Blog Like a Journalist - WordCamp Montreal

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We live in an era where so many different stories and experiences are made available through the Internet. This bodes well for journalism. And traditional media is noticing.

More news editors require their journalists to blog, and traditional news agencies look to blogs for news and trends. And in this landscape, it’s inevitable that the line between blogger and journalist is becoming increasingly blurred.

In this presentation, I will survey the media landscape where blogging and journalism meet. I will show where a journalistic approach and a blog approach may differ. And I will explain how a writer can maintain a high commitment to journalism, while also employing storytelling styles which are more compatible with blogs and their audiences.

I presented this at Montreal WordCamp on June 30, 2013.

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  • We live in an era where so many different stories and experiences are made available through the Internet. This bodes well for journalism. And traditional media is noticing.More news editors require their journalists to blog, and traditional news agencies look to blogs for news and trends. And in this landscape, it’s inevitable that the line between blogger and journalist is becoming increasingly blurred.In this presentation, I will talk about the media landscape and where blogging and journalism meet. So, this presentation will have things for people who are used to traditional media, and want to move to blogging with grace. But mainly for people who want to write a blog, but approach it in the way that professional writers do.-30-I will show where a journalistic approach and a blog approach may differ. And I will explain how a writer can maintain a high commitment to journalism, while also employing storytelling styles which are more compatible with blogs and their audiences.In this presentation, I want to give you some of the tools to write your own blog posts. You won’t become a great writer overnight – I don’t think I’m bursting any bubbles here – but I’m hoping that you’ll learn a few things to make your blog better and help you better express yourself online.
  • Before we go any further, let me introduce myself.I’m David, and I’m a word nerd. I’ve been a professional writer for about six years – most of them as a copywriter, journalist and blogger. Yes, I’m lucky enough to get paid to write.Yes, it’s hard work. But is it the best job ever? Yes.I feel incredibly grateful to have grown up in an era when so many different stories and experiences are made available through the Internet. And despite going to journalism school and being bummed out about the shrinking newspaper and magazine industry, I do think there are great opportunities for telling stories in new and exciting ways that include more voices.Perhaps expressing yourself online is more important than ever, and blogging is a great way to do this. And it means you have a voice, and you’re part of the conversation.So, with that out of the way…
  • There are a lot of tips about getting readers to your page, but this presentation isn’t about that. This is about doing quality work that will entertain and provide value to readers. I hope I’m not bursting any bubbles here when I say you’re not going to be able to do this after a 45 minute presentation. I’ve been to journalism school, and worked in the industry for more than six years, and it’s something I’m still working on.We're all here, on the internet, looking at our word processor, trying to write. There’s no “perfect” way to write. And there’s isn’t really a manual to teach it. There’s no better way to learn than through practice. But journalism does offer a lot, and you can think of it as a shortcut to becoming a better blogger. You’re still going to have to put in a lot of hours blogging, but a journalist’s approach might make it less painful.
  • Most of the top blogs all use journalistic conventions. And if they don’t, they’ve successful at pulling in people in mainly out of entertainment.
  • Why should you take a journalistic approach? It provides the basis for readers to trust you. Whether you’re writing a blog post that explains how to do something, or one that’s meant to entertain them, you’re establishing that you’re honest in your approach and you’re not misleading them.Conveying information in a rigorous, responsible and accountable manner – making sure that what you’re reporting isn’t a rumourAttention to detail, accuracy, and high standards – This includes things like spelling peoples’ names correctly, and making sure there aren’t grammatical errors. This gives an overall sense of professionalism.An emphasis on striving for balance and objectivityWhy is trust so important?
  • Ideas can really drive a blog post. If your idea isn’t thought through well enough, it can be really hard to write it into a post.What I hope to leave you with are a ton of ideas for blog posts, and some ways in which to go about writing them.Rather than “blank-page syndrome”, Journalists tend to have too many ideas and have the problem of finding enough time to write them.
