What the Heck Is Blogging?
Blogging at its most basic level is the keeping of an online journal. At its most transcendent, however, a blog encompasses the journalism every nonfiction writer aspires to, an achievement this book will help you embrace.
A blog is a website that’s organized in usually short articles called posts. Don’t call the articles themselves “blogs”—if you must put the word “blog” in there, call them blog posts. The newer entries are always placed at the top, while older entries scroll down as each new one is added. As time passes, your readers encounter each story laid out in this reverse chronological log format.
Why is it called a blog? A writer and programmer named Dave Winer created the first “web log” when he built a site called Scripting.com. The site featured the reverse chronological (newest stories first) arrangement.
A web log, then, would be similar to a captain’s log—a place to store snippets of information. Winer’s idea quickly became known as a weblog, a term that has since evolved into its shortened and most familiar form, blog.
Winer created a basic system for distributing his ideas about programming and hardware, and incorporated something called Really Simple Syndication or RSS, allowing readers to access his posts from programs called newsreaders. This, in a sense, divorced the blog from the website on which it was hosted.
A newsreader pulls in data from an RSS feed and displays it separate from the original site. Newsreaders, for example, do not show the original layout of the site from which the information is sourced. This is an important distinction: people who use RSS readers may never visit a site they read in their newsreader.
This movement of blog to newsreaders changed blogging considerably. For the first time, the content on a page could exist as a standalone entity, devoid of advertising, images, and other clutter. Blog posts had to drag the reader from a newsreader to the website and create a fan where there was once a passive consumer.
Many bloggers see the divorce of content from website to be a bad thing. After all, it reduces pageviews and potential ad revenue. However, with the right content, you can force the reader to put the two back together again, creating a unique opportunity to turn a mass of “grazers” into an audience.
True blogging did not take off until a Silicon Alley rivalry began between Nick Denton, a former Financial Times journalist, and Jason Calacanis, the publisher of The Silicon Alley Reporter. Denton began a site called Gawker and focused on New York gossip. When that site grew popular, he expanded his empire, starting a technology and gadget site called Gizmodo, one of the BIGGEST blog sites there is today.
At the same time, Calacanis was creating a rival blog network called Weblogs Inc. His goal was to saturate the market with niche blogs written by low-paid but dedicated editors.
Both sites grew out of the ashes of the dot-com bust, and both publishers found themselves with a surfeit of talent. Calacanis, however, poached one of Denton’s writers to start Engadget, and when Weblogs Inc. was sold to America Online, the first blogging millionaires were born.
These two organizations were the first to meld content management, advertising, and cheap labor to create a blog network designed, through synergistic linking, to build traffic. In fact, it can be argued that Weblogs Inc. and Gawker Media were the first sites where “traffic” was a main concern, in contrast with the years preceding the founding of these organizations, when media operations saw the web as, at best, a distraction.
Gawker Media, and to an extent, Weblogs Inc., defined a methodology and style that critics excoriated and eventually adopted. The goal of the blog was a stream of content so overwhelming that it required frequent updates.
This was coupled with a conversational style that spoke of “outsider” journalism, a suggestion that the writer was in a beleaguered underclass, not beholden to the vagaries of the entrenched media. This plan worked well for years until, of course, blogs became entrenched media.
If this is all too esoteric, rest assured that it’s important to understand who the major players are in this space and how they operate. You can learn a great deal, for example, about how Engadget covers a technology press conference or how Politico handles an election.
If there is one rule to live by, however, it’s this: Everything about blogging is being made up on the fly. As successful as these sites are, there are few “best practices” to follow, and the ones that exist, we will outline in this book. Blogging has moved far too fast to codify any sort of “style guide” or list of do’s and don’ts.
These two organizations now essentially rule the blogosphere. Although there are plenty of more popular blogs out there, sites like Gawker and Gizmodo defined an entire genre of writing—a snarky, New York-centric voice that speaks to both the experts in technology, media, and sports as well as the dilettantes.
Great bloggers are good at making readers feel like they are part of a privy conversation full of gossip, lore, and insider knowledge. Anything less and you’re basically reading a newspaper clipping.
Calacanis and Denton got rich with their blogging empires, but this is not to say everyone involved in those early years of blogging got rich quick. There were plenty of bloggers—millions—who made absolutely no money and accomplished nothing.
