Earlier this week I did something I had resisted for a long time: I added my Twitter feed to the right-hand rail of Media Nation. (WGBH News is still there, but farther down.)
I did it for two reasons. First, for me, as for many people, Twitter has changed my approach to blogging. If I want to put up a link with a brief comment, I do it on Twitter, often on Facebook as well, and rarely on Media Nation. Ten years ago, by contrast, I would have run everything on my blog.
Second, I tend to be less disciplined than I’d like on Twitter. (How’s that for a euphemism?) Having a little voice in my head reminding me that whatever I post on Twitter will also show up on Media Nation is a good thing.
And speaking of how social media have changed blogging, a reminder: I post links to all Media Nation articles on Facebook, where a much richer discussion generally takes place than is the case here. You don’t have to friend me — just follow my public feed.
Journalism has lost control of its platforms and means of distribution. In many ways, that’s good, because it has brought to an end the monopoly journalists once held on the news and information we need to govern ourselves in a democratic society. We should be deeply concerned about the mysterious process that determines what we see or don’t see in our Facebook newsfeeds.
But the age of information gatekeepers did not end with the rise of the Internet. In fact, the lowering of the moat was only a temporary blip. Now we’re living in a new age of gatekeeping. Our masters are social media — and Facebook in particular, both because of its dominance and the way it manipulates what we see.
Last week Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School, delivered an important speech at Oxford about the journalistic implications of social mediation. It is worth reading in full. Also worth reading is Mathew Ingram’s analysis. Just as earlier generations fretted over what made it (or didn’t make it) onto the nightly network newscasts, today we should be deeply concerned about the mysterious process that determines what we see or don’t see in our Facebook newsfeeds.
One of the more original political voices to pass through Boston in many years is fleeing the scene. My former Boston Phoenix colleague David Bernstein, who’s been contributing to Boston magazine and WGBH since the Phoenix’s demise in 2013, is heading to Richmond, Virginia, where his wife, Kristin McGrath, is starting “an exciting new job.”
Bernstein’s political analysis is smart and straight from a liberal perspective. But it’s his use of social media that sets him apart. His Twitter feed, which has nearly 14,000 followers, is a great source of news, political humor and hashtag games. On Facebook, he pays tribute to the birthdays of often-obscure politicos with music trivia contests. A recent example:
Today’s Massachusetts political birthday is Segun Idowu of the Edward M. Kennedy Insititute, currently under construction. In his honor, what are the best songs with the word “build,” “shape,” or “make” in the title? I’ll start with Foundations “Build Me Up Buttercup”; Nirvana “Heart-Shaped Box”; and Nick Lowe “You Make Me.”
Then there is Bernstein’s #mapoli With Animals, a Tumblr consisting of photos of Massachusetts politicians posing with their (and other people’s) pets. If you haven’t seen it, you should. I’m sure you’ll agree that it is one of the signal accomplishments of the Internet age.
Bernstein says he’ll “still write and comment about Massachusetts politics beyond 2014,” and that he expects to continue with BoMag and WGBH. But it won’t be the same with him checking in from afar. Best of luck to both David and Kristin.
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.
We tried hard to make our website’s comments feature a forum for the exchange of opinion and information.
Sure, many commenters posted thoughtful remarks and adhered to the highest standards.
But far too many used the feature to spew vitriol, bigotry, obscenity, cheap shots and juvenile taunts, no matter how hard we worked to keep the conversation civil.
The Eagle-Tribune will let people register under their real names using either Facebook or Disqus.
White also raises an interesting issue — that news-site comments may have run their course, as much of the online conversation has shifted to Facebook, Twitter and other social media. “We have almost 8,000 Twitter followers, for example, 5,000 on our text alert service and more than 4,000 on Facebook,” he writes. “Those numbers are growing. I’d guess we have fewer than 100 ‘regulars’ commenting on Disqus, and that number appears to be shrinking.”
It’s a phenomenon I and many others have noticed. Comments on Media Nation posts have dropped off considerably in recent years. But when I link to a Media Nation post on Facebook, the responses roll in.
Some sites, like the New Haven Independent, have done a good job of integrating anonymous comments into the conversation. But a real-names policy can definitely be part of a well-tended comments garden. Good move on The Eagle-Tribune’s part.
The flexible paywall that The Boston Globe introduced for its subscription website about a year and a half ago has slowly gotten a little less flexible. Fewer Globe stories are available on the paper’s free Boston.com site, and restrictions have been placed on social sharing.
The reason, according to Globe spokeswoman Ellen Clegg, is that the paper’s executives are still trying to figure out how to get paid online journalism right in a world awash in free news.
“The core of our two-brand strategy,” she told me by email, “involves trying to find the optimal balance between a free, ad-supported model and a premium, consumer-supported model.”
The restrictions were brought home to me recently when I learned that the paper had started limiting social media sharing to only two free links a month — a serious limit on someone like me, who regularly shares links on my blog, on Facebook and on Twitter. As a subscriber, I can share as many links as I like, of course. But non-subscribers can only click on two before getting a message that they cannot pass go.
So let’s run down the changes, shall we?
