While talking earlier this week to a journalist about the future of news, I again heard the story of newsroom leadership that has issued an edict that all reporters must blog. While I believe there are many contributions that the blog format can bring to news reporting, I can think of no more certain way to kill their potential than by making them mandatory.
If you think “blogs suck,” then there ain’t anything I’m going to say here that will convince you otherwise. I never knock another person’s religious beliefs.
If you are looking for more evidence to arm yourself in the battle of whether bloggers are/are not journalists, then please stop reading now. I have about as much interest in the answer to that question as I have in debating whether figure skaters are athletes.
BUT… if you are a journalist who wants to start blogging or be a better blogger then welcome. And if you’re a blogger who wants to be more newsy, then read on, my friend.
And if you don’t have time, just check out the PDF one-pager.
THE BLOG FORMAT
It’s important to understand that blogging is merely a format, not a point on the continuum of fact and opinion.
Starting in 1999 with the widespread adoption of the first Web-based, free publishing system called Blogger, the Web has exploded with sites that are laid out in the blog format. Blogs – which is short for “Web logs” – grew in popularity first as a tool for amateur diarists to publish text to the Web without the need to know HTML code. Since then, some of those bloggers have become semi-professional or full-time professionals as diarists, commentators or even news-breaking reporters in every small niche category imaginable. And the format has become widely adopted at traditional news organizations like The Washington Post and The New York Times, where editors once shunned it. Most bloggers, however, are amateurs who do not consider themselves to be journalists, do not adhere to a tradition of professional ethics, and are not writing for a general audience.
What is a blog? That question remains in debate among circles of avid bloggers and traditional journalists alike. But blogs generally have these characteristics.
- A blog consists of “posts,” which can be of varying length. Posts, like news stories or articles, are about a single topic or event. But unlike articles or news stories, they do not necessarily follow the same inverted pyramid structure.
- Posts are laid out vertically on a blog’s homepage in reverse chronological order. The most recent post is at the top of the page and the oldest post is at the bottom.
- Professional news blogs are almost always on a single topic. In newsrooms those topics are often called “beats.” Music, schools, parenting, technology, politics, a certain sports team or a specific television show are all common topics for a blog.
From there, however, blogs can take on all sorts of forms. They can be filled with straight news or pure commentary, and they are often a mixture of both. Many allow their readers to comment on each post. Most are written by a single author, but many of the most popular technology news blogs have several reporters who post to them. Most bloggers make prolific use of links within their posts to footnote their commentary or to demonstrate transparency by allowing readers to view original source material.
POST-CENTRIC, NOT STORY-CENTRIC
Displaying text in reverse chronological order does not alone make a blog. News wires have always done this. And news Web sites have followed the convention. The difference between a blog and a traditional news story is that in a traditional news story the paragraph is the unit of composition, but in blogs the post is the unit of composition.
Both paragraphs and posts build upon previous paragraphs or posts. But news stories are written in inverted pyramid, with the most important information at the top. Blogs always put the newest post at the top, even if a previous post is more newsworthy.
Paragraphs should contain one and only one idea. Posts really need to contain only one fact. They don’t need to connect one fact to another in the same way that paragraphs and stories do.
BREAKING NEWS BLOGS
Because of their layout that places the most recent post at the top of the page, blogs are good tools to use for breaking news situations. When a gunman killed 32 people and himself at Virginia Tech University in 2007, student journalists at The Collegiate Times and professional reporters at the nearby Roanoke Times both turned to a blog format to publish breaking news updates to the Web.
Note how the newer posts avoid repeating information found in older posts. This is one aspect of the blog format that makes it different from updating a breaking new story that is written in a traditional inverted pyramid style.
Most journalism is product oriented. Reporters follow a production process that turns information that is collected, aggregated and distributed at a single moment in time. The reason everyone snapped up Obama newspapers is because those products captured and froze that moment in time.
With their format of short posts written in reverse chronological order, blogs lend themselves to process oriented journalism. In process oriented journalism, the journalist focuses on telling the audience about the reporting process. At its best, process oriented journalism is humanizing, interactive and humble. At its worst it can be self-indulgent, petty and incomplete to the point of being unfair. It is not inherently either good or bad.
I’ve written earlier that part of Edward R. Murrow’s success should be attributed to his innovative use of process oriented storytelling. Listening to his report on the first CBS World News Roundup (audio) and comparing it to the stilted style of the other correspondents, I was struck at how “Murrow’s report is packed with first person pronouns and with street-level intelligence. He has long pauses. In at least one place he stumbles over words. It doesn’t sound professional; it sounds authentic.”
Ryan Teague Beckwith, a political reporter who writes the “Under the Dome” blog for The News & Observer in Raleigh also uses this format to update fast-moving stories. But his writing style is more similar to the style of writing that audiences might find commonly used by news or sports columnists in a newspaper. In a word, the style is more “conversational” and less formal in its adherence to grammar and more likely to include subtly subjective adjectives like “finally” or “only.” Despite these differences in style, verified factual reporting remains the driving force behind his posts.
Here is an example of how he used process oriented reporting to cover a tussle in 2008 between the John Edwards presidential campaign and a journalism student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
- Beckwith wrote his first post at 7:51 a.m., after he saw on a blog (of all places) that Edwards and the student journalist were in a dust up. Most journalists start their days by checking in with their sources. And this is merely a new way of journalists getting tipped off to the big story. In product oriented journalism, these tips don’t get repeated until they achieve a higher level of reporting that typically includes getting the story from at least two unrelated sources. Not so here.
- Three minutes later, Beckwith posts the full video of the student report. He is beginning the process of reporting. And he’s immediately letting his readers in on it. Courageously transparent or recklessly hazardous?
- At 12:26 p.m., the blog post gets its first reader comment. The comment criticizes the report for being published before it is fully and fairly reported. The criticism comes from someone using the same pseudonym that’s often used by a liberal blogger married to a journalism professor at Carolina.
- At 12:30 p.m. Beckwith gets a quote from the student’s professor. We still don’t have both sides of the story, but we have a more detailed account from one side.
- At 1 p.m., Beckwith responds to the first commenter, defusing the potential flame war with “Thanks for asking. We’ve put in multiple calls to the staffers in question and will report more as this story unfolds.” Fifteen minutes later, the commenter expresses his appreciation for the update.
- At 4:42 p.m., Beckwith posts quotes from the student.
- In the next morning’s paper, a complete traditional story appears.
In his book Hip: The History, John Leland says that hipness began in America “as a subversive intelligence that outsiders developed under the eye of insiders.” A good blogger is hip. One way a good blogger achieves hipness is by linking casual readers to little Easter eggs of original source documents for the junkies.
Journalists who don’t want to blog often complain that they shouldn’t put anything on the Web that doesn’t merit appearance in the print edition. I gather these are the same writers who gripe about the shrinking news hole, too, but that’s another story.
Blogs should be a little something extra. They’re a little something for the junkies. The newspaper is for the score of the game. The blog is for the full injury list, the meaningless stat, and the PDF of the arrest report. The newspaper is for AP style and blogs are for use of idiosyncratic words and acronyms that signal to their loyal readers, “Hey, buddy, if you know what I’m talking about you’re getting the inside scoop. Yeah, the whole world can read this for free, but you? You’re hip.”
Here are some good examples of blogs that represent the diversity of writing styles that can all be called blogs.
A FINAL 140 CHARACTERS
If you need the Twitter version of “How to Blog,” it’s this: Write as if you were writing an email to your most loyal reader and source. E-mails are brief. Never write a blog post this long.