Wrap-up: The basics of blogging

As we prepare to retire the Argo blog, we’re producing a series of wrap-up posts that capture key aspects of the model we used. This post is part of that series. You can find all our tools and lessons here.

The building blocks of blogging include tone, frequency, focus, headlines, images, and of course, content.

Blogging hasn’t been around long enough to have developed universal truths. But it does come with a heap of conventional wisdom, along with a pile of stereotypes.

Beneath it all, every blog is purely a format: a series of posts, typically arranged in chronological order. Beyond that, every element of the blog is yours to imagine. As we plotted the Argo sites, we paid special attention to these six aspects:

Tone: Blogs have acquired a reputation for being snarky. But there’s nothing essential about the format that requires that tone, and it comes with the distinct disadvantage of turning off a sizable part of the potential audience. I recommended that the Argo sites downplay the snark, and I’d give the same advice to almost any site with a journalistic purpose in mind.

“Unsnarky,” however, does not mean “lacking personality.” In this post, we wrote about the different aspects and possibilities of a “bloggy sensibility.” We also held a webinar exploring how a site can reconcile having a strong voice with the desire (that many stations expressed) to remain impartial in reporting, and followed that up with a post walking through how four bloggers treated the same poll.

Frequency: Few scientific measures of how posting frequency affects site traffic exist, but anecdata and conventional wisdom have long held that sites that post stories more frequently tend to receive more traffic. By and large, the most popular websites feature new posts many times a day. Given that we were aiming for significant growth for the Argo sites and working on habituating our bloggers to the pace of the Web, we emphasized frequency at the outset, encouraging the bloggers to publish quick posts at least three times a day, along with a more considered, reported banner post. (A number of the bloggers were new to the Web, having come from less-frequent publishing outlets such as newspapers, and we felt it was best to err on the side of encouraging more frequency.)

I wouldn’t recommend this pace for all bloggers on all topics, especially after our two years of experimentation. If we were starting the project over again, I’ve mentioned that I’d encourage them to play more with both the length and frequency of their posts.

Focus: A decade ago, given the relative scarcity of blogs at the time, a snappy, well-written blog without a clear focus could still stand out and garner attention. Today, that’s much rarer. The few recent exceptions, such as the successful generalist blog The Awl, tend to prove the rule. So we encouraged our stations to focus their sites to a topical scope that one person could manage.

Folks who work primarily in non-digital media such as newspapers or radio chafe against the idea of specializing. A broader topic, after all, can ostensibly pull in a larger audience. On the Web, that’s not so true. It’s why you see recent successes such as the Huffington Post and TheAtlantic.com focusing their resources into building niches.

Headlines: A poor headline alone can turn a would-be blockbuster post into a clunker. We gave the Argo bloggers plenty of guidance on writing good headlines, which you can explore here. See also: my 10-question checklist for better headlines.

Images: We put a lot of emphasis on the importance of great visuals in developing a winning site, encouraging our bloggers to “illustrate everything.” To make the bloggers better photographers and photo editors, we pointed them to five photography resources. We also ran through a detailed guide on how to ethically source good images without a large budget.

Content: I put this last because it encompasses many of the other elements, and it should be the thing that sticks most stubbornly in your mind. You can publish twenty stylish posts a day on a topic with a razor-sharp focus, with vivid headlines and compelling images and still fall flat if your site doesn’t add anything interesting or important to the conversation. And conversely, great content can overcome many obstacles to reach an audience. It’s also the hardest thing to do right. Doing it well requires forethought, talent, and most of all, a genuine understanding of your audience and its needs.