First, those social-media links. Clegg says that when BostonGlobe.com went live in the fall of 2011, social sharing was limited to five links per month. If so, it wasn’t well publicized. I’ve gone back and looked at some of the coverage, including a piece I wrote for the Nieman Journalism Lab and the Globe’s own FAQ, and can find no mention of a monthly cap.
In any case, Clegg says that in December 2012, that number was cut to two links a month from search and social media — “per device, and per browser.” In other words, eight a month if you want to juggle among Chrome, Safari, Firefox and Internet Explorer (but who wants to do that?), and more if you move back and forth among other screens. “Email sharing,” she adds, “is unlimited.”
Second, when BostonGlobe.com debuted, the editors selected five stories a day that would also run on the free Boston.com site. Most sports stories ran on Boston.com as well. Last April, the number of free news stories was cut from five to four, and some additional sports content was moved behind the paywall.
“This is part of an effort to continually experiment, test and analyze how our readers engage with us digitally,” Clegg says. “We have been trying to find the right balance between the free-sharing culture of the Internet and paid access to premium Globe content. We believe that we can only arrive at that balance through experimentation.”
How well is it working? The Globe’s digital subscription base has risen, but slowly. Currently, Clegg says, the Globe has about 50,000 paid digital subscribers — but that doesn’t mean 50,000 people paying directly for a digital subscription. It’s a figure that includes digital-only subscribers; Sunday-only print subscribers (I’m one of them), who automatically get seven-day digital access; and seven-day print subscribers who access BostonGlobe.com at least once a week.
That’s how digital subscriptions are counted by the Alliance for Audited Media (formerly the Audit Bureau of Circulations), and it’s a pretty expansive definition. As I’ve written before, about half of those counted as Globe digital subscribers get the paper delivered to their doorstep all seven days.
So is the decision by Globe executives to tighten the paywall smart or dumb? It’s hard to say. From the beginning, the idea behind the paid BostonGlobe.com site was to find a way to get regular readers to pay without turning away occasional readers and without hurting the free, advertiser-supported (and just-redesigned) Boston.com site. (Here is how Globe publisher Christopher Mayer explained it to me shortly after plans to build the paywall were announced in the fall of 2010.) Today, Clegg says, Boston.com attracts about 6 million unique visitors a month. Another 1.5 million uniques a month visit BostonGlobe.com, mainly as a result of the site’s free-access features.
I know that since I learned about the two-links-per-month limit, I’ve been looking for the equivalent content in Boston.com’s news blogs or elsewhere. I tend to shy away from BostonHerald.com unless I’m writing specifically about the Herald, since much of its content moves into the paper’s paid archives after two weeks. But there are plenty of other sources of free local news, even if it’s not always of the same quality as the Globe’s.
I’m inclined to cut the Globe some slack as Mayer, editor Brian McGrory and company grope their way into the future. But the new rules have already nudged me away from Globe content, and I’m a paying customer. That can’t be a good thing.
Given that my life is too dull to be of much interest to anyone, I generally go along with the ever-increasing demands from the digital tools that I use to reveal my location or connect with Facebook. I don’t like it, but I don’t care enough to take a stand. (Yes, I’m well aware that that’s the road to hell.)
But three recent experiences have me wondering. I’ll take them in increasing order of ridiculousness.
I’ll start with Spotify, the free music service (premium versions are also available) that requires you to log in using your Facebook account, after which all of your Facebook friends can see what you’re listening to.
I had been using Rdio at the recommendation of Josh Stearns and found it was a little less bewildering than Spotify. Even better, there was no Facebook connection. But after I used up my free-music quota for the month, I switched over to Spotify, and joined the stream. I suppose a 55-year-old shouldn’t worry about whether his musical choices strike others as sufficiently cool, but I do.
Now, I don’t think Spotify’s social-networking policy is particularly outrageous, because it is offering an expensive service for free. So I have no real complaints. But I’m not crazy about having to do my listening in public. And if I get a sudden urge to listen to Barry Manilow (I’m kidding! Really!), I’ll be sure to do it on Rdio.
Considerably farther down the food chain, yesterday I wanted to download a PDF of a legal decision from a site that uses Scribd. With PDFs, you can usually just click and download. But with a Scribd-ified PDF, I had to register, either by creating a new account (ugh) or logging in with Facebook. Hmmm … I did as I was told and got my download.
In paging back through my Facebook status updates, I see no evidence of anything saying “Dan downloaded a document from Scribd!” But still.
Finally — and the mind still reels at this — I recently received a notification that there was an update available for Flashlight, an app that turns your iPhone into, yes, a flashlight. What, I wondered, could be new and improved about Flashlight? A brighter light? A setting that shines a Batman logo on the sides of vacant buildings?
I installed the new app, started it up — and was asked whether I wanted to provide my location information. Seriously. Well, that was easy. No. But is someone sitting in a room somewhere with a giant Google map, checking to see who’s looking for their car keys?
My prediction: Social sharing is here to stay, but not at this level. Businesses are going to discover that there’s no social-media pot of gold at the end of every rainbow. And as I said, though I’m not particularly obsessed with protecting my privacy, I think all of us should be concerned about living increasingly large chunks of our life in public.