Help! I’ve been locked out of Twitter. And the bots aren’t going to let me back in.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

(Note: My Twitter account was restored several days after this column appeared thanks to some human intervention. Which is what Twitter and other internet businesses need to offer to everyone.)

I’ve been off Twitter since Feb. 12 — surely my longest sabbatical since joining in 2008. But it’s not by choice. First my account was attacked, apparently by Turkish hackers. Then I botched the process of resetting my password. Now I’m stuck in limbo, unable to revive my account on my own yet clueless about how to get an actual human being at Twitter to help.

If you think this is special pleading, you’re right. I confess to hoping that someone at Twitter (or someone who knows someone) sees this and contacts me. Yes, I have a love-hate relationship with Twitter. Yes, I’ve been known to refer to its troll-infested backwaters as a cesspool. But as long as it exists, I need it to keep up on conversations that are important to me and to promote my work.

If you visit my Twitter page, you’ll see that everything is intact — my 16,000-plus followers, my cherished “verified” check mark, my 62,000 tweets (a record of which I am not proud), and my nine lists. But it might as well go in a scrapbook for all the good it’s doing me. I can look, but I can’t touch.

As a culture, we have become utterly dependent on the free tools and platforms that have come with the digital age. Yes, I’m well aware of what they say about free: If you’re not paying, then you’re the product. But Twitter, Facebook, and the rest offer the kind of convenient networking (too convenient, argues Tim Wu in The New York Times) that is now difficult to live without.

Never mind their considerable downside, including the way these platforms — especially Facebook — enabled the Russians to interfere in our political process. Social media is how we connect in these early decades of the 21st century, and if you’re shut out from those connections, you’re at a huge disadvantage. Unfortunately, the reason social-media platforms are profitable is that they require very few paid employees. I know of no way that you can contact a customer-service representative at Twitter or Facebook. You’ve got to rely on automated help. And I’ve gotten myself into such a mess that Twitter’s bot service just isn’t going to get the job done.

Would you like to know what happened? It’s not an especially gripping story, but I’m going to tell you anyway. You might learn from it.

At about 6:30 a.m. on Feb. 12 I logged onto Twitter on my phone and saw that I had received a direct message from a fairly prominent editor. His DM promised news and was accompanied by an odd-looking link. But because it seemed to be from someone I knew, and because I had heard there were cutbacks under way at his organization, I made the dangerous assumption that the link was legitimate. I clicked. Nothing happened. I clicked again. Still nothing. So I forgot about it.

Later that morning I received an email from a colleague at another university informing me that my direct messages appeared to have been hacked. The evidence: a DM he had received from me (or, should I say, “me”) that was identical to the one I’d gotten from the editor. At that point I stopped what I was doing and reset my password. I use 1Password, which generates long strings of gibberish that are essentially unbreakable. I saved the new password and tried to log in to Twitter again.

Except that I hadn’t saved it. My old password was dead and I had no idea what my new password was. So I followed Twitter’s instructions for resetting my password again. The options I was given were to supply my Twitter name, which only brought me back to the same menu; my cellphone number, which I had never turned over in the first place; or an email address associated with my account.

And this was the moment when I realized I was in over my head. Twitter recognized none of my email addresses. Why? I have no idea. Maybe they were wiped out by the hackers. Maybe I’m overlooking something obvious. The point is that I need someone at Twitter to perform an exorcism, and I don’t know how to make that happen. Maybe once or twice a day I try to log in using my old password, hoping something miraculous has occurred. The message I get: “We detected unusual activity on your account. To secure your account, please change your password before logging back in.” Gah.

Is all of this my fault? Of course. I shouldn’t have clicked on that link. I should have provided Twitter with my cellphone number ages ago. I should have pasted my new password into a Word document until I was absolutely sure that I had saved it. The thing is, people do stupid things. They shouldn’t be left without options.

So if anyone from Twitter is reading this, I want to say something from the bottom of my heart: Won’t you please help?

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Advertisements

Herald reporter suspended for violating social-media policy

Boston Herald reporter Chris Villani was given a three-day suspension for violating the paper’s social-media policy. According to Chris Sweeney of Boston magazine, Villani tweeted out some breaking news on the Aaron Hernandez case without first seeking permission from the higher-ups. (Note: This post has now been updated with a message to the staff by Herald publisher Pat Purcell and a response to Purcell by the Newspaper Guild. Just keep scrolling.)

A number of Herald reporters are boycotting Twitter in response to Villani’s punishment. Here’s a statement from the union that represents Herald employees:

The policy is the policy. But having to get permission from a top editor before tweeting seems unworkable for a news organization hoping to make an impact in the digital space.

Adam Vaccaro of The Boston Globe has more. An interesting side note: Herald editor Joe Sciacca declined to comment to the Globe even after providing a rather fulsome statement to Boston magazine.

Update: Herald publisher Pat Purcell has weighed in.

Update II: The Newspaper Guild has now responded to Purcell.

Guild members are grateful to Pat Purcell for keeping the Boston Herald alive and thriving during a difficult time for the newspaper industry. We respect his leadership and his decades of experience.

No one is more concerned with matters of reputation and accuracy than his Guild employees. After all, our names go on the stories; our reputations are on the line if any of the information is wrong. The same holds true for our social media accounts, where our names, pictures, and occupations accompany every single post. We are well aware that if we were to use social media recklessly, we would lose the trust both of sources who help us do our jobs as well as our readers.

We agree with Pat that there is a need for a policy, but we have deep reservations about certain aspects that Herald Media Inc. has incorporated into its policy. In our view, the response our members have expressed about this recent enforcement is an opportunity to open the door to discuss making changes.

We remain committed to providing Boston Herald readers with the best quality journalism in the city and look forward to speaking with him.

The Guild

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Twitter’s slide and newspaper apps that don’t quite work

Tech journalist Om Malik interviews Jack Dorsey in 2013. Photo (cc) by JD Lasica.
Tech journalist Om Malik interviews Jack Dorsey in 2013. Photo (cc) by JD Lasica.

Twitter, long a laggard behind Facebook, may be reaching a crisis point. Despite the return of co-founder Jack Dorsey, the stock price is sliding, its user base is stagnant and journalists — many of whom have long been enamored of Twitter because of its flexibility — are beginning to realize that far more of their audience is on Facebook.

Recently Umair Haque wrote a post for Medium headlined “Why Twitter’s Dying (And What You Can Learn From It)” in which he argued that the platform has become the leading outlet for a certain type of nasty incivility — a place where “little violences that permeate the social web” get their more extravagant airing.

The post degenerates into overwrought handwringing. But before Haque gets to the part where he starts critiquing the meaning of life, he raises some important questions about Twitter. Why is Facebook (usually) a more civil place that fosters better conversations than Twitter?

Some of the answers seem obvious. On Facebook, you’re not bound by the 140-character restriction, which makes it more congenial for a conversation to develop. Facebook also makes it easier (though not as easy as it should) to define your community, whereas Twitter assumes you want everything to be open to everyone. Yes, you can fiddle with the settings, but it makes the service feel less useful.

A couple of years ago, I vastly preferred Twitter to Facebook. Now I find Facebook to be much more satisfying. I’m not sure whether Twitter has changed or if, instead, what I’m looking for in a social platform has evolved. Maybe it’s just that the novelty of Twitter has worn off.

Twitter recently unveiled curated stories called Moments, which might help in attracting those who were put off by the sheer labor you have to put into assembling a worthwhile list of feeds. If users started thinking about it differently — say, as more of a broadcast medium, a more flexible form of RSS, rather than as a place to have a conversation — that might help, too.

Or Twitter might curl up and die. Technologies come and go. There is no guarantee that Twitter will be one of the survivors, or that it should be.

The trouble with apps. Like many newspapers, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post have bet the farm on online distribution. Each has tablet apps (the Post has two!) that create a reading experience somewhat similar to the print newspaper. As a regular reader of both papers, I want to point out a bug in each. (Caveat: I could be doing something wrong.)

First, the Globe app, which is based upon a replica of the print edition, has a feature that supposedly lets you share an article on Twitter or Facebook. But the link it produces does not take you to the article. Instead, it takes you to the App Store, where you are invited to download the Globe’s iPad app. Which, of course, you already have.

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 9.22.53 AM

The app, designed by miLibris, has improved greatly since a buggy version was released some months back. But this particular bug has prevailed. Time to fix it, eh?

My issue with The Washington Post involves its “classic” app, which is older than the sexy new magazine-like app that’s included with Amazon Prime — but which is also more comprehensive. (An overview of the Post’s various digital products can be found here.)  It’s simple: the audio in videos does not play on my iPad, even though they are preceded by video ads that work just fine. The same videos also work fine when I try them on the newer app.

I would love to know whether the Globe and the Post are going to fix the bugs I’ve described — or if, as is always possible, I’m doing something boneheaded to create problems that don’t actually exist.

Snapchat news targets the young and the underinformed

snapchat

Previously published at WGBHNews.org and republished in The Huffington Post.

Two years ago, then-CNN reporter Peter Hamby lamented the negative effect he believed Twitter and other social media were having on presidential campaign coverage. In a 95-page research paper (pdf) he wrote while he was a fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Hamby put it this way:

With Instagram and Twitter-primed iPhones, an ever more youthful press corps, and a journalistic reward structure in Washington that often prizes speed and scoops over context, campaigns are increasingly fearful of the reporters who cover them.

On Tuesday, Hamby was back at the Shorenstein Center, this time to tout the journalistic virtues of an even more ephemeral media platform: Snapchat, built on 10-second videos that disappear as soon as you view them. Hamby, who is barely older than the 18- to 34-year-old users he’s trying to reach, told a friendly but skeptical crowd of about two dozen that Snapchat is bringing news to an audience that is otherwise tuned out.

“Because our audience is so young, I view our mission as educational,” he said. “I think it’s OK that our mission is to illuminate the issues for young people. That’s not to say we won’t get into more serious, complicated things.”

My personal philosophy about new media platforms is to watch them from afar and to more or less ignore them until it’s no longer possible to do so. That served me well with networks like Foursquare and Ello, which seem to have faded away without my ever having to partake. On the other hand, I’ve been tweeting since mid-2008, which is about the time that Twitter’s emerging importance as a news source was becoming undeniable.

Snapchat, it would appear, has reached that turning point. It already has about 100 million daily users, the vast majority of them between 18 and 34, as Michael Andor Brodeur notes in The Boston Globe. And it is starting to branch out beyond those 10-second disintegrating videos.

The newsiest part of Snapchat is called Discover — channels from media organizations such as CNN, ESPN, Vice, BuzzFeed and National Geographic that provide short graphics- and music-heavy stories aimed at providing a little information to a low-information audience.

CNN’s fare of the moment comprises such material as the fight between Afghan and Taliban forces in the city of Kunduz; an FBI report that crime rates are dropping (a story consisting of nothing more than a video clip of a police cruiser with flashing lights, a headline and a brief paragraph); and the re-emergence of the Facebook copyright hoax.

Perhaps the most ambitious news project Snapchat has taken on — and the one in which Peter Hamby is most closely involved — is called Live Stories. Snapchat editors look for snaps being posted from a given location and, with the consent of those users, weave together a brief story. They disappear after 24 hours; the only one playing at the moment is “Farm Life: Worldwide,” which is as exciting as it sounds. But Hamby mentioned stories from presidential campaign announcements, the Iran nuclear deal, music festivals and the like that he said drew tens of millions of viewers. (If you want to get an idea of what a well-executed Live Story looks like, Joseph Lichterman of the Nieman Journalism Lab found a four-and-a-half-minute piece on the hajj that someone had saved and posted to YouTube.)

