Does It Matter If You’re A Journalist?

Journalists get laid off

Photo by: engineroomblog on Flickr

I like how this article addresses this issue. At times, I struggle with the idea of whether I’m a “journalist” or not.

It used to be, that only people that were published in a magazine, or a newspaper were “real” journalists. The rest of us were just “wannabees” or “not good enough to get a job writing for the paper” or the second rung plain and simple “bloggers.”

Bottom line, I keep a “journal” which makes me a by default makes me a “journalist.” The thing is, that it’s more complicated than that.

I like how the article explores the question of “acts of journalism” and whether or not something has “journalistic value.” I’ll be the first to admit that I hardly ever commit “acts of journalism” and that most of my stuff has little to no “journalistic value” but does that really make it any less important?

What do you think?

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If you’re a creator of media, and most of us are these days in one way or another, what should I call you?

Why do I ask? I’m finishing up a new book, called  “Mediactive,” to be published this fall. My primary goals are to persuade people to become much more active users, not passive consumers, of media. Part of this is what we’ve traditionally called “media literacy” — among other things, applying critical thinking to what we consume. And because we are all becoming creators in the Digital Age, it also means we need to apply some basic principles so people will trust what we say (assuming we want to be trusted).

One of my dilemmas has been what to call these new trusted media creators. In the era of scarcity, when there were relatively few outlets, many of them were called “journalists.”

This isn’t only my problem, and it’s more than just semantics. Asking the question in the right way has real-world impacts. So-called shield laws, for example, aim to protect whistle-blowers and the journalists whom they tell about government or corporate wrongdoing. Some states specify who counts as a journalist, which leaves out a huge range of people who effectively practice journalism nowadays; it also encourages a pernicious, back-door licensing of journalists. The right approach, if we need shield laws at all, is to protect acts of journalism.

As digital media become ubiquitous and more and more of us communicate and collaborate online, every person is capable of doing something that has journalistic value. Quite reasonably, relatively few of these folks imagine themselves as journalists, and they’d laugh if you called them one.

Suppose you spot a couple of items online that you want me and other people interested in, say, folk music to see. You forward the links, along with short excerpts and a brief comment explaining why these items are worthwhile, to a mail list. If I tell you, “That was an act of journalism: You curated, aggregated, wrote commentary and created meta-data,” your response, appropriately, will be, “Huh? I was just forwarding some links.”


How To Create Viral Content

The reason I like this article, is that not only does the writer tell you what to do, he shows you samples of how to do it right and how not to do it. The main reason I dislike this post, is that you can’t really create viral content.

Content goes viral, or it does not.

You can do things to help content go viral, but you can’t just “create” viral content. Why do I say it like that? Because you don’t make content go viral, your readers/ fans/ subscribers make your content go viral by sharing it.

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One of the first lessons that newspaper journalists are taught is to structure their content so that the most important information is first, with the importance decreasing as you read through the piece. Pick up any newspaper around you and you’ll see that the first few sentences contain the most crucial elements of the event.

This not only creates impact, but also allows editors to simply snip off the bottom paragraph of a story if they need space for other articles. As the final paragraph is the least important, their editing does not affect the article too much. I’ve already shared how I personally became a much better writer (though I don’t rate myself that highly) and now I want to get into the specifics of how to create compelling content.

Your Headline

Your headline, in my opinion, is by far the most important element of your article or blog post. It of course matters what you say after the headline, but only if you can actually get people to read your article. The job of your headline is simply to get people to read the first sentence of your post.

Your headline doesn’t just need to be attractive to people who stop by your blog regularly. If you use Google Reader in a list format for example – like I do – then your headline determines whether myself or anyone else using the service will click on your listing to read the post. Similarly, if I see content posted on Facebook or retweeted on Twitter, that same headline will determine whether I click through to your website.

The following advice is my take on how to create a headline that draws your readers in and helps your content go viral.

Don’t tell me something I know: If your headline says something like “Why exercise is good for you” or “How to increase your feed subscribers” then I probably won’t read it. It gives me nothing but the expectation that I already know most of what the article is going to share. If you want someone to keep reading, you need them to feel like they’ll actually get value out of the time they’re going to spend doing so.

Headline example: Printer Cartridges Are Expensive

Challenge someones beliefs: One of my most popular posts on PluginID bore the title ‘Smoking is Good for you’. As everyone knows, there are many reasons why smoking is detrimental to your health, so this caused quite a stir and invoked the desire for people to continue reading. I followed up the title with a good twist in the article, which is important if you’re going to write your headline with such an angle.

If you write an article – with the content to back it up – which tells me why “running is bad for you”, “people don’t read blogs anymore” or “[common tactic] no longer works”, I’m going to read the post. Humans love taking in new information, but we hate holding on to information which is incorrect, so challenging beliefs can be a very powerful to get eyeballs on your content.

Headline example: Why Buying Another Printer is Cheaper Than Buying Ink

Offer a hidden insight: This one is very common in the internet marketing space, with titles offering ‘keys’, ’secrets’ and ‘crucial aspects’ about different topics. I’ve used them myself in posts like this one and my article on ‘The Secret to Growing Your Blog Twice as Fast with Half the Effort‘.

This works so well because the title suggests that by reading the article, we’ll learn something we wouldn’t have known otherwise. A year or two ago I did this for a popular topic – how to increase feed subscribers – but in a way that was new and promised value. The title was ‘How to Increase RSS Subscribers (One Method You Probably Don’t Know About)’. Are you more likely to read that article than an article with the same title, but without the brackets?

Headline example: The Real Reason Behind the High-Cost of Printer Cartridges

Ask a question: If the question you ask is relevant and intriguing, people are going to read your post to see why you feel a certain way about something. Headlines with questions are also one of the best ways to get people to leave comments on your posts. The question automatically gives them something to say in response.

Discussions start from questions, and this is a great way to get a conversation going in your community, especially if you make bold statements on a hot topic. There’s a great example of this kind of post at Copyblogger, where the author asks: Is Commenting on Blogs a Smart Traffic Strategy? [Link]

Headline example: Do You Know Why Printer Ink is so Expensive? We Reveal the Truth

I’ve received a lot of praise for the headlines I use in posts and I’ve been asked numerous times whether headline writing comes naturally to me. The answer is no, it doesn’t. I find inspiration from magazine covers, books, and other bloggers along with my own imagination. I also spend quite a lot of time on each title and it’s never something I just “throw out there.”

Keep these ideas in mind, and you’ll soon be writing headlines which capture the attention of your audience and help your content go viral.

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Social Media From Around The Web 04-22-2010

These are items that came into my Twitter feed that I found interesting.

  • On Jay Baer’s blog, he talks about whether or not social media has gotten too big for its britches.
  • Red Monk has a nice post about the commodification of journalism.
  • Red Monk’s post neatly compliments a post on Marketing Pilgrim about how half of all bloggers consider themselves to be journalists. I know I wasn’t asked anything about that, were you?
  • Last, but not least, Social Media Examiner has their 2010 Social Media Marketing Industry Report. It’s a free download (as of this writing). I downloaded it, but haven’t read it yet, which is par for the course for me.

The purpose of this post, is really to share some things that I think you may find helpful or informative.