Notes on blogging for journalists

By Felix Salmon
July 10, 2009

I’m hosting a blogging seminar tomorrow for the South Asian Journalists Association’s annual convention. Here are some notes I’ve made for my opening presentation.

Why blog?

There are basically three reasons to blog; two of them are good and one is bad.

Lots of companies are hiring bloggers these days, ranging from huge media concerns like Reuters to small start-ups. Pay can be good, and there’s no real difference any more between what a full-time blogger gets paid and what a full-time journalist gets paid. The work can be hard, and the blog can end up eating your life, but at the same time there can be an enormous sense of freedom when you’re given a blog of your own. Last summer, for instance, I blogged the financial meltdown from Berlin — Portfolio didn’t really care where I was based, so long as I was putting out a good blog.

A blog is also a spectacularly good way to get noticed. If you do aspire to being hired as a full-time blogger, then having a blog of your own is pretty much a prerequisite these days — people want to hire bloggers, not hire journalists and then cross their fingers and hope that it turns out those journalists can blog. All to often, in such cases, they can’t.

A blog is also a media outlet in and of itself, and you can put Google ads on it, or try to sign up for some kind of ad network which will sell your ads for you. If you’re really ambitious, you can even try to sell ads yourself.

But this really isn’t a good idea. The overwhelming majority of personal blogs will never make more than pocket money in ad revenue, and if you start blogging with the idea that you’ll be able to make money at it directly, there’s a very good chance you’ll give up in disgust quite quickly.

Who should blog?

The short and easy answer, of course, is “everybody”. But blogging isn’t easy, and not everyone is good at it. If you find writing hard, if you don’t feel any particular need to share your opinions with strangers, if you value your privacy — then maybe blogging isn’t for you.

And there are some good reasons not to blog. It takes up a lot of time, which means that there are significant opportunity costs associated with blogging. If you read a lot of blogs and news outlets anyway, then the marginal extra time commitment can come down, but it’s still substantial. It also puts you out there; it’s not for the thin-skinned. People will be very rude about you, in public. If you don’t want that, don’t blog. And it can, in extremis, even get you fired — bloggers tend not to be Organization People, and they tend to say what they think quite forcefully, and they don’t have much in the way of job security. (Of course, having a good blog can get you hired, too: there are two sides to that coin, and right now the market in good bloggers is pretty hot, and the number of bloggers making six-figure incomes has never been higher.)

Where to blog?

This is the easy bit. Just sign up for Blogger or WordPress or Typepad or Tumblr or Posterous or any number of other free blogging services, and jump right in. You can set up a blog on Salon.com if that appeals, or any number of other places. If you’re already a regular commenter on a group blog, maybe they’ll accept you as a contributor. Alternatively, if you have a reasonably established brand already, get yourself signed up with HuffPo or True/Slant or, again, any number of websites which are designed to get journalists’ content up online in an unfiltered manner.

In the finance and economics space, it’s easy to sign up with Seeking Alpha, either in conjunction with your own personal blog or else as your own blog. Finding somewhere to post your stuff is the easy bit. The fact is that it’s your content which will drive whether people come to read you or not, it’s not where you blog.

When to blog?

As always, there’s a trade-off between quantity and quality. Should you write more, with lower quality, or less, with higher quality? Fortunately, the blogosphere has been around for long enough that we have a simple empirical answer to this question: given the choice, go for quantity over quality. You might not like it — I certainly don’t — but I defy you to name a really good blogger who doesn’t blog frequently.

Often bloggers are the worst judges of their own work; I can give you hundreds of personal examples of blog entries I thought were really good which disappeared all but unnoticed, and of blog entries I thought were tossed-off throwaways which got enormous traction and distribution. Mostly, blogging is a lottery on the individual-blog-entry level — and if you want to win the lottery, your best chance of doing so is to maximize the number of lottery tickets you buy.

Personally, I’m not very happy about this fact. But it is a fact. And although I might gravitate towards those blogs in my RSS reader which have only one or two unread entries, I know that empirically speaking success in the blogging world is pretty much directly proportional to frequency of output. I thought RSS would change things. It didn’t. Ah well. And don’t worry about time of day, either: people read blogs at the craziest times, so once it’s written just put it up.

What to blog?

Journalists can be quite precious and jealous about the stuff that they write. When I set up my first blog in 2000, I was careful not to put any financial stuff on there: the blog was the stuff I wrote for free, while financial journalism was the stuff I got paid for. Why would any newspaper or magazine want to publish my work if it was freely available on the internet?

In hindsight, this was completely the wrong way around. What I should have been doing was leveraging and advertising my competitive strengths: publishing as much as I could, as often as I could, on the stuff that I knew the most about. And of course blogging is a great way of learning about most any subject, too — blogging finance makes you a better financial journalist, blogging climate change makes you a better science journalist, and so on.

How to blog?

