dark secrets

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Dark secrets of the online overlords video

I tend to gesticulate a lot.

I gave a version of my “Dark secrets of the blogging superstars” preso to a group of news directors from public radio stations (including a couple of our Argo stations). The Knight Digital Media Center has posted a video of the session online. Feel free to take a look. Slides used during the session are below.

Dark secret of blogging #8: Illustrate everything.

Huffington Post screenshot.

Marinate, for a moment, in the glorious ugliness of the Huffington Post. I’d say that HuffPo’s been more successful than any other news site before it in adapting the sensibility of the tabloid newspaper to the Web. Drudge led the way here, but HuffPo has nearly perfected its imitation of the irresistible pull of those sensational supermarket scandal rags, screaming at you with their blaring, saucy headlines, daring you not to look.

A key element of HuffPo’s success is its use of images. Eyetracking research has consistently shown that people tend to fixate on faces as they scan content online and in print. So as you scroll down any HuffPo section front, you’ll find the page brimming with faces and other compelling images, tugging your attention away from the left-hand column of text towards the grab bag of stories on the right.

You’ll find this emphasis on imagery in most of the highest-trafficked corners of the Web, and it’s no coincidence. Knowing this, we built our Argo sites with a pretty aggressive emphasis on promoting quality visual journalism.

Lest you think a particular subject is too abstract or boring to be well-illustrated, consider the story of Roadguy. Roadguy was Jim Foti, a copy editor colleague of mine at the Minneapolis Star Tribune who spent months telling everyone on the Web staff (including me) that he wanted to start a blog. About Twin Cities transportation and infrastructure.

At the time, StarTribune.com suffered from a glut of blogs. Over the previous few years, you couldn’t sneeze without accidentally starting a Strib blog. Many of these blogs were poorly tended, as you might expect. So the last thing we were looking for was another idea for a blog. I mean, maybe a traffic blog could fly – traffic stories were a reliable source of, er, traffic for the site – but a blog about transportation and infrastructure? Eyes glazed over at the very thought.

A widely-ignored sign, courtesy of Roadguy.

Nonetheless, Jim’s persistence eventually won him a blog. And it turned out Jim had a vision. He’d illustrate the vagaries of Twin Cities transportation policy and infrastructure planning with a steady stream of cameraphone shots of the effects of those policies out in the real world. Regular features such as the Department of Widely-Ignored Signs (see photo at right) brought readers coming back again and again.

Transportation and infrastructure, imagined the right way, is actually a gold mine of terrific visuals. If you think your topic is tough to illustrate, consider the plight of Lifehacker, which has to routinely come up with images to enliven subjects like productivity-boosting and time management, or Mint, whose blog features an image alongside every single post on personal finance.

But even if you can visualize what types of visuals might suit a topic, you face a more daunting question – how do you acquire them? I’m working on writing up guidelines for the Argo-bloggers on how to acquire and use images, so more on that subject later.

Dark secret of blogging #7: Comments are content.

Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates values his comments as much as his own insight.

This isn’t controversial anymore. We know that a strong community is a huge asset for any site. And as I mentioned previously, the Argo-blogger’s use of her crowd is going to be an essential component of her site’s success. But if we accept that comments are content (or more accurately, that community is content), what does that actually imply?

Answer: It implies we treat comments as content. And what are some of the things we do for content?

Content gets assigned.

Bloggers who’ve put in the investment to build a strong community can use their community as a tool to further their reporting. The image that illustrates this post is a feature from the blog of one of the best community managers I know, the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates. Every week or so, he writes a post called “Talk to me like I’m stupid.” In it, he asks his community to offer their best explanations of a concept he’s struggled to understand (how do nuclear bombs work? what are financial derivatives all about?). Then he chooses a winning explanation to highlight. Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum sometimes employs the same tactic. Lifehacker’s Hive Five is another spin on the technique.

Assigning stories to the community is Crowdsourcing 101, of course. Talking Points Memo showed us how this was done, and won a Polk Award for the deed. ProPublica continues to carry the torch, using a distributed crowd to dig into big stories. But I start with the Ta-Nehisi Coates example to demonstrate that you don’t need the excuse of a giant investigation to take advantage of the wisdom of your crowd.

Content gets curated and promoted.

