Let’s say you want to share an interesting news story with your friends. You might use a variety of different tools — Digg, Twitter or Facebook to name a few — but the end result is usually the same. You share a link, and that link leads to one destination — the article.
But what if the news story is sparking a big reaction from readers? People are tweeting and blogging and posting interesting responses online. You might want to not only share the article, but also the conversation about the article.
The Guardian offers a WordPress plugin that lets bloggers republish stories. In return, a Web advertisement automatically runs at the bottom of the post, and the money from the ad goes to the Guardian. It’s an interesting way to widen the Guardian’s audience and its advertising reach, especially at a time when some news organizations are erecting pay walls around their websites.
“One of the obvious pros for us is the wider distribution and therefore the influence of our journalism,” The newspaper’s lead developer, Matt McAlister, wrote in an e-mail to me. “This tool is helping us to reach out to people around the world via the influencers who have a particular view to add and a desire to amplify the things that we publish. And if that works the way we hope it does then we will also form a high value ad network to offer commercial partners.”
One of the plugin’s nifty features is how it gives you access to the Guardian’s news feed right in your WordPress panel. It’s your own personal, searchable library of thousands of stories:
You can also browse by topic, and by the type of article, blog post, podcast, slideshow or other features.
You might notice I’m a few months behind in blogging about the plugin, which was released over the summer. That’s because until recently, it didn’t work for me. First there was a problem with my version of php. And once that got fixed, I couldn’t get access to the news feed. The Guardian’s Daniel Levitt was very responsive when I first asked for help back in July. But the mysterious problem didn’t get sorted out until recently, when a plugin update finally allowed me to use it.
Also, some stories in the news feed aren’t available. When I tried republishing a story about the WordPress plugin, I got an error message that stated: “We are very sorry, but that particular article is not available for redistribution.”
So the plugin offers cool features to share stories, but some bloggers might run into technical difficulties with it. Nonprofit news sites ProPublica and The Texas Tribune offer an easier-to-use “republish” method that allows bloggers to simply cut and paste the material. You don’t get a news feed this way, but it’s quick and painless.
“We love the ProPublica copy/paste feature and think it would make a lot of sense to offer that capability, too,” McAlister said.
The Guardian’s plugin is an interesting experiment. Instead of complaining about readers’ expectations to get news online for free, the Guardian is trying to figure out how to share free content, widen their audience, and make money, too.
Maybe it will work. Maybe the effort will fizzle. But it beats wringing our hands and yearning for the good old days.
Painfully funny “journalism warning labels” created by British comedian Tom Scott are going viral. The stickers say things like, “Warning: This article is basically just a press release, copied and pasted.” Scott says he’s been posting the stickers on the free papers in London. And he’s making it possible for everyone to do this. You can download the stickers for free. Fans have translated them into 11 languages.
“It seems a bit strange to me that the media carefully warn about and label any content that involves sex, violence or strong language — but there’s no similar labeling system for, say, sloppy journalism and other questionable content,” Scott explained on his blog.
Scott’s making a salient point, but I don’t see why it should be limited to journalists. You can find rehashed press releases on blogs, too. That’s what a block quote is for. And contrary to what Scott claims, when I get an unverified tip, I don’t hang up the phone and start writing a story; I check it out. But some bloggers will simply run with it, then add the caveat that they’re waiting for confirmation. If it’s not true … oh well.
I’m not pointing this out to thump my chest and say the mainstream media should be trusted over everything else. But lately I’ve been noticing similarities between news organizations and many blogs claiming to be different from the media. For example, the Washington press corps is often accused of practicing pack journalism. Whenever some official announcement is made at the White House, everyone jumps on it and writes the same thing.
What’s so different about pack journalism in Washington and pack journalism in the blogosphere? Whenever an official announcement pops up from Google in my RSS reader, minutes later tech blogs are parroting it. Pick your niche; the same thing is happening.
The lesson here is that a blogger faces similar pressures and time constraints as a traditional reporter. It’s easy to make sloppy mistakes, to follow the pack, to rehash stale news.
The real challenge, for both blogs and the media, is doing something different, original, and enlightening for readers.
Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic offered a compelling example of the trait that differentiates a blogger or activist from a newspaper reporter:
Or more precisely, getting paid to spend the time to find out what’s really going on in your community.
There are many talented bloggers out there. But the vast majority of them don’t get paid a steady paycheck to go down to City Hall, spend all day at council meetings, scrutinize campaign finance reports, and do all the things you need to do to hold officials accountable.
