Is blogging journalism? Are bloggers journalists? Have you ever heard these questions, or questions like them, before? For those interested in writing and publishing, as I’m sure many of us are, these are important questions. Words like “blogger” and “journalist” are important and carry a lot of meaning.
But I think asking whether bloggers are journalists is asking the wrong sort of question. It’s mixing up ideas. Asking whether bloggers are, or can be, journalists, is like asking if those who email can be poets. See what I mean, about it being the wrong sort of question? We can’t mistake the method, the format, with the content.
Now, that said, it’s important to recognize the writing style that typifies blogs and the writing style that journalists practice. Generically speaking, blog posts aren’t concerned with sources, other people’s opinions, and the kind of ethics we wish to hold our journalists to. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t bloggers who do think and care about those things. I think there definitely are, just like there are journalists who don’t care for them so much.
So, rather than talk about what exactly makes a blogger a journalist — again, an interesting discussion for those of us involved in all of this — today I want to focus on the issue of quality. Let’s focus on the blogger that is a journalist, and about how WordPress and the community can help that person be more professional.
I would argue that blogging can, in fact, empower journalism. Rather than seeing it as a hindrance, it should be seen as an opportunity.
Blogging is iterative
It’s as easy as it could be to iterate on your writing when you’re blogging. No matter how many people you talk to before writing an article, the odds are that you’ll hear from someone, after publishing, with something to add to the story. Maybe it’s an angle you hadn’t considered, or even new information.
In contrast to most traditional journalism, blogging allows you to update an article (with the appropriate editor’s note of course). Or you can post a followup, pretty quick if you wanted to. You can also revisit topics, or continue the story in the comments. This is one of the reasons why stories can so quickly develop on blogs — there’s only as much delay between publishing as you want there to be.
Blogging is spacious
One of my pet peeves — major, major pet peeves — is when sites break up articles into multiple pages. You’ve probably seen it before: two or three thousand words, spread out so that around 800 words or so occupy each page. I’m sorry if you do that, but that practice makes me hate you.
One argument I’ve heard is that this is done to (artificially) increase pageviews for advertisements. Others have told me that they actually prefer the reading experience when a longer piece is broken up into multiple pages like that.
Those are crazy people, of course.
It perpetuates this old idea that doesn’t make sense online, the idea that space is limited. But on the web, when you’re blogging, space isn’t. Where a column in a newspaper or a magazine might only have so many inches of space and no more, blogs don’t. Bloggers should see this as an opportunity, I think, to spend even more time on a topic, and get more in depth on an issue that traditional forms of journalism might allow for.
Blogging encourages specialization
One of my favorite things lately is 5by5, a network of podcasts run by Dan Benjamin.
5by5 is so cool. Dan Benjamin has a lot of radio experience, and the ability to publish podcasts at a tremendous quality. So he has put together this network where he makes shows with other interesting people. He has a show with Merlin Mann, the 43folders/Inbox Zero/You Look Nice Today guy, called Back to Work. He has a show with John Gruber on Apple and technology. There are about a dozen active shows over there right now.
Dan sets up these really interesting shows, in large part because each one is specialized. The show’s topic and the show’s co-hosts work so well for the topic, the end result is really interesting.
So maybe your story isn’t the first one out there. That’s okay. Can it be the better story?
In the best cases, online journalism is the same way. On top of being an excellent writer and professional journalist, there are infinite opportunities to choose a specialty. A journalist can choose a topic or industry they are either more interested in or have a background in. Personally, I think this makes for more interesting work.
I also mention 5by5 because I’ve been shamelessly taking ideas from Dan’s work for the various WPCandy shows we do. So shamelessly.
Blogging is timely (sort of)
The obvious thing to say here is that blogging lets you publish fast. It’s not about printing the paper and distributing it in the morning, or even about hitting an arbitrary deadline. It’s about publishing the news as it happens. And that’s all well and good, but to be honest I’m not sure that’s necessarily the true value here.
Instead, I would say that because bloggers don’t have the time restrictions that others do, they can take more time on stories. So maybe your story isn’t the first one out there. That’s okay. Can it be the better story? Can it cover angles the first stories didn’t? Can it be a more complete story because the journalist waits to have all the facts before covering it?
