Maybe BuzzFeed will save The Huffington Post. Frankly, though, it feels more like the end than a new beginning. Who has given much thought to HuffPost in recent years? Even with a sharp editor, Lydia Polgreen, at the top until recently, the site hasn’t seemed relevant for a long time.
So what happened? Your guess is as good as mine. But I’d argue that HuffPost was built on three pillars, and all of them are gone:
• Unpaid contributions. For a long time, HuffPost was a blogging platform as much as it was a publisher. The site took a lot of heat for not paying its writers, but I always thought that critics were making a category error. If you’re going to blog and not get paid for it, why not do it at a site where you’re more likely to be seen rather than on your own?
Maybe eight or so years ago, when I was between paid column-writing gigs, I wrote a few free pieces for HuffPost just to keep my hand in. There was a huge variety of contributions to HuffPost, some great, some terrible. They gave the site a vibrancy that it has lacked ever since such content was discontinued.
• Abusive aggregation. The Huffington Post originally made its mark with extremely aggressive aggregation — it would, for example, summarize a 5,000-word investigative piece published by another news organization in so much detail that you really didn’t need to click through to the original. As Jeff Bezos lamented shortly after announcing he would buy The Washington Post, HuffPost could rewrite a story “in 17 minutes” that had taken the originating media outlet weeks or months to report and write.
Over time, HuffPost’s approach to aggregation became more conservative even as it added more original reporting. That may have been the ethical thing to do, but I’m sure it cost them a substantial part of their audience.
• Social over search. HuffPost absolutely nailed search back when that mattered above all else. Remember the infamous “What time does the Superbowl start?” headline, which the rest of the internet reacted to with a mixture of rage and awe?
Well, search-engine optimization has long since given way to social-media engagement as the metric that really matters. And BuzzFeed perfected the latter, which is why it’s the senior partner in this particular deal. What the two sites have in common is BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti, who helped HuffPost master SEO before founding BuzzFeed and embracing social.
All of this is why I’m not particularly optimistic about HuffPost staging a comeback. It was hugely influential for about a half-dozen years after Arianna Huffington launched it in 2005. But it was a creature of its time, and that time may have expired.
Comments are open. Please include your full name, first and last, and speak with a civil tongue.
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.
The media — all 15,000-plus reporters, photographers, editors, producers and assorted hangers-on who’ve descended on this unlovely, brutally humid old city — are having a nervous breakdown. And you’re invited to watch.
With the Republican National Convention making no news, and with the Democratic convention destined to be similarly vacuous, it seems the only story media people are talking about is the fact that there’s no story.
I wrote those words 12 years ago in Philadelphia, where I was covering the nomination of George W. Bush for the Boston Phoenix. If anything, the ennui that has come to permeate our national political conventions has grown even more pronounced since then. Nothing newsworthy will take place inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum this week or at Bank of America Forum in Charlotte, N.C., the following week.
But, once again, some 15,000 members of the media have showed up anyway, and most of them will be covering the same non-story. As the noted media observer Jeff Jarvis wrote on his blog, Buzz Machine, the financially strapped news business is spending some $60 million to attend two conventions even while cutting far more important coverage elsewhere. Jarvis continued:
Note that even while newspapers and news organizations have shrunken drastically, we are sending the same number of journalists to the conventions that we sent in 2008 and 2004. Why? Editorial ego: It’s fun to be there, in the pack. It’s fun for a paper or station to say, “We have our man/woman in Tampa/Charlotte.” Well goody for you. It’s a waste.
Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. Yes, way too many journalists are attending the conventions, and many if not most of the folks carrying press credentials this week should have stayed home. But I never found any shortage of news at the four national conventions I covered from 1996 to 2004. The secret — and it’s really no secret at all — is to get out of the hall and look for stories. I was a reporter for the Phoenix, an alternative weekly, during those years, so leaving the media pack behind wasn’t just tolerated; it was required.
In 1996, when I covered the Republican convention in San Diego, I was one of a surprisingly small group of reporters who took a bus to a rally at which Pat Buchanan made his last stand. No doubt other journalists were afraid of missing out on even a moment of Dole-Kemp mania.
In 2000, covering the Republicans in Philadelphia and the Democrats in Los Angeles, I followed protesters around the city streets and reported on two “Shadow Conventions” — left-leaning events organized by Arianna Huffington, who had only recently moved from the conservative to the progressive side of the political spectrum.
At the Democratic convention in 2004, on my home turf in Boston, I skipped Barack Obama’s keynote address because I was writing on deadline. So what? Yes, I missed a bit of history, but it’s not as though his speech wasn’t covered. What mattered was that my fellow Phoenix reporters and I went looking for news outside the building — and found plenty of it, from a meeting of gay and lesbian Democrats to a church service/rally in honor of the late senator Paul Wellstone, from demonstrations in the streets to panel discussions on the sad state of political journalism.
I have little doubt that Jeff Jarvis will be proven right, although there will be a few honorable exceptions. But it doesn’t have to be that way. All the media have to do is get off their collective rear ends and go looking for news. (And let me give a plug to David Bernstein and Chris Faraone, who are heading up the Phoenix’s Tampa coverage.)