Friedersdorf contrasted the work of a concerned citizen versus a newspaper reporter in California:
Let’s expound on the difference between Richard Marosi, Los Angeles Times reporter, acting as a government watchdog, and Miguel Figueroa, a lampshade maker, trying to do the same thing. Consider the task of getting the credit card bills that document graft in Lynwood. They are public records: state law mandates that the city turn them over to anyone who asks.
But a newspaper reporter has the time a lampshade maker doesn’t to go down to city hall during business hours; if the City Clerk wants to charge for photocopies, the reporter can expense it to the newspaper, whereas the lampshade maker pays out of pocket; should the City Clerk refuses to hand over the documents, the reporter can have an attorney at the newspaper draft a convincing letter, and write an article in the newspaper hammering the city for breaking the law; should the city clerk dally further, the reporter can have an LA Times attorney sue the city, and write another scathing story; and if the lawsuit drags on, he can stick it out, though that is seldom necessary, because when your legal adversary is correct on the merits, buys ink by the barrel, and cultivates a reputation for sticking things out, you rarely put them to the test.
Miguel Figueroa did far more than most Southern California residents ever would merely by pursuing the matter — it took him two years to get the credit card records. What did he do next? He called Richard Marosi, who launched an investigation, documenting enough abuses to sell his editors on a front page story, and creating enough of a public stir to take on the crooks in Lynwood. What would have happened if there weren’t any LA Times reporter assigned to that beat?
Nothing about a physical newspaper inherently makes it better suited for doing great reporting. Print and online are just mediums, and as consumption patterns shift towards online, we should see more of this in the future.
As Yang notes, it’s unclear whether blogs that aren’t affiliated with a newspaper would be eligible to win the prize under the current Pulitzer rules. But putting that issue aside, Yang is right — there’s nothing stopping a blog from producing top-notch journalism. All it has to do is generate enough money to produce top-notch journalism. And there’s the rub.
Fink was paid $33,000 plus $10,000 in expenses for her Kaiser fellowship, according to Steve Engelberg, her editor at ProPublica, where she’s been for 14 months. Engelberg, who was kind enough to go through these figures with me, said, “Fourteen months of salary plus benefits for us easily gets you north of 100 plus, 100, 150 or something.” He threw in another $20,000 to $30,000 for travel expenses, in addition to three months of editing and lawyering at ProPublica and the Times, which also spent $25,000 to $30,000 on photographs, he said.
Those sky-high expenses are simply out of reach for the majority of bloggers who care passionately about their niche, but who blog on a part-time basis, and often for little or no money. That doesn’t mean they can’t produce an interesting, valuable blog. But it does make it exceedingly difficult to devote the time and effort it takes to interview sources, unearth hard-to-find records, overcome legal hurdles, and tell compelling stories. That takes time — and money.
Let’s say you care about local politics and you blog about your local city council. If you’re like most people, you’re blogging as a hobby and you have a full-time job. Right out of the gate, you’re at a disadvantage because you don’t have the luxury of attending the weekly city council meetings that usually last all day. Not to mention the countless subcommittees that meet every week. And you can’t capitalize on all the time spent hanging out at City Hall, where you meet sources, learn new things, get story ideas and tips, and start really understanding what makes City Hall tick.
Newspapers have traditionally paid the most money in their communities for reporters to pay attention to what’s happening at City Hall. And the police department. And the local utility. And so on. That’s why the slow demise of newspapers worries people like Clay Shirky, who argues it could take a very, very long time until anyone figures out how to consistently produce the kind of expensive, accountability journalism that newspapers funded but are cutting back:
Now this doesn’t mean that all newspapers go away. It does mean that a lot of them go away. … Which leaves us with a giant hole, and a very threatening one. And in the nightmare scenario that I’ve kind of been spinning at for the last couple years has been: Every town in this country of 500,000 or less just sinks into casual, endemic, civic corruption — that without somebody going down to the city council again today, just in case, that those places will simply revert to self-dealing. Not of epic, catastrophic sorts, but the sort that just takes five percent off the top. Newspapers have been our principal bulwark for that, and as they’re shrinking, that I think is where the threat is.
This YouTube video features Shirky’s entire talk — it’s worth a listen.
Shirky isn’t arguing that we need to save newspapers to preserve journalism — we just need to preserve journalism. And there’s the rub.
