Often, the audience can turn you on to the next story
By Courtney Greenberg
In September 2012, Dan Lyons wrote an article for his blog that wittily condemned the “new breed of quasi-journalists in the [Silicon] Valley.” The article was entitled ‘Hit men, click whores, and paid apologists: Welcome to the Silicon Cesspool.’ It questioned the credibility of certain reporters and critiqued the companies that paid them off. Lyons called the ordeal “incestuous.”
The article generated 428 comments, including ones from Kara Swisher, blogger for All Things Digital, and Dylan Tweney, executive editor at VentureBeat. Writing for his blog, Lyons says, allows him to escape the scrutiny of the endless editing that occurs in the newsroom. His articles don’t have to go through “the machine” – the editing process that Lyon’s says makes all writing sound the same. Blogging allows him to “write from the gut,” like he did in his Silicon Valley piece.
Lyons started working for a local newspaper when he was in college. Now, he is an editor at ReadWrite after working at Forbes, Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Throughout his entire experience as a journalist – “I’m so old that we literally wrote on typewriters” – Lyons’ biggest lesson was learning how to take criticism from his readers.
“So here’s the thing,” says Lyons. “I was a print journalist in the 1980s. You write stuff, and you don’t really have any connection with the reader. And then you switch to blogging.” At first, Lyons moderated his comments. He only allowed the public to view the ones he approved. A friend coaxed him into “throwing them wide open” and making the comments completely uncensored. “It was really hard to take,” he says. “People write this brutal stuff to you.” But then an amazing thing happened. Lyons embraced the comments and built a relationship with his readers. “I would write back to people. I would participate in the comment strings or write an email. I think it’s a way of learning.”
Reader feedback is shaping how and what most journo-bloggers write. As blogging enters its second decade, veteran journalists have learned an important skill: listening to their audience. Although Twitter is the leading social networking site in terms of visitors, people are spending more time on Tumblr. With a growing audience, bloggers have the advantage of connecting with their readers and improving their writing. The experienced journo-bloggers recognize that without reader participation, they would become irrelevant and lose their writing platform.
An influential British journalist-turned-blogger named Paul Bradshaw did a study in 2009, asking how blogging has affected the relationship between journalists and their audience. Two hundred journo-bloggers from 30 different countries answered that question. And what they said surprised Bradshaw. He found “more than half of the blogging journalists said this relationship [with their audience] had been ‘enormously’ or ‘completely’ transformed.”
Journo-bloggers told Bradshaw their writing had improved because of the communication with their readers. Bradshaw said one journalist wrote an article that created an argument between his readers. Reading the comments gave his story context and helped him further understand his topic. Bradshaw’s study showed that journo-bloggers were able to strengthen their writing and comprehension by interacting with their readers.
Alfred Hermida is a blogger and Journalism professor at the University of British Columbia. He believes the values of journalism are shifting. It used to be the means of production that defined what a journalist was. And now, since one third of the earth’s population has access to the Internet, “it’s in everybody’s hands.”
People seem to resonate the most with stories that “provoke a reaction,” he says. “It might be wonder. It might be surprise. It might be outrage.” Bloggers have the advantage of seeing what interests their audiences “minute by minute,” which helps generate frequent and relevant story ideas.
An online news site called OpenFile is taking the idea of interacting with its audience a step further. The site, which has temporarily ceased publication, covers news in main cities across Canada, using story pitches sent by its readers to generate articles. Neal Ozano, editor of Halifax’s OpenFile branch, thinks other news sources will have to adapt to working with their audience.
“That whole interactivity should be how the future of journalism looks,” he says. “The more you build that personal relationship with your customers, the more likely it is they’ll stick around.”
Blogger Antony Loewenstein has a deeper understanding for his stories because of his readers’ comments. The Australian journalist, who now runs his own self-entitled blog, covers controversial issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I’ve been the victim of trolling, like most writers in the public arena, but the best policy is to ignore it,” he says, over email. “Don’t give oxygen to people who simply want to cause trouble and not provide constructive views.”
