Netscape founder Mark Andreesen has some advice for the ailing newspaper industry– go completely online. The advice is sound, but methinks the Schulzbergers and Zuckermans of the world are not listening (but the Murdochs might be).
George McGrath was looking for a way to care for his kids, be involved in his community and do something interesting all while making a few bucks. He decided to form a community based blog- Metuchen Matters.
The blog is more than an answer to a stay-at-home dad’s desire to keep himself busy. It is one of a growing number of blogs with a community-based business model. Neighborhood blogs like Metuchen Matters or the Monclair, NJ based Baristanet.com zoom into local stories that larger news outfits may ignore. Stories could be hard news, like a financial scam to defraud people out of their homes or a local feature like where to get a good cup of Greek Coffee.
Sometimes the content can be provocative. Ron Howell, veteran Newsday reporter turned blogger and author of the Bedford-Stuyvesant based Brooklyn Ron, sees his blog as a “a bridge between the Old and the New Brooklyn.” As part of that bridge Howell created a mildly addictive interactive sidebar feature, “Tainted Street Names Of Bedford-Stuyvesant.” A list of local street names allows a user to see if a particular street honors a former slave holder. Building on an initiative to give a biography to Bed-Stuy’s byways by NYC Councilman Al Vann , Howell has publicized what he calls the “sullied backgrounds” of some of the neighborhood’s thoroughfares. But the fourth generation Brooklynite doesn’t see this as activism. “For me, it was about history,” says Howell. And although some of the street named may be “tainted,” Howell demurs when asked if he sees his feature as part of a campaign to change the names of local street. “I think the co-naming of streets has maybe been done too easily in the past,” reflects Howell. “It’d be nice if historians were more involved in the selection than elected officials.” The response to the article has “been fairly strong” with many thousands of hits according to Howell. Historians may or may not be involved, but the feature allows the community to be engaged in the neighborhood’s history.
Small town community blogs provide a virtual space for residents–a place to go for news, culture and discussion. “The town site was okay for municipal stuff, the chamber of commerce site is okay to get phone numbers from, but nothing comprehensive and nothing that talked about the town and allowed residents respond back. I thought there was a void and I thought if I got the right help I could fill it.” McGrath reflects.
And judging by the response of the local business community, McGrath is indeed filling a void. Like their cousins in print–the local weekly, the community blog provides needed exposure for local businesses and community groups. McGrath immediately approached local businesses with his idea. Despite his lack of data or a proven readership, local business people showed at least some interest. “Because our costs are relatively low we’ve been able to price ourselves well below any newspapers ads, even the small papers, so they liked that aspect” explains McGrath. And by low prices McGrath means free, at least for the first few months. Skeptics were invited to view the site. McGrath’s soft sell put potential clients at ease, “everyone we contacted eventually felt comfortable” he said.
Start-up costs are relatively low. Blog costs could be as low as zero. McGrath and his two business partners decided to spend money on forming an LLC, computer software, and other expenses. Total expenditures have so far been under $2,000, but at a price. All three partners are working for nothing. The original business plan for Metuchen Matters predicted a break even point in six months. But after evaluating site traffic and community response, McGrath altered his prediction. When asked when he expected his first profit he said, “I would say [in] 90 days.”
Journalistic writing depends on a good lede (or lead). And while this is an age-old rule, its importance is amplified in the age of blogs and new media. With news aggregators, Blackberry and iPhone apps and other technological innovations that display news feeds, the lede is often the only part of the story a person sees. A weak lede will lose readers.
The basics of lede writing are well-taught, but in a recent conversation I have had with Lew Wheaton, a long time journalist for the AP and now professor of Journalism at Bergen County Community College, it became clear problems with the lede are nearly universal. My students and his seem to have similar problems in the lede. Ledes are often filled with the passive voice, sentence fragments, improper use of verbs, and other errors. Unfortunately these mistakes are not limited to the classroom. These errors are sometimes made by professionals. Look at the following example from the AP found on Language Log:
Prosecutors dropped their case Friday against a security guard in the 2000 death of a man put in a choke hold during a shoplifting investigation — a case that took on racial overtones.
The problem here is passive construction:
a man put in a choke hold during a shoplifting investigation…
Who put the man in the choke hold? By hiding the subject in a passive construction the implication is that no one in particular is at fault. The blog post on Language Log continues:
The AP story’s lede choses to be vague about two questions of agency — who choked the alleged shoplifter to death? and who raised the issue of race in connection with the case?
This vagueness occurs because of passive construction.
Blogger Tim Curran writes,
…there are two basic problems with the passive voice in newswriting (or really, in any kind of writing).
- The first is simply the stylistic fact that the passive voice makes for a less, well, active sentence. Passive voice sentences are just boring and flat, especially in constructions longer than the examples above. In large part, that’s because the action described is hard to visualize. Why? That brings us to the second point.
- The passive voice often disguises who is performing the action described. In the passive voice example above, we have no idea who is eating John’s ice cream. We can’t visualize the sentence except with a kind of blank space where “Sally” goes. (One could add that information: “John’s ice cream is being eaten by Sally.” But that’s just a longer and more awkward way of saying what would be brief and to-the-point in the active voice).
