Blog like a journalist

The revolutionary gleam has faded. Yet blogging remains at the center of the digital media toolbox.

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Previously published at Medium.

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.)

Dan Gillmor
Dan Gillmor

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

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Ta-Nehesi Coates

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
Meg Heckman

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.

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A 19-year-old makes a splash with free political photos

This article also appears at the Nieman Journalism Lab. Don’t miss the comments — a full-scale debate has broken out over the role of free in what has traditionally been a paid craft.

If you’ve spent much time scouring the Internet for news about the Republican presidential campaign, you’ve probably run across the work of Gage Skidmore.

Skidmore’s high-quality photographs of Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and their compadres have appeared on hundreds if not thousands of sites, including those of The Atlantic, “The World,” Tech President, and MSNBC.

It’s not just the quality of his work that has made Skidmore so popular. It’s that he posts all of his photos to Flickr under a Creative Commons license, making them available free of charge as long as he’s credited. The license he chose even allows for commercial use, although he has sometimes been paid for the use of his photos. I discovered him when searching for free photos for Media Nation, and have used his pictures on a number of occasions.

As it turns out, Skidmore is a 19-year-old student at Glendale Community College in Phoenix and a freelance graphic designer. A Ron Paul supporter, he began photographing politicians when he was living in Terre Haute, Ind., attending events held by Rand Paul during his successful 2010 Senate run in Kentucky. Skidmore also showed up at stops on the presidential campaign trail in order to see Ron Paul and took photos of other prominent Republicans while he was there.

Click here to visit Gage Skidmore’s Flickr page

Skidmore doesn’t know how many times his photos have been used. Some version of a Gage Skidmore photo credit appears more than 1 million times online, and looking up his name on Google Blogsearch yields about 40,000 results. That makes him the political equivalent of David Shankbone, the nom de photo of a Wall Street lawyer whose free celebrity photos have appeared in venues such as The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. Skidmore told me his Flickr account has been viewed nearly 1.2 million times.

(He also photographs comic-book conventions, and has attended Comic-Con the past six years.)

Skidmore is a paradigmatic example of the pro-am media ecosystem fostered by the Internet — a professional-level photographer without the means or the interest to become part of the traditional journalistic system, but who is nevertheless making a name for himself through the quality and quantity of his work.

I interviewed him by email last week, and have lightly edited our conversation.

Q: How did you get started shooting politicians?

A: I first began photographing then-Senate candidate Rand Paul in Kentucky when I still lived in Indiana. I followed him to various events throughout the state over the course of a year and attended close to 40 events. I had become interested in his campaign very early on due to my support for his father in his presidential campaign in 2008.

I have only photographed a majority of the presidential candidates because Ron Paul was attending the conference that I was attending, whether it be CPAC [the Conservative Political Action Conference] or the Values Voters Summit. And it really helped to have photographed them before the presidential race began. For example, at CPAC in February 2011, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and the like were still mostly unknown, and thus there was a lack of very many free-to-use photos.

Q: Your work has been a real boon to bloggers. Why did you decide to take the Creative Commons route rather than focus on selling your work?

A: My interest has always been to see my photos used as widely as possible. If someone wants to pay me to use my work, that is really only a bonus. But I find that attribution is sometimes more rewarding in getting your name out there among the crowd, which will continue to use your photos.

Q: Have you given any thought to the effect of unpaid photographers like you on the market for professional photojournalists? Is it all right with you if you may be hastening their demise, or do you think society may be losing something?

A: I don’t really think I’ve had an effect on professional photojournalists, as I still see their photos widely used by many of the mainstream publishers. A lot of the sites that do use my photos would probably find another source of free photos regardless, so it might as well be me.

Q: Do you charge for some of your work?

A: I usually only charge for my work if it is going to used in a for-profit publication. I’ve been paid in the past by publications like Reason magazine, which have found use for some of my libertarian-related photography. I also got paid for a photo that appears in Senator Rand Paul’s book, “The Tea Party Goes to Washington.”