“At CNN we would cover an event with one or two cameras,” Hamby said. “With Snapchat we have everyone’s camera at our disposal.”

For me, at least, the most frustrating part of my brief experience with Snapchat (I only signed up Tuesday morning) has been finding worthwhile — or any — content that’s not part of the Discover channels or the Live Story of the moment. The search function is not especially useful. I did manage to friend several news organizations and presidential campaigns.

Any user can create a story that will stay up for 24 hours. So far, though, I’ve only managed to see relatively useless clips from Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham. Hamby gives points to former candidate Scott Walker and current candidate John Kasich for their imaginative use of Snapchat. But as best as I can tell, Kasich hasn’t posted a story in the past day. His campaign website — like those of a few other candidates I looked up — does not include his Snapchat username, even though it includes buttons for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Snapchat is mobile to a fault — you can install it on an iOS or Android device, but not a laptop or desktop computer. That makes it fine if you’re on the go. But for an old fogey like me, it complicates the process of finding worthwhile material. And vertical video! Yikes!

In listening to Hamby on Tuesday, I was struck by his animus toward Twitter. “I think Twitter has made the tone of the coverage more negative,” he said. “Twitter is a uniquely toxic, negative space.” And though you might dismiss that as simply putting down a competitor, he said much the same thing in his 2013 report, citing a Pew Research Center study to back him up. Hamby quoted John Dickerson, now host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” as saying of Twitter:

It makes us small and it makes us pissed off and mean, because Twitter as a conversation is incredibly acerbic and cynical and we don’t need more of that in coverage of politics, we need less.

Will Snapchat prove to be the antidote to Twitter? Count me as skeptical. Five to eight years ago, when Twitter pioneers were using the nascent platform to cover anti-government protests in Iran and earthquakes in California, Haiti and elsewhere, we had no way of knowing it would devolve into one of our leading sources of snark, poisoning the public discourse 140 characters at a time. (And I’m not sure I agree that that’s what it’s become. I mean, come on, just unfollow the worst offenders.)

But to the extent that we have to bring news to where the audience is rather than waiting for people to come to us, then yes, Snapchat may prove to be a valuable home for journalism. I just hope it whets users’ appetites for something more substantial.

How the Globe is leveraging social to cover #FITN

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 8.22.18 AM
A recent Pindell piece in Medium.

In his recent exhortation to accelerate the transition to digital, Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory singled out — among others — James Pindell, who’s covering the New Hampshire primary (or #FITN, as they say) as a digital-first reporter, “rapidly pushing webbier (sorry) stories that allow the site to look less like a digital reflection of that morning’s and the next morning’s print paper.”

Now Mashable has a close-up look at exactly how Pindell is accomplishing that. Jason Abbruzzese writes that Pindell has embraced a wide range of social media, including Twitter, Instagram, FacebookMedium and — shades of steam-powered presses from the 19th century — an email newsletter. (Not all of this is new. Pindell’s Twitter feed has been a must-read among political junkies for years.) Pindell’s work is gathered at a Globe site called Ground Game.

The approach has allowed Pindell to cover stories that are worth telling even if they’re not quite worthy of (or suitable for) print — such as his first-person account of covering Donald Trump and his hair during Trump’s recent foray into New Hampshire.

The idea, Abbruzzese reports, is to leverage Pindell’s coverage of across a variety of platforms in order to compete with national outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post:

“We’re putting him out there deliberately in a very focused way saying, ‘This is our guy. This is the face of our coverage,'” says David Skok, digital adviser at the Globe, who helped form their strategy of pushing content out on social platforms via a single, recognizable reporter.

The strategy also fits with the Globe’s embrace of digital verticals such as Crux, which covers “all things Catholic”; BetaBoston, which follows tech and innovation; and more that I’ve heard are in the works.

Alas, as smart a move as Ground Game may be journalistically, it’s unclear, as always, how it will make money. From the Mashable piece:

The main question dogging media organizations that want to embrace this strategy of social publishing is how it affects their bottom line. Reaching more people is great, but the benefits are quickly offset if it comes at the behest of revenue.

