Today I’m handing my blog over to veteran journalist and blogger Amber Smith, a friend and former colleague of mine at The Post-Standard in Syracuse. In her free time, she blogs about dementia at DementiAwareness. She offers some thoughtful lessons for journalists trying to navigate the changing world of media.
It’s a new world “out there” on the Internet, they say, a wide open space, untamed and unlimited, a perfect spot for journalists (and anyone else) to carve out a niche and have a say. For many folks that means blogging.
With a quarter century of newspapering under my belt, mostly as a health writer at The Post-Standard in Syracuse, I launched a blog called DementiAwareness earlier this year. What freedom! I could choose the stories I want to write, and how to write them. I could write as long as I wanted. My deadline could be whatever I choose.
For someone who has only worked within the grind of a daily newspaper, such freedom can be enticing. But freedom without discipline is, well, sort of a lost opportunity.
As an independent blogger, I am a sole proprietor. I write the articles, edit them and present them graphically. I handle any advertising that goes on the blog, and I market the blog. If I slack off in any of those roles, everything suffers. If my content isn’t engaging, no one will read it. If no one is reading, even fewer people will advertise. If no one can find my content because the headlines are not search-optimized or because the copy contains too few words or too few relevant links, same thing, no one will read, no one will advertise. If I do nothing to market my blog, same thing. You get the idea. That sought-after “freedom” quickly reveals itself as another ball-and-chain.
Lucky for me—and for many of my fellow bloggers and would-be bloggers—I like what I do. (Even though it’s changing. See “How Journalism Can Change.”) Journalism is a calling. No matter the format of print, web or audio, it’s got ethics and “rules” and standard ways of doing things. The more I blog, the more I realize how many of those credos of journalism apply (and a few that don’t) to the new world of blogging. See if you agree.
(And come back tomorrow, when I’ll discuss how some of the standard practices of newspaper journalists apply—or don’t—to blogging journalists.)
1. If your mother says she loves you, check it out.
Maybe only the most cynical newspaper reporters abide by this line, but I think it’s even more prudent for bloggers to follow. It just means to double check everything, which is probably more important in the Internet age when rumors and “tweets” get passed around as fact. Take the time to verify with credible sources before hitting “publish.”
When an independent panel of the National Institutes of Health issued a lengthy statement about Alzheimer’s disease at the end of April, I believed all the headlines I read online that said Alzheimer’s preventives showed no promise – until I interviewed Alzheimer’s researchers. I should have realized that a 21-page report can’t be summed up in a headline. There are preventive methods that are showing plenty of promise — which will make a nice blog post for DementiAwareness.
2. Just the facts, ma’am.
The quintessential reporter’s statement of “just the facts, ma’am” may work well for someone on deadline, covering breaking news for a newspaper or news website. But it proclaims a lack of interest in context.
Most blogs aren’t competing to break news on deadline. Therefore, blogging journalists are the perfect people to scoop up everything else after the facts are disseminated. Let the news organization write about the accident at the intersection. Bloggers can focus on the bigger picture — how this was the third accident in as many months, how the driver who caused the accident was texting at the time, how neighbors had been petitioning for traffic lighting at the intersection. This is nothing more than thorough reporting, but with news organizations so thinly staffed, some of this work goes undone.
3. If it bleeds, it leads.
Many newsrooms, particularly television, followed this mantra for the better part of the 1980s and 1990s as a way to boost ratings. (Some still do!) Now that news organizations are chasing “hits” on line, their staff pay attention to trending topics on Google and Twitter and other social media platforms. This information can dictate coverage. Indeed, some web sites are shaped almost entirely by topics that rank high with search engines.
While it’s tempting to blog about what’s trending — and sometimes it makes imminent sense to — bear in mind that that is generally the easy way out. Many blogs regurgitate the news of the day, often without adding anything, and many simply comment on the news of the day. Some succeed at this, but many do not. Decide what you want your blog to be, what makes sense for your topic area, what will be most useful to your readers, most gratifying for you — and don’t sway from your strategy just because you think it will generate hits.
4. What have you got for me today?
Crusty old city editors (as well as brand new ones) in newsrooms of all sizes bark this daily question to beat reporters, who invariably strive to have something to offer. This is a good practice. For bloggers who don’t have editors breathing down our necks, we must use our imaginations.
Is this a way of saying the blog needs new material every day? Well, yes, just about every day, if possible. This is not iron clad. But it’s a good goal. Think about your readers. Ideally, every time they visit your blog, they’ll find a reason to be glad they came.
5. A reporter is only as good as his/her sources.
This is true of newspaper reporters and bloggers. You set the standards for your blog by quoting and linking to quality sources. Are you happy with linking to other news outlets? Or do you want to link to the sources to which those news outlets are linking? This is your credibility we’re talking about here. Take some extra time to do some digging (i.e. reporting) on your own, and you boost your credibility. The lazy way is to skip links altogether, or to link to predictable sites with which everyone is already familiar.
When a study comes out about Alzheimer’s disease, I have three options: 1. I could paraphrase a couple of paragraphs that I read on WedMD. 2. I could create a post about the study that links to WebMD. 3. I could locate a news release about the study from the university where it was conducted and/or locate the abstract of the study from the journal in which it was published, and then create a post that links to those primary sources. You might be surprised how often news outlets fail to tell the complete story, miss the main point, or — yes — even get something wrong. Checking it out yourself helps make sure you don’t make the same mistake.
6. You’re only as good as your last story.
No newspaper journalist can rest on his or her laurels for too long. The big front page story of Tuesday begins to fade as soon as the big front page story of Wednesday rolls off the presses. The take-away for bloggers is about staying on top of your game. However, unlike newspaper reporters of the 20th century, bloggers have their whole body of work just a Google search away. Bloggers’ best work continues to generate page views long after they post.
What becomes extra important for the blogger isn’t just a choice subject matter but also a search-engine-optimized headline and post full of relevant links and images. These may seem like tedious details, but they are the very steps that will give your stories staying power.
Be sure to stop back here tomorrow to read Amber’s follow-up post. Follower her on Twitter.