Blogging Connects a Columnist to New Story Ideas
‘… I have always suspected that many of my readers know more than I do.’
One of the biggest frustrations for a beat journalist is not being able to get news into print or on the air in a timely manner. Budget crunches, dwindling news holes, and commercial-shortened news broadcasts make it increasingly difficult to get anything but the most urgent material out there as fast as we’d like. We do just fine with the big, breaking stories. Competition always makes sure they get in. But it’s the more mundane, day-to-day developments that often get put on editorial backburners. And yet, for readers who are intensely interested in that beat, it is often those less urgent stories that they’re looking for.
Working as technology columnist for the Detroit Free Press, readers would e-mail me all the time to find out why the latest news on this beat hadn’t been printed yet. I shared their frustration. Then I discovered blogging and immediately realized that I’d stumbled upon one of the most significant developments in the dissemination of information since the printing press. It’s the Internet, of course, that makes it possible, and the always-on mentality that is part of our wired world.
Connecting With Readers
With powerful, simple-to-use applications like Movable Type and Blogger, I can now instantly update a story on my Weblog, comment on a technological happening, or share a new Web site as fast as I can type the information and hit “post.” Think of a diary. A news bulletin. A newsletter. A “hey-did-you-hear-this?” phone call. Or an “I-am-SO-fed-up-with …” Instant Message rant. Call it “Zero Second News.” That’s what my friend Larry Larsen, the multimedia gizmo guy from The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, calls the news and information blogging makes possible. News that’s happening now, almost in real time—not filtered, edited or delay-delivered, as with traditional media. It’s a personal publishing system that allows anyone—in minutes—to have access to a worldwide audience.
Blogging is huge. Though estimated to be more than a million in number, it’s only a guess at how many bloggers exist. And there is no accurate way to count them or to know who they are. Students, housewives, CEO’s, senior citizens, government bureaucrats, music fans, religious groups, ordinary and not-so-ordinary people, as well as lots of journalists are blogging addicts.
For me, blogging is now a several-times-a-day activity. I started blogging in late 2001 and have three blogs I update several times a day. Mike’s E-Journal is a general interest technology Weblog. Mac-Mike chronicles my switch from a PC system to a Macintosh system, and a blog called Ride, which I started just for fun, deals with long distance bicycle rides and training, a personal hobby.
Lately, I’ve also been experimenting with something called MOBlogging (mobile blogging). Using a small handheld communication device called the Sidekick, I snap pictures and instantly send them to my Weblog with short descriptive messages to create a sort of online documentary of my wireless life. On any given day, depending on what I’m blogging about, from 8,000 to 25,000 people read my blogs. My daily record, set during the Iraq War, was more than 88,000 unique accesses.
I do all of this at my own cost and on my own time, separate from my duties as a Detroit Free Press technology columnist and NBC-TV News Channel Internet correspondent. Why? Because it provides me contact with readers and viewers that is more immediate, personal and satisfying than any other form of communication I have experienced in 30 years of journalism.
I am astounded daily by what I learn in the blogging community. As a journalist, I have always suspected that many of my readers know more than I do. I love technology and do my best to stay on top of the issues and stories surrounding the beat. But with blogging, when readers can add comments and suggestions to my posts, my assumptions are routinely challenged, corrected and defended. Hardly a day goes by when readers don’t tell me something I don’t know or I don’t find a new angle to a story.
When I posted on my blog a short item about a high-tech device that lets car dealers “turn off” a car if the owner fails to make a payment, two hours later a reader posted the name of a local dealer using it. When I commented on the Recording Industry Association of America and its legal attacks on music file swappers on the Internet, a reader posted a link to all the subpoenas that had been issued against individuals around the country.
By using reader comments, I’ve been able to write about new trends in fighting spam, an all but secret information monitoring and data collection program run by the federal government, and dozens of innovative new products, services and Web sites. All of this would likely have happened below my radar screen if readers hadn’t posted story tips as comments to my posts. On my MOBlog, I uploaded a picture of my vegetable garden and noted how something had eaten the leaves of my green bean plants. A reader identified the culprit as a muskrat.
But besides my blogs, I find myself reading more and more blogs, a few of which are written by journalists. Some argue that blogs represent the democratization of journalism with the rise of the “citizen reporter.” Not surprisingly, many journalists cringe at such thoughts. Not me. The Internet has made access to news and information universal. That means that what journalists report and write is put out there in the midst of unprecedented amounts of related information. This lets Web-savvy news consumers analyze, compare and fact-check the information we, as journalists, provide. In the long run, blogging is likely to lead to better journalism as sloppy journalists are put on notice by a public that can use technology to promote accuracy and good reporting. For now, I intend to keep on blogging.
Mike Wendland is the technology columnist for the Detroit Free Press and the Internet correspondent for the 215 stations on the NBC-TV News Channel network. He is also a fellow at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida.