bloggers shared stories of how they learned important blogging lessons as well as advice I didn’t include in this overview. For instance, they shared lots of stories about the blogs that get the most traffic, but I don’t address that much here.
You’ll see some conflicting advice from the bloggers I consulted. I think that’s good. Blogging, like any form of communication, is not a one-size-fits-all venture. Consider the arguments, consider your situation and make the decision that fits you best.
I’ll also post links to some good blogs about journalism and to some good blogs by journalists about their communities. I welcome you to add your advice and ask questions. I can’t guarantee that I’ll get all of this posted right away, so check back in over the next few days as I add more responses from the bloggers (and a few might straggle in after I’ve posted; I didn’t give people a deadline and you know journalists).
The blogger’s voice
One of the points I heard most often from my blogging contributors – and want to make myself – is that blogging has a more conversational voice than news stories or even newspaper columns, feature stories or TV news reports. Blogging is, in fact, a conversation and if you’re just posting news stories in a blog, many of the bloggers I heard from might say that you’re not really blogging (a staff member demurred from offering much advice, noting that he was pretty much posting news stories to the blog).
“Write like you’re talking to friends, not in the institutional voice of the newspaper,” advises John Robinson, editor of the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record, whose Editor’s Log is one of the first editor’s blogs I heard of.
Gazette Chew on this blogger Cecelia Hanley: Yes, blogging is conversational, but it should have a point, not just stream of consciousness. Even if it’s a short entry about a funny occurrence, it should have some relevance.
Marc Morehouse, On Iowa blogger for The Gazette: It’s writing “with” people and not “at” people.
Gazette Doc’s Office blogger Scott Dochterman, whose sports posts frequently rank among the most-popular posts on WordPress: “To reach a more conversational approach in blogging, ask questions and include the pronouns I and you. That helps readers relate and communicate.”
Writing style and structure
Writing in a blog differs from traditional newspaper writing in ways beyond the voice.
Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian and a veteran blogger (who bears some blame for my Twitter use): Many newspaper reporters are very rigid in their approach to inverted-pyramid, five-Ws approach to news writing. If you’re reporting a story in a blog format, try to think of the most interesting thing about the story and tell it in a conversational way. Don’t worry about whether you ‘answer all the questions’ in the first sentence. Just write and let it flow naturally.
Gazette social media guide and Writing Hurts blogger Jamie Kelly: Your product is visible from the very beginning. That’s scary, but it’s also liberating. The ability to update makes blogging very powerful.
Gazette Hot Beat blogger Adam Belz: A link and a sentence is enough for a blog post, in my opinion. A news story or even a brief for the paper has to be more than that.
Jeff Thomas, editor of The Gazette in Colorado Springs: Blogging carries more of a “work in progress” tone. That usually means shorter bursts, less obligatory background, more conversation. The starting and ending points to our work are blurred by blogs, and journalism becomes more of a continual process.
Gazette (Cedar Rapids again; Jeff’s the only Colorado Springs Gazette blogger I heard from) Diamonds and Ice sports blogger Jeff Johnson: Blogging is a great way to break news. We have complete control over posting, we don’t have to go to an editor first. If you have something, run with it, post it immediately.
Telling more of the story
Blogs should not become dumping grounds for your notebook, but they give you a place to continue a story that you couldn’t do justice in the increasingly tight newsholes that newspapers face.
Molly Rossiter, The Back Pew blogger for The Gazette: When I blog as a continuation of a story, I get to talk about the things that touched me most. I once did a story for the paper on the seasonal closing of a homeless shelter’s over-run site — where those who didn’t fit in the shelter would go for indoor sleeping. Space was tight and the story for the paper was on the shelter, the funding and featured a glimpse of a family. When I blogged about it, I could tell the family’s story in more detail: a single mother of three children, including a six-week-old infant, left alone by a boyfriend after they came to Iowa in search of “a better life.”
Interaction is essential
Perhaps my blogging advisers were most united on the point that interaction and actual conversation is essential to the success of a blog.
Ryan Sholin of Publish2: It’s a tool to *start* conversations, not to stand on stage and spout off what you think for 1200 well-crafted words. Ask a lot of questions, link to a lot of answers, and generally try to give as much as you get.
