On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Adam Gaffin, founder of Universal Hub and inventor of the French Toast Alert System. Universal Hub tracks news in the Boston area from the serious to the just plain weird by linking to hundreds of news outlets and local websites and by offering original reporting. His Twitter feed is a must-follow and, thankfully, he’s set up shop on Mastodon as well.
I wrote a profile of Adam for CommonWealth Magazine in 2008. Adam has been a local connector since the earliest days of digital self-publishing — well before blogging, putting together a directory of websites called New England Online in the early ’90s and then transforming that into Boston Online.
Ellen has a Quick Take on a young journalist who lost her job at West Virginia Public Broadcasting after she reported on alleged government abuses in the state’s foster care and psychiatric system. The journalist, Amelia Ferrell Knisely, alleges that there was political interference with the station, WVPB, which receives state funding.
I examine an important First Amendment case involving a citizen journalist in Texas. Roxanna Asgarian of The Texas Tribune broke the story. It’s a complicated tale, but the root of it is whether a citizen journalist should enjoy the same right to sue the government over a violation of her constitutional rights as a recognized news organization.
Many of the local news projects that we’re interested in here at What Works are just a few steps beyond citizen journalism, and we are firmly of the belief that the First Amendment protections enjoyed by large news outlets should be applied to small outlets and citizen journalists as well. It remains to be seen whether a federal appeals court in Texas will agree.
We used to get them on our doorsteps and they always went straight into the recycling bins. I never saw the appeal of a marketing channel that was 100% instant garbage, and which angered so many recipients.
Massachusetts Republican gadfly Shiva Ayyadurai has been banned from Twitter, most likely for claiming that he’d lost his most recent race for the U.S. Senate only because Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s office destroyed a million electronic ballots. Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub has the details.
In 2018, I gave the City of Cambridge a GBH News New England Muzzle Award for ordering Ayyadurai to dismantle an wildly offensive sign on his company’s Cambridge property that criticized Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren. City officials told him that the sign, which read “Only a REAL INDIAN Can Defeat the Fake Indian,” violated the city’s building code.
Ayyadurai threatened to sue, which led the city to back off.
From the vantage point of 2014, offering advice on how to write a blog feels a little like telling people how to write a proper newspaper article in 2005. “Blogging is dead,” says the (ahem) blogger Jason Kottke, overtaken by social-media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
But if the revolutionary gleam has worn off, blogging nevertheless is still a valuable tool for anyone practicing digital journalism, whether it be commentary, original reporting, photography, or video. I’ve been blogging since 2002 — on my own at first, then as the media columnist for the late, lamented Boston Phoenix, and since 2005 as the publisher and almost-sole author of Media Nation.
These days there are many places online where you can share your work — not just social platforms but also online publications such as the Huffington Post and Medium, which combine paid content with unpaid blog posts. (God help us, but such hybrids are known in some circles as “platishers.”) So why set up a solo blog?
The reason is that you need an online home that is controlled by you — not by Mark Zuckerberg or Arianna Huffington or some other digital mogul seeking to get rich from your content. Moreover, you need to establish an online identity. If you don’t, others will do it for you. “You can’t allow others to define who you are, or control the way you are perceived. This is especially true today for people in the public eye, but the more we do online the more it’ll be true for the rest of us, too,” writes Dan Gillmor in his book Mediactive. “To the extent that it’s possible to do so, you should control the reference point for people who want to know more about you and your ideas.” (In 2006 I profiled Gillmor for CommonWealth magazine.)
Yes, I’ve uploaded this essay to Medium. I also occasionally self-publish at the Huffington Post and am a (too-) active member of Twitter and Facebook. But I’ll repost this article at Media Nation, as I do with all my work to which I have retained copyright. I don’t have complete control — I use the free blogging platform WordPress.com, and I must adhere to its policies. But I can back up my work and take it with me, and it would be easy to switch to self-hosting using free WordPress.org software if I felt the need. Just as important, the URL for Media Nation is my name: dankennedy.net.