This is the journalistic problem with the passive voice. Deliberately or accidentally, it hides who is doing what to whom, and that’s bad journalism.
Passive constructions aren’t the only crime. Journalist Deborah Potter details other forms of verbal abuse. Excessive use of gerunds and participles (the -ing form), subject-verb agreement problems, or sentence fragments with missing verbs are all too common.
To be sure, there are crimes beyond the lede, but as Robert M. Knight notes in his text, A Journalistic Approach to Good Writing: The Craft of Clarity,
There aren’t many communication sins that cannot be forgiven if the lede is written well. Mechanical problems, over-blown sentences, too many modifiers, passive voice, linking or “being” verbs, too many complex and compound sentences, monotonous rhythms, clichés– if the lede is right, that’s more important.
Now, one shouldn’t abandon the article after a successful lede, but if any one part of a news story is the greatest, it is the lede. Other sins, such is improper attribution and poor use of the medium (in this case, the blog), will be addressed in future posts.
Web Technology Blog ReadWriteWeb reports that spelling and grammar errors have a negative impact on the success of a blog. In a study sponsored by GrooseGrade, 200 respondents to a survey revealed that they are less likely to trust blogs with errors and less likely to recommend posts found on those blogs. Surprising? No, but the data reveals that if you want to build traffic and readers, spelling and grammar count.
50 Kaitens, meaning 50 RPMs in Japanese, are probably the most fun rock act I ever met. That’s saying a lot since my urinal incident with Coldplay’s Chris Martin (we’ll save that for another time). I had the chance to interview the Kaitens a while back thanks to photographer and friend Rie Tomita.
Here is the official Warner Music site, but you will require lessons in Japanese in order to understand it.
The City University of New York’s annual media conference and job fair is here on October 3 at 8:30am. This year the event is sponsored by The Economist Magazine and Adobe.
Anyone who is interested in any kind of media should attend. It is informative, you will make great contacts and you will get a free lunch. The workshops are usually pretty interesting as well (usually). Come early and come ready to hunt for a job.
I’ve worked a bunch of these and I’ve talking to the recruiters year after year. Most of the journalist types there are looking are looking for print clips, regardless of what medium they represent.
Ben Mevorach of 1010 WINS comes every year and every year he is looking for people who could write. Why would a radio news director what people who could write? Well, it’s still about news copy. But beyond that, he is usually looking for people to work on 1010wins.com. So if you have a newsy blog, you have an advantage. Just remember to bring printouts as part of your clips.
Creating content is not old hat. In about four weeks time, my two classes went from 0 to light speed in the blogosphere (without violating any relevant theories of relativity) focusing mainly on curating content. This is important in the brave new world. But what about content creation?
We have spent quite a bit of time on the importance of writing a good lede and how it is even more important on the web. It is my firm belief that lede writing is the #1 skill any new media journalist needs to learn. But the web is more than words. It is a rich world of rich media.
It is here than many of my students have an untapped resource. They are, for the most part, students of media production. They shoot documentaries, have radio shows, and work in traditional broadcast studios. So let’s get this stuff out there.
We talked about RSS last time. That happens to be the same stuff that makes podcasting work. You produce content and people subscribe.
For podcasting noobs, I strongly recommend sticking to audio. Why? Because it is easier and cheaper. You don’t have to worry about lighting and the editing software for audio is lighter weight than a video editing suite.
There are many good resources to learn about creating audio, what microphones to use and all the tech stuff. Over the next few posts, we will look at some fairly high-level prosumer methods of audio creation.
The great part of content creation nowadays is a lot could be done with a little. Think this is just some more tech evangelist BS? Well, I co-produce Sustainable Times, a weekly “radio” show available exclusively on the web and on iTunes. That show has three producers–one in Albany, NY, one in New Paltz, NY and myself in Edison, NJ. I use Apple’s Soundtrack Pro, but the NY producers use a free program called Audacity,a laptop and an USB microphone.
The technological barrier to content creation has greatly been lowered over the past few years. Check out some of the resources mentioned in this article and produce some audio. In my next few posts, I’ll show how you can turn your audio into a bona fide podcast with validated RSS.
I’m getting weekly emails from many, many students informing me of their latest blog posts. I’m usually bad about responding to emails, but my recent quiet has caused fretting amongst the A-types in my classes. Fret not, my friends! I can read your minds. Well, not really, but I can read your feeds.
Here is how. RSS (which stands for either Real Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary depending on who you ask), allows people to subscribe to blogs, news headlines, searches, rich media (aka Podcasts) and a bunch of other stuff. The chief advantage of this is that people can follow multiple sources of information in one spot.
Huh? How so? By using a feed aggregator, also called a news reader or simply an aggregator. An aggregator is a piece of software that aggregates syndicated web content such as blogs and news headlines. I like to use Net Newswire, which is Mac based. There are many, many aggregators to choose from including web-based aggregators for the truly mobile.
If you really want to get your geek on, there are resources just for you. But whatever your nerd level, RSS is simple to use and a very powerful too for aspiring journalists.