Blogging Lessons For and From Journalism
As the proud holder of a journalism degree, I am always looking for ways to connect what I’ve learned both in school and in previous jobs to my blogging.
The fact is that blogging and traditional news reporting are actually closer to one another than many would like to admit. They both involve many of the same elements including, finding stories, researching them, writing the article, crafting the headline and finding supporting media.
So what do professional journalists have to teach bloggers, especially new/amateur ones and what can bloggers teach the print world about online media?
As it turns out, there is a great deal for both sides to learn, if they are willing to listen.
Lessons for Bloggers
Many bloggers are quick to dismiss the mainstream media as a dinosaur in the digital age. With circulation numbers dropping and advertising dollars going to other media, it seems that traditional print media is being forced to deal with a changing and shrinking role.
However, there is still a great deal of wisdom to be gleaned from print journalists. Many newspapers have hundreds of years worth of history and, as a result, their style and format can offer some great insight on how to best cover a story.
- Dig Into a Story: One of the more legitimate criticisms of blogs is that they can be something of an echo chamber, one story being repeated hundreds of times. Dig into the story, don’t just repeat what others have said, call people on the phone, send emails, get quotes. For most journalists, very little of the day is spent writing the articles, most of it is spent doing the legwork and checking facts. A great way to make an old story new is to interview people involved or get information others have not found.
- Write Visually: Long blocks of text are boring and are hard to read. Breaking up text regularly is important. This means both shorter paragraphs, only a few sentences each, subheads, lists, images and table to keep to make writing easier to read.
- Radical Clarity: The idea of radical clarity is to not write so that you can be understood, but writing so that you can not be misunderstood. Slow the pace of information, use simple words, eliminate double meaning and cut unnecessary items. Say what you mean, nothing more..
- Cite Sources: If you give a piece of information that is not common knowledge, especially if it could be controversial, cite your source. On the Web you can do that with a simple hyperlink. It is both good manners and good practice.
- Master Headline Writing: Writing headlines is a tough art. Though on the Web we do not have the space restrictions of a print publication, the rules of writing a descriptive, yet short, headline remain intact. Headlines should be as short as possible, usually under nine words, but should describe what the story is about.
That is not to say that these rules should be applied religiously to every single article, but rather, that they are useful lessons from journalism that can help improve blog writing. Time and creativity may push you to break these rules, as they would in a newspaper or magazine, but they still provide some guidance on what the print media has to teach us.
However, bloggers aren’t the only ones with potential lessons to glean. Mainstream media itself could take a few pointers from bloggers, no matter how much they might not want to.
Lessons For Journalists
Though journalists are starting to make their peace with blogging and more reporters are starting up their own blogs, most are still loathe to connect themselves, in any way, to the mass of largely untrained and unpaid bloggers.
But the success of blogging as a media indicates that bloggers are getting many things rights and that the “old media” may have something that it can learn, especially as it transitions more and more of its work to the Web.
- Informal Tone: The tone and style of journalistic writing have remained almost completely unchanged for the better part of a century. Journalists are trained to write distant and impersonal, something that feels almost when cold compared to blogs. It’s tricky to remain professional and personal, but it can be done and many readers prefer that.
- Corrections Policy: Though many joke that bloggers don’t have a corrections policy, the way mistakes and updates are handled on the Web, by editing the original article, is preferable to the classic, buried newspaper apology. As newspapers do more and more on the Web, this is a lesson they can learn.
- Conversations: Newspapers and magazines, as well as television and radio stations, have always had tight control over whose responses get publicity. That isn’t the case on the Web. Here, an article or an entry is just the beginning of the conversations, something many mainstream media outlets recognize, but others still do not.
- Working With Competitors: Journalists cite their sources carefully but are usually loathe to reference a competing newspaper or institution. This is understandable, but if blogs worked to avoid linking to other sites in their genre, there would be very little to write about. Bloggers find little shame in linking to a competitor, so should journalists when it best serves their readers.
- Focusing on Free: Many news organizations, when making the transition to the Web, have struggled with the idea of offering their work for free and some, including the Wall Street Journal, hide much of their content behind a paywall. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a paid blog and that has a lot to do with their mass appeal.
All in all, even though mainstream media still has resources and experience that most bloggers can only dream of, bloggers have a depth and a richness of contact that most journalists never achieve.
Twenty years from now, how we get our news is going to look radically different than it does today. If either bloggers or mainstream journalists want to play a major role in that new media, they need be prepared to adapt and make changes as the landscape shifts.
Part of that evolution, however, is learning the lessons of the past and the present. By building on the experience of those who have come before, we can not only improve what we offer, but also build toward a stronger future.
It remains to be seen where news reporting is going, but it isn’t going anywhere without high-quality reporting and a willingness to give readers what they want. Those who are able to combine those two things will be well-positioned for many years to come while those who can not will likely be discarded as fads or dinosaurs.
It is going to be an exciting time for information and news, I, for one, look forward to seeing what we do with it.
Jonathan Bailey writes at Plagiarism Today, a site about plagiarism, content theft and copyright issues on the Web. Jonathan is not a lawyer and none of the information he provides should be taken as legal advice.
I find #1 the most relevant tip. When I first started blogging I never imagined that I would have to answer for every word that I write.
A lot of waht I write is an introduction to a variety of topics. But I’m still responsible for doing the research to provide accurate info.
I have major respect for real journalists. The work and time involved in churning out stories has to be enourmous.
Just the thing to take into my emerging role as a newsroom evangelist. Thanks for the great ideas!
Jonathan: a very balanced piece.
From my days at j-school and time on the desk, your points on how blogs can be more like journalists make sense. With everyone online, it is easy to grab a comment.
We do need to get away from the echo-chamber blogging. A key to that is learning how to ‘advance the story.’
The lines are definitely blurring. Many top-notch journalists make poor bloggers and vice versa.
One thing that the majority of journalists and bloggers can agree on: long hours, low pay.
Must be weird going from blogging to print journalism, where suddenly discussion/dissection/etc of your work isn’t immediate and constant. Indeed, feedback is one of the things that drives me whenever I write. :)
Great list of tips!
Ironically, I think print journalists need to be reminded that the tactics they use to do great journalism can and should be applied to any journalistic blogging endeavors. Running a niche blog requires the same skills as being a beat reporter: managing a beat, cultivating sources, finding good stories and understanding what readers want/need to know.
Let’s strip away the mystique that seems to have been built up around blogging. Blogging is simply writing, but online. And many bloggers can’t write, because most people can’t write.
As an experiment, this past week, I’ve trawled dozens of blogs in the UK, US and elsewhere to try and find something original, interesting or thought-provoking.
For example, I came across an excellent interactive map of the New York subway system, with blogs listed by station. Great idea. Shame about the content. I found that many of these bloggers used words such a “ramblings”, “musings”, “observations”, “thoughts” to describe their posts. I came up with a more accurate word: waffle.
There are too many bloggers writing the first thing that comes into their head in the mistaken belief that this has some value for the rest of us. Folks, it doesn’t. Moreover, postings are often far too long.
Blogging is fantastic. It enables you to communicate to a vast audience and share your ideas and experiences. But you have to have something of importance to say and be able to say it clearly and concisely. This is what journalists do.
The fact is that if you can’t write, then blogging isn’t going to change that.
There are so many stream of conciousness blogs out there that they forget one of the main things is – like journalism – write for your audience, not yourself.
I have been in journalism for ten years but am relatively new to blogging – it’s a way of plugging my portfolio site.
I try to approach an article as I would a story. Is it useful, is it interesting, does it have a wow factor?