For almost a decade I've used the Web — and most recently my blog — to research, develop, and enhance the articles I write for magazines. When I ran into Dan Gillmor at SXSW we discussed some of my strategies, and Dan asked me to write them up. Seems worth doing, so here goes. Much of this concerns the IT trade pub ecosystem specifically, but I think the principles will generalize. The basic pattern is simple: a story gestates in blogspace, appears in print and online, and then matures in blogspace.
Pre-publication phase: Announce story on blog, publish draft outline, solicit feedback. The preview of my .NET cover story was a good example of the role the blog can play in the pre-publication phase of a story. Among the purposes served by that posting:
Validate the idea. There's a lot of complaining, lately, about the “echo chamber” effect in the blogosphere. But in this case, the blog is a way of breaking out of another kind of echo chamber: the editorial ivory tower. Every magazine has some version of the editorial meeting, a session in which ideas are pitched and vetted. The external feedback loop that governs this process is highly attenuated, though. If an idea was incomplete, or poorly focused, you'll hear about it from readers — but only after the article hits print. Since readers are stakeholders in this process, I figure I should involve them up front. This makes particularly good sense in the realm of IT trade journalism, where we writers serve as proxies for the readers. I enjoy privileged access to vendors, but with that privilege comes a responsibility to ask and answer the questions that matter to readers. By operating transparently, in blogspace, I invite my reader-stakeholders to keep me on track.
Gather expertise. I start with topics to which I bring a certain amount of expertise. Then I leverage what I know (and who I know) to find what I don't know (and who I don't know). Of course in the trade magazine business, there is a whole profession dedicated to helping me do that. When a story appears on the editorial calendar, I'm swamped with phone calls and emails from PR folk who want to supply me with analysts, executives, domain experts, and customers. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. I sometimes accept these opportunities, and in some cases, I learn from them. It's dangerous, though, to be led down the path of least resistance. So I rely on the blog to find other people who have important things to tell me. As you can imagine, this makes PR folk really nervous. It's their job to try to control my story. It's my job to route around that control, and the blog is a tremendously powerful tool for doing that.
Focus the PR energy. The journalism/PR game is made more antagonistic that it needs to be when there's insufficient data in play. For example, I neglected to blog proactively about the e-forms story we ran in January. As a result, the PR people were forced to rely on our editorial calendar, which described the story as something like “Life of a document.” They concluded, not irrationally, that it was going to be a story about document management. And then many took a further leap of faith and figured that, given the impending Sarbanes-Oxley deadline, I should write a story about document management systems that help companies comply with that legislation. I can't tell you how many calls and emails I got inquiring about my “Sarbanes-Oxley story.” But this was really my fault. Had I spelled out my intention — which was to compare the Acrobat, InfoPath, and XForms approaches to e-forms — I'd have spared a bunch of people from making phone calls and writing emails that were as fruitless for them as they were annoying to me. And I'd have encouraged the folks who really should have been contacting me to do so.
Dialogue with vendors. In the IT trades, readers aren't the only stakeholders. Vendors are stakeholders too. They're creating products and services that, over the years, have grown steadily more complex, and more difficult to understand fully and explain well. They rely on trade pubs to help get the story out, but the pubs have less and less space for detailed explanation and analysis. There's much more to say than InfoWorld (or any other trade pub) has room to print. By narrating my evolving views in my blog, I invite everyone — including vendors, who are of course the best experts on their own stuff — to help me refine those views. That give and take yields valuable insight and — when it can take the form of cross-blog conversations (i.e., isn't secret, as many things aren't) — valuable content. A tip of the hat here to Microsoft, by the way, whose developers are miles ahead of their counterparts at Sun, IBM, Apple, and elsewhere when it comes to engaging with the blog medium.
Promote the story. I hadn't thought about this until recently, but blogging the run-up to a print story can help create buzz. That may matter less to a controlled-circulation magazine like InfoWorld than it would to a newsstand pub, but it's still an interesting notion. When you've got a major story on an evergreen topic — one that isn't going to break news or reach shocking conclusions — opening up the process a bit may be a useful marketing strategy. That's what movie-makers do, after all, and the magazine game is a species of show business.
Post-publication phase: analysis, feedback, enhancement. Since the advent of the Web, magazine sites have used the “TalkBack” device to enable readers (and authors) to comment on stories. This was a great way to work around the severely-bottlenecked “letter-to-the-editor” medium. In the blog era, there's another way to skin this cat: aggregate what readers (and authors) say on their blogs about the published article.
I think we'll see more of this TrackBack-like approach as time goes on. In fact, InfoWorld.com takes a step in that direction, following a suggestion of mine. Blog entries that reference InfoWorld.com stories, found by way of Feedster and Technorati, are collected into a database. Then a selected few are shown on every page, in a box labeled “Top Site Referrals.” I find this label confusing, and would rather see something like “Bloggers talk back.” But that wouldn't work well either because, currently, the items appear sitewide, not per-article.
InfoWorld.com doesn't have the resources to collect all the substantive blog postings (and letters to the editor) that relate to each published article, and use them to advance the story in a coherent way. But as the author of a few of those articles, I have the bandwidth — and the motivation — to do exactly that. Here are some of the ways the blog can add depth to a printed story.
Respond to readers. I used to mention my published stories on the blog immediately. Lately, though, I've decided to let InfoWorld's RSS feeds announce the stories, and hold my posting until I've had a chance to collect and process email and blog feedback. Last week's column on email identity is a case in point. It posted to the Web on Friday the 12th, but it wasn't until a week later — last Friday — that I'd gathered enough feedback to support a substantive follow-up.
Publish interview out-takes. I've used the blog to expand on published interviews with various people including Ward Cunningham and Dick Cook. I was going to add Jean Paoli to this list, but when I went back and looked, that entire interview ran as a column. Interestingly, Phil Wainewright saw where this was going even before I did. He originally wrote:
This is cutting-edge journalism, by the way — neither a finished article nor a weblog entry but something in-between that would never have happened without the influence of weblogging or the convenience of online publishing — an analytical journalist publishing his interview notes accompanied by his reflections on them. [Loosely Coupled]
Then, when he realized that in this case the interview-plus-reflections appeared in the column, not the blog, he added:
Jon subsequently noted that the article was his weekly column, so I shouldn't really have implied that it was less than a finished piece. But I almost wish that I had been right, because the idea of supplementing traditional published formats with new ones appeals to me.
Me too. Phil was right, just not about that particular example. His comment helped crystallize the approach I've taken with subsequent interviews, and plan to continue.
Publish demos and examples. My item on secure use of private keys, which featured screen videos of advanced private-key security configuration in OS X and Windows, was a companion to the column on email identity. It's time-consuming to do this kind of thing, but with more practice using the capture/edit tools, and some refinement of my presentation skills, I hope to be able to make it happen more routinely. Clearly you can't do this in print, but it makes a powerful complement to the printed article.
The rhetoric swirling around blogs and journalism often takes an adversarial tone. One of the reasons for that, I think, is the relationship of the two cultures to their primary sources. Bloggers feel obliged to cite them, journalists often don't. A startling example of this was the Dan Geer incident, which revolved around a PDF report on the Web. Every blogger who commented on the matter linked to that report. No conventional journalist did.
I won't always report everything that someone said to me, or cite every information source I've consulted, because I'm trying to tell stories here, and I want to keep the narrative lively. But using the blog to open a window onto my primary sources before, during, and after the publication of an article helps me — and the various stakeholders — in all sorts of ways. [Jon's Radio]