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.

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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 WordPress.com 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.