What does it take to grow the world’s most popular blog?
It takes commitment and a ton of hard work to grow the world’s most popular blog, as you learn after reading this an interesting piece. It’s written by a former Time magazine reporter who is now blogging for Techcrunch.
It’s instructive, I think, to see how different the news reporting process is for a “blogger” than a “journalist.” I’m not sure we’ll recognize either of those labels in a few years, but discover a new moniker that more accurately describes the demands and skills related to digital news publishing.
Raising the Ante: The Internet’s Impact on Journalism Education
I’m in Chapel Hill, N.C. today, honored to participate in a symposium organized to honor Phil Meyer, my former professor at UNC. Barry Sussman of the Nieman Watchdog Project has a good overview of the symposium on his web site. The 20 participants were asked to compose an essay on an assigned topic and mine was, basically, “are the gatekeepers irrelevant int he digital age?”
Leading off the first session today, I was asked to react to Scott Maier’s essay. Here is some of what I said ...
I completely support Mr. Maier’s concept of the Navigator as an essential new role in a world where traditional gatekeepers are much less relevant. But I think his definition of that role could have gone further to address the specific responsibilities of the Navigator in the digital world. And this is where I find rich opportunities for research to advance what we know about the new demands on journalists. Mr. Maier wrote:
Today’s successful editor/navigator is proactive, going beyond the standard fare of wire and staff reports to seek and find an engaging and diverse selection of stories that neither traditional media nor Google provide. Today’s editor/navigator also has to reach beyond the rigid confines of a newspaper or other single medium to provide news that offers sound, images, and video. In addition, today’s editor/navigator also needs to facilitate an interactive information exchange that invites conversation.
While the first three-quarters of that recommendation are indeed important, I will argue that it is the last point that is most critical. “Facilitating an interactive information exchange that invites conversation” is not something many people – if any – learned in J-school or have received formal training on in their job. This is a significant new role, but it’s important to reflect on why this new role is important today. As I wrote in my essay, the journalist’s role is redefined because the audience is redefining it.
The audience decides what journalism they want. It always has. And the journalism that people want today has nothing to do with gatekeeping. Unfettered access to information and unparalleled interaction with that information is today’s standard.
The ability to recognize and make sense of so many sources of information, rumor and speculation – and to publicly interact with those sources – are new skills that many journalists do not possess.
The reason they need these new skills is that, as I wrote in my essay, “news is a conversation.” Certainly, this is not a new concept, first appearing around the turn of this century. But the practice is still evolving and is foreign to many traditional journalists. It should also be noted that a significant chunk of the audience is not yet participating in that conversation, even when it’s available to them. Many readers and viewers prefer to be passive, part of the lecture or one-way communication we all grew up with. And this, unfortunately, allows many journalists who fear the new world or simply don’t want to change, to consider the concept of news as a conversation to be a lot of hot air.
A new movement call BeatBlogging has sprouted as a model for this new method. The hypothesis is that journalists who can successfully form social networks around their beats and cultivate their sources and readers will be able to serve the traditional audience that is not participating in the conversation with more accurate, relevant and timely journalism.
But even journalists who don’t form social networks around their beats can tap into the power of news as a conversation. Journalists have forever worked their sources, trading insider information for news tips in the pursuit of a major scoop. That is what you’d call a “soft” skill, one that doesn’t show up on a resume or in journalism curriculum. It would surface, of course, in the work product of a journalist, for a well connected reporter would get more scoops and write more informed stories.
That source development needs to go public, which would help make news gathering more transparent while it leads to better informed reporters. This is a huge need for journalism today. As Mr. Maier’s essay concludes, “the public bias against the press” might be a more serious threat to mainstream news than the actual bias of the press.
And I would argue that a closer connection to the audience would help solve many of the financial challenges that Mr. Lewis laid out in his essay. As Prof. Meyer wrote in the Vanishing Newspaper, quality journalism is supported economically because of its influence. The audience defines what journalism they want and right now it’s immediate, interactive and transparent. The tech blog Techcrunch that I referenced is awash in cash because it has proved the Meyer model to be true. But the content you find there will not win any traditional journalism awards, yet it resonates with its audience, making it the most influential voice in the multi-billion dollar startup technology sector.
So what do I recommend for the research agenda (the stated goal for the symposium)?
- What is an effective model for participating in news as a conversation? Who is doing it well? How are they doing it that is succeeding? What are the costs and benefits? And this research should include all forms of news and information publishing, including mainstream and independent news orgs, blogs such as Techcrunch and Huffington Post and other sources.
- The new era of journalism will not be built on a linear narrative. The next generation doesn’t consume news and information that way. It’s in short bursts, like their communication by SMS and IM. You can still publish news and journalism to this audience, but how? If you break down the construct of a news story that lasted for so long because of a certain need (to fill columns in print), how can journalism serve readers’ needs in new way? Should we recognize an exchange in the comments section of a reporter’s blog as journalism? What about an online chat? So what I’m saying here is, let’s broaden the definition of what it means to commit journalism. This would also include computer programming.
Interested in a career in journalism? Then become the mayor of your zip code
In a thought-provoking post (on many fronts), A-list blogger and marketing guru Seth Godin advises real estate agents to follow one of two paths to survive and thrive in these trying times for that particular industry.
Option 1: quit. Option 2: become the mayor of your zip code.
Godin recommends those who follow Option 2 to use his Squidoo web service to accomplish this goal (he’s a marketing guru, after all), but even if the idea is somewhat self-serving, it begs an interesting question:
Who is the mayor of your zip code?
Not the mayor of your town or city, but your hyperlocal area. Godin suggests that a good real estate agent could become that with a little effort and appeal.
Mayor of your zip code is a way to start a discussion group/info page about what’s happening in your slice of the world. You become the source of information, the watercooler, the person to turn to. Of course, if you spend ten minutes on it and then move on, it’ll fail. But, if you spent 30% of your time working on your page (building it, curating it, promoting it), what do you think would show up in Google searches? What sort of interactions would you start having with people thinking about your little part of the world? Even better, what if you built a blog about your town, as good as any local paper, with high school sports and tax controversies and everything… don’t you think the right people would read it?
Now you probably see why it’s interesting to me - that bit about being as good as any local paper. The concept of serving an audience down to the hyperlocal level is something news organizations have been talking about wanting to do for years. Some are already doing it quite well. Others are not. In some zip codes, bloggers and other independent online media types have been filling the void.
Will real estate agents - or other small business entities - be next to enter the world of local news, information and community? It’s an interesting possibility. But these blogs don’t do much in the way of local news and information (yet). Probably because it’s not easy. Which is why Godin suggests that those who really dedicate themselves to the mission are the only ones who will succeed.
The same applies to local news organizations. At The News Tribune, we’re not doing as well as we want to in this area, but take a look at the map on Scott Fontaine’s blog and see where he’s reported from in the past few months and you’ll see a glimpse of where we are heading.
John Robinson, editor of the Greensboro News & Record and one of the most forward-thinking newspaper journalists today, did a nice riff on Godin’s post, applying it to journalism hopefuls:
With apologies to Seth Godin, who inspired this post:
I often get asked by budding journalists how to break into the business. Here is my newest best advice: Don’t.
The business is too tough. Do something else. Seriously. Go into PR. Go to grad school. You must be good at something else. Figure out what it is and do it.
Now, if you clicked the “Continue reading” link, you’re in luck. You ain’t buying it and you shouldn’t. The ones who didn’t follow the link should get out of the business; they aren’t cut out for it. They can go whine and cry over there.