So what is a blog? Taking the most expansive definition possible, a blog consists of content, usually text or mostly text, that is published online in reverse chronological order. That would include everything from the Washington Post’s breaking-news blog to Lisa Bonchek Adams’s diary-style blog about living with metastatic breast cancer. Dave Winer, an early Internet thinker and coder who writes the blog Scripting News, has a more specific definition, which he first gave voice to in 2003. Winer writes:
A blog is the unedited voice of a person.
The lack of editing is central, because it’s one person who’s responsible for every word. When you click the Publish button you should feel butterflies, at least sometimes, because there’s no one to pass the buck to. If someone else wrote the headline, or did a copy edit, or even reviewed what you wrote and critiqued it before it went out, it’s still writing, but it is not a blog.
I don’t believe we need to think about blogs quite that narrowly. For instance, if a journalist asks her editor to read a sensitive post before publishing, that doesn’t mean she’s not writing a blog. Still, there’s no question that a journalistic blog — which is what we are concerned about here — is different from other kinds of journalistic writing: less formal, more conversational, often with no traditional reporting (but never without research), and aimed at a small but passionate audience. (As David Weinberger and others have said, “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 people.”)
How to write a good journalistic blog post
There are many ways that a journalist can go about writing a good blog post. It might be a sentence or two. It might be 500 words. But I think the essence of a worthwhile post can be boiled down to several elements:
Call your audience’s attention to something it doesn’t know — for instance, an environmental blogger might write about a new study regarding electric cars. Above all, don’t be boring. The lede you write for a blog post might be different from what you would write for a news story, but you still need to grab the reader by the throat and not let go.
Link to the source of your information, which could be a news article or possibly the study itself. Quote a bit from the source, keeping in mind that most of your readers won’t actually click. Shorter quotes can be put in quotation marks; longer quotes should be blockquoted. (Please note that I’m not talking about the sort of blog post that summarizes a news story so thoroughly that there is no incentive to click. I’m talking about a true value-added post. Keep reading and you’ll see what I mean.)
Bring in other sources of information. Although there’s nothing wrong with a short one-source blog post, you add value when you pull in other sources, link to them, and attempt to make sense of them.
Offer your own perspective and analysis so that your readers take away something of value that goes beyond the sources you’re quoting. If you are working for a news organization that does not normally allow you to express your opinion, then don’t. But a first-person conversational tone is appropriate. If expressing opinions is part of your job description, then have at it. In all cases, though, your tone and approach should remain journalistic. One good question to ask yourself: Is this something I would want to show a prospective employer?
Here is a blog post I wrote earlier this year about the sale of the Providence Journal that encompasses all of the elements I discuss above. Please note, though, that you could scroll through many pages of Media Nation and find only a few that are as thorough.
Some additional guidelines to keep in mind:
Choose a beat that is narrow — but not too narrow. The best blogs are specialty sites where you can learn everything there is to know about a subject and where the blogger’s enthusiasm comes through. That is what you should aspire to. But if you pick too narrow a subject, you may find yourself hard-pressed to find enough reading material on which to feed. Boston restaurants? No problem. Ethiopian restaurants in Boston? Eh, probably not. You might make it through a week. But what are you going to do after that?
Compile a wide-ranging reading list. And keep compiling. If your blog is about climate change, you are going to want to put together a list of blogs, websites, and Twitter feeds related to that topic that you check every day. If your blog is a supplement to your regular work as a beat reporter, you might be doing what is sometimes called beat blogging — sharing short stories that might not be of general enough interest for your news organization, keeping on top of developments in your field, and interacting with your audience. (Steve Buttry offers some worthwhile thoughts about beat blogging; he has also written a good beginner’s guide to blogging.)
Maintain a conversation with the “former audience.” Dan Gillmor coined the phrase, and Jay Rosen has written about “the people formerly known as the audience.” They were referring to formerly passive news consumers who have been empowered by technology to talk back to us and among themselves. Your audience is a valuable resource. Tend to the comments on your blog. Always posts links to your blog posts on Facebook and Twitter, which is not only a good way to promote your work but is also where much of the online conversation has migrated in recent years. Remember the Dan Gillmor adage that your readers know more than you do — which is not to say that collectively they know more than you, but that someone in your audience might. Much of reporting consists of finding people who know more than we do and talking with them. Your blog (and your social-media presence) can make that easier.
