Contributing to a blog has become an expected part of a business reporter’s repertoire. You may be producing fill-in posts between your regular filings at a publication, or perhaps blogs are the bulk of your work and a web site’s primary content.
Blogs are often viewed differently than full-length articles: shorter and reliant on third-party references, with fewer traditional interviews. Blog posts often take the form of analysis or commentary. That type of approach, while legitimate, can lead to poor work. Here are four steps that will help you combat that tendency.
1. Treat the post as you would an article
Often, a reporter writing a short blog post will be unwilling to do the same type of research and conduct as many interviews as she would when working on a full-length article. However, if that same piece were to run as a front-of-book item instead of a blog post, investing serious time and reporting would be expected. Even if you are going to find your sources on the web, make sure you are citing primary sources, that they come from trustworthy sites and that you’re not doing a write-around of a somebody else’s piece.
2. Be strategic about your timing
Blog work can seem like a stint at a wire service, only more crazed, with the pressure of being first to catch the public’s attention. Deadlines can be incredibly tight, but you still need to create something worth reading. If a story is urgent, consider writing an initial bare-bones post and then adding updates as details become available. Link back and forth so someone can get the whole picture. Or take the opposite tack: Develop an analysis or commentary and bring it out hours after the initial stream of coverage. Regardless of how quickly you need to work, force yourself to do a thorough proofread before going live. Readers will not cut you slack because it’s “only a blog post.”
3. Watch copyright issues
So many people trip up here. Attribution is a problem. Someone might not link back to web sources used or mention the source in the article text, which can be plagiarism. You might find that some people steal your material, even going so far as to put their name on your piece and run it on their site (I’ve listened to many colleagues complain about this). Watching copyright is both to avoid taking someone else’s work and to keep yours under your control.
Another common issue is when blogs use images without the necessary permission. Just because an image appears on the web (or anywhere else) doesn’t mean that you have the right to use it. This is true even if it’s accompanied by a Creative Commons license. You must read the licensing terms carefully to be sure that you can use an image commercially and to see what you have to do in return (such as providing clear credit and a link back to the source). To learn more about the intricacies of copyright, both in word and image, go to the U.S. Copyright Office site.
4. Learn some HTML
What makes blog posts work is a programming language called Hypertext Markup Language, or HTML. When you use the built-in editor in a content management system (CMS), you don’t notice it. But as you add text, italicize or bold it, or add links to resources on the web, the built-in editor is adding HTML tags—angle brackets enclosing a command, like <em> to start a section of italics and </em> to end it.
You generally don’t have to know any HTML to use a a CMS system, but it can come in very handy. If there’s an oddity in the results, you can look at the plain text version of the content most editors provide and see if there’s a mistake in the HTML. (Mistakes can happen when you paste content into the system or from internal errors in the editor.)
I actually prefer to write blog pieces in a word processor and embed the HTML tags myself, then paste the results in, using the text tab in WordPress, for example. Not only do I find it faster than using the online editor, but I can keep a copy of the piece on my computer in case something goes really wrong and I need to dig up the original, which has happened when a CMS crashed as I was adding my piece. (If you prefer the online editor, once you’re finished with a post keep your work safe by going into the text section, selecting all the text and pasting it into a word processor file, then saving it to your hard drive. It doesn’t help if the editor crashes partway through, but it does give you a record of what went in.)
Learning HTML isn’t hard and there are multiple free HTML tutorials and references available on the web.