  • Once you’ve got your idea, make a plan for your post. You don’t have to write this out, it can all happen in your head.For any given blog, you have to decide how to tackle what you want to say. This decision is up to you.But you can be prepared. Do some research.Before writing, I have already done some preliminary research, thought about how to present the material, and considered what I already know and what I have to research further.Don’t worry that you’re not actually writing. By learning more about a topic, you’re more getting further to what you should actually be writing.Come up with the questions you want to answer.You’re going to decide which parts of questions you can actually legitimately handle in the space allotted. It’s really important to break things down into manageable pieces.Don’t tackle everything in one post if you can do a better job making it a series of posts.Organize a multi-part post into elements that will appeal to people who won’t read both parts. If you’re writing a history of a character in comic books – let’s say the Submariner – you can divide it into Golden Age, Silver Age and Bronze Age. This way, people who are only interested in – say – Silver Age, can just read that section (or be so compelled by your writing that they’ll read the other sections.)Once you’ve got an idea of what you want to cover, you can decide how to tackle it. I’ll create a rough outline, and break itdown into manageable pieces. This means deciding on what points will be covered under each heading, and if it can be broken in to two or more blog posts.You may even find that the focus of the post has changed entirely. But now you’ve got an idea and a focus.I’m going to run you through the writing process from beginning to middle to end.
  • Ideas are everywhere.Can you relate an experience to something larger?Think about what you want to write about. Can it be expanded beyond a small incident?For instance, you might have noticed that your town isn’t accepting as much recycling as it used to. Can you find out if other municipalities are also rolling back services? Can you find out why? A seemingly insignificant experience or thought can easily snowball into something bigger.You can also look at recent events. If you’ve noticed Think about your own experiences.In contrast to much of traditional journalism which values objectivity, you’re allowed to include yourself and your experiences in your blog writing. Can you relate your childhood or a more recent experience to your opinion on a political matter? Explore these personal experiences – they’ll add life and personality to your writing and possibly give the reader a point of identification with you.Change your point of view. It’s easy to get trapped in our own concerns and biases. Try to change your perspective and put yourself in someone else’s shoes.What’s it like for someone older/younger, richer/poorer, urban/rural. BUT…Be respectful of this other person’s experience and be careful not to stereotype or make unfair assumptions.Make sure you’re addressing all the relevant points and counter-points.Take some time to familiarize yourself with the arguments going on, and take all points into consideration – even ones you disagree with. This gives you an opportunity to explain what’s wrong with their arguments, and strengthens yours.Relate a current event to past events, or a product to competitors.Make connections with related things.The Maclean’s magazine you read in the dentist’s waiting room might strike a cord with you. Anyways, you’ll be surprised where you’ll find connections that inspire a blog post. It could help to keep a notebook of things you find interesting, or you could use a note-taking app like Evernote.Let the info come to you.Setup Google alerts for your subject. Subscribe to mailing lists and RSS feeds. Get out and talk to peopleGo to local meetups, conventions, lectures, events like WordCamp, and so on. These are all great places to find things to blog about. But also don’t forget online meetups like online forums and webinars. Think of your audienceWho would this idea appeal to? Thinking about what youraudience needs can actually help you write a piece. You’re focusing on writing to someone specific. For instance, someone new to the topic will have different needs than an expert.
  • Everything tells a story.We fit everything into narratives. From when I get up in the morning to when I fall asleep, this is the story of my day, and each thing that happens becomes a little story. “This happened, then you wouldn’t believe it, but this other thing happened, and the way they were connected was this.” We make all of our actions and the conversations fit into little stories that help us understand ourselves and our world.But being a storyteller means taking control of the meaning of things. Two people can start with the same data and create wildly different stories out of them. You’re taking information, and synthesizing it into something with (hopefully) greater insight. It’s about creating meaning and drawing connections.Making something a story is different than just listing off a bunch of facts, or reciting a plot. Storytelling’s about creating meaning and drawing connections.Why is storytelling compelling? Because it gets to these fundamental ideas The categories of what we can knowand communicate:Data, Information, Knowledge, and WisdomData: symbols & numbers. Information: data that are processed to be useful; provides answers to "who", "what", "where", and "when" questionsKnowledge: application of data and information; answers "how" questionsUnderstanding: appreciation of "why"Wisdom: evaluated understanding. This is a high-level understanding of what is known.Hopefully you can see how the DIKW chart fits into how we communicate through writing.Traditional storytellers say you should ruminate on a story to the point where you’re able to come up with a meaning. This absorption of the story helps you understand the themes present. So, when you present it, it’s no longer a list of facts, or data that people have to figure out on their own. It could be turning a negative situation into a positive one, or it could be about self-reliance or empathy. A story should lead to you forming an opinion. And when you retell a story, the reader should also be able to come to the same conclusion.But the story you tell on a blog isn’t always going to take the same form….Storytelling is a way to build connections, and go beyond just what, how and why, to what’s best.
