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Home > Publications > Quill > Confessions of a student blogger


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Tuesday, August 1, 2006
Confessions of a student blogger

By Brian Stelter

I have a confession to make: I blog in class.

Not every day, but occasionally as I monitor my e-mail during Newswriting or Principles of Management, something appears in my inbox that simply can’t wait.

Maybe it’s an announcement of a new anchor team at ABC News, or a tip about an on-air war of words between a Fox News host and a guest. With an audience in the tens of thousands, it’s hard to wait until the end of the class period. That audience is why I’m blogging in the first place, and that audience is why every journalism student should learn about blogging before they graduate.

I run a blog called TVNewser.com. It’s a daily diary of the ins and outs of television news. It’s a chronicle of “news about the news” at cable networks such as Fox, CNN and MSNBC, and broadcast networks such as NBC, ABC and CBS. It attracts about 120,000 unique visitors every month.

I started the blog two and a half years ago, on a whim, in the middle of my freshman year at Towson University. I called it CableNewser and focused my coverage on the cable news channels. I didn’t reveal my identity on the blog, for fear of losing all my credibility. After all, who would want to read a TV blog written by an 18-year-old college student?

My anonymity stirred readership, and the site became a “must read” for thousands of news employees. Some readers thought I was a disgruntled middle-aged producer, but they were in for a surprise.

At first, I figured I’d never get hired by a television network if there was a record of my cable news criticisms somewhere on the Web. But somewhere along the way, I discovered that the blog could help me, not hurt me. (Perhaps a good way to get a job in an industry is to blog about that industry.)

My identity was revealed in The New York Times in May 2004, and sure enough, I received job offers within weeks. In July 2004, I brought my blog to a media networking company called mediabistro.com. I became TVNewser and expanded my coverage to include broadcast news. And I steadily attracted a growing audience of TV insiders and viewers.

How’d I do it? By applying my interest in the news and my passion for journalism to a new publishing tool.

How do students benefit from blogs?

Universities are beginning to explain blogging to students. Some new media courses, such as the ones at my university, require students to publish blog entries regularly. Other classes are using group blogs for discussion and collaboration.

Jay Rosen, an associate professor of journalism at New York University, taught a class called Blogging 101 for the first time in spring 2006. But he took the emphasis off of blogging in the beginning.

“What the course ended up being about was the Web as a publishing environment,” he recalled.

That doesn’t mean teaching basic HTML code. It means discovering what makes the Web unique for content creation.

In an entry on BluePlateSpecial.net, blogger Ed Cone describes blogs as “a drop-dead simple publishing platform that allows any user to post text, images, audio and video onto the Web without much technical know-how or support.”

When blogs are viewed as a publishing tool, rather than a platform for snarky comments or political rants, they become an outlet for online journalists.

As professional members of the news media experiment with blogs, journalism students must keep pace. There are several benefits to blogging: Students become more knowledgeable about the topic of their blog, they develop a “voice” for their writing, they produce potential clips and they apply journalism skills to a brand new platform of publishing.

Many bloggers start writing about a subject they’re passionate about, and before long, they’ve earned an education about that subject. In my experience, creating TVNewser was like enrolling in Television News 101. It was a crash course in television ratings, demographics and trends. In the beginning, I was an average viewer. But before long, I became an expert. By visiting newsrooms, corresponding with professionals and immersing myself in the field, I received an education in the world of television news. I sometimes joke that I’m taking Television News 401 now.

I also developed a voice. I write like an insider, occasionally including comments and references that are intended for the employees at news networks. I usually keep my politics off the blog unless I feel it’s essential that I take a stand.

Jim Brady, executive editor of Washingtonpost.com, oversees 35 permanent blogs. Each is unique; some are written by reporters, others are penned by columnists.

“On the Web, voice is really, really important,” Brady said. For columnists, it’s not hard to find that voice, but reporters sometimes struggle to express themselves in the blog format.

“Sometimes it’s a difficult line,” Brady said. But, he added, “writing with some flair and some personality does not mean you have to express your opinion.”

Learning how to write with personality would benefit journalism students who too often fall into cookie-cutter styles of writing.

Blogging provides students with clips, too. By writing longer pieces on a blog, they can begin to build a portfolio of work. When students blog, “they’re published to the world,” new media consultant Jeff Jarvis noted. “Usually you have to get out and get a job before you get published.”