Blogs are a conversation. Remember that. They’re not a sermon, they’re not a news article, they’re much closer to a discussion in the pub, or sometimes a graduate seminar. They can be funny, or serious, or angry; they can be two words or 20,000 words long; they can be pretty much whatever you want them to be, including heavily reported. But they’re distinguished by having voice, which is one necessary part of a conversation.

Another necessary quality of any decent conversationalist is that he or she be a good listener. The same goes for blogging — to a very large extent, blogging isn’t writing, it’s reading. I have hundreds of blogs in my RSS reader, I use Google Alerts and other tools to let me know what other people are saying about me, I spend a lot of time reading my comments, and of course I read lots of other blogs avidly. Blogging, certainly the way I do it, is to a large degree about synthesizing information — connecting this news article here to that blog entry there, putting things into context, and making connections. And so although I produce a lot of content, I consume orders of magnitude more.

I like to say that the main difference between bloggers and professional journalists is that while journalists tend to think of a news article as the end of the journalistic process, bloggers tend to think of a blog entry as the beginning of a conversation. And that’s why it’s important to be generous: journalists hate to credit others, while bloggers love to. On Thursday there was an article in the FT about blogging which encapsulated the difference: its opening line talked about some unspecified “recent column in another newspaper”. Naturally, there was no link. With a blog, you have to link to the people you’re responding to, to the people you’re quoting, to the sources you’re citing. A journalist loves getting an exclusive interview; a blogger is exasperated by such things, because you can’t link to them. When PR people offer me interviews, my first response is always to simply say that the would-be interviewee should blog his or her thoughts, and then I can link to them. Better for both of us.

And another part of being generous: leave comments on your own blog, and on other people’s blogs. Doing so is in no way below you.

Then there’s the really tough one for journalists: be wrong. Here’s another slogan for you: if you’re never wrong, you’re never interesting. Journalists-turned-bloggers tend to be overcautious to a fault, which makes for dry, overhedged prose. If you make a mistake, your commenters and other bloggers will tell you soon enough, and you can correct that mistake very publicly, using strikethrough code or an update. You’re transparent about what you had said, and you’re transparent about what you should have said, and you get a lot of respect for that. With journalism, what you write is immediately part of the public record, and it’s very hard to go back and change it once it’s published. With blogging, you can and indeed you should. (But not in a non-transparent way.)

I should mention at this point another one of my slogans: “the object of quality in a blog is not the individual blog entry, it’s the blog itself”. Every so often some meta-media organization decides that it needs to get with the online world and make bloggers eligible for its prizes. There’s invariably an application form of some description, which asks you to present your best blog entries; those blog entries will then be read by the judges to determine which blog is the best.

This is of course ridiculous. There are great bloggers who do little more than link to other people: no one blog entry is worth much at all, but the aggregation and editing function is invaluable. What’s more, pointing to just one blog entry by its nature turns blogging into journalism: it strips out all the conversation. The best blogs are the ones which spark the best conversations — which means that to judge a blog you should read not only the blog itself (as opposed to blog entries picked out ex post) but also the comments on that blog, and other people’s blog entries that link to the blog in question. Which isn’t really humanly possible, I’ll admit. But it’s important to at least try.

What shouldn’t you do?

The first is something I see a lot when journalists first start blogging: they write beautiful self-contained journalistic pieces, with ledes and nut grafs and few if any links. Go have a look at your favorite blogs, and see if you can find any pieces like that. You can’t. Blogs are much less formal, much less polished, much more conversational. So ignore what they taught you at J-school, and be yourself.

Don’t worry about hitting the “publish” button. Not everything you write will be good; some of it will be downright bad. And you’ll get called out for that, and it won’t feel very nice. But publish anyway. If you were having a conversation in the pub, you’d say silly things sometimes. Just move on. More interestingly, you’ll find that a lot of what you thought was bad turned out, in retrospect, to be very good. And vice-versa.

After you’ve been doing this for a while, you’ll grow a nice thick skin, but at first you’ll probably get riled up by some of your commenters, both on your blog and on other blogs linking to you. Try to be zen. Alternatively, you might get riled up by the *absence* of commenters, or people linking to you, and ask yourself if you’re just shouting into a void. Again, be zen. And do try to avoid obsessing over pageviews. They’re not a very good metric of how widely your stuff is disseminated, and you’re not doing this for CPMs. So, again, be zen. Because otherwise you just start publishing listicles and other linkbait, and your blog becomes crap.

Don’t expect to be an overnight success. It takes a while to get momentum — more than a year, in most cases — and if you’re enjoying yourself that shouldn’t matter.

Don’t censor yourself. You’re doing this because you want people to read your work. So make that as easy for them as possible. If they want you to email it to them, email it to them. If they want to read it on Seeking Alpha or Huffington Post, then post it there. If they want to read it in their RSS reader, then make sure you publish a full RSS feed. And if someone else flatters you by copying your stuff, be happy, not angry. You’re not doing this for the pageviews, you’re doing this to be read.

Most importantly, just have fun. If you don’t enjoy writing the blog, no one’s going to enjoy reading it. So jump in and make merry!

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