The latest post in the FAQ series (where someone has sent me questions and I republish it here) had 22 questions. This one just has two, and they’re all about writing online:
Q: Do you think that working online has allowed you to be more open and express your opinions more freely than through another medium (e.g. print)?
Absolutely, but I don’t think that’s to do with the medium so much as the institutional framework surrounding that.
When I worked full time in print I was employed by a publisher and had commercial pressures. Most of my work online since then has either been self-published and without commercial pressures. This means I do not have to appeal to the widest possible audience (and can assume a certain amount of knowledge on the part of my readers) or worry about losing advertisers.
But there’s a further aspect here which is about genre. Unintentionally, as I wrote more and more about my subject area I moved more and more into analysis which, ultimately, is about opinion (ideally informed opinion!).
Or put another way, my growth in experience as a writer has coincided with my move from print to online: that does not mean that online ’caused’ me to write more analysis, but rather when I began to write more analysis I happened to be publishing online.
So of course there is a whole genre in print for this, too: it’s just I never wrote in that genre in print.
The point is that people sometimes mistakenly assume ‘blogging’ means ‘opinion’ or ‘diary’, whereas it simply means ‘publishing on a certain content management system’. The New York Times uses WordPress: is that blogging? Who really cares? What does that even mean?
But yes, when you remove commercial and structural pressures for journalists then you broaden the range of content that is possible, including smaller audiences, ill-served audiences, and formats and genres which may have been avoided because of their tendency to narrow the potential audience or increase ‘risk’.
Q: How do you think that writing for an online reader has impacted your writing?
It has had a massive impact. I was a print journalist; now I’m an online journalist. It’s like asking how much writing for radio or TV audiences has affected a newspaper reporter’s writing.
Firstly there is the technical aspect: writing online allows you to link to your sources; to provide evidence or background or raw material for what you are saying.
That also means you can assume less (and know more) about your reader, and you don’t have to waste so many words on background: if they don’t understand something they can click through to read more.
There’s a key side effect of that which is this: if you can’t support what you say with a link to the evidence, then you don’t say it. A claim without a link is grounds for suspicion.
Writing online also allows readers to have an input into the process: there have been many times when people have pointed out some useful information that adds to what I have written, or to clarify a point of fact, or to contribute their own experiences, or suggest a new angle or update. Often new ideas and contacts come from those discussions.
I wrote up some research I did on this for Nieman Reports: many journalists were experiencing the same changes; in fact I was surprised just how widely it had affected them: from newsgathering to choice of angle through to writing and distribution.
Put another way, when you write online you have a much keener sense of who your audience is, and a much closer relationship with them (although of course this is really only a part of your audience, and you should always be conscious of that).
You also have a keener awareness of what people are actually reading. In print you never knew which articles got read from beginning to end and which ones people ignored. Online you sometimes write pieces that you think will do well, but which don’t, and vice versa.
That’s quite humbling, but also liberating.
What else? There’s much less point online in rewriting information that other people have already reported. There’s still a lot to be done on this front by news organisations, but for me personally that means avoiding press releases entirely (they can publish it themselves and probably already have), and being much more selective about what I spend time on.
Interestingly, over time it has meant that what I do has changed as I reassessed where my efforts were best invested: many years ago I did a lot of what would now be called ‘curation’: highlighting interesting things that were happening in my field, because that wasn’t being done. But then other sites started up that did that, so I no longer do that (outside of Twitter).
I definitely work more collaboratively as a journalist now than I ever did in print. Print traditionally was pretty solitary: one person did the research and the writing; but online you can do amazing things when you work with others.
I’ve done investigations which involved working with forensic accountants and web developers, designers and photographers, people in dozens of different countries and in newspapers, magazines and broadcasters.
You learn that it isn’t ‘your’ story and that it’s generally all the better for that. It’s very humbling, and perhaps that’s been a difficult thing for many journalists. We used to say that if you were in it for the money, you were in the wrong job. Perhaps we should add that if you’re in it for the ego, you’re now in the wrong job. You should be in it to make a difference.
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