However, by taking the Denton/Calacanis model and expanding it, many blogs have found their niche and discovered a potent advertising model.
The result? In less than a decade, a new medium was created. The most exciting part of this revolution is the way it’s harnessed the immediacy of the Web, and given a voice to those who might not have had such an opportunity a mere 10 years ago.
Think about it: At the turn of the century, the majority of people had no far-reaching voice to reach the masses. They could try to be published in journals or magazines. Their quests for stardom were often driven through attempts at being in the “it scene” or sending out demo tapes to bored A&R men.
Now, however, the average Joe or Jane (or Justin or Jenna) can become an Internet sensation overnight. Bloggers are brought on as experts in mainstream news programs, and blogs often force mainstream journalists to get off their duffs and actually research a story.
For instance, a blogger broke the Bush-Gore recount, and blogs helped aggregate the Afghan War documents released by Wikileaks.
Blogging is still a new medium. News organizations are still floundering in the shoals of misunderstanding and assessing new ways of selling content in a world where content is free.
Blogging is changing the way we think about news and opinion, and it’s moving eyeballs away from established news sites and toward upstarts. This, then, is the opportunity for you to capture—and it’s also the juggernaut you’re up against.
Even as they deride the blog revolution as the work of amateurs piggy-backing on their expensive content, media organizations are trying desperately to copy the magic that defines many of the biggest and best blogs in the world. They will, in short, fail, for a few simple reasons.
First, most news organizations are “too big” or at least entrenched in an older newsroom mentality. As it stands large news organizations don’t have the flexibility to mix fact, opinion, and original reporting in a way that tracks with their original mission.
This could obviously change—and it will over time—but until it does, there are many blind spots to take advantage of in the blogosphere.
One prominent example of a news organization embracing new media is The Daily produced by News Corp. Created as the world’s first well-funded online-only news magazine/newspaper (it’s hard to tell what it is just yet, but think of it as Newsweek meets a tabloid newspaper), Rupert Murdoch invested $30 million in The Daily’s creation and maintenance.
This is a testament to how big news organizations feel about on-line—after years of being unable to beat them at their game, they’ve finally decided to join them.
Second, the blog is a powerful medium when used correctly. The nascent blog format gives writers tremendous flexibility. That means you can be your own boss and write about anything you want. It’s all in your hands, but you can’t just write at random.
Your goal is to introduce your readers to the most compelling topics in your world at that moment, and then bring your own unique insights to those topics.
Add more facts you’ve found elsewhere in your world, or blurt out those nagging notions you have rattling inside your head.
Mix in some of your own perspectives that readers might not have ever thought of on their own. Entertain and surprise them with your wit, your personal experience, and your well-supported opinions.
Researchers take note: Becoming a blogger is the fastest way to become an expert on a particular topic or niche.
You are immediately seen as someone in-the-know, and with a big enough audience, you can turn that experience into ad dollars, a book contract, or simply a completed thesis.
Most popular blogs were created by writers who wanted to share what they knew. Slashdot.org began as a joke by two friends who wanted to write about open source software. They describe their success thus and we think it defines the essence of the blogosphere quite nicely:
Slashdot is successful for the same reasons anything else is. We provided something that was needed before anyone else did, and we worked (and continue to work) our butts off to make it as good as it could be.
What Is A Blogger?
Let’s get a handle on what bloggers really are, and what they actually do. Are they stars, journalists, dilettantes, rabble-rousers, hacks? Yes, but not all at the same time.
They’re mavens, critics, opinion leaders and inciters of riots. Some are whiners and complainers, naysayers and contrarians. Some are lovers, others are fighters, many are both. But before they can earn any of those labels, first of all, they must be filters.
The best bloggers are able to sift through enormous volumes of information every day, and pick out the few shiny nuggets that will fascinate their readers.
Bloggers know where to find the best stories, and who to ask that all-important question, “What’s up?” They know how to filter out topics that are of no consequence, and zero in on those that will grab attention.
Even if you are the greatest writer in the world, if you choose topics no one cares about, you will have few readers.
The closest analogy we’ve been able to find for a blogger to a real-world professional—and this is not to say that blogging cannot be a job—is that of a wire reporter.
In the old days, the news wires supplied a steady feed of information to readers around the world and almost everything of import was reported over them.