Remember that part about how Ta-Nehisi Coates follows up his content assignments by actually highlighting the best comment as a post on his blog? In the beat-blogging world, we call this “hoisting” comments. Making the voice of the crowd a clear part of the main stream of content on the site is an excellent way to reward participation and encourage more of it. And crucially, it’s often great content in its own right, regardless of its origins.

Content gets edited.

Years ago, online editors used to shirk responsibility for their comments sections with what I call the “‘Thar be dragons’ dodge.” As NiemanLab’s Joshua Benton describes it:

They say “the lawyers” tell them they can’t edit out an obscenity or remove a rude or abusive post without bringing massive legal liability upon themselves — and that the only solutions are to either have a Wild West, anything-goes comments policy or to not have comments in the first place.

That’s not true,” Benton goes on to explain, “and hasn’t been true since 1996.” (Read that whole article for a well-informed, super-readable summary of the relevant case-law that permits you to rule your comments with a heavy hand without adopting legal responsibility for the comments you leave behind.

A great discussion online is a well-pruned discussion. The single most notable thing about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ relationship with his community is that he’s right in there, in the thick of those comment threads, mixing it up with his community, setting the direction and tone of the conversation, removing unhelpful contributions and encouraging helpful ones – all the stuff an editor does. Go back to the end of that first “Talk to me like I’m stupid” post I linked above and check out his update:

Guys, I’m going to prune the comments just a bit. No one’s said anything offensive. But these threads tend to go long. I want people to have to press “Load More Comments” as little as possible. Sorry for the inconvenience. No disrespect is intended.

!!! He went and deleted perfectly inoffensive comments, because he wanted to up the signal-to-noise ratio in the conversation! He edited the discussion. Did you know you could do that?

All the best communities I’ve seen online involve editors who don’t hesitate to remove whatever they don’t find value in. I like the convention they’ve developed on MetaFilter – when editors delete comments, they leave behind a little bracketed note to the community; e.g. “[few comments removed - please act like you like this place]

On occasion, I’ve described our ideal Argo-bloggers as being activist community managers. But I’m starting to think the label “community manager” leaves something to be desired. “Community editor,” and all it implies, might be more apropos.

Dark secret of blogging #6: Explain, explain, explain.

Flickr photo courtesy of user Pip R. Lagenta.

Classic news folks have this habit of being flabbergasted when they discover their audience members don’t understand a topic they’ve been covering. “But we did a big explainer on this two weeks ago!” they say. After the health care reform battle finally reached its climax – the signing of the bill – reporters said they were astonished by their audiences’ hunger for explanation of what had just passed into law.

They shouldn’t have been surprised. Having watched how content gets picked up, I’m convinced that the hunger for explanation is inexhaustible.

It makes logical sense. As headlines whiz past you, bringing news of more developments than you could ever keep track of, you start to sort of fake it. You pretend you’re following news on the health care debate, when really you’re just snatching random stories out of the ether, hoping for a snippet of comprehension that’ll get you by in conversation. We behave this way on issue after issue. When pressed, how many of us – even devoted news consumers – could tell you what was actually in that Arizona immigration law that got all the coverage?

The best bloggers picked up on this early. I’ll refer you once again to Nick Denton’s memo, where he says, “When remotely possible, turn news into explanation.” This is sound, sound advice. Even if you’re reporting a news development – an important bill passes another procedural hurdle – framing it as explanation (“What today’s vote means for the immigration law”) is an effective tactic for pulling in an audience that would ordinarily pass it by. There’s no shame in repeating yourself, which is why I say the word thrice: Explain, explain, and then explain again.

By this point, you knew an Ezra Klein shoutout was coming. Just savor for a moment this set of post titles: (1) “What is an excise tax, and can it save health reform?”; (2) “Explaining the excise tax”; (3) “Explaining the excise tax, part 2″; (4) “The five most promising cost controls in the health care bills”; (5) “The Baucus Bill: taxing insurers”; (6) “The excise tax and its critics” … I could have selected more, but I think the point is made. Klein created opportunities to explain this critical part of the health reform legislation, and he linked to those explanations incessantly. You couldn’t be even a casual consumer of his blog and not understand what the excise tax does.

A discipline of constant, redundant explanation helps our bloggers too. The more we explain concepts, the better we get at explaining them. Every time Klein explained the excise tax, his description got a little snappier – more nuanced yet more understandable – and he probably understood the concept a little better. And I suspect the redundancy didn’t hurt him with his devoted readers; every time he explained the concept, I understood it a little better as well.