  • I want to draw your attention to this diagram on the left. This is an illustration of what Russell Ackoff identified as the categories of understanding. He breaks it down into a hierarchy of : Data, Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom or DIKW. On the left (starting with Data), you have forms that have less connectedness and understanding, and as you move right, you have more connectedness and understanding (Wisdom).what we can know – and what we can communicate.
  • Once you’ve got your focus, you need to package it into a presentablepackage.In journalism, we have things like columns and news stories. Blogs have their own conventions.Some reliable ways to assemble posts. There are really more types than I can cover here, so I’ll limit myself to eight. 1. List post - 10 ways to be a better blogger. The 25 best albums of the year. You’ve all seen these – they’re a little predictable, but they’re a good standby.2. Personal anecdote/opinion/essay - have a clear thesis and argument. If you’re telling a story, be sure to write it in a way where you accentuate the themes.3. A Dialogue - Do a Q&A or have a conversation with another person and transcribe it. This can also be a video/audio blog where you interview someone interesting. Research the subject beforehand, and make sure you have questions ready.4. Summary post - go to an event, and summarize what you heard or saw. You’re bringing together a lot of stray thoughts into something worth reading. There’s a lot of value in 5. Link post - provide a bunch of related or interesting links. For instance, you can post links to the best art of the week, or the funniest podcasts. If you’re an academic, you can link to the best new research in your field. If you add some commentary, you’ll help people decide if it’s worth going to these links. (Examples are the Guardian’s “Boot Up” post of tech links)6. Review post - write about your experiences with a product/service. Think about the positives and negatives, what alternatives there are, and what sorts of people this would appeal to. You can also do a review post for books, old magazine ads, speeches (someone went line-by-line through one of Mayor Ford’s speeches, breaking down how nonsensical it was). Find something you find interesting, important or funny, and review it.7. Advice post – You can do your own take on Dear Abby. Some sites that do a good job on this is Gawker’s “That’s not right” and Earwolf’s “Is this racist?”. As for people to send you questions, and you can give your useful, or just hilarious advice.8. Video/photo post - sometimes a photo or video can capture something in a way that words cannot. For instance, if you have a street fashion blog, you can write about what you’re wearing that day, but a picture will likely tell the story better. Likewise, if you’re a skateboarder, it doesn’t cut it to describe what tricks you’ve done – you’re going to have to have a video.You can even make your own.Come up with something that works. When you come up with a type of post, try to make it a regular occurrence. If your Q&A’s work well, make them a weekly or bi-weekly feature.Now that you’ve got an idea, a focus, and a form, you’re ready to do the bulk of the writing.
  • I came up with this approach because a lot of bloggers have ideas, and parts of posts written, but there’s something keeping them from actually clicking PUBLISH.
  • The headline is your first shot at snagging a reader.A good journalist knows that they lose readers with each element of copy. People are busy and there are distractions everywhere, so you need to make every element compelling.State things simply: People don’t have time to parse a complex sentence structure. Use a simple: subject-verb structure, and use the active voice. At the same time, however, puns, wordplay or in headlines. You can use a well-known reference – for instance, on your cooking website, you might write “Spice: The Final Frontier.”But if you suspect your audience won’t get your clever headline, it might be best to simply go with something more simple.http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/05/google-doesnt-laugh-saving-witty-headlines-in-the-age-of-seo/238656/Use words that are key to your subject: In SEO, these are called keywords and they get you found in search results. But for regular writers, this just means being specific. If you’re talking about Ford cars, use the words “Ford” and “car” in the title. Some one looking for info on Chyrslers won’t be misled.Offer a new angle: “Puppy Training Tricks You’ve Never Heard” or even “Puppy Training Tricks Even The Experts Won’t Tell You.” You might not surprise everyone with brand new information, but if you can offer tips or a point of view that they haven’t already got tired of, then you’re off to a good start.Use numbers: It’s hard to resist reading a list post.
