10 ‘Journalism rules’ you can break on your blog

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.”

Gina

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Edited: 10:26 a.m. April 11: Fixed a typo (wrote feeling when meant feelings) in item number 3.

38 thoughts on “10 ‘Journalism rules’ you can break on your blog

  1. Those are fantastic rules to break in the blog world. I adore the freedom of writing in my blog, not following any set of rules or expectations and being all right with people either enjoying my little corner of the Internet or not.
    Signed,
    A one woman newspaper,
    Rebeca

  2. Interesting article. The point about linking to the “enemy” caught my eye as I’ve especially noticed some of the newspaper websites I follow have, up until recently, made it policy not to link to any outside online story source.

    In the last few weeks though I have noticed what seems to be a slight relaxing of this rule and they might now link to say a blog post. Linking to a competitor’s website however remains another matter however :)

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  4. Rebecca,

    Thanks. You’re right, the freedom of blogging is refreshing!

    John,

    You raise a good point about linking to competitors’ Web sites. I don’t know if it’s a good idea if you sell shoes to link to another site that sells shoes. That’s not my area of expertise.

    What I do know is that while newspapers see the local TV station or weekly or opposing daily as a competitor, readers don’t.

    Readers want the best, most up-to-date information they can get. And the winner will provide that even if it means linking to another newspaper or station to get it.

    The reason the news media may be different than other products is our product isn’t news or information. It’s relationships; it’s giving readers a way to navigate the world.

    Hopefully, more news organizations will get this.

    Gina

  5. “I’m the kind of journalist who has woken up at midnight from a dead sleep and realized I may have misspelled a name.”

    Ah, the nighttime panic. There’s nothing worse. It’s amazing how the brain functions. There you are, sound asleep, when your brain suddenly screams, “Of f-ck! We might have done something wrong… but we’re really not sure. Do something!”

  6. Matt,

    Yes — I often have epiphanies while sleeping. Sometimes, I wake up and realize I have the perfect lede for my story, especially one I have been struggling with.

    The subconscious is an amazing thing. Thanks for visiting.

    – Gina

  7. This posting is a joke, and sums up exactly why journalists are fed up with so many bloggers who claim to be the future of media. There’s no excuse for taking short cuts and playing fast and free with details just because it’s a blog – if it’s in the public domain, it’s out there for anyone to see. I hope to God no self-respecting blogger would take your advice.

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  9. @Epicurus

    Epicurus,

    I appreciate your sentiment. I, too, believe journalists and bloggers shouldn’t play “fast and free” with details. Accuracy is of the utmost importance, as I said in my post.

    I do believe, though, that blogging is a different medium than newspapers, and it should be. And I think newspapers need to change, get online, get connected to readers, try new things. Some of these new ideas will work; some will fail. We won’t know which unless we try.

    I guess Darwin said it best: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

    My hopes is journalists are adaptable to change.

    – Gina

  10. @Mike

    To add the “tweet this post,” you need to add a plugin. (You go to this link — http://richardxthripp.thripp.com/tweet-this — and download the plugin as a zip file and then install it on your blog. )

    You need to have a blog that allows plugins. For example, on wordpress, you cannot use plugins unless you self host (which means you’re paying someone to host your blog’s spot on the Web.), then you can install plugins.

    For a self-hosted blog like mine (I used to be wordpress so while it’s no longer on wordpress, it still looks like it), I install a plugin by going to dashboard, and then clicking on plugins and install. It’s super easy.

    May be different for other blogging platforms.

    Good luck. Could answer question more accurately if I knew more about type of blog you have.

    – Gina

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  15. Thanks for this. There’s a lot of it that I agree with (#5!) but I think you’ve made a mistake with #1, honestly. I believe in using one’s real name online whenever possible, and I think that the best social media players get that too, and do. Of course, I agree with you that the lack of a real name shouldn’t stop a blogger from quoting someone, but the move toward quoting screennames (and yes, I’ve seen the MSM do it) is no good.

  16. @Jillian C. York

    Jillian,

    Yes, there has been quite a bit of online debate about #1.

    But I stand by my post. Here’s why. As I explain in the post, I think quoting someone by Twitter name or screen name should be done rarely. It’s only for very special situations and never to allow someone to make an accusation or to state a fact that could be challenged.

