On Tuesday I posted WordPress’ robo-generated report on my year in blogging. But you knew I wasn’t going to stop there, didn’t you? For the past several years I’ve been writing an end-of-the-year round-up of my top 10 posts. It’s always interesting to me to see what resonates most with my readers.
These lists always come with caveats, and this year’s has a big one. Starting last spring, I began offering what I thought were my better blog posts to my friends at WGBHNews.org, who published them first and promoted them on social media. Though I later reposted them on Media Nation, they had already lost a lot of their juice by that point. So it’s hard to know what my top 10 list really means. Maybe I should call this list “The Best of the Rest.”
And away we go.
1. Is Jerry Remy’s broadcasting career finally over? (March 23). The answer, as it turned out, was “no.” But following a devastating story in The Boston Globe by Eric Moskowitz on Remy’s homicidal son, Jared, and the lengths to which Jerry Remy and his wife, Phoebe, had enabled his violent behavior, it sure looked that way, if only for a brief moment. Within days, though, Jerry Remy was back in the broadcast booth, yukking it up uncomfortably with Don Orsillo during Red Sox games. There was all kinds of internal intrigue to this. Both the Globe and the Red Sox are owned by John Henry, who is also a part-owner of Remy’s employer, New England Sports Network. (Page views: 7,714.)
2. Boston.com retracts claim about racist email from professor (Dec. 11). In early December, Boston.com had a phenomenon on its hands: contentious, legalistic emails from Harvard Business School professor (and lawyer) Ben Edelman complaining to a Chinese restaurant about having been overcharged by $4. But then the Boston Globe Media-owned site overreached. Hilary Sargent, who had written the original story, cowrote a follow-up reporting that Edelman had sent one of the owners, Ran Duan, a racist email. It couldn’t be verified, and the story was pulled back. It got worse: It turned out that Sargent had also designed a T-shirt making fun of Edelman that she was selling online. Sargent, the site’s deputy editor (the top editing job was vacant), was suspended for a week. David Bernstein has a good overview of the whole affair at Boston magazine. (Page views: 2,827.)
4. Meet the Obnoxious Boston Fan (March 25). I am startled that these two posts received the attention that they did. After the Globe’s exposé about the Remy family, an anonymous Boston.com blogger who writes as the Obnoxious Boston Fan posted a harsh commentary about Remy. It struck me as inappropriate that a Globe-affiliated site would allow anonymous attacks on anyone. Globe digital adviser David Skok told me that Mr. OBF would soon drop the anonymity — and in my follow-up post, I was able to identify him ahead of the official unveiling as Bill Speros. (Page views: 2,178.)
7. Globe executive announces digital moves (July 29). Probably the biggest ongoing local media story is Boston Globe owner John Henry’s various investments in growth — a new weekly political section (Capital), a Catholic website (Crux) and an expanded business section. These three posts documented a few of those developments. (Page views: 1,609.)
8. Jared Remy joins his dad in attacking Margery Eagan (April 25). The fourth Remy-related item in the top 10. Eagan, then with the Boston Herald, had the temerity to criticize Jerry Remy in her column. Jerry Remy went after her on the air — and Jared Remy joined in from his prison cell. (Page views: 1,495.)
10. Boston Herald loses libel suit over false prison sex story (March 19). The plaintiff, Joanna Marinova, was awarded $563,000 over a story that falsely claimed she had engaged in “sexual acts” with an inmate during a 2009 trip to Bridgewater State Prison. Marinova and state Rep. Gloria Fox had visited the prison in order to investigate claims of inmate abuse. (Page views: 1,187.)
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 260,000 times in 2014. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 11 days for that many people to see it.
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.)
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.
I recently floated the idea of morphing the real-names requirement into a registration requirement — you’d have to sign in with WordPress, Twitter, Google Plus or Facebook, which meant that you’d be posting under a verified identity but not necessarily a real name.
I’ve decided to leave things alone, at least for the time being. A few people really think the real-names requirement is something I ought to keep. And if I’m going to do that, then there’s no reason to require registration with a third-party service.
If WordPress.com ever makes it possible to add a service like Disqus or Open ID, I may revisit the issue. For now, those services can only be used with hosted blogs using WordPress.org.
I’m thinking of making a tweak to commenting on Media Nation. Rather than requiring real names, first and last, as I have since 2010, I might shift to requiring online verification instead.
There’s a function I can turn on that would require people to sign in using their Facebook, Twitter, WordPress or Google Plus account before commenting. I would still screen comments before posting them. But no longer would I be tracking people down to remind them to use their full names — something that causes me to lose a fair number of comments.
Most of the commenting energy has shifted to Facebook anyway. (If you don’t follow the conversation when I post a Media Nation link on Facebook, you’re missing a lot. You can follow my public feed by clicking here.) But I feel like I need to give the on-site comments a jolt.
A word about Facebook: If you comment on Media Nation using your Facebook account, your comment will not appear anywhere on Facebook. It’s simply a log-in mechanism. Still, I have no doubt that Facebook tracks you for its own internal advertising purposes.
As for the alternatives, logging in with WordPress is probably the most benign. WordPress is part of a nonprofit organization and it’s not a social network, at least not in the sense that the other three are. You can sign up for an account without having to start a blog. If you’re comfortable posting comments in public, then you shouldn’t have any problem registering with WordPress.
Correction: WordPress.com’s owner, Automattic, is in fact a for-profit company. See this comment.
If you are already a WordPress.com member and have logged in, you’ll find that submitting a comment is very simple. But if you are not using your full name in your WordPress profile, then I can’t approve it. (In the case of a few people who have submitted comments using their real names in the past, I’ve done it for you.)
Assuming you don’t mind using your full name (otherwise, why would you by trying to post something at Media Nation?), there’s a simple solution. Go to your WordPress settings and click on “Public Profile.” Now you can change your “Public Display Name” to your full name.
As you can see, Media Nation took on a very different appearance over the weekend. I hope you’ll find that it’s cleaner and more readable. I thought you might be interested in why I made the switch.
For the past several years I had parked Media Nation at DreamHost, using free WordPress software as my publication tool. It was a fairly complex set-up — I couldn’t even contemplate changing WordPress themes without bugging my friend Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub, who knew how to delve into the CSS code so that my Google ads would show up properly. And such simple tasks as changing the header photo were labor-intensive enough that I would generally decide I had better things to do with my time.
I already had a number of websites (mainly for my students) parked at WordPress.com, a free publishing-and-hosting platform offered by the same folks who provide the WordPress software. I’d helped my friends John Carroll and Marjorie Arons-Barron set up their blogs there. WordPress.com doesn’t allow advertising, but my Google ad income was fairly minimal, and I found that the ads tended to be low-quality distractions. So I decided to make the switch as soon as my annual DreamHost contract was up.
I almost gave up before I started — it turned out that Media Nation was far too large to transfer to WordPress.com via the normal route. I posted a query to a WordPress support forum. Someone at Automattic, the company that owns WordPress, took an interest and did it for me without charge. So huge props to them.
Now all of my websites are consolidated in one place. WordPress.com is slightly limited in comparison to using WordPress with a hosting service. But it’s also a lot easier, which means that, for my purposes, I’ll be able to do more experimenting.
I’m not crazy about the theme, Twenty Ten. It’s attractive, but it’s so commonly used that it’s lost its distinctiveness. If I can’t find something better, I might at least look into messing with the CSS to make the rather enormous body type a little smaller.