Mark Potts, Recovering Journalist blogger (who leads seminars on blogging, in case your organization might be interested): The best blogs are conversation starters, not lectures; the action should continue in the comments. Think of yourself as an emcee and discussion leader.
Gazette Communications CEO Chuck Peters: I started blogging to start a conversation with anyone who wanted to explore the new mind set, and tactics, necessary to create a new sustainable local information service. I was very impressed with the immediacy of the feedback and the relationships that have developed with people I would not have met but for the blog.
Gazette columnist and 24-Hour Dorman blogger Todd Dorman: One surprisingly popular post taught me that readers really like to give advice. That simple beer post really stuck with people. I still run into folks in the grocery store etc. who ask me about Grain Belt. Part of a blogger’s job is informing, but a big part is giving people a chance to share what they know.
Robert Niles of OJR: The Online Journalism Review: If you are having a hard time getting people to follow you into a conversation – no one’s clicking the comment button – try running a poll in a blog post. Twiigs.com has a neat tool for this. Just ask some question that’d make for a great bar conversation, and invite readers to respond. (“Toilet paper: Roll over or under?” is a classic, though extremely simple, example.) Once you get people to click on the poll, you’ve gotten them to take the first step toward interacting with you online.
Jeff Thomas: What is needed in extra measure on a blog is humility. Online interactivity has this strange ability to turn innocent discussion into flame wars. The temptation to get the last word is strong. The journalist already commands a particular position of authority, especially if it’s his or her own blog, and so it’s doubly important for the reporter to stay humble.”
Annette Schulte, who blogged for about a year as the Gazette’s Content Ninja: Don’t feed the trolls. Don’t engage. Remove the comments. Block the IP address. Let the insults roll off.
KCRG While You Were Sleeping blogger Chris Earl: Growing a thick skin has always been part of being on-air in television. I say, keep the comments up and just deal with it. Often, if feedback or comments are mean-spirited, the poster comes off looking far worse than the blogger.
Cecelia Hanley: If people leave disparaging comments, address them in a post. If the person becomes very hostile, do not be afraid to block them and be honest about that. But engage your readers in your blog. Respond to comments in the comment field or even with a new post.
Use the community that forms around your blog as a resource. Engage early and the community will help you gather the facts.
Adam Belz: Ask questions directly. If it’s a good question, with solid premises and general interest, people will respond. The audience is ready to help. Short posts with one or two facts can be perfect for crowdsourcing, and they bring participants like moths to the flame. This post on Tonch Weldon, the man accused in the Marengo murder, required me only to copy some stuff from his MySpace page and paste it onto my blog, but it drove lots of traffic and got me in contact with a friend of Tonch and a friend of Amy Gephart. The best way to crowdsource is to do good reporting. Fresh, relevant facts help shake other facts loose.
Consider the role of opinion
Bloggers have a stereotype of being opinionated people ranting in their basements in their pajamas (does anyone actually do that?). Reporters have a longtime tradition of maintaining a façade of objectivity where opinion is never allowed. So how should we address the issue of whether, when and how blogging reporters should express opinions? My advisers were not in unison on this question. My advice: If you’re a blogging reporter, read and consider these different viewpoints, decide how you think you should approach it and discuss your approach with your editor. If you’re an editor whose reporters blog, read and consider these views and discuss individually with each blogging reporter (because of the diversity of views on this, I am including more from my advisers on this topic than on others):
Roxanne Hack: Reporters are very hesitant to state an opinion, but bloggers outside of newspapers are not in the slightest – I would suggest trying to find a middle ground. You don’t have to slap someone in the face with what you think is the right or wrong way, but making your stance known is almost essential when we’re viewing blogging as a conversation.
Howard Owens: Opinion is always acceptable. Actually, objectivity and opinion are not mutually exclusive concepts. Scientists are objective, they make objective observations and then draw informed conclusions and present those conclusions in a manner that essentially is their opinion. Opinion isn’t evil, but how you state your opinion and the motive behind your opinion can be very bad if handled immaturely.
Cecelia Hanley: Even if you’re offering up your opinion, make sure there is fact to back it up.
