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Bloggers Boot Camp
Learning How to Build, Write, and Run a Successful Blog
By Charlie White John Biggs
Copyright © 2012 Charlie White and John Biggs
All right reserved.
Chapter One THE NICHE
Laying the Foundation
What's Your Name, Private?
Maybe you're working a full-time job that is ultimately unfulfilling to you, and during your free moments you're musing about something entirely different. Or you're a journalist who wants to get in on the blogging revolution, and you've discovered a niche with little or no competition thus far. Or maybe you read a lot of blogs, consistently convinced you could do a better job yourself. Bam! You're on the road to conceiving a blog.
Many blogs exist because a fan or expert is tired of reading wrong things written about his or her topics of interest. While, in the old days, you would call these people "crackpots," now they are bloggers. However, you're going to perform this service considerably more intelligently and intelligibly than some old timer railing against the system in the editorial pages. You're going to cover the story using your unique point of view and skill set.
Blogging is still the domain of the dedicated amateur. There's a difference between an amateur and amateurish work, however. Amateurs grow and change and improve, and that's what we're here to do: to help you move from beginner to expert in a few steps, and to make sure you understand that dedication, hard work, and drive are all you need to become a successful blogger.
If you're currently blogging, describe what you're blogging about in one complete sentence. It should be unerringly simple. If you're blogging about technology, you'd write: "I cover mobile phones with an emphasis on devices for older Americans." If you're writing about romance novels, you'd write: "I blog about Romance novels set in historical time periods and with a strong heroine." You'll notice the level of focus you should have in your blogging experience. You are an individual writing about a certain topic with a certain expertise. If you're an older technology blogger, write for your age group. If you're a mother, write about bicycling for moms. The key here is niche or, if you're thinking in terms of old media, a premise.
We'll discuss this in-depth further on, but our goal now is to find your focus. What do you write about? What are you passionate about? What topic will carry you along through the trials and tribulations that come with blogging?
If you haven't started blogging yet, you're actually lucky. So far, your blog is only the germ of an idea, and what you're doing right now might not feel important. That is not true. Whether you realize it or not, right now, you're doing the most vital work that will ever be done for your blog: that is, you're choosing the direction the site will take from now on. You're carving out the niche of your blog, and what you decide now will ultimately determine whether your work will be successful.
What do you need to be a good blogger? Besides the technical equipment, you'll need to possess a way with words and perseverance. The Internet is littered with dead blogs that had little of those two characteristics. Of the millions of blogs currently in existence, many are dormant, many are unread, and many are just plain bad. Our goal, in short, is to help you avoid the pitfalls many bloggers fall into, and in the process, make a little—or a lot—of money doing what you love.
What the Heck Is Blogging?
Blogging at its most basic level is the keeping of an online journal. At its most transcendent, however, a blog encompasses the journalism every nonfiction writer aspires to, an achievement this book will help you embrace.
A blog is a website that's organized in usually short articles called posts. Don't call the articles themselves "blogs"—if you must put the word "blog" in there, call them blog posts. The newer entries are always placed at the top, while older entries scroll down as each new one is added. As time passes, your readers encounter each story laid out in this reverse chronological log format.
Why is it called a blog? A writer and programmer named Dave Winer created the first "web log" when he built a site called Scripting.com. The site featured the reverse chronological (newest stories first) arrangement. A web log, then, would be similar to a captain's log—a place to store snippets of information. Winer's idea quickly became known as a weblog, a term that has since evolved into its shortened and most familiar form, blog.
Winer created a basic system for distributing his ideas about programming and hardware, and incorporated something called Really Simple Syndication or RSS, allowing readers to access his posts from programs called newsreaders (we'll talk about those in Chapter 5). This, in a sense, divorced the blog from the website on which it was hosted.
A newsreader pulls in data from an RSS feed and displays it separate from the original site. Newsreaders, for example, do not show the original layout of the site from which the information is sourced. This is an important distinction: people who use RSS readers may never visit a site they read in their newsreader.
This movement of blog to newsreaders changed blogging considerably. For the first time, the content on a page could exist as a standalone entity, devoid of advertising, images, and other clutter. Blog posts had to drag the reader from a newsreader to the website and create a fan where there was once a passive consumer. Many bloggers see the divorce of content from website to be a bad thing. After all, it reduces pageviews and potential ad revenue. However, with the right content, you can force the reader to put the two back together again, creating a unique opportunity to turn a mass of "grazers" into an audience.
True blogging did not take off until a Silicon Alley rivalry began between Nick Denton, a former Financial Times journalist, and Jason Calacanis, the publisher of The Silicon Alley Reporter. Denton began a site called Gawker and focused on New York gossip. When that site grew popular, he expanded his empire, starting a technology and gadget site called Gizmodo, where both your humble narrators began their blogging careers in the mid-2000s.