Not better, just different
This isn’t all to say that blogging is the next evolution in journalism. I don’t think it’s as simple as that. But I think there are things that journalism, as a field of study, can learn from the practice of blogging.
WordPress tools for journalists
One huge advantage to WordPress as a tool for journalists is how much is available out of the gate. Let’s not forget what we’re probably all already aware of:
- WordPress is freely available and you can do what you want with it.
- Starting a WordPress blog can take five minutes or five seconds.
- Portability of content.
- Seriously free, and serious freedom.
- Proper punctuation.
- Using WordPress is just fun to do.
- Did I mention freedom?
Particularly as the writing experience continues to improves within WordPress, and it will, it becomes one place that I increasingly enjoy writing in. If you still haven’t given the Distraction Free Editor a serious try, you’re missing out.
But plugins available for WordPress can really improve things for journalists as well. There are a handful that I use, that I would highly recommend, and a few that I’ve heard about but don’t use myself.
All of the plugins I’m going to mention are available on the WordPress.org directory.
Post Revision Display
While one of the great things about WordPress, and blogging in general, is how easy it is to iterate, you don’t want to unwittingly mislead your readers. If I publish an article, then later revise it to be more accurate, it would be disingenuous to pass off the updated post as the original.
One common way to get around this issue is to post bold update notifications: “Updated on November 9”, “Editor’s Note: Why this was updated”, and so on. There are times when this is necessary, but then again other times it’s not.
Post Revision Display adds a section to the bottom of your posts when they have been updated since they were published. It offers up links to the revisions — so readers can go back and see the original, the update an hour later when you found a typo, and the update later that evening when you added an additional photo or caption. It tracks your editing after you’ve published the post, so that others can see the life-cycle of the article they’re reading.
This is one of the plugins I do use. Here’s how I implement it on WPCandy, which is a bit different than the default behavior.
Also, because this has been asked before: the revisions don’t show up in searches or anything like that, so I’m not aware of any issues with duplicate content.
- Editorial Calendar
- Editorial Comments
- Custom Post Statuses
Custom statuses (shown to the right) add to the default WordPress post statuses. By default, posts in WordPress can be drafts, pending review posts, scheduled, or published. They can also be trashed, technically. Edit Flow allows you to create custom statuses, to essentially enable your own post workflow.
Editorial comments allow you to have dashboard-only, private team discussions around posts. On a post’s page you can discuss sources, the angle of the article, and changes that should be made.
Notifications will notify selected authors when updates are made to a post — like when a post is marked as needing another revision, or comments on it are made.
My favorite, though, is the editorial calendar. It displays all of your posts in a calendar format on the dashboard. You can move posts around to new days or jump straight into editing them. When it comes to reviewing yet-to-be-published posts, I choose to go to this screen long before I go to the default WordPress posts screen anymore.
We’ll talk more about workflow in a minute, but keep Edit Flow in mind. Whether you’re a solo writer or work with a team, this thing is awesome. I don’t mean to go on too long about it, but honestly it’s really five or six killer plugins in one.
After the Deadline
Since I write within the WordPress editor a lot anymore, I’ve taken a liking to After the Deadline. Currently I believe it’s only available as a part of the Jetpack plugin, but it’s a solid spellchecker and grammar checker. I also like that it points out things like common clichés, which is helpful.
It will also tell you how to properly spell clichés.
I’ve begun using Content Audit lately to revisit some of my older articles. Content Audit gives you a customizable set of editor’s tags (which don’t show publicly in any way) to mark content for auditing. So I have a few:
- Review SEO
- Review Style
I find this to be a useful way to flag content for review, both for myself and other contributors on my blog. I don’t use it as much as I could right now, but I want to.
If you drop your own pull-quotes into your articles, you likely use something like the block quote tag. You choose a position, grab the text from your article, and put it in place. Simple enough, but the problem is you now have redundant copy on your page. In printed publications this isn’t an issue at all — print’s entirely visual in nature. But your article online is machine-readable and searchable. Some people might even be listening to the article being read to them via a machine. In those cases, it’s not the best to have text repeated like that.
I haven’t used Revisionary yet, but after discovering it while working on this post I’m now really tempted to do so. Revisionary allows your authors to submit revisions of content that you can then choose to publish.