Jarvis, who blogs at BuzzMachine.com and is joining the faculty of the City University of New York’s new graduate school of journalism this fall, argues that the days of “blogger vs. journalist” are long gone.

“Blogging is just the world’s easiest content publishing system,” he said. “But it enables so much more.”

Like journalism. So many of the skills applied to traditional forms of journalism — sharp writing, researching, fact-checking — also apply to blogs. But blogs enhance another skill: listening. Blogs can create connections between reporters and readers.

Teaching students how to link and listen

Just as collegiate mass communication programs should play a formative role in developing future journalists, they also should develop future blogging talent. They’re doing it now, without realizing it. They need to do it in a more deliberate way. Professors must teach students how to blog-think: how to engage an audience, how to tap into that audience and improve their reporting, how to moderate an online discussion.

“Teaching blogging doesn’t mean to blog,” Jarvis cautioned. “The first lesson of blogging is to read them and to listen to them.”

When Jarvis spent some time teaching professors about blogs, he noticed some initial apprehension. “Just like journalists, the first response was ‘Oh my God, what could go wrong?’ ” he recalled. “But by the end of the day, the response was what I was looking for: ‘Oh wow, look what I can do with this!’”

That’s the response professors should instill in their students. Requiring students to blog once a week isn’t the best way to recreate the “oh wow” reaction. Instead of embracing blogging, they may treat it like a chore. Teaching students WHY they should blog, by explaining how it will improve their reporting, is a better method.

Rather than putting student blogs online immediately, Rosen created an offline area for his blogging class to experiment with the technology.

My original concerns about blogging — namely, that it would create a permanent record of my criticism about a potential future employer — are important for students to understand. A blog is a publishing tool, and like any other publishing tool, it should be used with care. Young journalists need to remember that the content of a blog could come back to haunt them.

They also need to recognize that blogging can become a significant time commitment. That’s the first thing Brady tells Washington Post reporters who begin blogging.

“You’re going to post twice as much as you think,” he says. “Everybody gets addicted to the format a little bit. You publish whenever you have something to say.”

Knowing what to say, and how to say it, in a blog style isn’t always easy. It is a skill, just like the inverted pyramid or the hard news lead, which should be taught to young journalists.

“The thing about blogging, the thing about the Internet, is that suddenly you’re published immediately,” Jarvis said. “And you get a reaction from the public immediately.”

Harnessing that reaction, and developing a relationship with that public, can enliven future reporting. Brady tells reporters to listen to their audience and read their comments. “They’ll often tip you off on what you should be writing about,” he said.

Bloggers live and die by the Internet traffic their blog attracts. A blog without readers doesn’t have a purpose. That’s why “what else would you like to read on TVNewser?” is one of the first questions I ask when I meet a reader at a reception or an industry party.

For the most part, readers generate the content of my blog. They tell me about interesting newspaper articles, they alert me to on-air and off-air changes, and they ask questions that lead me to break stories and make news. I frequently connect the dots between one reader’s question and another reader’s answer. For instance, at the end of June a couple of individuals e-mailed me and asked for an update on the condition of Kimberly Dozier, the CBS News correspondent who was injured in Iraq. On the blog, I asked: “Can we get an update on the condition of wounded war correspondent Kimberly Dozier?” Coincidentally, CBS employees had received an internal e-mail about Dozier one day before. That e-mail was in my Inbox about half an hour after I posted the question. Because it didn’t include any confidential medical information, I published the e-mail on TVNewser.

A routine update on a wounded journalist probably wouldn’t have merited coverage in the next day’s New York Times. But for my audience, it was a welcome and long-overdue update. That’s the most important lesson I’ve learned from blogging: It’s all about the audience. Whether media organizations are able to capture that audience in the years and decades to come will determine whether young journalists have a job when they graduate.

That’s why students of journalism should graduate with an understanding of blogging, in all its forms. And if they really want to get ahead in the field, they should update a blog regularly before they earn a diploma. Maybe it’s not so bad that I’m blogging in class, after all.


Brian Stelter is a senior mass communication major at Towson University. He edits TVNewser and serves as editor in chief of The Towerlight, the student newspaper at Towson. TVNewser is accessible at http://www.mediabistro.com/tvnewser.

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