Dark secret of blogging #5: Own the system, own the story.

We know we can’t easily break the world down into neat, manageable patterns. But I’ve never met a great beat reporter who didn’t try.

As we gain expertise in a subject area, we can’t help applying patterns to it - establishing the most influential players, identifying related schools of thought, discerning trends unfolding over years. This is the mental model that enables great beat reporters to determine what constitutes news, to figure out promising avenues for investigation, and to stay ahead of a topic so they can distill it for their audience.

This hard-won pattern recognition – invaluable in any beat reporter – is among the most prized traits of a star blogger.

You’ll often hear me sing the praises of Ezra Klein, the wunderkind Marcus Brauchli seems determined to clone. When Klein embarked on his quest to determine the fate of health care reform, he had the benefit of getting to absorb some of the knowledge of reporters who’d come before him, several of whom had recorded their mental model of the subject in books. T.R. Reid, for example, had produced a book distilling all 200 of the world’s health care systems down into four broad types, each comprising three basic goals. New Republic reporter Jonathan Cohn, who’d often trade links with Klein throughout the battle for reform, had written his own book on the subject.

So when he began blogging about health care reform at the Washington Post, Klein laid his framework out for his readers, in the simplest possible terms: “Health-care reform has two parts, coverage and cost. Coverage will require new money in the short-term. Cost will save money in the long-term.” The effort to strike this simple balance – coverage and cost – drove much of the action over reform, and laying it out in these terms made the quest much more manageable. Once you understood that the excise tax was the reformers’ biggest hope for containing long-term costs, its place in the larger story, and the reason for its prominence in Klein’s coverage, was clear.

As Klein moves on to the subject of financial regulation reform, he’s doing the same thing, imposing patterns on the story as he develops them. Early on in his coverage of the subject, he unearthed a key insight: that reformers are split between wanting to reform the financial regulatory system and wanting to reform Wall Street itself. This was critical to his dawning understanding of the main battle at hand, and he continues developing this insight in post after post.

This has the effect of slowly binding me tighter to Klein’s perspective. Given the benefit of his framework to understand the story of financial reform, I now constantly look for his interpretation of developments in the story’s progress. That’s what I mean when I say “own the system, own the story.” If you can give your users a coherent framework for understanding a topic, you become their guide to the topic. Even if someone else breaks a story on your beat, your users will look to you for the definitive analysis.

But isn’t this reductive and flip? Health care reform certainly consisted of more than just cost control and coverage expansion. What about all the provisions in the legislation for upping the effectiveness of care?

As I said at the outset of this post, the world is certainly much more complex – in pretty much every case – than an easily-distilled framework can capture. But it’s much easier to explore nuance from an orderly starting point. Having laid out the main vectors of health reform so starkly, Klein was much freer to complicate his themes, taking us into the nooks and crannies of actuarial values and Stein’s Law. As I mentioned, Klein’s collected writings on health care probably amount to a Robert Caro-length tome.

The format allows plenty of room for complexity, if we can present it within a framework that makes sense.

Dark secret of blogging #4: Learn the art of the quest.

(Flickr photo courtesy of user h.koppdelaney.)

Since basically the dawn of storytelling, we’ve known the power of the quest narrative, a.k.a. the hero’s journey. Our most popular and enduring stories have been quests; e.g. the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

We’ve long applied the quest form to journalism, with delightful results. These types of stories feature the journalist as hero, letting the audience in on their process as they pursue the answer to a pressing question. There’s the legendary “Giant Pool of Money” episode of This American Life, where Adam Davidson and Alex Blumberg chase the epic question, “What led to the financial crisis?” There’s Atul Gawande’s bombshell New Yorker feature from last year on why health care costs so much more in McAllen, Tx., than it does down the road in El Paso. There’s James Fallows’ prescient National Magazine Award-winning cover story from the 11/02 Atlantic Monthly, pursuing an answer to the question, “What happens after we invade Iraq?”

Besides being quest narratives, of course, part of what all these stories have in common is that they’re long-form narrative journalism. So you might be wondering, “How does this apply to blogging – a format that’s all about short nuggets?”

The trick is that a great blog, seen in its entirety, is often just an incredibly lengthy serial narrative. Several of the best bloggers – especially news bloggers – engage you in the pursuit of an arresting question, using every post to stoke your hunger for what happens next.

