here is much being written about the pluses and minuses of citizen journalism and its influence on professional news gathering, but there’s nothing like a report from the trenches. An excellent example is Hartsville Today, a joint effort by the Hartsville Messenger and the University of South Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communications, in collaboration with a grant from the Knight Foundation. Over the past year, the website has begun featuring articles posted by the staff of the Messenger, as well as stories and commentary posted by members of the community. The staff learned a lot about recruiting and encouraging citizen journalists; they also learned a lot about adapting to the new dynamics inherent in bottom-up reporting. They’ve taken all that new knowledge and published a “cook book” specifically aimed at small daily and non-daily newspapers. The resulting report, Hartsville Today - The first year of a small-town citizen-journalism site, can be downloaded as a .pdf file. Tips range from soliciting stories to budgeting, ad sales, and technology choices and will be of interest to anyone interested in real-life applications of collaborative reporting.
eb search engines open up our horizons, but at the same time, they gnaw away at our privacy. To some extent, we’ve learned to live with the fact that any Joe can do a search on our names and turn up facts we never meant to disclose. When search engines willingly turn over search records to government agencies, however, concerns for personal privacy escalate. For those wishing to preserve what little privacy we still have, the Electronic Frontier Foundation just published How To Keep Your Search History Private. Examples of tips include: “Don’t put personally-identifying information in your searches, at least not in a way that can be associated with your other searches.” “Don’t use a search engine operated by your ISP.” “Use a separate browser or browser profile for search and for other activities.”
focus, focus, focus
The most successful mid-tier bloggers don’t try to be all things to all people. Their intent is well-defined and intelligently supported throughout their sites. They carefully target a community that shares their interests, tailoring the look-and-feel, writing style, and content of their blogs to that audience. It’s true that the Long Tail distribution of blogs means that only a very few blogs will ever be ultra-popular, but at the same time, an ever-increasing number of blogs along that Long Tail are finding active and faithful communities. The bloggers who stand out within each of the many niches generally do so by consistently satisfying the interests of like-minded others.
craft a clear identity
To avoid getting lost among the millions of other blogs, it’s important to craft an identity that appeals to your targeted audience and reinforces that identity throughout the life of the blog. To begin with, this means choosing a blog name that will mean something to potential readers who come across it on search pages or in links from other websites. It’s best to own your domain name, both as an anchor for your identity, and as a guarantee that your permalinks remain valid, should you ever choose to change blog services. Choose a blog design that is graceful, easy-to-navigate, and that doesn’t compete for attention with your finely honed posts. Include an “about me” page that offers readers a window onto your background and intent. As your blog evolves, continue to cultivate a voice that is plain-spoken, friendly, and clear. Take advantage of the fact that the informal style of most blogs allows you to mimic your conversational tone. If you’re in doubt about a post, try reading it aloud. It’s good to remember that personality distinguishes the best blogs. Don’t be afraid to be yourself.
(from Chapter 9, Anatomy of a Blog Page)
ome blogs are a pleasure to read and navigate. Others are a pain. No matter how brilliant your commentary, if the look and feel of your page is forgettable, plug ugly, or difficult to navigate, your visitors are less likely to return. There are no absolutes in the world of blogs, but a familiarity with the general rules of good online design makes it easier to break a few of those rules and still attract new readers. Whether you plan to use default design templates or employ formidable CSS (Cascading Style Sheet) skills to tweak your blog to your exact specifications, here are some useful things to keep in mind.
Visit your favorite blogs. While the editorial content of the blogs will probably be the greatest unifying aspect, spend some time analyzing how each presents its content and organizes navigation. Take notes on unique or particularly graceful linking solutions or informational blurbs. Note color combinations that you find pleasing (or horrific). The smart grasshopper learns from those who have gone (and stumbled) before them.
(from Chapter 8, Packing Your Toolkit)
ne of the decisions any blog author must make is whether or not to allow readers to subscribe to your updated content via syndicated newsfeeds. More and more blogs sport buttons or links labeled RSS, Atom, XML, newsfeed, or simply feed. Click those links and you’ll often find yourself abruptly presented with a web page full of dense, incomprehensible text. What’s this all about?