This makes a lot of sense, because once something is published you don’t want to send it back into the review queue. You don’t want it to go away — it needs to stay available, in its current form, until the reworked content can take its place. Revisionary lets you accomplish just that.
My gut is that Revisionary, combined with Content Audit and Edit Flow, could provide a pretty solid workflow all on their own.
I personally don’t use it, but I can tell you what it is. Storify describes itself as a “platform for social media storytelling”. Okay, but what does that mean? It means that you can create a timeline of sorts, based on interactions on sites like Twitter, Facebook, and others.
Storify is a site and service all its own, but the WordPress plugin is pretty slick. It lets you create your “Storify” and then embed it into a post. I mention this plugin only because it seems that it could be a way to add relevant social interactions to a story or article.
WinerLinks is a plugin named after Dave Winer, and it does something that he first implemented on his own blog. WinerLinks adds paragraph-level permalinks to your articles, so visitors can link to a specific paragraph of your writing.
I don’t currently use this one, but I think I’ll be implementing it shortly as well.
Postie is an advanced post-by-email plugin. Personally I would only use this to email drafts or ideas in to my WordPress site, but it can be used entirely for publishing if you want.
There are a lot of options and ways to trigger certain behaviors within emails that I think are pretty clever, but at its core it’s pretty straightforward: email your words to your site.
Simple Footnotes is a plugin that makes adding footnotes, as you might guess, simple. It executes footnotes the way you would expect, with your having to create the numbers and add a list to the bottom of your post yourself. I don’t footnote enough that I have dug this one up, but I kind of want to footnote more often just to be able to use it.
I may disappoint you because I don’t have theme recommendations for journalists. At least, no exciting and flashy ones. I would recommend not trying to reinvent the wheel, and instead sticking to something well tested and readable. Twenty Ten, Twenty Eleven, and generally minimal themes tend to be my favorites when it comes to reading.
Unless you’re very confident about the direction you’re heading in with a custom design, sticking to something that works isn’t a bad option.
I think thinking about workflow is important. Every practice has a path, whether you recognize it or not. The presentation this post is based on began as notes jotted down over them. Then it was outlined, drafted, timed, edited, improved, and then slides were made.
WordPress, by default, isn’t a great workflow for a multi-author site. It’s just not, and that’s okay. Most blogs are solo endeavors. Most people don’t have 10-20 people contributing posts. Most only have themselves.
I’m certainly not an expert it in or anything, but I do have some thoughts. And, there are smarter people that me that have done awesome stuff that I can tell you about.
What not to do
I like talking about my pet peeves. That’s kind of what “pet peeve” means, right? There are a couple of things that really bug me, when it comes to multi-author blogs. One, though, is when authors aren’t given proper attribution on the site. If I’m expected to spend my life minutes reading something on a website, I want to be reading a human being’s words. I can’t connect with an author called “Editorial Staff”.
Not properly crediting authors is a problem for at least two reasons:
- I can’t get to know an author over time. Many of the people I read on a daily basis, I read on a daily basis because I’ve learned how they think and I trust their work. It’s impossible to do that with what is essentially an anonymous credit.
- It’s likely inefficient. In many cases, when authors aren’t properly credited, they also don’t even have access to the WordPress dashboard. So they don’t have access to the heart of the editorial workflow.
Contributors should have accounts on your WordPress site. If you have enough of a team to have multiple editors, those editors should have the proper editor accounts. If you need to get detailed with controlling what your team members can do, look into Justin Tadlock’s Members plugin. It lets you tweak what each user role (contributor, author, editor, and so on) can do, and it lets you create additional roles if your situation requires it.
I’ve handled workflow a couple of different ways. One thing I do, for just about any site I put together where I’ll be an editor with a team, is I create a team P2 blog. If you haven’t used it before, check it out sometime: P2 theme is a theme from the folks at Automattic, and it’s basically a front-end blogging experience, similar to Twitter in some ways, that makes certain team collaborations easier.
More on workflows
Read the post How to manage a proper multi-author WordPress blog for more on improving your team’s WordPress workflow.