At the same time, Calacanis was creating a rival blog network called Weblogs Inc. His goal was to saturate the market with niche blogs written by low-paid but dedicated editors. Both sites grew out of the ashes of the dot-com bust, and both publishers found themselves with a surfeit of talent. Calacanis, however, poached one of Denton's writers to start Engadget, and when Weblogs Inc. was sold to America Online, the first blogging millionaires were born.
These two organizations were the first to meld content management, advertising, and cheap labor to create a blog network designed, through synergistic linking, to build traffic. In fact, it can be argued that Weblogs Inc. and Gawker Media were the first sites where "traffic" was a main concern, in contrast with the years preceding the founding of these organizations, when media operations saw the web as, at best, a distraction.
Gawker Media, and to an extent, Weblogs Inc., defined a methodology and style that critics excoriated and eventually adopted. The goal of the blog was a stream of content so overwhelming that it required frequent updates. This was coupled with a conversational style that spoke of "outsider" journalism, a suggestion that the writer was in a beleaguered underclass, not beholden to the vagaries of the entrenched media. This plan worked well for years until, of course, blogs became entrenched media.
If this is all too esoteric, rest assured that it's important to understand who the major players are in this space and how they operate. You can learn a great deal, for example, about how Engadget covers a technology press conference or how Politico handles an election. If there is one rule to live by, however, it's this: Everything about blogging is being made up on the fly. As successful as these sites are, there are few "best practices" to follow, and the ones that exist, we will outline in this book. Blogging has moved far too fast to codify any sort of "style guide" or list of do's and don'ts, which is why we decided to write these chapters.
These two organizations now essentially rule the blogosphere. Although there are plenty of more popular blogs out there, sites like Gawker and Gizmodo defined an entire genre of writing—a snarky, New York-centric voice that speaks to both the experts in technology, media, and sports as well as the dilettantes. Great bloggers are good at making readers feel like they are part of a privy conversation full of gossip, lore, and insider knowledge. Anything less and you're basically reading a newspaper clipping.
Calacanis and Denton got rich with their blogging empires, but this is not to say everyone involved in those early years of blogging got rich quick. There were plenty of bloggers—millions—who made absolutely no money and accomplished nothing. This book will give you the tools to avoid that frustrating fate.
However, by taking the Denton/Calacanis model and expanding it, many blogs have found their niche and discovered a potent advertising model. The result? In less than a decade, a new medium was created. The most exciting part of this revolution is the way it's harnessed the immediacy of the Web, and given a voice to those who might not have had such an opportunity a mere 10 years ago.
Think about it: At the turn of the century, the majority of people had no far-reaching voice to reach the masses. They could try to be published in journals or magazines. Their quests for stardom were often driven through attempts at being in the "it scene" or sending out demo tapes to bored A&R men. Now, however, the average Joe or Jane (or Justin or Jenna) can become an Internet sensation overnight. Bloggers are brought on as experts in mainstream news programs, and blogs often force mainstream journalists to get off their duffs and actually research a story. For instance, a blogger broke the Bush-Gore recount, and blogs helped aggregate the Afghan War documents released by Wikileaks.
Blogging is still a new medium. News organizations are still floundering in the shoals of misunderstanding and assessing new ways of selling content in a world where content is free. Blogging is changing the way we think about news and opinion, and it's moving eyeballs away from established news sites and toward upstarts. This, then, is the opportunity for you to capture—and it's also the juggernaut you're up against. Even as they deride the blog revolution as the work of amateurs piggy-backing on their expensive content, media organizations are trying desperately to copy the magic that defines many of the biggest and best blogs in the world. They will, in short, fail, for a few simple reasons.
First, most news organizations are "too big" or at least entrenched in an older newsroom mentality. We will discuss this mentality—and its usefulness—in later chapters, but as it stands large news organizations don't have the flexibility to mix fact, opinion, and original reporting in a way that tracks with their original mission. This could obviously change—and it will over time—but until it does, there are many blind spots to take advantage of in the blogosphere.
One prominent example of a news organization embracing new media is The Daily produced by News Corp. Created as the world's first well-funded online-only news magazine/newspaper (it's hard to tell what it is just yet, but think of it as Newsweek meets a tabloid newspaper), Rupert Murdoch invested $30 million in The Daily's creation and maintenance. This is a testament to how big news organizations feel about on-line—after years of being unable to beat them at their game, they've finally decided to join them.
Excerpted from Bloggers Boot Camp by Charlie White John Biggs Copyright © 2012 by Charlie White and John Biggs. Excerpted by permission of Focal Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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