KCRG This JustIN blogger Justin Foss: Opinion is acceptable when the subject directly affects or involves the blogger. However too much opinion will turn readers off.
John Robinson: I am more timid about dropping opinion into the blog than your other commenters. I think reporters can write with authority and with voice, but without sliding into the editorial role. I prefer our reporters to keep their opinions about the validity of an idea to themselves. If they have facts that give perspective to the idea, by all means state them.
Jeff Thomas: The blogosphere has an overabundance of opinion. What communities need is an abundance of verified facts. I agree with Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel that what matters is an objective *process*, not so much the elusive ideal of an objective person or even story. But if we are to regard what we do as journalism, we need to keep the discipline of verification at the heart of what we do. It’s what separates journalism from all other forms of communication. This should extend to journalists’ professional blogs.
Robert Niles: Forget the whole opinion issue. That word (”opinion”) confuses and stresses too many journalists. Let’s talk instead about *conclusions*. When the facts lead you to a logical conclusion, make it. If they don’t, say that. If you don’t know if they do, ask the audience.
Gazette Covering Iowa Politics blogger James Q. Lynch: The blogs I enjoy most are those that have a point of view. The ones I enjoy least are nothing but opinion. Even in cases of blogs that are essentially aggregators, the interesting ones have a point of view. Not necessarily right or left point of view, but a point of view that makes people want to visit again and again. And whatever point of view a blogger chooses probably means some people won’t come back.
Adam Belz: The thing about opinion is that we can have it and still be fair. I think people are more accepting of it on the blog. You may remember a post I wrote in response to a letter to the editor from Jim Houser in March. I know there were some concerns raised about it, because I went right after him. My thinking was simply that Jim was challenging my credibility. Either I had to admit he was right, or challenge him back, and so I challenged him back. But generally I try to avoid opinion on the blog. I think people want facts and context, and that’s what I try to provide.
Links provide context
John Robinson: Link out, for goodness sakes.
Gazette Iowa News Hawk blogger John McGlothlen: Something interesting about the street luging fatal accident post was that the 28-year-old had created on-board MySpace videos of his luging, which then became a haunting thing to watch. (I could only link and not embed since I was using wordpress.com.) Visitors could too easily imagine what his final moments must have looked like, with video of acceleration and running off the road. This was another example of how important it is for bloggers to check social networking profiles for additional relevant information.
Mark Potts: Practice Promiscuous Link Love. Add links where you can, liberally: To support points; to show examples; in blogrolls; it’s OK to write a short post that primarily quotes/links to another interesting blog; “Good things I read today” lists (aggregation); add lists of related posts to your own posts; get links to your blog; comment on other blogs; make other bloggers aware of your blog; trade blogroll links; cultivate other bloggers (even the competition).
Scott Dochterman: Linking is vital. A solid blog but not one with overwhelming hits was my entry on Iowa running back Shonn Greene approaching the NFL draft. In that entry, I included 14 links to stories, Web sites and other blogs. That helped give readers background information without bogging down the blog. I also added a poll and two YouTube clips. Make sure all links open in a new window. That allows multiple links to get additional hits, rather than just one per entry. That’s vital to any news organization that goes to a pay-per-hit formula.
I’m glad Scott mentioned the YouTube clips. I wish I’d asked the bloggers a question about use of media in their blogs, to flesh out the ways that blogs can be much more than writing. I think the bloggers’ responses reflected my interest in writing (and frankly, a weakness in my blog). Jeff Johnson also offered an excellent example of how video can be the best tool for a particular blog post.
Ethical considerations in blogging
Gazette columnist and You Are Here blogger Jennifer Hemmingsen: Remember, it’s published. Your blog posts may be more informal, but they’re every much as part of the record as your newspaper stories. Don’t be sloppy or unethical.
Jamie Kelly: The same rules apply: you need to write what you know to be true and avoid speculation. You’re still a journalist. That means being fair at all times, not taking sides and making sure that when you interview people who have a stake in an issue, you make it clear what that stake is.
Justin Foss: Bloggers need to remember not to get careless about what they write. With the emphasis on being more causal and conversational, it is easy to fall into the trap of not being professional.
Roxanne Hack: Always link to your sources, always provide honest information.