Q: A lot of bloggers, including me, are probably at odds with you politically. Does it bother you that people may be using your work for free in order to criticize political figures you admire?

A: I don’t agree politically with hardly anyone that I photograph. My only allegiance is to Congressman Ron Paul and a few other liberty-minded politicians, whom I admire greatly. I don’t mind that my photos are used by some not-so-nice publications. The only thing I really care about is whether or not I was attributed.

Q: What are your photography plans for the remainder of the 2012 presidential campaign? Have you started thinking about 2016?

A: The only plans I have currently is a trip to attend the 2012 Liberty Political Action Conference, organized by the Campaign for Liberty. If Mitt Romney or Barack Obama visit Arizona, I’ll probably make an attempt to photograph them as well.

My focus has never really been to cover the presidential race, but really only what I would enjoy seeing photos of, and enjoy attending events to take the photos, and what was convenient for me to attend.

Creative Commons and the U.S. Senate campaign

Brown headshot was taken from this picture

The Bob Massie campaign is using a photo I took of U.S. Sen. Scott Brown on its Half-Term Senator website. I just want to be clear that all content on Media Nation is published under a Creative Commons license, which means that anyone is free to use it for non-commercial purposes, with certain restrictions. I receive no compensation. The complete terms of the license are online here.

The Massie campaign neither sought nor needed my permission. A campaign official asked me if my Creative Commons license covers photos as well as text. I told her it did, and that was the end of it. Anyone else is free to use it as well — including, of course, the Brown campaign.

The photo, by the way, is from a debate involving Brown, Attorney General Martha Coakley and independent candidate Joseph Kennedy held at WBZ-TV (Channel 4) in December 2009.

To learn more about Creative Commons, click here.

“Little People” is now online

Today I have an exciting announcement to make (exciting to me, anyway). The full text of “Little People,” my 2003 book on the culture of dwarfism, is now online. You will find it here.

Why did I do this? About a year ago, my publisher, Rodale, took “Little People” off the market and sold its inventory to remainder houses. Despite a flurry of favorable reviews and national attention, sales had never really taken off. Given that the book is now officially out of print, the rights have reverted to me, and I decided to make it available for anyone who’s interested.

You’ll find everything online that’s in the hardcover edition — even a Flickr slide show of photos from the book. (I did have to make some substitutions to deal with copyright issues. But the result, I think, is a better selection.) I’ve changed the subtitle; it’s now “A Father Reflects on His Daughter’s Dwarfism — and What It Means to Be Different,” which is a mouthful, but which more accurately describes the contents. There’s also a new, online-only introduction.

Finally, I’ve issued “Little People” under a Creative Commons license, which allows anyone to make copies or even adaptations, as long as it’s for non-commercial use and (ahem) I get the credit.

I actually posted “Little People” over the summer, but, like Andy Card, I believe you shouldn’t introduce new products in August, whether it’s a war or an e-book. Now feels like the right time.

My hope is that some enterprising publisher will take new interest in “Little People” and contact me about bringing out a paperback edition. (E-mail me!) I also hope this helps me sell a few hardcover copies out of my basement. (New condition! Signed by the author!)

Even if that doesn’t happen, though, this means that “Little People” is still in circulation. And, ultimately, that’s what every author wants.

Creative Commons update

If you click on the Creative Commons logo now, you’ll see that it takes you to a customized page that says (among other things), “You must attribute this work to Media Nation (with link).”

The coding that makes that happen was provided to me by John Guilfoil, a former student of mine and the founder and editor-in-chief of Blast Magazine, which recently embraced the Creative Commons model.

Thanks, John.

Creative Commons

Scroll down the right-hand side of Media Nation, and you’ll see that I’ve added a Creative Commons logo to the site. What this means is that you can reuse content from Media Nation as long as you attribute it properly and don’t try to profit from it. The idea is to bring common sense to copyright law, which too often comes down to a simple “no.”