What constitutes a “bloggy sensibility”?

Flickr photo courtesy of user minifig.

In talking with the Argo editors, I’ve often said that we’re looking for reporter-bloggers who demonstrate a “bloggy sensibility.” Just as there are folks who intuitively grasp the lede-to-kicker rhythm of a great newspaper story, and people who have the ear for tone and timing that a great radio story demands, I think there are writers out there who just grok blogging.

But what does that bloggy sensibility look like? How do we identify it? And which aspects of it can be taught?

Fundamentally, of course, the sensibility is an intangible – we know it when we see it. But if you forced me to write a formula to determine someone’s blogginess, I’d probably emphasize five factors:

They’ve got voice.

This is the number one thing. In journalism, the institutional voice often cloaks a writer’s natural charm and wit. Institutional voice works very poorly in the blogosphere. Personality wins.

An infinite variety of tones work well on the Web – gee-whiz, insidery, breathless, literaryconfessionalerudite, pithy, wonkish, and of course, snarky. I think the only essential is that the writing betray the tendencies, preoccupations, and idiosyncrasies of a real person.

They cut to the chase.

Whatever the genre, the Web consistently rewards snappy, economical writing. The newspaper lede is a narrative invention devised for a general-interest audience – an arresting literary moment or clever turn-of-phrase the writer uses to hook you into the main story at hand. On the Web, writers are allowed and encouraged to get straight to the point.

Distillation, synthesis and hierarchy are all prized qualities in online writing. Where a newspaper story might demand a narrative transition, readers on the Web are perfectly all right with bullet points. Great long-form writers package mountains of information into an elegantly shaped, smooth and flowing story. Great bloggers, on the other hand, unpack complex information into discrete points and lay those out in concise and orderly fashion. If he weren’t busy being President, I imagine Barack Obama would have made a terrific blogger. Danah Boyd is an extraordinarily nuanced thinker, yet her writings and speeches are marvelously easy to parse. In a newsier vein, Ezra Klein has a great talent for weaving order out of chaos.

They’re constant communicators.

The pace at which successful bloggers tend to post often intimidates storytellers used to media with longer turnaround times. But one reason that bloggers can be so prolific is that they overshare. Newspaper reporters and broadcast producers leave a metric ton of material – quotes, press releases, public records, published reports, internal documents – on the cutting-room floor as they develop The Story that will appear in the paper or on-air. For a blogger, everything is fodder for a post.

Isn’t this a great quote? Post. Check it out, interesting video! Post. Ooh, quick news flash! Post. Just caught up on my morning reading. Post. News conference coming up, here’s what I’ll be looking for. Post.

They command your attention.

In the not-so-recent past, reporters considered publication as the final step in the life cycle of an article. You drafted a piece, polished it to a shine, and it was done. When newspaper reporters work on a piece, they don’t tend to focus directly on how many people will read it; instead, they focus on where in the paper it will be placed. You might consider this a subtle distinction – after all, placement helps drive popularity. But the consequence was that it mattered less how a story played in the real world; the reporter’s goal was to produce stories that sold well internally, stories that fit nicely into the content mix of a section.

Great bloggers work with a perpetual sense of the post-publication life of a post. After something gets published, people check it out, they comment on it, they pass it around. Or they don’t, which we finally have the tools to determine.

So bloggers design their posts to move. They craft strong headlines, they spread the word through their social networks, they dip in to comment threads, they pay attention to metrics. They work to develop a genuine sense of their community and its predilections, and they adjust accordingly.

But here’s the rub: truly great bloggers lead just as much as they follow. They use their mastery of their crowd to guide its attention, to find ways to hook you into engaging with things you might not otherwise try. This is how Ezra Klein gets his community to indulge him in a discussion of actuarial values.

They’re the life of the party.

The discussion on any topic happens in a number of places online, and the best bloggers always seem to be in all of them. They’re hobnobbing with subject experts on Twitter, they’re in regular dialogue with other bloggers and online communities on the topic, and they show up on air and in the press.

There’s a chicken-and-egg issue here, of course. Obviously a popular blogger is going to be feted all over social and commercial media. But the best bloggers really seem to enjoy their position atop a conversational ecosystem.

Classic reporters still obsess over the pursuit of the scoop. Bloggers who’ve achieved the type of ubiquity I’m talking about understand that today, owning the community is more important than getting the news out first. Even if someone else breaks news on their beat, they’re still a key participant in the conversation about the news, and might possibly even deliver the authoritative take.