Loewenstein’s opinions have not been “radically” changed by his readers, but he says his “mind has been opened.” His audience gives him keen insights and perspectives. Loewenstein says he used to “advocate a two-state solution for the Middle East.” After reading and listening to “dissenting perspectives,” he says he “backs” the one-state solution.
Veteran journalists who made the switch from print to online understand how their medium has evolved. They embraced social media as a means to communicate and reach out to their audience. A study in 2010 by Technorati showed that readers are trusting bloggers more while their faith in mainstream media is fading. Forty-three percent of the bloggers said they plan on broadening the topics they write about and over half plan to blog more often. By writing more frequently and having an attentive and loyal audience, journo-bloggers were able to flourish since their debut ten years ago.
Writers like Lyons developed their writing and reporting skills during the pre-Internet days. The technique, he believes, has ultimately stayed the same. For Lyons, blogging is “more lively.” He says it’s the kind of style that “would seem out of place in a newspaper.”
Hamutal Dotan is the editor-in-chief at the Torontoist, a news blog. She says the difference between writing for print and online is often “exaggerated.” Dotan says she still needs to get into a “different headspace, a different mode” when she writes for the blog. She says online writing is “less technical and more general interest.”
The influential nature of the blog was recognized in 2004, in a story about George Bush’s service in the National Guard for CBS. Anchor Dan Rather used documents, whose origins were questioned, on the show. Bloggers, most notably from the conservative site Powerline.com, questioned the documents. Although it was never established that they were forgeries, Rather’s reputation was sullied and so was his credibility. The Powerline blog affected American politics in a way the newspapers could not. It showed that the public was not only smart and astute, but also willing to stand up for its beliefs.
A couple things have changed since Rather retired a year later, in 2005. The blogosphere has exploded. Today, there is an estimated 31 million bloggers in the United States alone, according to Blogging.org. Social media expert Jeff Bullas wrote on his blog, “[blogging] has evolved into [a] major publishing business.” He gives the example of the Huffington Post, which recently sold for more than $300 million. Blogging has become a crucial part of online media.
David Akin’s blog On the Hill is liberating for him as a writer. He is finally able to use the word all journalists fear: I. He abandons the detached voice of a seasoned reporter and embraces the more conversational tone that the Internet allows. This switch, for some journalists, is unsettling. Akin describes it as “thrilling and terrifying at the same time.”
Akin got into technology reporting in the mid-1990s at the Hamilton Spectator simply because he had an email account. He mentions, twice, that he was one of the first five thousand people registered on America Online. On the Hill has been online since 1995 and Akin is still learning from his readers. In 2008, the traffic on his site peaked at about 120,000 readers a month. In late September 2012, Akin got some feedback that challenged his political views. He was in New York, covering the Iranian President’s speech at the United Nations. Protestors outside Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hotel the day before he spoke held signs that read “Go to hell, devil” and “Down with dictators.” Others screamed harsh words: “Terrorist! Murderer!” The protestors, Akin noticed, were part of a terrorist group called the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK). The MEK is still considered a terrorist group in Canada, but was recently removed from the American list. Akin referred to them as “a major opposition movement,” sparking concerned feedback from his Canadian-Iranian and American-Iranian readers.
Several readers wrote comments saying the MEK has little or no support in Iran itself. Akin says such feedback “invariably adds to my knowledge about an issue and sends me investigating an issue in new ways.” He says the audience’s comments gave him useful story ideas. The information available online, which the techies have dubbed Big Data, could pose a threat to blogging, but Akin doesn’t seem worried.
Neither does Jim Romenesko, a media blogger based in Illinois. He thinks data is supplemental. He says it still needs to be “crunched” and provided “side by side, with journalism.” Akin is eager to find new ways to “tap into the data” and share it with his audience: “Can they turn it into stories at our websites that other readers will read?” Akin thinks readers will eventually take part in the newsgathering and news creation processes.
“As a journalist,” Dan Lyons says, “and as a human being, it was somewhat painful to go through but then I think I got better as a journalist by reading through the stuff, and listening to what people said. You really can get better from it.”
Published Jan. 2013