How blogging creates new opportunities for journalists

If any journalists had doubts about the benefits of blogging, hopefully this guest post by my friend Scott Elliott will put them to rest.

Scott was an education reporter with the Dayton Daily News and has just taken on a new role as columnist for the paper. He started a blog about his beat, Get on the Bus, shortly after a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan three years ago. As he relates, blogging ultimately did create new opportunities for him:

Scott Elliott“Let me start off with a joke – four months before I launched what would soon become one of the best known education blogs in the US, I didn’t know what a blog was and had never visited one.

That often gets a laugh when I am speaking to reporters about blogging, which is fairly often these days. But I can’t help but feel a little bit like I am at the center of a joke whenever I am introduce as a blogging “expert.” Even today, I am still little more three years removed from that day in March 2005 when, once blogging was explained to me, I first had the idea that this might be something I should try.

The speaker that day was a fellow named Dan Gillmor. I was on a journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan. Gillmor already was an Internet journalism legend in 2005, having started a wildly popular and influential blog while covering technology for the San Jose Mercury News in 1999.

So of course, I’d never heard of him.

Gillmor talked about his blog and how it helped his reporting. He got feedback, tips and advice from Silicon Valley technology experts who were commenting on his blog posts and the blog gave him flexibility and freedom to experiment by writing for an audience about issues that might or might not make it into the print newspaper.

A light bulb went on over my head.

As an education reporter, I had one of the widest possible beats in the newsroom. There were scores of subtopics under education, so many that most of them I could never find the space or the right circumstance to write about most of them even if I was interested.

Unless there was a local angle or controversy, it was tough to get any story into a local newspaper, no matter how interesting the topic might be. You still had to get it past a local editor demanding to know what local experts or “real people” you were going to interview to make the story locally “relevant.”

Still, often I came across information or stories that were fun or interesting but that didn’t fit the formula of a news story. A blog, I thought, could give me a place to write about those things. And just maybe I could have even a small voice in the national debate over the big issues in education by sharing the often interesting stories on the ground in Dayton, Ohio, with a wider audience.

When I returned to the Dayton Daily News after the fellowship in the summer of 2005, the paper’s fledgling Web site had just two blogs. I spent a month doing research, hoping to learn from other mainstream media sites with education blogs.

I could only find two in the whole country – Patti Ghezzi at the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Bruce Buchannan at the Greensboro News and Record in North Carolina. I adopted Patti, who was wonderful and gracious as I assaulted her with questions and asked repeatedly for advice before launching the nation’s third newspaper-based education blog.

Here’s what I quickly learned – readers are interested in knowing more about education, particularly the behind-the-scenes information or data that is not widely reported. My blog quickly and consistently became the newspaper’s best read blog, even as bunches of new ones launched, often doubling the page views of the next best read blog.

And I started winning awards, including being named a national finalist for online commentary by the Online News Association and last year being named “best blog” in a company with about 40 newspapers. People started paying attention. I began being invited to speak to other journalists about how to blog.

Within my own newspaper I became something of a blogging “evangelist,” trying to persuade my most talented colleagues to join me in the blogosphere and trumpeting the advantages of blogs to top managers.

I even proposed beats be redesigned around a blog or niche website as the central place for reporting and analysis, surrounded by archived content on that topic and reader interactivity opportunities. I’m still pushing that idea.

Today, I just can’t imagine working without a blog. I write nearly everything online first and then figure out what makes sense for the print newspaper.

And it was the different sort of writing that I was doing – conversational and analytical pieces – that paved the way for editors to consider me for a new role I am soon to begin as a columnist and editorial writer. Part of my charge is to bring the paper’s editorial and commentary operation along to a more interactive and conversational future online.

Tomorrow’s journalist will simply have to be comfortable writing online and blogging is the best training there is for this writing style. I’m not the only one who thinks so. Here’s what John Robinson, editor of the Greensboro (N.C.) News-Record had to say on his blog about hiring journalists today:

I ask job applicants if they have a blog. Most of them don’t. Then I ask them if they read my blog. About half of them haven’t.

“The two questions tell me a lot about the candidates. First, if they have a blog, it gives me an indication of their passion for writing and communicating. It also allows me to see how their unedited writing reads. I rarely pay attention to submitted clips; I know how good editing can make a mediocre writer appear positively Halberstamian. Finally, in answering the question, they usually let on what they think of blogging and digital. Believe it, some trash blogs.

Second, if they haven’t read my blog, it tells me they haven’t done their homework. That makes the candidate a non-starter.

Actually, it helps winnow down the candidates pretty quickly.

If you’re a journalist and you are not comfortable writing for an online audience, you had better start getting there fast.”

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