First of all, newsfeeds aren’t exactly new. Many of us have been subscribing to them for years, often without knowing it. If you have a personalized web page on Google, My Yahoo, or MySpace, the headlines and stories from the various news organizations you’ve selected arrive as newsfeeds. So do most podcasts. Additionally, newsfeeds are often used to distribute newsletters and track packages, as well as provide marketing, weather, and stock updates.
Essentially, newsfeeds are syndicated web content delivered to subscribers’ news aggregators, also called newsreaders, in real time. Besides being able to subscribe to the content of blogs, many of the newer search engines allow you to subscribe to updated results of specific search queries. If you wanted to track all the blog posts that include the word “bogosity,” for instance, you could conduct a search on Bloglines or Technorati and then subscribe to future search results for the term. Now, each time your newsreader updates your subscriptions, you would receive a list of links to each new blog post containing the term.
Chris Taylor regularly makes sense of new technologies for his many readers. He recently left Time magazine for Business 2.0 where he’ll head up their Futures department, but not before writing an excellent article on RSS and its potential for streamlining our daily reading habits. We wish him the best in his new endeavor.
(from Chapter 8, Packing Your Toolkit)
Trackback is a little tricky to explain, but the feature is handy and worth taking a moment to understand. In a nutshell, a trackback link beneath a blog entry is similar to a permalink, but with a trick up its sleeve: It allows individuals to notify you and your readers that they’ve responded to your entry on their own blogs.
The main reason bloggers sometimes choose to respond on their own blogs rather than simply posting a comment beneath your entry is that they want their own blog visitors to read what they’ve written and perhaps contribute to the conversation. Also, bloggers have more control over the text on their own sites and can correct typos or otherwise edit content after posting.
In theory, the ability to carry on a conversation across blogs is compelling. In practice, trackback can be a bit daunting. It’s likely that the mechanisms will soon be transparent, but for now, stepping through a manual trackback scenario is probably the best way to illustrate how trackback works.
Aunt Magda Masters Trackback
Let’s say your Aunt Magda really likes your latest blog entry about frog butter and would like to share it with her own readers. On her blog, she starts a new entry, telling her friends why she thinks they’ll like what you posted, along with a short excerpt from your blog. Because she’d like her readers to be able to click a link in the body of her entry to go to your blog and read your full text, she clicks the permalink beneath your entry. A window opens with a web address that remains unique to your original frog butter entry, even after it’s archived. Martha copies the permalink address and pastes it into the anchor tag for the link in her own entry. So far, so good. Her readers can now happily read her commentary and the short excerpt from your site, and then, if they like, click the link to read the full text on your blog.
But you and your readers still don’t know that Aunt Magda started a side conversation about frog butter on her blog, so she next clicks the trackback link under the entry on your blog. A window opens displaying a brand new Web address, the unique trackback address for the entry. Magda pastes this trackback address into a special trackback field in her own blog. The field may be called something cryptic like “Trackback an URL” (in WordPress) or “URLs to Ping” (in Movable Type). In addition to pasting the unique trackback address, Magda probably also types in a headline, copies an excerpt from the new entry on her own blog, adds the permalink for her entry, and finally clicks to post.
Now everyone refreshes their browsers, and on your blog, you see that in the parentheses after the trackback link for your frog butter entry, the zero has updated to the number one. If you click on the trackback link, the window that opens now includes her headline and excerpt, along with a live link to her blog. (On some blogs, trackback content appears automatically with any comments on the entry’s permalink page.) Subsequent trackback links by other bloggers who comment remotely will update the trackback number on your blog and so you always know how many other sites are discussing a specific entry on their blogs.
More Trackback Goodness (and Badness)
A conversation is now taking place across blogs thanks to trackback. Not only that, your search ranking has been enhanced since Magda’s blog software probably pinged the major search and aggregation sites and their ranking algorithms will reward you for Magda’s trackback link.
What’s the bad news? What else? Spam. Like battling the spam that plagues email itself, it is a constant game of whack-a-mole. There are anti-spam plugins for all the major blog applications, but it is likely that you will sometimes have to go in and manually remove spam links when particularly virulent specimens make it past your safeguards.
OK, there’s one more bad thing. Because only the blognoscenti understand trackback, not that many people use it yet. But as automation and standard practices improve, this ability to converse across blogs promises to be among the most powerful features in blogging.