    But I do think there can be a value at times to allowing quoting about personal opinions on blog posts using screen names or Twitter names. I see a blog post as part of the online conversation — not separate from it. (It’s not a news story.)

    We allow people to comment on our blogs using whatever name they choose because the community interaction is valued over knowing someone’s real name. To me, quoting from a Twitter stream with permission from the person is just a continuation of that conversation in a different online form.

    An example my help explain my point. I recently asked my Twitter followers: What is journalism? I told them to tweet me definitions, and I’d post them on my blog.

    I did so, and I used their Twitter names with their 140-character explanation of what journalism is. (You can read post here: http://savethemedia.com/2009/04/06/so-what-is-journalism/)

    I used their Twitter names not because I’m too lazy or stupid to find out their real names (I’m not.) I used their Twitter names because it gave the post a sense of the online conversation that Twitter is. It thrust my blog readers into the Twitter stream, dealing with a very particular issue. Basically, my blog became a continuation of a philosophical Twitter conversation that tried to define journalism.

    Plus, I think it’s revealing about a person how they define themselves by their Twitter name. If you call yourself JollyRancher on Twitter, that means something. If you call yourself Jesus Christ that means something.

    In the post, I linked from each person’s Twitter name to their Twitter page, so readers could find out the real name of the person if they wanted. Also, I told the people I’d be quoting them — which I think is important.

    To me, the post was more meaningful with Twitter names than with real names because it continued that online conversation.

    I realize many won’t agree, and that’s OK. I appreciate you adding your two cents worth.

    – Gina

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  19. Don’t you think you’re confusing the restrictions of journalism with the restrictions of newspapers?
    Doesn’t journalism exist outside of the medium? An online journalist can dispense with most of these rules too because they are rules related to the limitations of the medium they are using, not journalism rules per se.
    For example, an online journo can tell part of a story knowing they can update later, link to almost anybody, and respond to criticism more readily.
    So what can a blogger do that an online journo can’t? Is it about the same that a newspaper columnist can do that a newspaper reporter can’t?

  20. @Richard Wood

    I see what you’re saying. In fact, that’s my point. Online journalism can dispense with these traditional journalism rules that are rooted in the formats of traditional media: newspapers, TV, radio.

    I guess I’m not comparing an online journalist to a blogger. I see them as the same thing. If you’re an online journalist and you’re not blogging, you should be. Blogging is intrinsic in my mind to being an online journalist even though you likely also write stories.

    I’m comparing a traditional journalist (read not online) to a blogger/online journalist.

    – Gina

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  23. I agree with everything you say, and yet it makes me even sadder about the death of traditional media.

    Editors have reasons for the rules – and not simple, but complex, multi-angled reasons. Writers would prefer editors go away, thus the appeal of blogs. For one of the many reasons the death of the editor is not a good thing, look at the third line of item #3.

  24. @JJ

    Few things. First I’m an editor now at a newspaper, and I’ve spent 12 of my 20-year career in newspapers as an editor. I’m not advocating the death of editors at all.

    My point is that the rules for blogs are different than for a traditional news story — and they should be different because the two media are different.

    I truly believe blogs will eventually professionalize, and people will hire editors. But at a typical newsroom having an editor, copy editor, rim and slot look at every blog post would make it impossible to be immediate.

    My point is: I read blogs whose authors have a cogent point to make. I don’t read blogs because they are slick and massaged and perfect.
    I think that’s the case for many.

    – Gina

  25. This is a great list. It really showcases the difference between traditional journalism rules and social media convention.

    You kind of touch on this in #9, but 9.3 could be “Let people tell you what they think about what you write, for all the world to see.”

  26. @Jeremy Porter

    That’s a great one to add. Thanks.

    I was just thinking about a related topic today. I remember the days when newspapers first got e-mail, and the editors debated whether to let readers know our e-mail addresses. Can you imagine today — it would be inconceivable not to let the public know our e-mail addresses.

    So we’ve come a long way but still have a long way to go.

    – Gina

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  33. Great post, great read, thanks for sharing (a long time ago too). :)

    I guess there still are many traditional (print) journalists around the world who have not taken to blogging yet for whom, this can come in quite handy.

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