Blog Basics for Journalism Undergrads

[Presented @ SF State, Sept. 20 and 25, 2007]

When Yumi Wilson asked me to sit in on her San Francisco State University journalism class and talk about blogs, I paused and wondered why.

I’m hardly a prolific blogger, having undertaken it grudgingly, and only recently, after actively avoiding the form for many years.

As a snobby journalist, I bristle at both the terminology of blogging and its implications for formal reporting practice.

And, I don’t read blogs. Hardly any at all. Not because they’re not interesting, but because I don’t have time. There’s too much of interest out there, but only so many hours in the day.

For the same reason, I rarely watch YouTube links folks send me. Those two-minute breaks add up.

Which brings us, I suppose, to our first lesson of blogging: It’s all about attention.

Everyone in the media universe is trying to parlay your attention, as a viewer and “user” of media, into some sort of transaction that will result in — what? Opinion exchange. Petition-signing or civic action. And most of all, money.

Give them a worthwhile reason to give you their attention, and you have play in the new media universe.

* * * * *

So “blog” is a concatenation of the words “Web log,” like the onboard log kept by the officers of a ship.

Remember Star Trek? “Captain’s Log, Stardate 6789-4.5,” Kirk says, and then relates the latest Klingon run-in, or what have you.

It’s a periodic record, in other words, of activity and phenomena, updated daily or weekly, usually, or at least with some regularity.

It’s as simple as that, but also, of course, it enormously complexifies from this point out.

Wikipedia says the terms emerged between 1997 and 1999, as part of a relatively arcane bit of hacker discourse about the emerging phenomenon of daily journaling.

Early exponents of blogging, such as Justin Hall or Eddie Codell, exemplify a certain pesonalized, informative and often critical narrative style, usually with a tech/culture perspective.

But the realm of the possible has expanded radically since then.

Blogs have emerged as the perfect, completely idealized media delivery mechanism. Your can publish anything you want, you can connect to your readership/audience/peers in a myriad ways.

You know that already. You all have Facebook and stuff like that, right? It’s this coherent set of online publishing tools that automate all these essential tasks.

This is a big deal — as big a deal as Gutenburg’s invention of movable type, as big a deal as Edison’s first wax cylinder recording. It radically expands the public’s capacity for communication outside of official channels.

So there’s another lesson of blogging: It is not a “new” phenomenon. Self-publishing for personal expression and social discourse has been going on for decades, centuries, millennia.

Consider:

  • The punk rock and music-fan ‘zines of the rock ‘n’ roll era — and today.
  • The samizdat mimeographs of dissenters in Soviet Russia.
  • The broadsides of cultural and creative radicals, such as the Situationist International, the Italian Futurists, and the San Francisco Diggers.
  • The Federalist Papers of the American Revolutionary era, produced and distributed anonymously by “Publius.”
  • Martin Luther’s 96 Theses of Contention, nailed to the door of the church in Worms — and later pulled down, copied, and distributed by other folks who wanted to get in on the dialogue.
  • How much further back can we go? Even the cave paintings in Lascaux, France, noting the momentous achievements of the day. We killed a mastodon!
  • So there’s another lesson of blogging: It’s been going on for a long time, in a myriad forms, and radically expands the arena of civic discourse — something that both enlivens democracy and threatens the authoritarians among us.

    * * * * *

    Blogging is really easy. You can blog as easily as you can order something on Amazon.com, and in fact it’s easier than that, because in some cases you don’t even need to give anyone your credit card number. You can use built-in blogging capabilities from services such as Facebook or MySpace or Tribe or Socializr.

    You can go to online services such as Blogger, Blogspot or Live Journal, or you can register your own domain name and build your own site using a free blogging Word Press, Movable Type or the like. That requires a little technical know-how — or at least a willingness to push buttons, mess with code, deal with the consequences, and progressively learn how to wrangle a Web page.

    You can put any type of media on a blog: graphics, video, audio, text, fancy animations. However, you’ll need a smidge of technical skill to actually produce that media. Even something as simple as text requires the ability to spell, edit and proofread.

    From that point, what people do with their blogs follows the range of human expression. You can do formal journalism or engage in political gossip. You can talk about your pet, or your recent vacation. You can sell things, complain or praise, keep a scrabook or archive — whatever.

    I work with three different Web sites, all of which run on blogging platforms. But of them, only one truly qualifies as a “blog” in the pop-cultural sense of the word … which one, do you think?:

  • The journalism project Newsdesk.org, which runs on Movable Type.
  • My story blog, The Fabulist, which runs on Word Press and is hosted by Laughing Squid.
  • My career and work blog, Illuminated Media, which also runs on Pressed Squid.
  • And so here’s another lesson of blogging: It can be as general or as specific as you want it to be. It can be about anything.

    Also — just because you’re using blogging technology doesn’t necessarily mean you are blogging.

