I had an email exchange about the difference between a columnist and a blogger with Teresa Schmedding.
Teresa is Assistant Managing Editor-Content Systems for the Daily Herald in the Chicago area and president of the American Copy Editors Society. She sent me the following email (used here with her consent):
I’m having a conversation in my head about blogs v. columns.We’re getting ready to revamp our article page templates, pull our old blogs into our current CMS, which gives me an opportunity to re-train the staff on the purpose of a blog v. a column or an article. And, as I’m thinking about it, I’m thinking there really shouldn’t be much of a difference between a column and a blog. I started mapping out elements of a blog and here’s what I came up with:
Key elements of blogs:
- Immediate access to readers
- Highly interactive
- No set deadline or publishing schedule
- No fixed length
- Relies on comments
- More casual in tone
- Continuous conversation
Then, when I started mapping out elements of a column, it was pretty much the same. Seems to me that as time has passed, that the gap between the two has narrowed since we’re all pushing interaction as a key element.Writers should interact with readers on all online elements. It should all be immediate and involve continuous conversation. Only difference is a more formal tone or lack of opinion in an article.What do you think?
My email reply to her was the rough draft of this reply in the blog:
Good questions. As a blogger who has done columns, I recognize the similarities, but I see definite differences. I have read lots of columns that run online, but they aren’t necessarily blogs.
I will send this link to some good columnists, bloggers and columnist/bloggers I know, inviting their responses (and if I don’t email you asking for a response, consider this your invitation.
Let me start by saying that I think a columnist today should be a blogger, who produces an occasional column from the blog. That makes it sound as though the two are interchangeable. But I still think a column is different from a blog.
Both should have a voice and a personality and generally a topic or niche (sports blog or sport columnist, advice columnist, mommy blogger, etc.).
While I have never been a full-time newspaper columnist, I have written columns for five different newspapers as an editor or reporter. Blogging has also never been my full-time job, though I have four different blogs now (in addition to this blog, I blog about baseball on Hated Yankees, share the travel blog 2 Roads Diverged with my wife, Mimi Johnson, and write the Gathering String blog promoting Mimi’s novel). I also was a regular contributor to the TBD Community blog and have written guest posts for a half-dozen or so blogs. My first blog, Training Tracks, focused on journalism training issues, first for the No Train, No Gain website and later for the American Press Institute. Mimi has also been a columnist for half a dozen newspapers and blogs occasionally.
Teresa noted that columns and blogs are moving closer together. I hope that’s true, especially with columnists who blog, and especially if that means columnists are becoming more like bloggers. The digital presence of a columnist should be a blog, not just columns posted on a website.
I won’t pretend that I regularly study enough columns and blogs to have much expertise on how close they are moving, but I welcome some columnists and bloggers to weigh in on that issue. If this means that columnists are thinking and working digital-first, I applaud the movement. If it means that blogs are becoming more like columns, I lament that they are not taking full advantage of the range of digital tools, techniques and opportunities.
When I started blogging in 2004 as a former columnist, I pretty much wrote columns and called them a blog. But as I blogged more, I started understanding the differences.
Let’s take Teresa’s seven elements of a blog and discuss what matches and how well (recognizing that I might be comparing more to a traditional column than to the evolving column Teresa described):
- Immediate access to readers. Yes, this is clearly a similarity and an important one. For the best columns, the relationship with readers is what makes them most special. The relationship with readers may be the greatest strength of a good column. I know that some blogs achieve a strong relationship with readers, but I doubt many people open their computers in the morning, planning to turn to their favorite blogger first, the way that newspaper readers might turn first to a great columnist. If I’m right about this, I think that reflects the vastness of the content available and the sporadic times that blogs appear. I am an early riser and post often in the morning, but I might post in the afternoon and I don’t post every morning. I think people find my blog through Twitter, Facebook, RSS and occasional visits, rather than looking for me in the paper every Sunday and Wednesday.
- Highly interactive. Yes, the best columnists are interactive, but I have seen many that are not. Because the column is print-focused, even when it runs online, its interaction is more feedback than conversation. A blog can be immediately interactive with polls, comments, links and other elements that allow the user to add content or personalize the experience.
- No set deadline or publishing schedule. This is a huge difference in my view. A column runs two or three times a week. A blogger writes when he or she has something to say. Many full-time bloggers post daily or even multiple times a day.
- No fixed length. Another notable difference. My columns in Cedar Rapids needed to be 700 words. (Here’s one.) Some columnists occasionally pull a few shorter items into a single column (often for a Saturday column). But length is so central to the column that the name is rooted in length. A blog is as long or as short as it should be. This post was way longer than any column I ever wrote and this one was way shorter.
- Relies on comments. The blogger has (or should have) a conversation with commenters in the comments. Many columnists use reader comments (probably more from letters and email than web comments) as column fodder, rather than joining the conversation.
- More casual in tone. Certainly both tend to be casual. If there is a difference between a blog and a column in tone, that’s probably less than the differences among individual bloggers or columnists.
- Continuous conversation. As I said on comments, I think the conversation is more robust in the blog.
