This is one of a series of blog posts from the third ONA class of MJ Bear Fellows, three journalists under 30 who are expanding the boundaries of digital news. Applications are open to apply for this year’s fellowship until June 6. Fellow Kyle Stokes is the youth & education reporter at NPR member station KPLU in Seattle.
Let’s start with a confession: Before I did it for a living, I didn’t get blogging.
I used to think reporting for a blog was Journalism Lite. A few bloggers emerged as leaders, including Andrew Sullivan, Anna Holmes, Nate Silver and Matt Drudge. I assumed other bloggers were Quixotic writers recording their streams of consciousness for nonexistent audiences. Why on earth would anyone waste their time?
Now that I’ve spent two-and-a-half years writing an education blog for public media reporting collaboration StateImpact Indiana, I can’t imagine a better, more relevant way for a reporter to own a beat. Nor is there any better way for an aspiring beat reporter to learn the trade — I’m looking at you, J-schoolers.
Publishing a blog is free, so don’t wait for your next class project before putting your reporting acumen on display. That said, a blog isn’t only about marketing yourself. Many traditional news outlets are downsizing, meaning there are not only stories out there dying to be told, but entire communities that may benefit from a moderator for their discourse.
Enter … you. With a blog you’re about to create. Right now. Here’s how you can get started:
Pick a niche
At the time my colleagues and I launched StateImpact Indiana, very few news organizations were covering the state education scene, despite lawmakers throwing nearly every aspect of school policy up in the air. We sought to fill a need, but you can just pick something you care deeply about — it could be as hyperlocal as your neighborhood or as geographically broad as regional environmental issues. Does anyone cover the planning and zoning meeting in your city anymore? Who keeps an eye on the police? Is someone writing about transportation policy in your region?
The idea here is to pick an area of public discourse where you can add value.
Figure out who cares
Blogs are the anti-general-interest medium, so have an honest conversation with yourself about the people you want to read it — and I say “people” with trepidation, because it implies your blog is relevant to more than one type of person. At StateImpact Indiana, we crafted our posts with two “core communities” in mind: teachers and parents. Of course, we hope policymakers in the Statehouse and decision-makers in school districts read it, but we keep our core communities in mind as we write.
Publish every single post with the purpose of (1) answering a question burning in the hearts of your readers or (2) relaying information you know your readers will find relevant.
Curate & converse
There will be other voices speaking in the niche you pick — on blogs of their own, in local media outlets, on social media, even in the comments section of your blog. Finding them will help you both develop sources and collect fodder for easy posts. While I was at StateImpact, I put together a Google Reader account with more than 200 sources. You can use Feedly, Twitter, or a number of other methods to collect and curate interesting ideas from people in your beat. I strategically joined and posted in a handful of small but active Facebook groups.
Develop a system for regularly checking in on ongoing, relevant conversations.
Set your sights on a handful of big stories — and own them
After training on one-and-done, general assignment reporting, this was a mindset shift for me. Don’t wait for news to break on a subject area you want to own. Instead, select a few areas of interest in the niche you’ve picked — the huge, impenetrable topics or existential questions. Then break them up into smaller questions and start answering them, post by post. This is just good beat reporting, but the answers to pertinent questions don’t stay in your reporters’ notebook for long. Your unanswered questions are just as strong a basis for content as the definitive answers you’ve already found. NPR’s Matt Thompson preaches this particularly effectively. I spent the better part of two months at StateImpact trying to figure out how state officials had altered Indiana’s all-important school grading system behind the scenes.
When you’re writing about the big stuff, you signal to your audience you care deeply about the same things — and you’re more likely to make an impact.
Post and post often
It’s hard to do when you’re starting out, but blog posts are like stardust — the more the posts accumulate, the greater the gravitational pull. To retain your audience, you need to show them you’ll be there on a regular basis. “But how do I do that if I’m answering these huge questions?” This is where curation comes in handy. A post can be as simple as a link to something on the internet you know your readers will find relevant, new or interesting. Learn to love what NPR took to calling “the Sully lede” — noun, verb, hyperlink, blockquote.
Commit to a regular schedule — three posts a week, once daily, five times a day, whatever — just stick to it as best you can.
Take great pains to explain, explain, explain
Thompson invokes Gawker founder Nick Denton: “When remotely possible, turn news into explanation.” Like any good beat reporter, you will develop practical expertise on the niche you’re covering. Use this to your advantage. At StateImpact, I found this especially true around school funding. During a public meeting, a district school board played my video explaining how school budgets were structured — nobody else was explaining the subject using terms anyone could understand.
Quench your readers’ thirst for the easy-to-get explanation of a really complicated issues.
This isn’t just advice for J-school students, of course. Maybe a news organization looking to own an area of coverage or a working reporter looking to spice up her beat might benefit from these tips. There’s more inspiration in this great guide from NPR Digital Services.
There’s special relevance here for students, though — especially those looking for an edge in the journalism job market. The clips you bring into a job interview have never been more important, yet paid internships are a dying breed and the story you wrote for your student newspaper better be darned good if it’s going to impress.
But imagine starting a blog, developing deep expertise in a subject area, maybe even breaking news within your niche — and ultimately building a community.
That’s not only resumé material that will kill in a job interview; that’s experience that will help you grow into the journalist you want to be.
Fellow Kyle Stokes is the youth & education reporter at NPR member station KPLU in Seattle. He spent two-and-a-half years reporting on education for StateImpact Indiana, a collaboration of WFIU and Indiana Public Broadcasting.
Keyboard photo by Flickr user Annie Sorensen