‘You just never know what is going to grab interest’
By Pat Winters Lauro
Drake University student Rachel Weeks was midway through spring semester when a blog post she wrote for a magazine writing course about turning a T-shirt into a tank top hit Internet gold – 60,000 hits.
“She posted a picture to Pinterest and it just exploded,” said Jill Van Wyke, assistant professor at Drake’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Des Moines. “It was eye-opening. You just never know what is going to grab interest.”
Now that even the Pulitzer Prize has been bestowed on a blog — The Huffington Post for investigative journalism — it begs the question: what makes a good blog?
First, blogging is not journalism; it’s a delivery system. Many blogs are promotional in nature or advocacy blogs, an important distinction for students. But within the profession, what makes a good journalistic blog depends on the type of blog it is, which can be as different as the sports page is from the op-ed page in a newspaper. Still, Weeks’ post, the blog equivalent of a service feature, possessed common blog elements that resonated with its audience: it was concise, targeted a specific audience and it was interactive.
At Drake, blogging is infused throughout the journalism program is taught with different goals in mind, said Van Wycke. In the magazine class, students launch a blog on a specialized topic such as Weeks’ blog, which was about how to live cheaply in Des Moines. In news courses, students do live blogging. In editing class, they follow editing blogs. The idea is that by the time they graduate, they are fully exposed to blogging and multimedia journalism. Blogs, she said, are particularly good at teaching students the importance of audience interactivity.
“Media isn’t one way any more; it’s not even two-way. It’s many ways,” Van Wycke said. “Students learn the importance of audience interaction, of readers talking to you and each other, of getting a good comments stream going. They need to be in that.”
In fact, being part of a conversation is what blogs are all about, said Bart Brooks, who is an Associate Producer at NJ.com, the state’s largest news website and works with bloggers. He said blogs that have gone viral all contain the same qualities: a great topic, a strong point of view and excellent timing. An example, he said, was a post on the NJ.com parenting page that commented on the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, whose roommate used a webcam to spy on his gay encounter.
“It took a very sensitive, thoughtful approach to a difficult subject,” said Brooks. “Because interest was so high in the Clementi story, and because the blog post was well written, it resonated with readers and took off.”
Blogs have their own voice, and for students it often comes easier to them than news writing. Van Wycke said perhaps students view blogging as more forgiving and less formal than print.
“Some students can blog beautifully, but then can’t do a 1,000 word story without a lot of drama and angst,” said Van Wycke,
A blog has to offer value, whether that’s accomplished through writing or reporting or both, said Rachele Kanigel, associate professor at San Francisco State University and author of “The Student Newspaper Survival Guide.” Kanigel uses blogs in several different courses, but she especially liked one on a neighborhood beat called “Haighters Gon’ Haight.”
“His blog has a lot of voice, a lot of attitude,” Kanigel explained. “He used first person; it was impressionistic and he did a lot of reporting — that’s the ideal for me. He used the blog as a way to reflect on experiences, and add a personal note in an informal, conversational writing style that encourages commenting.”
And authenticity counts for a lot. When Paul Isom, former director of student media at East Carolina University in North Carolina, worked at the Birmingham News, one of the best blogs he ever read was by a man who was a “good reporter and okay as a writer,” but his football blog was passionate and cared about his audience.
“He was very conversational,” Isom said. “He continued to talk with them in comments…and uniformly when he left, people lined up on his blog to tell him he was great and they would miss him.”
But that’s not what many news sites seem to do, and neither do their college journalism counterparts. Kanigel said she is doing research on college newspaper blogs and is surprised that most are using blogs mostly as a way to cover news between print editions.
“I was surprised they aren’t using blogs in a more creative way,” she said. “They are very much focused on the weekly deadline.”
In 2008, 9.2 percent of college newspapers had newspaper blogs and 3.6 percent hosted reader blogs in a random sampling of 392 college publications, according to “College Newspapers and The Myth of Convergence” by Robert Bergland and David Hon presented at the Association of Educators of Mass Communication and Journalism Conference in 2009. The data is currently being updated.
In contrast, 45 percent of commercial daily newspapers had blogs, and 28 percent hosted reader blogs, according to a random sampling of 362 commercial daily papers in the U.S.in 2007, according to “Multimedia and Interactivity on Newspaper Websites: A Multi-Study Analysis of Six English-Speaking Countries,” by Robert Bergland, David Hon, Lisa Crawford and Sarah Noe published in International Online Journalism Symposium Journal.
In a discussion about best practices in blogging, media critic and longtime blogger Jay Rosen, a professor at New York University, said in a post that conversation builds in “spheres” on blogs.
“(Blogging) has to do with “spheres” of blogging, and being conversational within a sphere,” the post states. “Meaning: your blog has to be about something, a niche, topic, or slice of life. And there are other people blogging about that topic. You need to “map” that sphere, find those other sites, put standing links to them up at your site, monitor what they are saying, aggregate the best of it in a simple daily link post, like this one…”
For journalism students, a blog – especially under the guidance of an instructor – is a way to develop an online presence that all students need today. It also can help students land a job or an internship, said Betty Ming Liu, an adjunct professor in New York and former print reporter who after 16 years returned to daily journalism this year as an online reporter.
Liu tells students that her own personal blog has helped her land jobs. But beware. Blogging is a beast that needs to be fed, warns Liu, who blogs twice a week to keep the readers engaged.
“You want to train readers to look for you on the designated days,” she said.
It’s not only in journalism where blogging skills, paired with traditional reporting ability, are valued. Isom, who left East Carolina this year, said he is now blogging for a legal industry firm, where he applies his journalistic skills with Search Engine Optimization, a process that helps improve coveted search engine results. He picked up the skill at a Poynter Institute seminar and taught it to students at East Carolina, he said. But journalists don’t need advanced SEO knowledge, he said, although a fundamental knowledge of it can only help.
“I tied SEO to headline writing in media writing class,” he said. “I think it’s a great thing to know. It’s come in really handy.”
Blogs do have some rules. Of course, journalistic blogs are expected to follow the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics. A lesser known custom is that blogs are supposed to share, said Bryan Murley, assistant professor of new and emerging media at Eastern Illinois University, who blogs about technology and college media for CMA.
“I’d say the most important rule is to show your work,” said Murley. “If you find information on another site, link to that site. Allow visitors to leave your site and explore the information that you’ve found.”
Murley said traditional news media have done a poor job of linking, and aren’t as good as bloggers at handling errors, although they are improving in that area.
Hence, a good blog uses traditional reporting and writing skills, but there is a lot more to it. A good blog is engaging, well-written and has a strong voice. It has value for the reader, perhaps through specialized knowledge. To be fair, it should link to all research – and of course, follow the journalistic code of ethics. And if a blogger wants to get attention, don’t forget SEO and posting to social networks, including curator-type platforms like Pinterest.
In short, blogs are not print. Says Murley: “It truly is different from writing a story for print, and it has its own conventions that build credibility on the web.”
Pat Winters Lauro is an assistant professor of journalism at Kean University, where she advises The Tower newspaper. She is a former staff writer with the New York Daily News and has been a regular contributor to the business section of The New York Times.