By ROBERT McCLURE
The subject line on an SEJ friend's email at first caught me a little defensive. But it turned out that my friend is a big fan of weblogs, or blogs, believing they have the power to transform journalism and the social conversation. Notice, though, that she's not yet blogging herself. It's easier said than done – but also more fun than it sounds.
I'm a longtime newspaper reporter who is still fumbling my way through the blogosphere. When my editors at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer told the staff they wanted to see more of us try our hand at blogging, fellow enviro reporter Lisa Stiffler and I stepped forward as early volunteers. (Some wondered: victims?)
It's easy to see why the Post-Intelligencer wanted to launch into this. We're putting increasing emphasis on our website, which – unlike our brick-and-mortar-and-"dead-tree" product, and many other newspapers' around the country – is constantly attracting more readers.
It's also easy to see why any journalist might want to try blogging. We know young people aren't picking up those dead trees as much. The age gap in newspaper readership dates back decades, but has clearly grown in the face of the Internet.
So, what are blogs? They started out as web logs – periodic Internet posts, often about one's personal life. That was in the mid-'90s. By 2002, though, bloggers had advanced enough that they affected American politics in a big way. Bloggers helped publicize U.S. Senate Majoriy Leader Trent Lott's praise of Strom Thurmond that amounted – bloggers said in chastising traditional media for not reporting it – to racism.
Understand, though, that blogging is not necessarily journalism.
As it was put by early blogger Rebecca Blood: "These weblogs provide a valuable filtering function for their readers. The web has been, in effect, pre-surfed for them. Out of the myriad web pages slung through cyberspace, weblog editors pick out the most mind-boggling, the most stupid, the most compelling."
In a way blogging is a little bit like my stint years ago at United Press International – you dash off something based on what somewhat else has reported. In this world, you can do as much or as little of your own reporting as you would like. Original reporting is the most satisfying, of course – but also the most time-consuming, which is a consideration for journalists who typically have lives steaming ahead at a million miles an hour already.
What we offer is perspective and analysis to inform readers quickly about developments that are intriguing or important or yes, it's a big part of the blogosphere – at least a little funny.
As a longtime environment reporter for regional newspapers, blogging has been liberating, horizon-wise. When Lisa and I called it Dateline Earth, I don't think either of us realized how much we would end up dealing with issues as far-flung as climate change, global fisheries, aquaculture, biodiesel, Canada's Great Bear Rainforest and even NASCAR races.
It's true that Seattle readers have long sought information on the global environment. But the website encourages us to – with a Seattle view – look beyond Seattle. A huge chunk of our readers live outside the Seattle metro area, with much of it a national audience.
Probably the most gratifying aspect of blogging is the informed feedback we get from readers on some posts. The blowby- blow, fact-for-fact jousting match following my posts on biodiesel proved positively gripping. (I know – that sounds so geeky. But it's true!)
I'm also learning about the kinds of errors a blogger has to guard against.
Some are just stupid or lazy, like the time a blogger reported that SEJ member and Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward Jr. was a longtime environmental activist. (As it turns out, the activist the blogger was referring to had been doing his activist stuff for something like 25 years, which would mean SEJ's Ken Ward would have had to start at about the same time he was learning his junior high school locker combination.)
Other errors can creep in because we tend to dive in a little more quickly and, yes, with less research on a blog than we would on a news story. The key is to correct any errors that may crop up quickly and transparently.
Probably the biggest "internal" challenge so far is the same as the one that's draining all those readers away from newspapers – time. If you start blogging, remember that it's basically an addon to whatever else you've been doing. Editors have been cognizant that we're blogging – but really, the requirements for copy production haven't eased much. That's just the way it is.
After a few months in the blogosphere, I'm figuring out that the really important thing is to get people to read your blog, and to comment on it. That's what blogs are ideally supposed to do, after all – get people talking to each other and engaging on issues in a way that sheds lots of light without too much heat. In that respect it's very much what journalists have been doing forever. It just takes a different form.
On this challenge I'm again blessed with the resources of the SEJ community, and on this topic few know more than Amy Gahran, our own "info-provacateur."
Amy offers this advice: Don't think of your blog so much as a publishing vehicle. Think of it as a contribution to the public conversation. Read other blogs with themes akin to yours, and contribute there. Link back to stuff you've written that's relevant.
"I call this 'strategic commenting,'" Amy wrote in giving me advice. "You're not spamming, but you're advertising your site by adding value to an existing conversation. So you're attracting and leveraging an existing conversation."
That's new web-speak for what got me into journalism in the first place: engaging with my fellow citizens in hopes of making a difference.
So, yeah, I'm blogging.
Robert McClure blogs as much as possible when not covering environment for the dead-tree product of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer or writing about covering the environment for SEJournal.
From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Spring, 2006 issue