The blog is a simple publishing method that has moved from controversial to essential at most news organizations. It has changed forever the way information is disseminated in our society.
But a "blog" is simply a different way to publish content. It's a technical term that refers mostly to a content management system, not necessarily a writing style.
There are essentially three characteristics of a blog:
- A frequently updated website with entries displayed in reverse chronological order (most recent stuff on top).
- Each entry - or post - has a headline and a "body." Entries most often include links to other news and information found on the web and also often contain photos or other graphics.
- A "comments" link that allows readers to post their own thoughts on what the blogger is writing about. Not all blogs allow comments, but most do.
Since it's essentially a content management system, blogs are being used more and more to power entire websites. Many hyperlocal and independent news sites are nothing more than Wordpress blogs disguised as full websites.
In fact, it's the easiest way to launch a site. But let's take a closer look at a traditional blog.
Why a blog?
Blogging will help a reporter cultivate a community with readers to test ideas, receive early and direct feedback and publish in the timeliest manner possible.
"Running a blog has additional benefits," says Alfred Hermida, an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, the University of British Columbia, and founding news editor of the BBC News website. "Not only does writing on a regular schedule make you smarter, it also shows spirit and attitude and a thirst for learning and sharing. Just about every news editor I talked to now expects a journalism student to have blogged."
Blogging will teach you a new content management system (CMS), how to build an audience for your writing and reporting, and how to cultivate a collaborative community once you do have an audience.
With a blog, a reporter can enhance his or her authority on a beat with the ability to publish information outside of the traditional news cycle and story format. It also helps the news site establish a deeper relationship with readers and leverages the wisdom of the crowd for the benefit of the reporter's coverage.
"It's always been important to me to be as close to my readers as possible, and blogging is about as close as it gets," said Dwight Silverman, who writes the TechBlog for the Houston Chronicle. "I consider the community in TechBlog to be collaborators. My blog is not just about me -- it's about US."
A good blog is an ongoing conversation. You facilitate it, but if it works, your audience may dominate it. If that happens, you win, the news organization wins and, most importantly, the readers win.
"Readers are our friends," says Ben Mutzabaugh, who has blogged about business travel for USA Today for the past eight years. "In print it's easy to feel you are at odds with readers because people will find one little thing wrong. So as a journalist you get defensive. The readers on a blog chime in and help you. They want you to get the story right.
"Readers help make the blog stronger than any single author could make it alone."
The rules are different with a blog. News reporters play off other information they find online, even linking to stories and blogs that might have been thought of as "competition" just a few years ago. Online, all relevant information is an essential part of the virtual community conversation on a given topic.
Thankfully, most news organizations have realized the importance of effective blogging. Blogs are no longer an extra feature on news web sites. They have become the cornerstone of coverage for news organizations of all sizes. And they are powering a growing wave of independent journalism startups, so understanding how to blog is essential to anyone learning about journalism.
But be warned: blogs are not magic. It takes dedication and determination to author a successful blog.
"I was working hard before as a print journalist, but nothing like what I do now," said John Cook, former business reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer who leveraged the success of his newspaper blog into a new venture called TechFlash. He is considered one of the leaders in coverage of the startup technology industry, but it didn't come easy.
"I am constantly on guard for the next story, blogging on Thanksgiving Day, checking emails on Christmas eve and waking up in the middle of the night with a good lead on a story," Cook said. "Guess you could say I am a bit obsessed. There's never a break. It is hard work, but I love it. The great thing about a blog for an old-fashioned beat reporter like me is that it is journalism at its core - pounding the pavement looking for the next scoop and making sure that you stay two steps ahead of the competition. That drive was always in me as a beat reporter, but a blog elevates that to a much higher level."
What's a Blog?
Just what makes the blog format so effective on the web? For starters, blogs feed web surfers' appetites for constant information while inviting their involvement by commenting.
A blog is much like a traditional journal: Content is organized chronologically and usually dated (sometimes down to the minute and hour of publication). A typical blog has a series of frequently updated, short posts. The most recent post appears at the top of the blog home page; earlier posts are accessed by scrolling down the page. Posts can be archived by date, by category or both. A blogger - the person writing the blog - may post several times a day or a couple times a week.
Each blog post gives the blog's readers the opportunity to comment. It's the combination of frequent updates with real-time comments that has made blogs so exciting.
Most blogs are written quite informally, even conversationally. This is true for both major news organization blogs and for individuals who blog from home. A blog's punchy style is ideal for giving columnists and analysts an added venue and for keeping tabs on an event, industry, or trend. Blogs can be used to:
- Track developments in a complicated news event, such as a trial.
- Float new details right to the top in a breaking news situation, such as a disaster.
- Give a voice to a columnist's thoughts and opinions that aren't ideal subjects for an entire column.
- Follow important people or news in a particular business field.
Benefits of a Blog
In addition their informality and immediacy, blogs have some added benefits. They are commonly regarded as traffic magnets. Because blogs are updated often, readers return frequently to read the latest posts. But they aren't alone; search engine spiders that catalog and index web sites visit your blog more frequently, too. More updates mean better listing in search engines - and that's nothing to scoff at.
A big part of the blogging culture involves linking to other web sites and blogs so you may also boost the number of links to your web site by creating an interesting blog that others link to.
The traffic boost from a blog is a result of permalinks. Essentially, every blog post, no matter how short, gets its own web page. This page is called a permalink, or permanent link, because it is the page someone uses to link to your post. Because a new permalink page is created for every post, a blog that is updated frequently grows in size very quickly. Simple arithmetic tells you that the more pages you have on your website, the more chances there are that others will link to a page or that one of your pages will come up in a search engine. Essentially, the more you write, the more you create linking opportunities. All those extra pages mean more traffic, more links and, ultimately, higher rankings in most search engines.
Blogs come with a built-in culture so it pays to observe how things are done unless you want to attract the attention of self-appointed policemen with strong ideas about how blogs should be used.
Begin by reading other blogs. Identify some successful bloggers - those who post often and get lots of comments. Pay attention to what is making them successful. Check out their competition as well.
Pay special attention to when, and how, a blogger opts to link to something. Many blogs refer to posts on other blogs; note how they credit sources for ideas and content. Note what posts get a lot of responses and try to figure out just what it is makes the blog successful at generating comments.
Don't get fooled by the informality of the blog style. Planning and strategy are just as important for a starting a blog as for starting a new section of a newspaper or a community website.
- Know why you are blogging. Write a mission statement about what you expect to accomplish with your blog. Set goals - perhaps for the number of comments or page views - that you can review later.
- Know your audience. A blog without readers or comments isn't much of a blog. Think about who your audience is. Tailor topics to your audience. Think about whether your potential readers have the time to consume 14 posts a day or a few postings a week.
- Set comment policies. Publish guidelines on the sort of language you will accept and when you will reject a posting.
- Assess whether you're meeting your goals and adjust accordingly. Take advantage of this flexible medium by writing shorter or longer, by altering topics or the way you talk about them. Figure out what works and don't worry that the blog doesn't look the same from day to day.
Editor's note: Quoted material on this page comes from Journalism 2.0: How to Survive and Thrive in the Digital Age by Mark Briggs and from research Briggs conducted during work on a follow-up textbook scheduled to be published in fall 2009.
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