Zachary Adam Cohen penned a great piece for bloggers who want to do more than write clever riffs off the work of others:
I personally love blogs that rip content from a bigger site and comment on it. I think there is tremendous value in this kind of commentary when you find the voices that provoke you, or nourish you. But blogging has to evolve past this. It already is in many cases. Blogs need to become news breakers in their own right. They need to be hubs of information, commentary, original reporting, even investigative reporting.
Cohen notes that newspapers are here to stay: “To any bloggers out there revving their engines at the thought of newspapers going away, stop now and get off your bike.” But at the same time, cutbacks have decimated newsrooms, and this creates an opportunity for bloggers to fill a void in their community by breaking news, not just opining about news:
Blogs that break news and do their own investigate reporting will rise above the rest. They will be providing extra value to their readers and to the community. You will get noticed by new readers and other news outlets. It all cascades from there.
Bloggers that are interested should try to perform some original investigative reporting. Are you a food blogger? Then how about investigating whether restaurants are living up to their words with regards to where and how they source their food. Are they paying their employees properly? Do they have illegal immigrants working there?
Well…FIND OUT! And write about it. You don’t need a degree from Columbia to break news. You need a pen, a telephone, a recorder and the desire to do it. Bloggers are writers. Writers investigate. I am not advising bloggers to all of a sudden and drop everything to do expensive, intensive investigative reporting. That can only be afforded by newspapers and magazines with budgets and timelines to support such a thing.
But a blogger can do light investigative reporting and perhaps publish a monthly piece. It can be worked on in the background as other content is created and other obligations are met. But I know that once bloggers realize they can investigate their own stories, we can activate a huge segment of the population to fill in some of the gaps left by the absence of newspapers.
Even if a small portion of bloggers took Cohen’s advice, the results would still be impressive:
How many blogs are there now? Hundreds of millions. If only a small percentage of those blogs did occasional investigations, the kind of work that local newspapers and publications used to do, we would be much better off. We would be a more informed citizenry. Does it matter who is doing the reporting? Those that are competent, good writers and maintain their credibility will be found out. This is the democratizing and meritocratic aspect of the web. It is the most important thing about the web and the fact that we all have our own outlets. Let the people be the judge.
Most people blog as a hobby, not as a job. But even if you’re not getting paid, you can still whittle away at a cool idea and work on it over time. File an open records request about an uncovered topic. Call a key official and interview them in your spare time. Keep chipping away at your project, and you might learn something no one else knows.
It’s an awesome feeling when you share that knowledge with your audience — trust me.
Last week the New York Times ran a story about Internet companies selling imaginary things:
These so-called virtual goods, like a $1 illustration of a Champagne bottle on Facebook or the $2.50 Halloween costume in the online game Sorority Life, are no more than a collection of pixels on a Web page.
But it is quickly becoming commonplace for people to spend a few dollars on them to get ahead in an online game or to give a friend a gift on a social network.
There are several companies that sell virtual goods — one of them being Zynga. The Times story mentioned Zynga and quoted its CEO. But the story paid scant attention to recent blog posts by TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington, who revealed Zynga was making gobs of money from unwary people, often kids, who unwittingly subscribe to deals they don’t want.
The omission outraged Fake Steve Jobs, AKA Dan Lyons, who claimed the story is Exhibit A in the case of the dying mainstream media:
Um, New York Times? If you guys are still wondering why people are dropping their subscriptions and getting their news from blogs instead of you — this is why.
And to all those people who go around wringing their hands and saying what are we going to do when the “real newspapers” all die and we have to get our news from Gawker and HuffPo and TechCrunch? Friends, I think we’re going to be just fine.
The usual suspects such as Techdirt applauded this post. But they all missed the point.
The lament about the decline of newspapers is not really about the loss of a physical paper. It’s about the loss of institutions that pay people a full-time salary to look under rocks and share important stories with their communities.
It’s awesome TechCrunch uncovered the shenanigans at Zynga. Other blogs like the Consumerist and The Smoking Gun have produced fantastic, public-service journalism here and here.
But such in-depth coverage from these blogs is uncommon, even though they are among the top-ranked blogs on Technorati and actually make decent money. The vast majority of bloggers don’t enjoy the luxury of a sizable paycheck. For most bloggers, it’s a hobby. And it’s difficult, if not impossible, to do the grunt-work of journalism on a part-time basis.