Skok said that Pindell’s work outside of the Globe did not have direct monetization opportunities yet, but that the broader impact would hopefully attract advertisers that want to be associated with the paper’s authoritative coverage.

The folks at the Globe deserve a lot of credit for understanding the value of pushing ahead anyway.

Eyes right: My Twitter feed is now on Media Nation

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.

Learning to love the new Google Maps

For several years I’ve asked students in my digital journalism classes to do a group project involving Google Maps. It’s a pretty simple assignment. They go out and write reviews for their blogs about coffee shops near Northeastern, or pizza restaurants, or whatever we’ve all agreed to. Then they plot the location on a map and include a link to their review. The idea is to introduce them to the power of mapping and how it can be used as a tool for non-linear storytelling.

Recently I was faced with the prospect of using the new Google Maps, which struck me as significantly more cumbersome than the old version. I couldn’t find much in the way of good documentation online, so I put out a call on Twitter. That brought a response from Aleszu Bajak, the editor of StoryBench, a how-they-did-it site that’s part of our School of Journalism’s Media Innovation graduate program. Yes, Alezsu was probably within shouting distance when he replied to my tweet.

At first I was bewildered. But later on, it started to sink in. And I’m here to tell you that the new Google Maps is a terrific tool — better than the old one, though it seems to be missing a few features. What follows is a look at how we did our most recent project — a guide to Boston’s “Hidden Gems.” (The story has been picked up by Universal Hub.) I’ve written a how-to post designed for people like me, not for Google experts. So if you’d like to give it a try, please have a look. Instructions after the jump. (And here is Bajak’s own post on Google Maps.)

Continue reading “Learning to love the new Google Maps”

Ethan Zuckerman on the limits of interconnectedness

Ethan Zuckerberg at Northeastern on Wednesday.
Ethan Zuckerman at Northeastern on Wednesday

The promise of the Internet was that it would break down social, cultural and national barriers, bringing people of diverse backgrounds together in ways that were never before possible. The reality is that online communities have reinforced those barriers.

That was the message of a talk Wednesday evening by Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media. Zuckerman, who spoke at Northeastern, is the author of the 2013 book “Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection.” He is also the co-founder of Global Voices Online, a project begun at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society that tracks citizen media around the world.

I’ve seen Ethan talk on several occasions, and I always learn something new from him. Here is some live-tweeting I did on Wednesday.

One of the most interesting graphics Zuckerman showed was a map of San Francisco based on GPS-tracked cab drivers. Unlike a street map, which shows infrastructure, the taxi map showed flow — where people are actually traveling. Among other things, we could see that the African-American neighborhood of Hunters Point didn’t even appear on the flow map, suggesting that cab drivers do not travel in or out of that neighborhood (reinforcing the oft-stated complaint by African-Americans that cab drivers discriminate against them).

Since we can all be tracked via the GPS in our smartphones, flow maps such as the one Zuckerman demonstrated raise serious privacy implications as well.

We may actually be less cosmopolitan than we were 100 years ago.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg likes to show a map suggesting that Facebook fosters interconnectedness around the world. In fact, upon closer examination the map mainly shows interconnectedness within a country. The United Arab Emirates demonstrates the highest level of international interconnectedness, but that’s because the UAE has an extraordinary number of guest workers who use the Internet to stay in touch with people back home. That leads Ethan Zuckerman to argue that maps often tell us what their designers want us to believe.

This final tweet seems out of context, but I’m including it because I like what Zuckerman said. It explains perfectly why I prefer Twitter to Facebook, even though I’m a heavy user of both. And it explains why many of us, including Zuckerman, rely on Twitter to bring us much of our news and information.

David Bernstein is out of here

David Bernstein and Kristin McGrath
Bernstein and McGrath

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.

Blog like a journalist

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

4440620228_2e3834281d_z

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:

4988525364_064d4e0d5f_z
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.