How to use Twitter with your blog

Poynter recently hosted an online chat with NYU professor Jay Rosen and PressThink blogger on the subject of teaching people to blog.

Advice: Break news, say something that hasn’t been said, collate what no one has collated, and then link to the biggies when you publish.

So, why link to the “biggies,” as in popular blogs?  Rosen says it’s not only the number of hits on your blog that help you measure success; he says it may be more important for your blog to be “getting links to sites that are ‘in’ the main conversation.”  These are the blogs that are recognized as thought leaders on a particular topic.

What’s the best way to get people to link to you? Talk about them at your blog! Or link to some post they did, and then click a bunch of times on the link to their blog that you put in your post.

For a lot of journalists, this is an uncomfortable place to be – building off of other people’s work and taking on the task of self-promotion, but that’s what it seems we’re talking about here – alerting people to the work you’re doing in order to get them to view it.  It’s just that in the past, for many mainstream journalists, there were folks in the promotion department doing the job for them.

Another way to get blog exposure?  Use Twitter – something that can be particularly useful for a blog that updates less than daily.

Daily posting leads to people subscribing and checking back, but that’s not going to work unless you have new stuff to tell them; if your pace is more 2-3 times a week for longer posts that’s a different rhythm and will lead to a different user base with diferent expectations. My blog is on a “slow” rhythm and I use Twitter to activate it when I need it. But I long ago lost any users looking for a daily read.

Others in the conversation suggested putting alerts about new posts on Facebook or any other site that might draw additional viewers to your blog.

Rosen also admits that getting a blog off the ground is more difficult now that there’s so much competition, but if you’re reading this post, you may have one advantage.

Remember: most amateur bloggers are lazy. If you want to stand out, add more richness, do more work. Put in the time and save the user time.


Make your Web story count

Most television Web sites have left the age of shovelware behind, thank goodness. It took a while, but stations finally figured out that simply posting TV scripts online wouldn’t entice anyone to visit a site twice. That said, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. TV stories don’t just need to be rewritten for the Web, they need to be rethought.

Reporter Jason DeRusha of WCCO-TV in Minneapolis says writing for online publication may be the “most important and least appreciated” part of his job. At his station, reporters don’t hand off their stories to a Web producer for rewriting; they’re expected to write their own Web versions and to understand how Web writing is different.

Online readers expect you to get to the point right away. On-air, you might build your story to a climactic point. Online readers expect you to cite your sources, specifically. Online readers expect you to link to source material.

DeRusha admits that when he first started writing Web stories, he hated the extra work. But he’s figured out how to make it count:

I love adding the extra information that I had to leave out because of time. I love the challenge of coming up with a provocative headline to attract viewers. And I’m proud of the fact that when people link to my stories, they get a well-written story, under my name, and under my station’s brand.

DeRusha’s multimedia duties don’t stop there, by the way. He also blogsTweets and has a live Webcam at his desk.

Writing great Web headlines

If you aren’t already reading any of Jakob Nielsen’s work about online writing, you should start.  Just recently he published his pick for the news organization with the best Web headlines. And the winner is….the BBC.

According to Nielsen, good headlines should have these characteristics:

  • short (because people don’t read much online);
  • rich in information scent, clearly summarizing the target article;
  • front-loaded with the most important keywords (because users often scan only the beginning of list items);
  • understandable out of context (because headlines often appear without articles, as in search engine results); and
  • predictable, so users know whether they’ll like the full article before they click (because people don’t return to sites that promise more than they deliver).

In speaking about the BBC’s work in particular, Nielsen provided a list of strong headlines from the site and  noted “the average headline consumed a mere 5 words and 34 characters. The amount of meaning they squeezed into this brief space is incredible.”

Each headline conveys the gist of the story on its own, without requiring you to click. Even better, each gives you a very good idea of what you’ll get if you do click and lets you judge — with a high degree of confidence — whether you’ll be interested in the full article.

So, who needs to know all this?  Anybody who wants people to see their work.  As individual journalists become more and more responsible for the presentation of their own work online, it’s going to become increasingly important that they know and understand how headlines drive traffic and how to write the most effective headlines possible.

Reboot local news

Many local TV Web sites leave a lot to be desired. They’re better than they used to be, thank goodness, but they still have a long way to go.  Too many sites remain hard to navigate, crammed with news, ads, promos, videos and all kinds of random content that leaves the user feeling overwhelmed and underinformed.

Rick Garner, program manager at AOL’s Weblogs Inc., spent more than 10 years in local TV. In his latest blog entry, he offers ten tips for stations searching for relevance online.  Among them:

#6 Don’t try to be all things to all people. Focus on something that’s not being done and do it better than anyone else. If someone else comes along and does something better than you adapt or do something new. Adapting on the web is easy and costs virtually nothing.

Garner says stations should seriously consider taking national news off their sites. “Posting AP copy on your site isn’t covering national news, it’s being a portal for them.”  As for local news, he says, it needs to be rebooted.  Stations must stop thinking of the Web as just another platform for the same material they’ve already put on the air.