    * * * * *

    We’ve already determined that a blog is broadly defined as an online, serial publishing platform that handles diverse types of content covering diverse topics. But it actually gets a lot more specific than that. There is a style and a method when you “blog” … it’s a verb in this case, and not the same as using a blog to publish something.

    Back in the ’90s, when the Web still was emerging, job recruiters of the early dot-com boom were always on the lookout for editorial talent with a knack for “webby” writing.

    Webby. Possibly one of the most annoying coinages of the Internet era.

    The word “webby” is, however, an accurate and useful term. The most popular, formal blogs on the Internet are indeed “webby,” by which it is meant that the text and content may be any or all of the following:

  • Smart, well-informed, articulate and hilarious.
  • More concerned with assertion rather than verification. Formal reporting verifies each fact before publication. Blogging tends to publish first and verify later. The “blogosphere” tends to be self-correcting … bloggers challenge each others’ assertions, and those of mainstream or traditional publishers. Remember Dan Rather and George Bush’s National Guard papers?
  • An informal, first-person voice. At best, the tone is conversational, engaging and succinct. At worst, this can come across as glib and self-satisfied.
  • Verbose. In fact, hyper-verbose. So damn verbose as to be downright logorrheic. One of the delights of online publishing is that there’s lots of room for every gemlike turn of phrase. The flip side of that is, you wind up with a lot of unedited spew.
  • This really makes blogs and blogging a “people’s” medium — anyone can do it — and as such has produced a lot of concern and resistance as well, some of which has a distinct odor of elitism.

    For example, should blogs be considered outlets for journalism? Are bloggers journalists?

    That was the question with Josh Wolf, the guy who refused to turn over his tapes of a San Francisco protest march to the authorities, claiming journalistic privilege to protect his sources.

    Well, the authorities disagreed, and Josh Wolf spent more than 260 days in the slammer for holding out on principle. He’s a young guy, like 25 or something, and he wound up serving longest prison term served by a journalist in the U.S. for that reason, or so I hear.

    The SPJ even named him its journalist of the year, which expands on the strictest definitions of “journalist,” since he was not employed by a news outlet and doesn’t have a degree in journalism.

    Whether blogs are outlets for journalism, and whether bloggers are journalists, will be argued over for years to come. I play it pretty straightforward. We’re dealing with First Amendment rights, here, and nowhere is there a cosmic rulebook that says a journalist has to have a master’s degree from the Columbia J-School, or whatever.

    Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t think bloggers would benefit from applying a little journalistic formalism to their practice. Discipline, talent and practice as writers or media producers will influence your ability to effectively and accurately tell a story.

    So here’s yet another lesson of blogging: It’s whatever you need it to be. On the one hand, it’s a style and a method; on the other hand, it’s a technology and its applications. It can accommodate everything from formal journalism to very informal types of personal writing and commentary. Not to mention a universe of multimedia.

    Blogging takes place in a public arena, and as such is part of a human tradition of self-expression and public discourse that stretches back to the dawn of our civilization and our species.

    * * * * *

    The last thing to know about blogs, which should be obvious by now, is that they’re the future of media, and people are using blogs and blogging technology for every reason and in every way that they use traditional media, and that it’s just going to all sort itself out in the end.

    People use blogs to make money or advance their business, make a point or sway the political process, build or influence community, pursue creative expression or to simply keep a diary.

    Most of all, to open channels of discourse that once were closed or limited. So the sky’s the limit, isn’t it?

    In the newspaper world, blogs are expanding the realm of discourse that was formerly limited to the Letters to the Editor pages.

    Among reporters and editors, blogs are also viewed as a way of expanding their beat and unwinding a bit, in terms of tone.

    Among many Internet advocates, blogs are seen as the foundation of “citizen journalism,” the means by which the media genie has been freed from its bottle, and as such the ultimate enabler of the “conversation of democracy.”

    This is particularly exciting in a world where the practice of journalism itself is actively degraded by corporations more concerned with profit than public service.

    This, and the closed and unaccountable nature of the journalism and media industries, have deeply frustrated people and communities around the nation and the world.

    The emergence of the Internet and blogs bring an explosion of grassroots media — from political Web sites to veritable palaces of home-made video.

    It all seems so wide-open right now. But order has a way of asserting itself through chaos.

    Standards will emerge. Trends will evolve and solidify. Outlets, authors and producers will stake out their territories, methods, audiences and profit models.

    So most exciting of all is the fact that your generation is in the thick of it.

    You’re going to be running the show in 20 or 30 years, and how you define, develop and interact with media technology over that time will have a major impact on the future of our democracy.

    In that regard, it’s probably a good idea to keep in mind two key concepts that can guide your decision-making in the coming decades: Conscience and quality control.

    As long as you act with both in mind, I think the highest hopes are justified.

    So, good luck with that.

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