I don’t know about you, but for me, part of the appeal of being a journalist is I get to stand up to authority. As a reporter, I just loved it when some clerk in a podunk town would refuse to release information that was clearly public record. “I just want to make sure you’re comfortable with breaking state law,” I’d say.
So there’s a part of me that loves blogging because you’re allowed to break the journalism rules. In fact, I’d argue the best bloggers break them regularly because blogging isn’t a news story; it shouldn’t read like one; it shouldn’t look like one.
So here are my top 10 journalism rules you should go right ahead and break on your blog:
- Use partial or fake names: You’d never write a news story and quote someone just as Lakerman or horrocuse. But you can on a blog. You can quote someone from their screen name, their Twitter name or any of the myriad names people use — that aren’t their given names — when they blog or comment on blogs. Try it; it’s fun. It does lessen credibility when you don’t have someone’s real name because you can’t check the person out. So quote wisely. I wouldn’t let someone anonymously accuse someone else of a crime or impropriety. But there are times on a blog that what a person says as an indication of public sentiment is more important than who said it.
- Tell part of the story: Journalists are trained to wait until they have the full story before telling any of it. I’m not asserting that blogs shouldn’t be accurate; they should. But they should be immediate even if that means telling only the story as you know it at that moment in time. The beauty of a blog is you can update immediately as more details become apparent or earlier reports are disputed. This isn’t publishing lies; this is giving readers evolving information in real time.
- Insert opinion: The cardinal rule of journalism is present both sides, and if both sides are both angry, you were fair. I’d argue most situations are more gray than that; there are many sides or sides of sides. Or sometimes sides don’t have equal wait; one if true and one isn’t. In a blog, you have the freedom to make that more apparent. This blog is my opinion on the media, and I find other sources to support what I think. On my parenting blog, I express my opinion on stories in the news, although not ones I’m covering. I think readers appreciate knowing that journalists have feelings, opinions, lives that shape how they view the world.
- Link to a report or news release rather than rewrite it: At some point, almost every journalist has typed up a news release or a report into a story. It’s against the rules to just print a release as is, and most reports are too long to do that. The beauty of blogs is you can just link to the release or report, rather than repeat, retype or regurgitate it. Readers can view it firsthand themselves. You likely should summarize the report or release in your post, but you don’t have to give all the details. This saves times and keeps the writing fresh.
- Link to background rather than repeat it: You know the drill. You’re writing the umpteenth update on an ongoing, complicated story, and your editor wants just 6 inches. You worry that just explaining the complicated background of how the lake got polluted or what zebra mussels do to water will take four graphs. Enter blogging: You just link to the background. Those who need it, read it. Those who don’t, don’t get bogged down.
- Link to the enemy: If the nearby TV station has the best video of the bear running wildly through downtown, you can link to that from your news blog or even embed the video. Under traditional journalism rules, you’d ignore that the TV station has the fuller story, and you’d withhold reporting the story to your readers until your reporters got it. With blogging, you can give your readers the best — even if it’s not from your staff — immediately. They’ll be thankful that you’re thinking of them more than your own ego.
- Use second person; heck, use first person: As a rule, traditional news stories, except columns, are written in third person. The reader is out there, an ambiguous “they” or “him” or “her.” In blogs, you have more freedom. You can address the reader as “you”; you can talk about yourself and use “I.” You can switch around and use both. The intent here isn’t to drive to insanity any copy editors who might happen upon your blog. I’ve been a copy editor, and I’ve learned a lot from them (such as the difference between convince and persuade.) But blogs are meant to be conversational and very close to the reader. In your face, so to speak.
- Get personal: Blogs should stay on topic and not go wandering off in a million directions. If you blog about education, people are reading your blog to find out about education. But that doesn’t mean you can’t ever veer off topic and spill a little personal information: I just got married today; my wife gave birth. Your readers get to know you when you blog; they read your blog in part because they like — or hate — you. You become more credible to them as they read you if they continue to find what you have to say has value. On my parenting blog, I have lots of leeway to get personal, but I think most blogs have room for some personality. You’re creating a community; that community wants to know you’re a person not a robot.
- Answer your critics or supporters: In the old days, someone writes a letter to the editor trashing your story or calling you a jerk, and you have no recourse. You can’t say a word. In the blogosphere, not only can you — you should. Blogging is a conversation with readers. If someone criticizes your post or raises an opposing point of view, you should respond. Now how you do that depends on the tone you want to set on your blog. As I’ve written before, I try not to take criticism personally. Instead, I thank the commenter for raising another point of view, but I will assert my own. I try not to get into a pissing match, though. Another side benefit of blogging is your loyal readers may jump in and defend you. And if someone praises you, you can thank them. Pretty nice.
- Fix your mistakes rather than just publish a correction: I’m the kind of journalist who has woken up at midnight from a dead sleep and realized I may have misspelled a name. T’hen I’ve frantically called the copy desk, hoping there is still time to fix it. Blogging eliminates that frenzy a bit. Sure, I still don’t want to make any mistakes, but if I do, I can fix it in real time not just run a correction the next day that few may see. I believe you should note if you edit a blog after it is posted unless you’re just fixing a minor typo. One way to do that is to use the cross-out function as in: Sam Smith Smythe, and then note that you edited at the end of the post. For an update that changes facts, I’d be even more transparent. “Earlier I told you about a mom accused of biting her son’s principal on the ankle, but I’ve since learned the bite was on the elbow.”
Edited: 10:26 a.m. April 11: Fixed a typo (wrote feeling when meant feelings) in item number 3.