I would love to hear Fake Steve Jobs explain how a blogger with a day job is going to find the time to stake out a grand jury at the courthouse, or dig up details about a crooked land deal being hatched at City Hall.
Who’s going to work on these local stories for readers in San Antonio — TechCrunch?
Newspapers, despite all their faults and foibles, are still the ones doing most of this valuable work.
Fake Steve Jobs fell for the old fallacy of newspapers vs. bloggers. I’m sure I could find plenty of stories where the Times routinely scooped TechCrunch. But this kind of tit-for-tat tally entirely misses the point. The real problem is finding new economic models that support full-time journalism. That’s why it’s interesting to watch experiments like the Texas Tribune, ProPublica and nonprofit news organizations in other parts of the country. These organizations are paying people to work full-time on important stories.
Randy Bear, one of the more thoughtful bloggers in the San Antonio area, lamented the slow decline of newspapers and cautioned his readers yesterday that blogs aren’t authoritative:
Bloggers such as myself don’t have the time to invest in vetting stories to make sure the information is completely accurate. In many cases I rely on traditional media to do that work and just add a perspective on the story. I also don’t have the skills reporters are taught in school and on the job about reporting as accurately as possible.
You don’t read commentary like this very often in the blogosphere, and frankly, Randy is selling himself short here. I for one find his blog interesting. But he hits on a key problem for bloggers interested in digging up the truth: Time — or the lack of it.
A reporter has the luxury of getting paid to work full-time at uncovering information. Not a whole lot of bloggers can say that, and that’s why newspapers, for all their faults, are still important civic institutions. Newspapers are able to pay many reporters a full-time salary to go forth and tell the public what’s going on in a complicated world. My bosses pay me to spend weeks, even months, to talk to sources, dig through records and analyze data to find good stories. Sometimes, those stories really make a difference.
So as newsroom budgets across the country are being slashed and thousands of journalists lose their jobs, the key challenge is finding an economic model that supports the expense of paying truth-seekers to dig up important stories.
So I say to Randy: Keep up the good work — and let’s figure out a way to make money off this Internet thing and support good journalism.
Mindy McAdams compiled 15 blog posts into a single pdf file to create a great primer about blogging, videos, pictures, podcasting — and why you ought to be learning it all.
McAdams wrote this guide for journalists but it’s useful for anyone who wants to tell stories in the multimedia world and make connections with people. The guide includes tips from Angela Grant at News Videographer, my former colleague at the Express-News.
I stumbled across this guide thanks to a tweet sent out today by Susan Crowell. Who says Twitter is a waste of time?
Blogs are often viewed as venues that pilfer and riff off the media but don’t dig up original information of their own. Here’s an example that bucks that perception. Ben and Meg tested the company’s claims that it pays top dollar for your unwanted gold trinkets and discovered consumers can actually make more money selling their goods at pawn shops. Cash4Gold has sued the Consumerist, which is owned by Consumer Reports, but it hasn’t backed down.
It’s often more difficult to examine the practices of a company than a government agency. Open government laws apply to — you guessed it — government. Not businesses. So it’s much more difficult to get documents like candid internal e-mails that you’d usually be entitled to read at a government agency.
Ben and Meg relied partly on former employees at Cash4Gold. And they also know the activities of companies often intersect with government — and that’s where you can dig up nuggets of information. Here’s an example where they turned to government records to check the allegations of former employee Michele Liberis:
We also delved into Liberis’ specific allegations. At one point, for example, her post asserted that Cash4Gold “was temporarily closed recently due to health and code violations.” In its blog, Cash4Gold says this is “entirely false.” Yet a check with the Pompano Beach Fire Prevention Bureau turned up numerous citations at Aronson’s business location at 1701 Blount Rd., where Liberis worked. These included having no fire alarm system, fire extinguisher violations, blocked exits, exposed wiring, compressed gas cylinder violations, and items stored too close to electrical panels. Fire inspector Aaron Efferstein adds that they had three fires at the location, including one that set the roof ablaze.
The public values this kind of watchdog reporting. It doesn’t matter if it’s on a blog, a TV station, or a newspaper. Here’s a comment on the post that takes the cake:
I tried to find a more business like way to say I wholeheartedly support you guys for fighting back against Cash4Gold, but I couldn’t come up with one, so here was my first reaction:
Thank you consumerist for stand up for consumers rights and not bowing down to legal pressure from Cash4Gold and other companies that deserve to burn in hell.
I love this site and it makes me proud that you guys are standing your ground and fighting for the consumers.