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!

Comments
14 comments so far

The quantity over quality spiel reminds me of the art and fear quote about potmaking:

“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot -albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

Effort expended attempting to produce high quality works is not the same as actually producing high quality work.

Posted by Unlikely | Report as abusive

This is great. I started a new blog and I had a lot of these very questions. This in particular is encouraging

QUOTE
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.
ENDQUOTE

I have at least a few question and I may be back if its ok.

When and how much should you quote someone vs. a simple link? How much context do you need to give vs. expecting that people are following the conversation?

When responding to someone do you just focus on the persons best points or address the entirety of their argument?

How worthwhile is it to link and/or quote something you agree with. It seems boring to say “yeah what she said” but if you never agree with anyone are you a douche?

On that same note s it arrogant to aggregate or have link dumps when you are obviously small time and most of your readers have probably seen this stuff already?

What’s the etiquette if people much more established than you link to you. Should you thank them? Is that kosher?

On that same subject should you make a concerted effort to link to people who link to you? Or, should you focus on the stuff you read the most?

You would think that most of these questions would be clear from reading other blogs but for some reason they are not. Its just different on the other side.

Thanks for your time!

This is all very good.

I started a blog a while ago, and stopped posting to it. Every so often I come across an item that I think I should blog about and then the moment passes me by.

I hope to take it up again.

Thanks for this, Felix. I vacillate between writing the occasional highly-polished entry and shorter, rawer entries. You’ve convinced me to do more of the latter.

Of course, your rawest is probably the equivalent of my most polished. I don’t see how you and Ryan and Megan and Matt crank out so much.

Writing about nutrition, I have often struggled with ensuring the facts are exactly right – to the detriment of quantity. I have just started blogging and it is very freeing – makes you write more often which is great. I’m also used to giving ‘sermons’. I love the idea of what I write being just the start of a conversation with others. It means I value their opinion rather than acting like I know it all – and it takes the pressure off. Your advice is very reassuring – that I don’t need to spend hours perfecting everything – but I think it will take more practice to break my ingrained habits. Thank-you.

Thanks for your comments on quality vs. quantity. It’s not my usual comfort zone, but I get it. Blogs are a conversation, albeit one in which one person does most of the talking.

Grazie!

This is great advice for any would-be blogger, not just journalists. I give advice to companies about using new-media platforms, and I was particularly happy to read this line because it echoes what I’ve been saying:

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.

(My anti-spam word was IKEA. Is that a subliminal ad? Anyway …)

Thanks for this column … I mean post. There, you see how difficult it’s been for me to transition from being a journalist (15 years) into blogging professionally. It’s been quite hard to evolve what I learned from J school into something that serves me as a blogger. Certainly, there’s still a lot from J school that I think is important: the toolbox that good writing draws from (grammar is your friend, most of the time it makes your sentences readable!), understanding your responsibilities to readers. The hardest thing for me as been two things that J school emphatically pooh-poohed: using your own voice, and daring to be wrong. As well as, of course, sharing your work rather than guarding your scoop like Cerebus at the gates of hell. I think the arguments I always heard was that such things lessen our credibility as trusted news sources, but it’s interesting to find that the honesty of putting yourself out there and on the line seems to count more than a 100% record of accuracy.

One other suggestion: have a niche. Blog about anything you like, but try to have an overall theme. Mine is attending shareholder meetings in the Bay Area. If people get to my site because they want to see what’s happened at a particular shareholder meeting, that’s good. If they stay and peek around a bit, that’s even better.

I also can’t predict what will get traction, and what won’t when I blog. I also seem to have hot and cold streaks. But it all could just be my imagination.

That is the reason why I love blogging and reading blogs rather than journals. T

And they pay you to write such things? Lucky you! Definetly to work in a mine is harder…

Great article, Felix. @Unlikely That is such a good axample! Learning by doing. According to the 80/20 percent relationship – http://bit.ly/hJbp8k – you are able to get 80 percent towards perfection in 20 percent of the time, it woul take you to go all the way. That makes you capable of doing 5 good stories insted af 1, and during these experiences you eill lears a lot, meaning that your last story might be as good (or better) as if you had used all the time just doing one story.

Posted by persand | Report as abusive

Wonderful article!

Posted by HHVForg | Report as abusive
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