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Four takes on a poll: a case study in the use of voice

How you express yourself has implications for how users react.

In yesterday’s Argo webinar on voice, opinion and objectivity, we discussed several blog posts, asking two main questions:

  1. Where does the post fall on a scale from “straight” (written in a non-controversial, just-the-facts style) to “assertive” (clearly making or assuming an argument)?
  2. What effects might that choice have on users’ reactions to the post?

We kicked off the discussion by examining four approaches to the same story.

On Tuesday, Bloomberg released the results of a poll of likely voters in this November’s midterm elections. Posts about polls are almost perfect for our purposes, because it’s possible to read so much into them. There’s no “objective” reading of a poll – there are the banner top-line findings, then all sorts of murky findings that are subject to vastly varying interpretations. Any of the findings you choose to emphasize can reveal your particular biases, preferences, and interests. Here are four different treatments, along with my analysis of their effects: Continue reading

Voice, opinion and objectivity: An Argo webinar

I had a nuanced conversation today with the Argo bloggers and NPR’s Mark Memmott about the effects of different ways of couching perspectives and information. I’m posting the slides and a teensy bit of summary here now, with more context to come later.

Quick summary: I opened the conversation by saying that I didn’t intend to use the word “objectivity” much in relation to the conversation. To the extent I use the term, I talk about it as an ideal applied to a method, rather than to particular material. (I wouldn’t say a particular post is “objective,” but I might say a journalist pursued information in a rigorous, objective fashion.) I’ve taken inspiration on this point from Rosenstiel and Kovach’s Elements of Journalism, which clarified the distinction:

The call for journalists to adopt objectivity was an appeal for them to develop a consistent method of testing information – a transparent approach to evidence – precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work.

Continue reading

The objectivity reading list: 5 takes on perspective in journalism

"Objectivity" by Sol LeWitt

As Joel alluded to on Friday, one of the most interesting digressions in our day-long workshop for the West Coast Argo-bloggers last week was our discussion of the doctrines of objectivity. This has been a long, ongoing conversation with room for plenty of nuance, and I hope we can advance that conversation a bit here.

Joel linked to a thoughtful post by Ed Yong asking whether science journalists should take sides. I want to pull together a quick reading list that I think might provoke some good thoughts: Continue reading

The art of the link roundup

The Roundup: The world's most exciting ride. (Benimoto / Flickr)

As I mentioned the other day, a link roundup is a tried-and-true way for a blogger to start the morning. (Or end the day – for the most prolific bloggers, the link roundup is an opportunity to highlight all the good links they didn’t get to write about that day.)

Just as editors of yore would begin their days by reading the morning papers, a trip through your RSS feeds and social news feeds is an impeccable morning habit to cultivate, a great way to get the gears turning and the juices flowing. Almost by definition, the roundup is breezy, quick and casual – Ezra Klein’s momentous Wonkbook being the exception that proves the rule. But it too has its technique. So as you compile your daily curation, keep these points in mind: Continue reading

A quick tip on hyperlinks

Looking at the Argo blogs, I’ve noticed a wide range of hyperlinking styles. My suspicion is that none of the Argo-bloggers have given a whole lot of thought to their hyperlinking strategy, but it’s a small thing that can make a big difference in the readability and scannability of a post. So here’s a quick rule-of-thumb:

Link what you’d like to emphasize. Continue reading

Piping fresh Nick Denton memo

Get it while it’s hot. You know I can’t resist Denton’s monthly memo to his Gawker staff bloggers. A highlight:

Kevin Purdy’s highly informative story about the effects of caffeine on the brain in Lifehacker was the breakout story of July. And the reader interest in the piece highlights — do we really need a reminder? — the draw of the explanation. There’s too much news on the web; and way too little explanation. Fully a quarter of the top stories are straight how-tos or otherwise helpful or informative.

Man. I would never have thought Nick Denton would be one of the loudest voices making my beloved Future of Context argument.

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.

What do you ask a prospective blogger?

A question we dwelt on at last week’s ArgoCamp in Chicago deserves some follow-up: How can you tell whether a candidate will make a great blogger?

Our 12 Argo topics will require a vast range of subject expertise. Some topics demand reporters with a strong grounding in the subject matter; others rely less on esoteric subject knowledge and more on a general ability to draw connections and guide conversations. Since each case will be so different, I won’t comment specifically on how to suss out subject expertise.

What I can offer are some questions to help you figure out a candidate’s suitability for a trait all of the sites will need – blogginess. Their general knowledge of how information flows online – what types of stories hook audiences, how to handle communities, how to write a tweet for perfect retweetability. This is the secret sauce that will make our sites sing. (Alliteration, btw, is a crucial skill for every great blogger. OK, not really.)

Over the next few days, I’ll pull together some specific questions for you to ask. Meanwhile, I’ll throw the question open: What might you ask your blogger candidates?

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.