  • Depending on your type of blog, your beginning might be only a sentence long or it could be several paragraphs.The beginning should give the reader something that makes them want to continue reading, but also situate them.There are two things to keep in mind: you’re creating a summary, but also pitching LEAD:In the inverse triangle model of storytelling, you give away the most important information at first, and more extraneous details as you go along. This is used in news stories because they’re designed to give someone the most relevant information when they’re only a few sentences in. Something you’ll always hear from newspaper editors is “Get to the point!”. In some blog posts, you’ll take this approach, the essential facts of a story are included in the lead sentence or paragraph – These are the who, what, when, where, why, and how questions. You often can’t answer all of them, but you can answer the important ones.You can open with a lead that uses the hard facts to set the stage or get the hard facts “out of the way”. And this can allow you to hone in on a more nuanced examination, or even just to write about your personal thoughts. It can help the reader to know what you’re responding by doing a quick summary of the facts.The alternative to the lead is the plead:PITCH:In other blog posts, you’re going to talk about the rest of the post: instead of “getting to the point,” you’re going to explain why someone should be interested in what they’re about to read.In journalism, there’s something called a “Nut-Graph”, which is a paragraph that explains the news value of the story. It’s basically saying: “This is important for so-and-so reasons.” And I think this can be applied to a blog, where you’re making a pitch to the reader to continue reading – because it will pay off. You’re saying what will be covered and setting the reader’s expectations. Expectations don’t always have to be high – you can say “And while I can’t promise a solution to this problem, there are a few alternatives that I will discuss in the following post.”I think that the nut-graph should also explain why you’re writing this. Was there something that makes it particularly relevant now? And you can also explain why you’re interested in writing about it and what qualifications you have on the subject. By explaining your connection to the subject matter, the reader may identify with you and your reasons for finding it interesting (score!) and also why you’re in a particular position to write about it. This engenders trust.These approaches can be used together to give relevant information, but also . Beyond this, you can get really creative with the intro. You can start off with an experience, a quotation, describing the plot of a novel and relating it to your topic. It’s all about setting the stage.It’s also about If there’s something that readers need to know to start off, explain this now. For instance, you can make sure that people . Unless you want to have a big reveal at the end.
  • It’s good practice to outline the points you want to cover. Write things down in point form, play around with the order. This order will help you write because now you have structure.Give it a logical progressionAt this point, you’ll have already decided what type of post you’re writing - an essay, or a list, etc. In an essay, you generally have the points build to a final point of evidence that draws upon what comes before. In a list post, you might want to do a countdown, say, to the best album.Now that you’ve got your points and an idea of how you’re going to tackle them, you can start writing them into sentences and paragraphs. Try only to focus on one idea in each paragraph. Be able to say “This paragraph is about…” If your explanation is too complicated, chances are you’re saying too much in the paragraph, and you should start a new one.Structure your post with headings. When you can, use headings to split your post into sections that can focus the points you’re trying to make, as well as making it easier to scan. I’ll talk about headings later.Your plan could change.While you’re writing the middle section, you may find out that your original plan isn’t work. Maybe you uncovered some research that changes your argument or your opinion. You may also find that there may be more points to add. These are all good things to find out that will make your writing better. Be willing to change your original plan.
  • First off, there’s no real end to a blog – you could think of it as the start of a conversation. Conclusion paragraphs are often where you summarize your post and distills the point of it to whoever just read it. A conclusion can cap off your points into a pithy conclusion. But it’s not merely restating your arguments or line of reasoning – it can hint at something that extends your argument further, or relate it to something bigger than what the post covered (for instance, you can relate a historical event to a current political situation). It can raise other questions.We often think that something that “raises questions” is suspicious or bad, but not if you do it right. In fact, it can be great to leave readers with questions. Give people something to ponder! They can take a stab at your questions in the comments, and drive conversation. A great question is worth more than a mediocre answer.If your post is one of a series, you can mention other posts you’ve written on a related topic and how they relate to this post. You can also hint at the next post in your series, which will address another related topic.
