Blogs, podcasts & e-newsletters make it easy for anyone to be a journalist. But just as the debut of desktop publishing led to some very ugly documents, these newer tools are spawning some very sloppy journalism, which does no good for the reputation of participatory media. Here are some tips on how good journalists do useful work (first published on my O’Reilly blog):
- Respect the value of people’s time. Anyone who publishes is making a deal with their audience: This will be more rewarding than real life would have been. Know your point, get to it quickly, and make your content dense with value. We live in a narcissistic age, and free access to world-wide distribution is not helping. We all need to remember: It’s not fascinating just because I said it.
- Have a strong focus, and relate everything to it. A good focus is a simple idea that people care about–in a newspaper story, it’s the lede. It’s a hard discipline to learn, but you can really only get one good idea across in any one article or program–everything else either supports and develops that idea, or it conflicts with and confuses it. Think of Beethoven’s Fifth as a model: the whole first movement is based on four notes.
- Look for the heat in your subject. Appeal is emotional, not intellectual. Even theoretical physicists get excited more by primal motives like pursuit, struggle and triumph than they do by abstract concepts. This primacy of emotion is routinely abused in mass media–hence the prevalence of sex, death, greed and vanity–but you don’t have to go that far, just look for what people will really care about in your content and use that as a guide. For example, this headline and first sentence draws you into a recent Scientific American blog about a primitive member of the genus Hibbertopterus:
Supersized Water Scorpion Strolled Scotland’s Shores
The other day I had an unfortunate run-in with a cockroach in my apartment…
- Whatever your subject, write about people, physical objects and actions. These are what engage the imagination and the emotions, and concentrating on them has the added benefit of aiding clarity (see next item). Avoid abstractions, generalities, jargon and clichés.
- Use plain speech, and talk like a real person. Too many people have been trained to use big words and complicated sentences to build an edifice to hide behind. If a simpler word can be used with no loss of meaning, use it. Same goes for fewer words vs. more. If you can’t say it plainly, that may mean you don’t understand it well enough yet.
- Avoid adjectives and adverbs wherever possible. They seldom have any impact. It works much better to find the right nouns and verbs. As Mark Twain said, “If you find an adjective, kill it.” Try it, you’ll be amazed at the difference it makes. Compare “The widow Douglas was sanctimonious and hypocritical” with the way Twain wrote it in The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn:
The widow she cried over me, and called me a poor lost lamb, and she called me a lot of other names, too, but she never meant no harm by it.
- Opinions are not facts, even your opinions. Opinions make personal journalism lively. But be sure you know the difference between opinion and fact, and make it clear to your readers as well. It’s all too easy to jump to conclusions when you’re predisposed to believe something. This is the source of deluges of unreliable information on the Web.
- Identify your sources. Just asserting a fact is unpersuasive–even in ALL CAPS with lots of exclamation marks!!! –and it contributes nothing to a discussion. Your audience needs to know where this information comes from, so they can judge its credibility.
- Identify interests. If someone appears to be an expert, that’s one thing. If they also have a financial or other interest in you believing their version of reality, that’s another. Be skeptical. Good journalists have to assume that everyone, even people they like, may be lying.
- Fact-check. Reputable pro media outlets use professional fact checkers, and they still manage to make mistakes frequently. People may be citing you as a source, so try to get the details right. Related to this: spell-check!
BTW, O’Reilly editor & blogger David Battino has a good in-depth article on producing podcasts in December’s Electronic Musician, with a companion web-based guide based on a podcast with composer BJ Liederman (of NPR themes fame).