Mastering the conversation

I gave this presentation to many of the Argo bloggers early in the life of the project. It’s about a fundamental inversion in journalism: from a media broadcast driven by editors in rooms toward a media conversation driven by ordinary people, living their lives. It’s not all high theory, though. Along the way you’ll encounter several specific tactics great journalist-bloggers use to master that conversation, from Andrew Sullivan’s “Sully lede” to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ community magic.

How Argo communicates (or tries to)

Photo by Stéfan on Flickr.

Among the most difficult parts of this project for me has been figuring out how to conduct or facilitate meaningful conversations among people at 12 stations, spanning three time zones. Here’s a MediaShift postthat walks through some of our efforts to do this:

Project Argo is an ambitious undertaking. It involves networking NPR with 12 member stations spanning three time zones with a different mix of bloggers and editors at each station. The stations cover a variety of regionally focused, nationally resonant topics that range from climate change to local music.

Communicating effectively within these parameters has required creativity and experimentation. And we’re still learning.

I’ll break down our various approaches — what we’ve tried, what’s working, and what we’re still working on — using the three tiers of communication: One-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many.

As they say, “Nothing will work, but everything might.” Read the rest at MediaShift.

A list to help you write better questions

A post I wrote for Poynter Online:

If you need any proof about the power of headlines, consider this: what do you imagine drew the majority of people to this post? Chances are that you and others made the decision to click here after coming across the headline. So I’m not going to dwell on why headlines are important.

Instead, I want to give you a checklist, a quick heuristic diagnostic you can refer to anytime you want to make your headlines sing. Print out the list if you’d like, put it by your desk. But I recommend putting every headline you write through this gamut of questions until they become second nature.

Read the full post at

Three Ps of a great Web headline

It can be hard to overstate how much of a difference headlines make on the Web. A great headline can be the single difference between a story that spreads and one that sinks.

A headline is a sales pitch. It’s often your post’s single best emissary to the world. After you finish a post, it’s worth taking five minutes to come up with a solid headline, rather than going with the first description that comes to mind.

I’ve written a few times about what makes for a good headline – focus on implications, not events; numbering is narrative. I even drummed up a list of words that can make for particularly compelling headlines. But I’ve seen a number of groaners around the network, and I couldn’t take it any longer.

I wanted to give you three things to keep in mind when you compose your headlines: parsability, promises and proper nouns. Continue reading

19 ways to get the word out

Back when I was advising the Argo editors on characteristics to look for in making their hires, I described the self-promotional impulse of great bloggers this way:

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.

In blogging, self-promotion is nearly indistinct from interaction and engagement. In its worst incarnations, this means you’re always trying to push your stuff. It’s smarmy and exhausting. But at its best, the self-promotional impulse comes from the same foundation that powers all excellent reporting: great listening. You’re paying attention to the crowd around your beat, picking up on their curiosities and using those to inform your reporting, and bringing your work to folks’ attention when it matches their interests.

With these principles in mind, I’ve been keeping a scorecard of all the Argo-bloggers’ promotion techniques, grading each site on 19 different factors. Here they are:

Continue reading

Geek tip: Google Chart Wizard

A pie chart displaying how often users returned to one of the Argo sites over the past month.

Ezra Klein does this thing sometimes where he builds a post out of a single chart or graph. And he titles the post, brilliantly, “The [giant complicated social phenomenon] in one graph.” Here’s a good example: “The last 30 years of the job market in one graph.”

The headline is a wonderful come-on. Who doesn’t want to understand something complicated in one graph? But it’s a little deceptive, of course; typically the graphs themselves need to be parsed and explained, so the reality is more like “The last 30 years of the job market in one graph (with a few hundred words of explanation).” But it’s effective. Just having a strong, informative visual helps provide the motivation to engage with a nuanced point.

The moral of this story: Don’t knock the power of a simple infographic to provide the visual that compels users to read your post.

States I've lived in. Darker blue means I lived there longer.

And the point of this post: The other day, Wes reminded me of a terrific tool to help you make simple, pretty infographics of your own – Google Chart Wizard.

All of the Argo-bloggers have made posts that hinged on a key statistic or data-nugget that just begged to be illustrated with a pie chart or bar chart. Here’s one from yesterday on On Campus, for example. Google Chart Wizard saves you from having to run Excel to make these simple infographics.

There are many, many types of charts available – from standard pie, bar and line charts to Venn diagrams and “Google-o-meters.” I’m not going to go into detail here. Just go play with the shiny toy, and teach me something in one graph.

Track mentions of your site with Google Alerts

How to tell when someone on the Web has linked to or mentioned your site? Let me introduce you to a tool that has long been a favorite of the Webby: Google Alerts.

The premise is simple – type in a Google query, and you’ll receive an e-mail with any new results from that query. You can specify whether you want results from across all of Google’s properties, or whether you want to limit the search to Web results, News results, Realtime results or another domain. You can adjust how often you want the alert to arrive – once a day, once a week, or as new results are indexed.

All of Google’s basic and advanced search operators work. That means if you want to be notified whenever someone links to your site, you can use the query link: If your alert is returning a lot of noisy results, exclude irrelevant keywords with a minus sign. If you want to search a specific site, you can use the operator site:

To search the CNN website for any mentions of NPR that don’t mention Juan Williams, for example, I’d use this query: npr -"Juan Williams"

Today, that query would have brought me this CNN iReport story. And soon, hopefully it will bring many more things.

Here, again, is the link to Google Alerts. Have fun, go mad. Use the operators. And if you ever need to adjust an alert, here’s where you do that.

12 tips for using CoverItLive

My CoverItLive console during a recent live blog.

For me, CoverItLive is like the ultimate social reporter’s notebook – my observations and takeaways from an event, mashed up with those of the crowd. But it’s pretty robust software, and there are a lot of different ways to use it well.

These 12 tips – ordered roughly by when in the liveblogging process they apply – embody how I’ve come to think about using CoverItLive. I hope they give you a helpful starting point. Use the software often, and you’ll develop your own approach.

Continue reading

Why I love live-blogging

The first time I live-blogged as a reporter was five-and-a-half years ago, when I was covering a solar energy conference for Almost instantly, live-blogging became one of my favorite ways of engaging with an event, and I’ve only grown to love it more and more since then.

“I ended up producing much more material for the site, and learning a lot more than I would have otherwise.”
Before I discovered live-blogging, I brought what you might call a story-focused approach to the events I was assigned to cover. That meant I’d go into the event looking for an angle I could start to report early on, searching for quotes and occurrences that supported my angle and mostly filtering out everything else. Under this model, if I decided early on that the story I’d sussed out was “Fresno solar companies criticize city bidding process,” that’s the story I’d report. I’d listen for moments that tied in to that narrative.

Live-blogging changed the equation. Continue reading