I’ll close here as I did in Philadelphia in 2000:
Sure, the media will cover the horse race — who’s up, who’s down, who’s gaining, who’s losing — as well as the accusations and responses, the biographical retrospectives, and the gotchas. That’s all valuable stuff.
But they’ll almost certainly miss the biggest political story of all: the profound disconnect between average citizens and their elected officials…. A sign at the Shadow Convention put it best: “We Can Only Vote Every Four Years; Money Votes Every Day.”
It’s a story the media could have tried to cover during convention week, but — with rare exceptions — they didn’t even try. Instead, the story coming out of Philadelphia was that there was no story. There was. If journalists would start focusing more on the public’s alienation and less on their own, maybe they could start to tell it.
Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.
You may recall that MySpace was a social-media phenomenon when Rupert Murdoch bought it back in 2005 for $580 million. It wasn’t long, though, before Facebook zoomed past it, rendering Murdoch’s new toy all but worthless. The site is now for sale. A large part of it may have been that Facebook was simply better technologically. But surely some of MySpace’s lost cachét was due to a perception among users that anything owned by Murdoch wasn’t cool anymore.
Which brings us to AOL and the Huffington Post. When AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong forked over $315 million for HuffPo, he no doubt thought he was acquiring, among other things, an army of unpaid bloggers. But not so fast.
Socialite Arianna Huffington built a blog-empire on the backs of thousands of citizen journalists. She exploited our idealism and let us labor under the illusion that the Huffington Post was different, independent and leftist. Now she’s cashed in and three thousand indie bloggers find themselves working for a megacorp.
Two old Boston Phoenix friends have weighed in as well.
Al Giordano writes that he cross-posted 26 of his stories on HuffPo between 2007 and 2009. He stopped, he says, because he “grew uncomfortable with how that website was transparently becoming more and more sensationalist, cult-of-personality generated.” Now he’s removed his posts, replacing them with this:
(As author and sole owner of the words in this story, I did not write them for AOL, and do not wish to have any association with it imposed upon me. The original text may still be found at http://narconews.com/thefield – Al Giordano, February 7, 2011)
What Ariana Huffington sold for $315 mil was a lot of bloggers who work for free and all the eyeballs they attract to HuffPo. Feeling exploited? Stop working for free for HuffPo and stop providing HuffPo with the value of your visits. Believe me, there will be alternatives. True alternatives.
Dan Gillmor says that, at the very least, Huffington ought to start paying people.
It’s hard to know to what extent HuffPo’s unpaid bloggers fit into Armstrong’s plans. At the very least, though, it’s beginning to look like he did not get what he paid for. He could ask old Rupe about that.
My theory as to why Arianna Huffington would sell her successful website to a troubled company like AOL is that her investors wanted to cash in and weren’t particularly interested about the future of the Huffington Post.
Writing for the Guardian, Graeme Wearden says the beneficiaries of Huffington’s $315 million deal will be three venture-capital firms and a few private investors. Wearden adds that “some shareholders must be sitting on very large returns, as the company has received just $37m of funding over the last six years.”
HuffPo’s business model has three prongs: paid, original journalism by the likes of Howard Fineman and Sam Stein; extreme aggregation that summarizes off-site content so thoroughly there’s really not much reason to click through; and free content from numerous bloggers.
I’m guessing that the latter two prongs will be endangered by the acquisition, as media companies take a new look at HuffPo’s aggregation practices and bloggers who were willing to write for free for a site that they saw as somehow theirs balk at doing it for a corporation like AOL.
Perhaps skeptics like me will be proven wrong, but I don’t see what AOL brings to the table. Yes, it has acquired content sites like TechCrunch and Engadget, and its hyperlocal Patch sites are springing up everywhere. But I don’t understand how adding HuffPo creates the “synergies” AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong is talking about.
Indeed, “synergy” has become a punchline from years past, with the ill-fated merger of AOL and Time Warner being a prime example.
Ken Auletta recently wrote a terrific story on AOL for the New Yorker, which, unfortunately, is not freely available online. Auletta portrayed AOL as a company that may be on the brink of financial collapse, and Armstrong as a smart, energetic leader whose content-heavy strategy may nevertheless prove to be flawed and outdated.
By far my favorite part of the story was the revelation that AOL still gets 80 percent of its profits from subscribers, and that perhaps 75 percent of them are older people who don’t realize they don’t need the $25-per-month service now that they have broadband. Not exactly a recipe for success.
With few exceptions, media sensations like the Huffington Post have their moments and then fade away. Arianna may prove she can defy gravity. But she has just made her job harder, not easier.
New Haven Independent editor Paul Bass, on a busman’s holiday in Washington, covers dueling speeches by Huffington Post impresario Arianna Huffington and international media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
Murdoch has been much in the news of late for threatening to make his properties invisible to Google and to cut a deal with Google’s leading competitor, Microsoft’s Bing — the better to stop aggregators like HuffPost from “stealing” his content.
Particularly entertaining is a video (above) Bass posts of Huffington explaining to Murdoch how to insert a line of code that would stop Google from searching his sites.
Huffington and Murdoch spoke at a Federal Trade Commission workshop on the future of journalism.