At the height of the health care reform debate, I found myself checking Ezra Klein’s blog at the Washington Post site every chance I got, because he clearly understood the art of the quest. Well before the health care reform legislative battle really heated up in 2009, he began mapping out the landscape with a health care reform for beginners series to orient his readers. (Sort of like how maps of Middle Earth were inlaid in the beginnings of the Lord of the Rings books.)

Early on, he introduced us to several of the main recurring characters in the health care reform saga – key legislators, well-regarded experts, union leaders, industry lobbyists, and others. His solid knowledge of the policy and politics of reform allowed him to do some terrific foreshadowing; sure enough, his repeated admonitions to read that Max Baucus profile came in handy when Baucus became a pivotal figure in the debate. Along the way, he dropped in the little mini-mysteries – e.g. “Will unions kill health care reform?” – that add dimension to every good quest (and – crucially – followed them to their resolution).

And the best part of all – he let you in on the quest. You felt, reading Klein’s blog, that you were in the thick of the action, talking with legislators and wonks, unraveling in real time the gripping (not kidding!) story of whether health-care reformers would finally win a key battle in their century-long war to reform the US system. It was a fantastic serial narrative, told splendidly, in post after post after post. All told, Klein’s collected writings on health care would be the raw material for a massive book – many hundreds of thousands of words.

If you can make your beat into a fascinating epic quest, you win.

Dark secret of blogging #3: Headlines are hooks

(Flickr photo courtesy of user minifig.)

Just admit you read the title of this post and thought, “Duh.” Of course headlines are hooks. That’s News 101.

OK, fine, but headline-writing for the Web is enough of a distinct art that it must be re-emphasized: Great bloggers write great headlines. And that should be qualified: great bloggers write great Web headlines.

What distinguishes a good Web headline? Here’s an insight from Gawker mogul Nick Denton: “Imagine you’re writing a headline for a magazine (one with tight deadlines) rather than a newspaper.”

What does that mean? I think that the most successful Web headlines emphasize implications rather than events. Not what happened, but what it means. Take this headline from Wired.com: “Group posts e-mail hacked from Palin account.” Compare it to the headline from Gawker: “Sarah Palin’s personal e-mails.” The former headline focuses on the event – Sarah Palin’s e-mails got hacked. Gawker underscores the consequence – you get to read Sarah Palin’s e-mail!

Another example. Here’s a NYTimes headline: “Population study finds change in the suburbs.” Did your eyes just glaze over? Sweet, mine too. Someone studied the suburbs and found they’d changed, news at 11. The AP headline’s better: “White flight? Suburbs lose young whites to cities.” I expect the tinge of racial conflict in that title might draw a few clicks, although I wouldn’t recommend setting up a discussion that way. But once again, Gawker demonstrates mastery – “Suburbs: the new slums.” The rough trajectory of these headlines goes: What happened (NYTimes), what’s happening (AP), what it could mean (Gawker). That last version is what grabs our attention best online.

I once saw a marketing guru highlight what he thought were the top 12 most profit-producing words in marketing. I think you could do a similar exercise for great headline words. Here’s a quick take on it:

  1. Top
  2. Why
  3. How
  4. Will
  5. Guide
  6. Best
  7. Secret
  8. Ultimate
  9. Your
  10. Worst
  11. New
  12. Future

If you can frame your post with one (or more) of these words, you might just have a winner. Of course, you can write a terrific, viral headline with none of these words. Read Denton’s memo for some more thoughts on the matter.

Dark secret of blogging #2: Numbering is narrative.

Take a moment to peruse PopURLs – one of my favorite snapshots of the Internet zeitgeist – and you’ll notice a recurring pattern – people love lists. The words “top 10″ or “5 best” or “3 most” just seem to hit some sort of primal switch in our brains, triggering us to devour and redistribute content.

Obviously the Web didn’t invent the top-10 list, but the popularity of this story form in this medium is definitely worth some rumination. First, however, one key point – a numbered list is a story form. It’s a way of shaping a narrative that has just as much legitimacy as a Q&A, a long-form feature, an inverted pyramid, or any other storytelling technique a writer might draw on.

I tend to think the most important thing to understand about the popularity of lists online is not that every blog post should be a list, but that lists reveal some of the implicit attributes of successful Web content that are worth keeping in mind no matter which story form you choose. To wit:

Lists promise comprehensiveness.