Local TV websites need to take full advantage of posting the hours of video they capture and stream them on a site with a reliable video platform or video embeds. Often, the formats and platforms chosen to host these tools have been poor performers and resource hogs to users’ computers.

TV reporters also need to learn to write differently for the Web, Garner says.  We agree, of course–and you can learn how from the book.

Blogging for dollars

So you’ve been laid off or can’t find a job in journalism. Think you can survive on blogging alone?  Not so fast, says Scott Joseph.

After taking a buyout from the Orlando Sentinel, where he’d spent 20 years as a restaurant critic, Joseph figured he could still make a living as a writer by freelancing and starting his own food blog.

It hasn’t been easy, but he’s learned a few things along the way. Writing at OJR, Joseph says the most important step is to plan ahead if you intend to keep covering the same beat once you leave your job:

Who are your contacts? Where do you get your press releases? Start making a list of these people. Are those names only in your workplace e-mail server? Find out how to make an electronic copy of that list and save it to a flash drive or e-mail it to a personal account. If your employer shows up at your desk tomorrow with a buyout package and an escort to the front door, I guarantee your laptop isn’t going with you.

Other good advice: save emails from readers so you can let them know where you’ve gone. Share a personal email address so people can stay in touch once you’ve left the newsroom. And don’t forget those business cards you’ve been collecting for years, says a commenter on Joseph’s post. You can add those emails to your promotional list to draw in new blog readers.

How many readers does it take for a blog to be commercially viable?  That depends. There’s a rule of thumb floating around online that you need 10,000 visits a day, but OJR’s Robert Niles diagrees. The number depends on your niche and your visitors. If they’re affluent, you won’t need as many to break even.

And this may be obvious, but you really can’t make a dime with a free blog host like that doesn’t allow advertising.  Which is why Advancing the Story just might be moving.  Advice welcome!

Writing for Twitter

Journalists who don’t Twitter are “crippling [their] online publishing effort,” says OJR’s Robert Niles.  In his view, Twitter is the ideal medium for breaking news and delivers information to readers more efficiently than RSS feeds.  But how do you write for Twitter?

Start by consulting this primer for Twitter beginners from J-Prof”s Jim Stovall.  He says it’s possible to do good journalism in 140 characters if you keep a few guidelines in mind.

First off, make sure you have something worthwhile to say.  Okay, that’s a “no-duh” but it’s essential if you want to enlist followers (and that’s pretty much the whole point of Twitter).  Among Stovall’s other suggestions:

  • Information is more important, and interesting, than opinion.
  • One or two points (of information, opinion, whatever) max. Not three. You’ll quickly use up your space.
  • Think: subjects and verbs. Complete sentences are not always necessary, but complete thoughts are.
  • Emphasize verbs. Active, descriptive verbs. It’s one of the basic truths of good writing.
  • As in headline writing, “to be” verbs can be understood rather than written.
  • Drop articles (a, an and the) unless they are necessary for clarity.

The current “best practice” for making information on Twitter easier to track is to use hashtags (# followed by a word or phrase).  There are drawbacks, to be sure, but it’s something to keep in mind as you wade into the world of Tweets.  For what it’s worth, I’m just wading in myself. Follow me here.

Retraining for multimedia

National Public Radio is reinventing itself as a multimedia news organization, and is retraining its staff for this new mission.  In the latest issue of American Journalism Review, Jennifer Doroh reports that NPR hopes to have 450 staffers up to speed in multimedia by this time next year.  So what are they learning?

Arts and culture reporter Neda Ulaby describes the training as “transformative” and “scary.”

Learning how to write for the Web was probably the single most significant piece of training that I received. When you’re reading a radio script, it doesn’t read the way it sounds. An emphasis that might be clear from someone’s tone of voice just isn’t clear on a radio script.

Compare the online text of one of her stories to the audio version and the differences are obvious.  Here’s how she opens her radio story about product placement:

When executives at television networks talk about product integration, they favor a word more often associated with high-end, environmentally friendly groceries.  SOUNDBITE: “Organically does it work in the story? Organically, does it work for the brand?”

Online, the text version of the story begins entirely differently, and it uses italics for emphasis:

When you see giant Coke cups sitting at the fingertips of American Idol judges, that’s not just product placement. That’s full-fledged product integration — when a brand becomes inextricably identified with the content of a show.

Ulaby tells AJR that her job has also changed in other ways.  She often carries a camera on assignment now, but she doesn’t file photos for every story.  Instead, she’s learned to devote more energy to the online versions of stories with strong visual elements.

I don’t think we’re going to replace professional photographers. But especially in the really splashy stories that we’re going to pay a lot of attention to, it’s just not going to hurt to take some photos that reflect a little bit of knowledge: being able to use light, being able to take close-ups, knowing what we need to focus on in order to enhance the story.

While Ulaby says the time she puts into the Web doesn’t detract from her radio work, others at NPR say it’s hard to do it all.  Art Silverman is a senior producer for “All Things Considered”:

People get praised for creating multimedia. If Miss X did a slide show or if someone else did a written story for the Web, they get a lot of praise. But when you drill down, and ask, ‘How did you fit that in?’ they say, ‘Oh, I did it on my own time and stayed up late at night finishing it.’ In order to get the attention one must tear oneself out of the day and do extra work. Time is often not allotted to do these things.