Another big difference I see is how widely formats can vary on a blog. Columns are words. But blogs can be photos or videos. They can be a mix (my blog post Tuesday had photos interspersed throughout. Yesterday’s Gathering String post was a photo). Charles Apple’s blog for ACES wouldn’t work as a column; the images are essential to the format. A blog provides links for depth, context and attribution. A blog can be a list. So can a column, but you see more variety in approach and format in a blog. The variety in columns (which is extensive and amazing) tends to be by writing style and voice, rather than format.
To me, the best approach for a columnist today is to be a blogger who occasionally turns some of the blog into print columns. I think if you browse my blog from December 2008 to June 2009 (archives are by month on the right rail), when I stopped the column, you’ll see some posts that are just my column. I can see the difference. I suspect you can, too. You won’t see one every week. Sometimes I wrote a blog post during the week and then decided later that it would be the column. Those won’t be labeled on the blog. Other times I didn’t have a post that worked as a column and wrote a column at deadline. I labeled it in the blog as that week’s column. Here are a couple of examples.
I don’t see opinion as a significant difference. Both blogs and columns can be very opinionated or pretty straight (my agribusiness column at the Kansas City Star had little to no opinion and I’ve seen blogs that are devoted to straight news topics, such as breaking news).
As noted above, I will be inviting several columnists and bloggers to respond with some of their thoughts on this question. If you’re a columnist, blogger or both, I welcome your response, even if I don’t invite you directly. You can email me — stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com — about writing a guest post. Or you can comment here. Or send me a link if you want to address it on your column or blog. I’ll run the first couple of paragraphs here, then link to you.
A final note: One of the biggest disappointments of my career was not getting a columnist job when I was in Omaha. I wanted it desperately and thought it would have been a great fit both ways. In retrospect, I’m glad and relieved that didn’t work out. It might have pigeonholed me, where my blog helped boost my career and elevate my profile in a way that an Omaha column never could have.
Thanks to Teresa for starting a conversation about two of journalism’s most important roles.
Update: Here’s a response from Trentonian columnist Jeff Edelstein:
It’s a matter of degrees, and depends on the blogger. For instance, storytelling. Every column — outside of notes columns — is expected to tell a story. There’s still a beginning, middle and end, whether it be serious, humorous, or somewhere in between. Some bloggers do write their posts in such a fashion, and sure, they could be included under the umbrella of “columnist.” But most blogs do not. As you point out, they focus on narrow aspects of something, and don’t often tell stories as much as they … blog. (I know. Not defining it well. But you know it when you see it.)
Overall, the lines do blur, but if I had to come up with one major difference, it would be the storytelling factor. If you’re not telling a story, if you don’t have a beginning, middle and end, if you’re not at least attempting to make a larger point … then you’re not writing a column.
Thanks to Jeff for that response. I haven’t had time to invite responses from as many columnists and bloggers as I’d like, so I’ll reiterate this open invitation to columnists and bloggers to join the conversation. I think Jeff’s response applies to lots of columns (he’s a great storyteller). But I don’t think of opinion columns as telling stories.
Another update: I also asked Charles Apple, whose blog I referred to in this post if he would care to respond. I’m pleased that he did:
I’d agree with your take.
I actually think of my blog as a column. But you’re quite right about the differences. My blog wouldn’t work in print. In fact, the other day, someone wrote me to complain about my lack of an RSS feed. I had to scratch my head over that one. Why would anyone WANT to read my blog via RSS? There aren’t any visuals in an RSS feed. That I know of.
And things like frequency. I might post once a day. Or I might post seven or eight times a day, depending on news.
Another difference: You can pretty much count on the fact that a column has been edited. Most blogs don’t have copy editors. The writer is forced to be his own editor. This is, in fact, the part that I regret the most. I miss my copy desk.
But back in 2003, when API asked me to write a blog about wartime graphics, I said yes. And then I had to Google the word “blog.” My response to them: Oh, right. A column. You want me to write an online column. Sure, I can do that.
And that’s what I did. It wasn’t what Chad Capelman wanted at all: He wanted quick little snippets with links to resources. I was waxing on about philosophical things that factor into coverage and strategies and such. With links. But also pretty lengthy.
Chad liked it so much that he broke my stuff out into its own space, separate from his other bloggers. And that was my first blogging experience. Ever since then, that’s the way I approach my blog: It’s a column. But I can write any time I want, I can write any lengthy I want and I can stray off my topic if I want.
In a way, it’s the most self-indulgent type of column. Instead of an editor snapping me into line, it’s the readers. If they don’t like what I’m saying, I’ll get the message quickly enough when they stop coming to visit.
Great column, though.
I mean, blog. Great blog.
Excellent points by Charles. Both in the Twitter response and in some comments here, the issue of editing comes up. And, as an old copy editor, I have to agree with Charles and others that my blog would be better with an editor. Lots of good editors through the years have made my work better. But I’ll tell you another thing: I take more responsibility for the quality of my own work now than I did when I had layers of editors backstopping me. My observation has been that most journalists I know who blog make their copy much better than they used to turn in to their editors. And I think journalists taking responsibility for the quality of their work is a good thing.
Oct. 20 update: Alex Gorelik provided this observation on LinkedIn:
I would like to add, from observation, that in countries where media is somewhat fuzzy on the difference between “sponsorship” and “sponsored content” (e.g. Eastern Europe) blogs are often fuzzier than columns…