Notes from TIME’s blogging tutorial

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On Friday I arranged a tutorial at TIME on blogging for journalists by pioneer blogger Anil Dash. (Dash is also a top executive at Six Apart, the company behind TIME’s blog publishing platform, Movable Type.) Below are some of his tips–many useful for any blogger, whether you write for big media or not.

The session wasn’t without controversy. Some of his ideas feel like “anathema” to longtime journalists, as one in attendance told me later. That’s okay. I didn’t agree with everything Dash said, either, but it’s good to shake up our thinking once in a while. Let me know what you think in the comments; longtime bloggers, add your tips, and journalists, tell us if you think the whole blogging thing is a dangerous fad that’s going to turn our craft to horse manure.

On creating and writing a blog:

• Narrow your focus. Select a topic as narrow as your interests will allow. If you’re a science reporter, and court cases surrounding medical ethics fascinate you, blog about that. The narrower your focus, the more expert you’ll become.

• Write for skimmability. Bullets, gray-out quotes and lists are “culturally endemic” to blogs, says Dash. Blog readers are trained to surf quickly from page to page; a little visual variation attracts more eyeballs than a block of single-spaced text. This is doubly important for jounalists because we must…

• Use photos and other art with care. Unlike lone bloggers, we who blog for corporate sites must beware the liberal–read unsanctioned–use of art. That’s ’cause the legit owners of the art would find it more financially rewarding to claim compensation from our rich corporate bosses than they would Joe Bob blogging from his trailer in Tennessee. Even photos that appear in the pages of our publications aren’t automatically ours to post unless they’re cleared for use online. Always check with your editor before you slap up an image you yourself didn’t create, or that you didn’t cull from an open source.

• Sell the content with the hed. We here at TIME are used to composing evocative, clever headlines that may not necessarily describe the contents of the article. On the magazine page, there’s a lot more to tell the reader what the article’s about, and therefore draw her in: the subhed, the photo, the pull-quote. But on a blog, those elements don’t always exist. Plus, most wind up on your site not because they read it faithfully every day but through a link on a search engine or another site. That reader (or, even more importantly, another blogger looking to link) may or may not get that “The Way of K” refers to an article about Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.

• Don’t worry about breaking news. Say–what? Isn’t that our raison d’etre? Nah–not when you’re blogging. Leave the news-breaking to the main site, or to the publication. But do comment on breaking news. Blog readers already know Rove’s leaving; they want to know what you think about his sorry legacy.

• Stop assuming you have to have all the information before you post. Whoa! Telling journalists they should publish before they finish reporting is like telling traders to sell before they own the stock (oh, wait, that’s called short-selling, and investors do that all the time). You’re going to have to weigh that one on your own or with your bosses. Dash–who’s not a journalist–argues that readers are interested in the process; that posting your notes as you travel cross country during your exposĂ© on the pig-farming industry would gather lots of eyeballs. But that brings up the question: how much should a journalist who also blogs reveal about his current projects? Why should we show our hand to the competition? After some discussion, we agreed it’s better to…

• Post post-mortem notes on published articles. Dash notes that readers want to see the sausage getting made, and blogs are a perfect forum for that. How did we get turned on to the story? What hurdles did we face in the reporting? Blogging post-mortem is a great way to use notes and interviews that we thought illuminating but that didn’t make it into the piece for one reason or another. It’s also a great way to link to other articles on the site, which leads us to the next tip:

• Make heavy use of your archives. We here at TIME sit on a veritable treasure trove of past articles. When I posted an interview recently with an expert on emotional intelligence, for example, I linked to TIME’s widely read 1995 cover, “The EQ Factor,” by Nancy Gibbs–which many of you clicked through to read. Advertisers still measure web viewership by page views, so getting readers to click through helps your main site’s business.

More tips TK tomorrow. (Glossary: TK is journalese for “to come.” Which you’d know if you’ve read this far, as you’re probably one of us–an ink-stained wretch with a blogging habit.)

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