Don’t try to read people’s minds. This is specialized advice, but since I write opinionated media criticism, it’s something I wrestle with from time to time. Another way of putting it is that you shouldn’t ascribe motives unless you’re willing to pick up the phone and do the reporting. For example, it’s fine to observe that the Boston Globe’s coverage of the Red Sox is soft (if you think that’s the case and can offer evidence) and that the Globe’s owner, John Henry, is also the principal owner of the Red Sox. But it’s out of bounds to speculate without interviewing the principals that Globe staff members are afraid of angering Henry, or that Henry must have sent out an edict of some sort. Facts are facts and opinions are opinions, and each has its place. Speculation is neither fact nor opinion and has no place in your blog.
Learn to use photos within the bounds of copyright law. I like to run photos with my blog posts, but I know I can’t run a photo that is the copyrighted property of, say, the Associated Press or the New York Times. Fortunately, there are troves of photos online that you can use without payment, many of them through Wikimedia Commons and Creative Commons. Be respectful of the photographer by crediting it as he or she would like and by linking to the photo. Here is an example of how I handle such credits. (You may be interested in this Q&A I did with the photographer, Gage Skidmore, for the Nieman Journalism Lab.)
Some bloggers worth paying attention to
The best way to become a good writer is to read as much good writing as you can. The best way to become a good blogger is to study blogs by people who know what they’re doing. Here are some examples from my own personal list and from my followers on Facebook and Twitter. You’ll find a range of approaches and topics here.
Note: This is just a tiny sample. I’ve left out many people, including friends, especially if they are white men writing about politics — the single most common type of blogger. If you’d like more recommendations, please take a look at the blogroll on Media Nation — and see who the people below are linking to.
Andrew Sullivan. A pioneering blogger and a former editor of The New Republic, Sullivan’s The Dish is a model in terms of linking, quoting, offering his own commentary, and posting with the regularity of a Stakhanovite. Sullivan writes most frequently about politics, but nothing is off limits. He is not on my daily must-read list, but strictly in terms of craft and discipline, he may be without peer.
Jay Rosen. The New York University journalism professor’s blog, PressThink, is perhaps the most influential in future-of-journalism conversations. Rosen writes a type of blog that I particularly admire — long, well-thought-out posts in which he attempts to make sense of many strands of information. His attention to comments is impeccable as well.
Adam Gaffin. The founder and editor of Universal Hub, which tracks and excerpts from several hundred blogs and websites in the Boston area, as well as from mainstream news sources. Updated multiple times a day, the emphasis is on the sources, not the writer — although Gaffin’s wicked sense of humor often breaks through. In 2008 I profiled him for CommonWealth magazine.
Ta-Nehisi Coates. A national correspondent at The Atlantic and an occasional columnist for the New York Times, Coates blogs powerfully and intelligently on issues related to race and culture. Beyond his blog, his essay “The Case for Reparations” may be the most important magazine article published so far in 2014.
Meg Heckman. A journalism professor at the University of New Hampshire whose blog, A site of her own, focuses on “women, tech, journalism.”
C.J. Chivers. A war correspondent for the New York Times, his blog is called The Gun.
Virginia Postrel. A libertarian and early blogger, Postrel writes the Dynamist Blog, which is worth a look.
Jim Romenesko. The original media blogger, Romenesko moved from blogging on his own to working for the Poynter Institute, and is now on his own once again at JimRomenesko.com. Essential news-biz gossip.
Ian Donnis and Scott MacKay. Their On Politics blog is a good example of a beat blog, as Donnis and MacKay cover politics for Rhode Island Public Radio.
Michael Marotta. His blog, Vanyaland, is a respected guide to alternative rock.
Marjorie Arons-Barron. Former editorial director at WCVB-TV (Channel 5), she writes a blog — often with political reporting — on politics and public affairs.
Mark Garfinkel. A staff photographer for the Boston Herald whose website, Picture Boston, is an excellent example of a local photojournalism blog.
Photo credits: Blogger(cc) by European Parliament; Dan Gillmor by Joi Ito; Ta-Nehesi Coates by David Shankbone; Meg Heckman by Dan Kennedy. All photos published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.