A top 10 countdown suggests that you’ve surveyed a wide territory and brought back its 10 most sparkling gems. When we read things, we don’t typically quantify how many discrete insights we expect to encounter. We might even approach information expecting a point – a single golden takeaway to be treasured and put to use. Given this expectation, 10 promised insights (!) seems extraordinarily generous.

Lists promise limits.

At the same time as lists suggest breadth and robustness, they also convey selection. You aren’t just dumping everything on us, you’ve winnowed it down to 10 elements or 6 or even 3. The subtle message: “This is all you need to know.” In the age of information overload, that’s a huge selling point.

Lists promise hierarchy.

The Web loves hierarchy. Our information diets are glutted with streams of info all given equal weight – emails and status updates and articles and links. In that environment, information given a clear, unequivocal, easy-to-parse structure stands out. You can read a list from beginning to end, or if you’re pressed for time, just savor the best bits. What’s not to love?

Lists connote authority.

To assert the selection of a top 10 is to assert ownership of a topic. On the Web, content lends authority as often as brand. A complete unknown with a top-10 list that rings true to its audience can command as much attention as an established expert in a field. (I see this as both a good thing and a bad thing.) But it means that lists are an efficient signal that you think you’ve got enough experience on a topic to condense it.

A numbered list isn’t the only way to send these signals, of course. Other popular story forms online exude many of these same attributes. For example, the “ultimate guide to everything you need to know about X” is another format that promises authority and completeness, and you’ll find these posts are very popular as well. If you can grok why these formats are so Web-friendly, you can tailor your stories and headlines to match the sensibility.

Dark secret of blogging #1: Package, repackage, repeat.

The exquisite life cycle of Lifehacker content is a marvel to behold. Take a typical Hive Five post. (The Hive Five is a weekly call-out to the LH audience for software recommendations.)

First, the editors will post a question, e.g. “What’s the best music discovery service?” Then they’ll synthesize the most common responses into a round-up, “Five best music discovery services,” and ask their users to vote for a favorite. They’ll tally the votes, and post again: “Best music discovery service!” A link-baity title like “Five best music discovery services” is sure to draw a lot of traffic, meaning it’ll get packaged up yet again, in the “Week’s most popular posts.” Finally, at the end of the year, it might get repacked one more time, into a “Best of the Hive Five” roundup.

This technique brings numerous dividends:

It promotes volume.

Just think about that for a moment. A really simple crowdsourcing moment gets turned into fodder for [potentially] five posts, each of which has the potential to pull in a slightly different audience. This sort of industrial efficiency is part of how Lifehacker supplies its endlessly popular gusher of content.

It synthesizes and reinforces.

Bloggers have long since gotten over the notion that their audiences follow every thing they publish. Most people don’t have enough time, and some key points slip through the cracks. By recombining these points into posts that can become more viral with each incarnation, a blogger helps ensure information is digested into general knowledge.

It extends reach.

This is a key point about the Lifehacker approach: Every time that post is re-packaged, it’s aimed at a wider audience segment. The initial call-out is targeted to the folks who come to the site daily, people invested enough in the Lifehacker community that they not only read the posts, they read and contribute comments. Then those comments are packaged up into a post for a slightly less attentive audience, synthesizing the responses of the original crowd into five digestible nuggets. They’re distilled one more time for the folks who want to cut straight to the point – What’s the best music discovery service out there? And finally, they’re repackaged for users who dip in occasionally to see what’s hot around the site. Sheer brilliance.

It’s how you juggle the demands of a devoted, info-hungry community with the needs of your semi- or irregular users. Package, repackage, repeat.

And of course, it’s not just about packaging your own content. Folks like Andrew Sullivan and Arianna Huffington (not to mention the Gawker crew) do a fantastic job of packaging key info-nuggets from other sources into bundles that probably draw more traffic than their component parts. The Mashables and Smashing Magazines of the world are built on a discipline of creating and re-combining content for different needs and different audiences.

Dark secrets of the blogging superstars: My ArgoCamp preso

Thanks again to everyone who came to Chicago this week. I can’t wait to get our bloggers on board and start putting your ideas into practice.

As promised, I wanted to post my preso on blogging, along with some quick wrap-ups of the main points. Feel free to steal, adapt, re-distribute, etc. (Note: This is an embedded PDF version of the preso. For the full PowerPoint, check the files section of the Argo Basecamp site.)

To practice what I preach, I’m going to lay out each of my points in 10 separate posts, then re-package them. (Don’t worry, I’ll update this one when they’re all up.)