Ironically, with the rise of blogging, wire reporting actually makes up most of the content that appears in daily newspapers, and thanks to reduced staff sizes and budgets, many papers are going online-only. It is online, where the price of paper and ink is immaterial, that a news organization can really shine—or flop.
Bloggers are also editors or, if you want to stray from journalistic terms, curators. Just as a magazine needs someone to pick out the stories that appear in its pages, bloggers select the stories that will appear in their feed.
Much has been said about bloggers “copying” other news stories. This is not true. At worst a blogger will cut out a paragraph from another story and add a bit of commentary.
At best, a blogger will make a story his or her own. Better yet, a blogger will write her own story that will guide the conversation.
This is done by news organizations all the time: one magazine or newspaper will release an exclusive and hundreds of other organizations will “report around” the original story, publishing their own angles.
Read any of the best news sources—the news is usually old. It has been reported elsewhere and expanded by a reporter.
Then we have the second statement: that bloggers are not journalists. To suggest that bloggers steal and newspapers “report” is disingenuous, especially considering the budgets and manpower available to both organizations (read “none” and “decades of talent and hundreds of individuals dedicated to the newsgathering profession”).
This isn’t to say that bloggers have license to be sloppy. On the contrary, bloggers have the time and energy to get things right, interesting, and well-phrased—and they have an endless amount of space in which to tell their story.
Blogging gives you a chance to show your readers everything you know (and expose everything you have yet to learn) about your topic of choice, but that’s just the beginning. Immediately after you’ve published your blog post, the conversation continues when your crowd of readers responds with everything they know about your post’s chosen topic.
The result is a body of knowledge—sometimes brand-new—that’s a combination of the topic you’ve introduced and the collective knowledge of your readers.
When you’re talking about thousands of readers, their collective knowledge far surpasses that of any one person. It’s called crowdsourcing, and it encompasses so many facts, figures and details that it can be daunting.
Our official definition of blogging: It is journalism written on a short deadline. If you are a blogger, you are a journalist.
Soon, the reverse will be true. Just like journalism, blogging requires dedication and accuracy, but unlike journalism, bloggers in most cases do not have the old-fashioned safety net of the editorial process to fall back on.
In the old days, a newsroom featured “writers,” “editors” and “photographers”—we put all of those in scare quotes because most of those positions were staffed by people with no business being in those positions—and “layout” people. The writers sent text to copyeditors who fixed the text. Photographers took assigned photos, and everything went to the layout team who then sent things to the printer.
As you can imagine, the business of producing anything was fraught with difficulty, and large news organizations were large because of this long chain of command required to produce one issue.
Now, however, the blogger does all of those things and more. The blogger is a one-man band, a lone news organization.
If your goal is to write about your kittens or your life, you are not a blogger. You are a diarist. However, if your goal is to cover news that no one else is covering within your niche, you are a journalist and you are expected to run like a journalistic organization.
While your readership will not mention it at first, the assumption is always there: “This person is someone whose work I’m reading because of his skills and expertise. I expect the writing to be strong and clear, the pictures to be sharp, and the layout to be conducive to long reading.” At the very least, this is what is expected of a beginning blogger.
But go ahead, break all of our rules. Write a blog about yourself and fail to find a niche. Focus on how cute your hamsters are—we’re sure the hamster-fan blogosphere is booming.
However, in our experience the best bloggers have a niche, write as if they were writing for a paying audience, and offer more than just a link and a smiley face emoticon.
To treat blogging as anything other than journalism—to say it’s a hobby or a self-indulgence—is to completely miss the point, and in the end, it is an insult to the hard work of pioneer bloggers who fought long and hard to gain access and respect in an entrenched industry.
Bloggers are members of the mass media.
The news cycle is so fast that the only way to get a message across will be through short-form posts and the occasional longer piece. This does not mean journalism is dying—it is just evolving. We’re here to hasten the change.
Being a blogger isn’t all fun. Be prepared to bask in the iridescent glow of your readers’ adoration one day, and wallow in the snake pit of their hatred the next when they all disagree with you.
Posts you thought might be blockbusters fall flat, with no one commenting at all. Another you thought might just be a throwaway turns out to be a tremendous hit.
Most days fall somewhere in between those extremes. Either way, while you’re probably not an expert on everything you’ll be writing about, chances are, one of your readers is an expert.
Take special care to get your facts straight with everything you write, because there are always multitudes of readers who are more than eager to set you straight.