Following Tuesday’s announcement that Cox Media Group would acquire WFXT-TV (Channel 25) from Murdoch’s Fox Television Stations as part of a Boston-San Francisco station swap, there has been speculation as to whether Murdoch would re-enter the Boston newspaper market. Universal Hub’s Adam Gaffin raises the issue here; the Boston Business Journal’s Eric Convey, a former Herald staff member, addresses it as well. I’ve also heard from several people on Facebook.
First, the obvious: There would be no legal obstacles if Murdoch wants to buy the Herald. The FCC’s cross-ownership prohibition against a single owner controlling a TV station and a daily newspaper in the same market would no longer apply.
Now for some analysis. Murdoch is 83 years old, and though he seems remarkably active for an octogenarian, I have it on good authority that he, like all of us, is not going to live forever. Moreover, in 2013 his business interests were split, and his newspapers — which include The Wall Street Journal, The Times of London and the New York Post — are now in a separate division of the Murdoch-controlled News Corp. No longer can his lucrative broadcasting and entertainment properties be used to enhance his newspapers’ balance sheets.
Various accounts portray Murdoch as the last romantic — the only News Corp. executive who still has a soft spot for newspapers. The Herald would not be a good investment because newspapers in general are not good investments, and because it is the number-two daily in a mid-size market. Moreover, the guilty verdict handed down to former News of the World editor Andy Coulson in the British phone-hacking scandal Tuesday suggests that Murdoch may be preoccupied with other matters.
On the other hand, who knows? Herald owner Pat Purcell is a longtime friend and former lieutenant of Murdoch’s, and if Rupe wants to stage a Boston comeback, maybe Purcell could be persuaded to let it happen. Even while owning the Herald, Purcell continued to work for Murdoch, running what were once the Ottaway community papers — including the Cape Cod Times and The Standard-Times of New Bedford — from 2008 until they were sold to an affiliate of GateHouse Media last fall.
There is a storied history involving Murdoch and the Herald. Hearst’s Herald American was on the verge of collapse in 1982 when Murdoch swooped in, rescued the tabloid and infused it with new energy. Murdoch added to his Boston holdings in the late 1980s, acquiring Channel 25 and seeking a waiver from the FCC so that he could continue to own both.
One day as that story was unfolding, then-senator Ted Kennedy was making a campaign swing through suburban Burlington. As a reporter for the local daily, I was following him from stop to stop. Kennedy had just snuck an amendment into a bill to deny Rupert Murdoch the regulatory waiver he was seeking that would allow him to own both the Herald and Channel 25 (Kennedy’s amendment prohibited a similar arrangement in New York). At every stop, Herald reporter Wayne Woodlief would ask him, “Senator, why are you trying to kill the Herald?”
The episode also led Kennedy’s most caustic critic at the Herald, columnist Howie Carr, to write a particularly memorable lede: “Was it something I said, Fat Boy?” Years later, Carr remained bitter, telling me, “Ted was trying to kill the paper in order to deliver the monopoly to his friends” at The Boston Globe.
Murdoch sold Channel 25, but in the early 1990s he bought it back — and sold the Herald to Purcell, who’d been publisher of the paper, reporting to Murdoch, for much of the ’80s. It would certainly be a fascinating twist on this 30-year-plus newspaper tale if Murdoch and Purcell were to change positions once again.
I don’t have the time or inclination right now to delve into the details, but you can click. (Start here.) I just want to note that Friend of Media Nation Ron Newman has been dealing with an extremely litigious guy named Jonathan Monsarrat, and that another Friend of Media Nation, Adam Gaffin, has come to Ron’s aid.
This is important for all of us who blog independently. Ron and Adam are two of the stalwarts of Boston’s online community, and they have my support. They deserve yours, too.
More: I’m moving this up from the comments. Steve Stein notes that a legal defense fund has been set up to help Ron and others associated with the Davis Square LiveJournal blog.
One of the many wonderful things about living in Greater Boston is the abundance of community and neighborhood newspapers — something we take for granted, but that is rare in other parts of the country.