Anyway, I pretty much always set up a subdomain with the team blog, say team.mysite.com, and then use the More Privacy Options plugin to turn off access to non-members of the site. So then I can add only the team members, and basically have a team chat blog. I’d recommend something like this, or maybe even a persistent chat room, no matter what your setup is.
I used to also use a separate instance of the P2 theme to manage stories on WPCandy. We would post links or summaries of new ideas, tag them, and then comment on them to claim them. As you can imagine, this became unwieldly pretty darn fast. There wasn’t much in terms of filtering, and it just kind of turned into a mess.
Then, we moved onto a ticketing WordPress theme. There are a couple out there, but we used FaultPress from WooThemes. So now we could submit article ideas and news stories as tickets, assign them to folks, discuss things, and then run over to the main site and write the post. This worked okay for a while, but the problem had to do with managing two separate systems. We had to create a sort of translation layer in order to make them work together. It wasn’t very elegant, and not a long term solution.
Now, and I already talked about this so I won’t again, we use Edit Flow. It gives a lot of the control we enjoyed from the ticketing system, with the familiarity that we liked from the P2 theme, and the simplicity of using it within the primary site’s own dashboard. I can manage the entire workflow, in terms of the production of articles on the site, within the site itself. I’m pretty happy about that.
The WPCandy Quarterly
This year I started a magazine project called The WPCandy Quarterly. The goal is to publish, on real paper, a magazine all about WordPress, related business, the community, and topics like this one. The workflow was interesting there, because what we ended up using was a special instance of P2 just for magazine discussion and drafting the articles. I’ll probably add Edit Flow to that mix in the future, because I like the drafting/reviewing/editing workflow it offers.
Everyone drafted their articles, and then they were worked into an app I used called Scribus. Scribus is an open source page layout application. I’ve used InDesign in the past, but I wanted a bit more options in terms of the computers I used to work on the project. Plus, once I discovered that Scribus is pretty good, and open source, I was pretty interested.
When I say everyone’s article where “worked into” the app, by that i mean I transferred them over myself and dealt with the formatting and style changes at that point. Hardly elegant, as you might imagine. So don’t do what I did, if you can avoid it.
Bangor Daily News
There are other ways to go about the web-to-print jump, much smarter than what I did. My favorite example from 2011 is the Bangor Daily News team’s workflow. William P. Davis has written about their setup, but I’ll summarize it quickly here.
They publish to the web and have a print edition as well. Their workflow involves Google Docs, WordPress, and InDesign. Their authors begin in Google Docs, where the articles are written and edited. When they’re ready to publish, the doc is put in a special folder that is then sent via XMLRPC to WordPress.
From there they have a process in place to turn the WordPress posts into InDesign Tagged Text files that InDesign can search for and import. In this way, they have a pretty seamless workflow from Google Docs to WordPress, and finally to print.
Improving our craft
Somebody somewhere once said that the best way to learn something is to teach it. When you’ve learned something well enough to teach it to someone else, you know it really well yourself. I was excited to talk about this issue at WordCamp Phoenix this year because, well, it’s something I want to be better at. I want to improve my work. I know I can do better than writing “10 New Widgets to Accomplish Something Trivial”, right?
None of these tools and techniques are any good if we aren’t doing good work we can be proud of. I’m sure we all have our own opinions of the state of journalism today, but we’re also the ones that can improve it.
One thing I’ve been doing lately is assembling a list of people who I respect as journalists and as writers, no matter the niche they write in. I think one’s calibre of writing increases or decreases based on the quality of what they read.
If you’re looking for simple ways to improve your work right away, I would recommend holding yourself to some higher standards:
- Source your work, using multiple sources when you can.
- Make it clear to your readers what it is you’re writing. Differentiate an editorial from a news story; there are different expectations for each.
- Resist reblogging and taking the easy route. I’m guilty of this. Work harder on original stories. Take a minute, find the interesting story. If it’s not there, let it pass.
- Assemble an editorial policy and link it up properly.
- Disclose conflicts of interest.
Finally, don’t forget to listen to what your readers think. Are they satisfied with the level of quality you’re offering? If your readers aren’t challenging your work often enough, it might be time to seek out a new audience that will.
WordCamp Phoenix 2012 presentation
I presented on this topic at WordCamp Phoenix in February of 2012 and then adapted it into this post.