Silverman believes that to be successful at multimedia, NPR will need to do more than retrain its people.  It will also need to overhaul the way work is assigned.

Gain invaluable skills

Times are tough in newsrooms all across the country.  Dragged down by a sagging economy, TV newsrooms and newspapers are laying off staff and cutting their coverage.  If you’re a young journalist, it may be hard to keep your fears about the future at bay.  Was it a mistake to get into this business?  Not at all, says reporter Meranda Watling, who covers education for the Journal & Courier in Lafayette, Indiana.

Although it’s far more traditional a journalism job than I ever envisioned myself taking, I get to do most of the things I want to do. When I took this job I was upfront with everyone including myself that I wanted it to give me a solid base for whatever job I take next. I don’t expect or want to be a “newspaper reporter” forever. But I do believe no matter where I go, the skills I’m learning here are going to be invaluable.

Among the skills she’s learning: how to work fast in multiple media.   Case in point–a story she broke online after getting an email tip at 4:30 p.m.

Because the editors were in the daily budget meeting, I had another reporter read over it, and then I had a copy editor post it asap so I could begin chasing the sources who were leaving their offices at or before 5 p.m. After I reached those sources, I wrote into the online version and updated. When my editor got back he swapped it out and posted it in the No. 1 spot online.

I went to my board meetings armed with notebook and pen — AND a laptop, Internet card and my Blackberry. I continued to report and write during the meetings. On my drive between the two meetings? I made calls on the A1 story.

When I got back to the newsroom around 8:45 p.m., I made a few more calls and banged out the A1 story and then two more about the meetings I’d covered. All before the 10:30 print deadline. I made cop calls, and half-way down the 10-county list we heard a shooting over the scanner. I went there and called in a Web update from the scene.

That is a sampling of what “newspaper” reporters are expected to do today, at least at my newspaper.

I don’t see any mention of shooting photos or video–something many newspaper reporters are also expected to do.  But I do get the impression that Meranda is making the most of her first full-time job.  Just hope she uses that cell phone with a headset and isn’t trying to take notes while driving!

Is blogging journalism?

You might think that question has been resolved, but it keeps coming up. I ran across it again this week in a study of the BBC’s use of blogs by network veteran Alfred Hermida, who now teaches at the University of British Columbia. His research paper (available as a .pdf file) quotes a longtime BBC correspondent as saying just last year that blogs are “egotistical nonsense,” and “journalists shouldn’t have any time to blog – there are too many stories waiting to be told.”

Despite the internal disagreements, the BBC has made a conscious effort in the past two years to use blogs as a way of being more transparent and accountable to its audience, Hermida says. But there are still some interesting gaps in the network’s policies:

The BBC has blogging guidelines for the personal blogs of staff but these do not refer to BBC editors and correspondents who contribute to official journalism blogs. Instead there appears to be an implicit assumption that journalists will apply existing BBC editorial values across all output, including blogs.

That said, the BBC still allows only a handful of staff to blog on its site and despite the less formal tone, impartiality remains the watchword, according to technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones who writes for the BBC blog

Which means bloggers have to tread a careful line – they can be engaging and judgmental, but must not take sides. So I can say Vista appears to be a bit of a turkey, or Leopard does not deliver, but can’t say that it means you should switch from Microsoft to Mac or vice versa.

One of the biggest gaps in the BBC’s use of blogs is the lack of engagement with the audience, Hermida says. BBC blogs get tons of comments, but the writers don’t often respond. That’s an opportunity missed, not just by the BBC but by many mainstream media blogs.

When blogs and journalism collide

More and more new entries in the expanding blogosphere are coming from journalists whose employers now require them to blog. But Erick Schonfeld, who writes for Technorati’s #1 ranked blog, TechCrunch, says when he blogged as a journalist for Time Inc. it had an “extracurricular tinge.” Not any more.

Working at TechCrunch is a completely different experience. For one thing, I no longer write long-form, narrative journalism. There is not much time for story-telling…It is mostly breaking news, reporting facts and providing analysis.

So is TechCrunch a blog or a professional media site? Schonfeld says that distinction has become almost meaningless:

The truth is that we are both. We compete with traditional news organizations, but with a small fraction of their staff. That is our competitive advantage. We certainly cover the news and do original reporting, but we also discuss news reported by others and are not shy about voicing our personal opinions. We are as much a filter as a source.

Schonfeld says that blogs compete with traditional media based on immediacy, give and take, and point of view. But the way I see it, the opinion part is what really distinguishes blogs from traditional journalism outlets, which are already using the Web to provide news immediately and to make it a conversation. And users seem to want both styles, at least when it comes to technology news.  Schonfeld points out that of the top 15 sources on Techmeme, which aggregates tech news, seven are traditional media outlets and the eight blogs “are all of the professional variety, complete with writing staffs.”