So it was sad news when Dorchester Reporter managing editor Bill Forry wrote on Thursday that his competition, the Dorchester Argus-Citizen, had folded, along with its sister papers. A follow-up in today’s Boston Globe by Patrick Rosso tallies the damage: in addition to the Argus-Citizen, the end of the road came for the South Boston Tribune, the Jamaica Plain Citizen and the Hyde Park Tribune.
I don’t know specifically what happened to those family-owned papers. In Dorchester, at least, it seemed that the Reporter had long since eclipsed the Argus-Citizen as that neighborhood’s primary news source. The other neighborhoods have feisty alternatives as well, including the Jamaica Plain Gazette, South Boston Online and the Hyde Park Bulletin.
In general, though, small community weeklies are beset by the same advertising trends that have devastated the rest of the newspaper business. Such papers may not lack for readers, but classified ads have long since moved to Craigslist, and the big box stores that now dominate the landscape simply don’t advertise the way mom-and-pop shops did when every neighborhood had a vibrant retail strip.
At a time when giant newspaper chains own most papers, both the Argus-Citizen and the Reporter are throwbacks. The Reporter was founded by Ed and Mary Forry in 1983, and Bill is their son. Bill is married to state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry, which is indicative of the paper’s deep roots in the community, even though it creates dilemmas in covering certain types of stories.
The Reporter also has a well-designed website, put together by Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub.
Writing about the competition’s demise, Bill Forry had this to say:
We’re sad to see that another publication’s time has apparently come to an end. We wish the best for the Horgan family — who lost their father Dan, the papers’ longtime operator, last year. The Argus-Citizen will certainly be remembered for all of the stories it told for many years under his watch. They will live on in microfilm at the BPL and serve as an important record of what it was like to live here.
We salute the men and women who made the Tribune papers part of our community’s history.
The video from a Sept. 22 event that I moderated at MIT is now online. The program, titled “Local News in the Digital Age,” featured David Dahl, regional editor of the Boston Globe; Callie Crossley, host of “The Callie Crossley Show” on WGBH Radio (89.7) and a regular on WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press” and “Basic Black”; and Adam Gaffin, co-founder, publisher and editor of Boston-area metablog Universal Hub. The first person you’ll see speaking is David Thorburn, a professor of literature at MIT and director of the MIT Communications Forum.
Two hours is a long time to sit in front of your computer watching video. Fortunately, you can download an MP3 here.
Please mark this on your calendar — it should be a good one. Next Thursday, Sept. 22, I’ll be moderating a panel on “Local News in the Digital Age,” part of the MIT Communications Forum.
We will have an all-star cast: David Dahl, the Boston Globe’s regional editor, who’s in charge of the paper’s regional editions and the hyperlocal Your Town sites; Callie Crossley, host of “The Callie Crossley Show” on WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) and a fellow panelist on “Beat the Press” (WGBH-TV, Channel 2); and Adam Gaffin, the co-founder, editor and publisher of Universal Hub, Greater Boston’s one essential hyperlocal news site.
The free event will take place from 5o to 7 p.m. in the MIT Media Lab’s Bartos Theater, at 20 Ames St. in Cambridge. It’s being held at the same time that the Online News Association’s annual conference gets under way in Boston, and we’re hoping a few attendees decide to wander over as well.
Due to my recent run-in with the Googletron, I decided to see if I could solicit some local advertising. Today I would like to introduce you to my first: Chan Miller Creative, whose banner ad graces the top of the page.
Go ahead and click — unlike the model that prevails elsewhere online, Media Nation does not charge extra per click. Which means that even I can click through without costing Chan Miller any additional money.
I am deeply appreciative of Chan Miller’s sponsorship of Media Nation, which came about when partner Ken Gornstein responded to this post. I’m hoping to unveil another local sponsor in the near future.
So what happened to Google ads? They’re now in the upper right, below the header, where the Flyerboard used to be. The Flyerboard, administered by the Boston Blogs advertising network, had fallen on hard times. I’ll bring it back if that changes.
Handling the technical details is Adam Gaffin, editor and publisher of Universal Hub. There is no better friend to the Boston blogging community than Adam.