  • Blog Like a Journalist - WordCamp Montreal

    1. 1. Blog Like a Journalist David Hamilton June 2013
    2. 2. I’m David, and I’m a word-nerd. Nice to meet you! (Image by Robert Occhialini) Journalist // Copywriter // Digital Media Producer
    3. 3. What is a journalistic approach? work towards deadlines. This means things get published. There’s no, “Maybe I’ll post it tomorrow”. know how to package content. We don’t just think; we produce. try to rigorously research and present useful and trustworthy information. understand how to write for an audience and their interest, not just for ourselves. find interesting things to write about. Journalists… his is the case regardless of the medium
    4. 4. Many top blogs use journalistic conventions These are the most visited blogs: Data source: eBizMBA Rank Most of the top blogs all use journalistic conventions. And if they don’t, they’ve successful at pulling in people in mainly out of entertainment.
    5. 5. Why is a journalistic approach good for blogging? Journalism isn’t about the medium, it’s more of combination of practices, ethics, and philosophy. • Conveying information in a rigorous, responsible and accountable manner • Attention to detail, accuracy, and high standards • An emphasis on striving for balance and objectivity Why should you take a journalistic approach? IT HELPS PEOPLE TRUST YOU
    6. 6. It all starts with an idea “In America, you have burst of inspiration…in Soviet Russia, inspiration bursts you.” Tackling a topic or developing an idea like an editor saves you a lot of pain. Where do we begin?
    7. 7. Make a plan for yourself Don’t take on too much in one post. It will just end in disappointment. Do preliminary research Come up with questions to answer Decide what’s manageable Come up with a way to present it
    8. 8. Develop your ideas like an editor Ideas are everywhere. Developing an idea is part of the preliminary work to figure out what can be said on your topic and make it viable as a post. Here are some ideas: •Can you relate an experience to something larger? •Think about your own experiences or find out about someone else’s. •Change your point of view. •Research points/counter-points. •Relate a current event to past events, a product to competing products, an industry to another industry, etc. •Think of what your audience would want to know about. Do preliminary research
    9. 9. Who, what, when, where, why, how? It’s in attempting to answer these questions that writing really establishes connections and communicates. Come up with questions to answer
    10. 10. On our way to wisdom We build meaning through organization. Theorist Russell Ackoff identified five categories of understanding going from low organization (data) all the way to high organization and connectedness (wisdom). Moving further towards wisdom is harder, but more valuable to readers. Come up with questions to answer
    11. 11. Types of posts You’ve got an idea – now you have to mash it into a blog. Find the best way to present it. Types of blog posts 1. List post 2. Personal anecdote/opinion/essay 3. A Dialogue/Q&A 4. Summary post 5. Link post 6. Review post 7. Advice post 8. Video/photo post Come up with a way to present it
    12. 12. Beginnings, Middles and Ends Putting it all together one piece at a time… starting with a headline.
    13. 13. Headlines They’re the first thing people see of your post, so they’d better be good. Stating things simply is good, but also try for some wit. “Spice: the Final Frontier” “Calligraphers still going against type” (To see the best creative headlines, visit: http://headlines.copydesk.org/2011/) Use words that are key to your subject. Offer an angle that only you can provide: “Why everything you know about ___ is wrong” Use numbers: “7 best…”, “12 tips…” Keep it short!
    14. 14. Beginnings Most blog posts have at least an intro paragraph or blurb. Two approaches: A lead answers the most pertinent questions. This gives the most information quickly. It can be scanned quickly. A pitch establishes what will be covered in a compelling way. Explain why you’re writing this. Why you? Establish what the post is about and what will be covered. Use style that will appeal to the reader and set the stage for what’s to come next. You’re also setting up the reader’s expectations! “In this post, I’ll explain the way I became a saint (or pariah) in my industry.” “Follow along to find out why I think this government policy works/doesn’t work.”
    15. 15. Middles Decide what points are relevant to cover. Give it a logical progression. (Chronological order, have points build, count down, etc.) Structure your post with headings. (Use H1, H2, and H3 tags). Be accepting of change when it happens.
    16. 16. Ends Conclusion paragraphs are where you summarize your post – it sharpens the point. Give it a sense of scope by relating it to larger trends, or show how it relates to other related things. You can give a preview to your next related posts. It can raise other questions. Don’t make your blog the be-all-end-all. End a post with questions that are still up for debate. “A blog is in many ways a continuing conversation.” – Andrew Sullivan
    17. 17. Rewrite and rewrite some more “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.” - Ernest Hemingway
    18. 18. If you work really hard & be kind, amazing things will happen. T: @davidwroteit E: david@davidihamilton.com Read other blogs, experiment, and have fun. Blogging is best learned by blogging

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