Jeff Thomas: We don’t misrepresent ourselves. We don’t do anything undercover. We announce who we are and what we’re up to.
John Robinson: You’re going to be caught in a mistake at some point. Own up to it quickly and openly.
Howard Owens: Always be honest. Always be transparent.
Understanding search engines
Gazette Homegrown blogger Cindy Hadish: One thing I’ve been trying to pay more attention to is the search engine terms people use to find my blog. Oftentimes that can show a trend of what people want to know more about and I’ve followed up on those.
Scott Dochterman: Use full names in blog headlines. It goes against traditional newspaper style, but people search for information on a full name, rather than a last name. There’s no way I would have received the number of hits I have had I used “Greene” or “Andrews” in a headline rather than “Shonn Greene” and “Erin Andrews.”
How often should you blog?
Jennifer Hemmingsen: At first, you will be tempted to blog 50 times a day. Then you’ll forget for two weeks. Then you’ll be back on the binge. Resist. Instead, set up a schedule and try to stick to it. It will keep you sane and help your readers know what to expect.
Gazette FrumpFighter blogger Angie Holmes: For my blog and what readers have come to expect of it, my biggest mistakes (or least-read posts) come when I write something because I feel I need a new post. These are not really bad posts, but can come across as forced. My best posts come naturally and from the heart. They are not planned and are fluid.
Cindy Hadish: I try to post once a day. I’ve noticed that – probably because of my topic area – I get a lot of hits on weekends, so I don’t like to leave the same post up for long.
Mark Potts: Write whenever you have something to say.
I want to close with two observations from Gazette bloggers that I found particularly insightful and some important advice from Mindy McAdams, Teaching Online Journalism blogger:
Know what you’re writing about
Blogging is different than writing stories because you can add your own knowledge of a subject matter and don’t necessarily need someone else to tell the story.
I “accidentally” began blogging about my son, Sage, and our journey on the autism spectrum when controversy began brewing about the death of John Travolta’s son, Jett, and whether or not he was autistic and receiving the proper care, I realized tapping into my own experiences was not only therapeutic for me, but also helpful to readers.
I have written other blog posts about other people and subjects, but they haven’t received near the hits as when I write about Sage. I think this is because people need to know there is somebody else out there going through similar situations as them. I don’t sugar coat things. Yes, I was in denial at first about Sage’s diagnosis and was tired of doctors, therapists and teachers telling me about everything that was wrong with him. But I also don’t write about these things because I feel sorry for myself and want sympathy. It’s just a way of life for my family. I try to make it clear that I would not trade my son or his personality for anything.
The blog post that had the most hits on a single day was about my son being bullied by the neighbor boys. This is bittersweet for me because it was such a painful situation. But I received a lot of comments on the blog and through e-mail and Facebook from other parents who have gone through the same thing.
A movement starts in a blog
Jason Kristufek, We Media:
The post that taught me the most about the power of a blog was this one that basically launched the NewsInnovation movement. It demonstrated the ability of a blog and an idea to travel world-wide and spark seven in-person gatherings around the country – the most successful being in Philadelphia where 180 people attended.
The cool part, to me, is that is started with an idea and then was opened up to more and more people that brought better ideas to the table that ended up making the original idea stronger.
What it taught me was the at some dude in Iowa or anywhere for that matter can take an idea and run with it in a very short amount of time and ends up as part of a community that never existed before.
Blogging isn’t extra work
Mindy McAdams: Blogging is not “extra work.” It’s an essential part of your normal work if you are a journalist.
Links to blogging advice
Check the comments of my earlier post for the advice of Ryan Sholin, Robert Niles, Howard Owens, Roxanne Hack, Mindy McAdams, Jeff Thomas, Chuck Peters and John Robinson. Molly Rossiter’s full response is in the comments on this post (and I’m hoping more bloggers will add their own advice in the comments).
Check Mindy McAdams’ Blogging for Journalism slides.
I don’t have a link to the advice Mark Potts sent me, because it was in a pdf he gave me permission to quote but not to post in full.
BeatBlogging offers great advice for blogging journalists and links to outstanding bloggers.
I’ll also be posting separately the advice I received by email from colleagues at Gazette Communications: