When I started Faith and Fear in Flushing with my friend Greg Prince in the winter of 2005, I’d been at The Wall Street Journal Online for nearly 10 years. But despite all that time as a Web guy, I’d adopted some rather unhealthy attitudes. I was studiously uninterested in knowing how many readers read my columns, and only took a passing interest in their reactions to them. I thought that my job was to be a thinker and a writer. Worrying about traffic numbers? That was somebody else’s job – and a lesser calling.
This was arrogant and dumb, and a few weeks of writing Faith and Fear showed me that. On my own blog, the numbers were of immense interest to me. I pored over them every day in an effort to figure out what posts were connecting with readers and what posts weren’t. I was singing for my supper, and it made me a better columnist. If a column was well written but didn’t seem to connect, I wasn’t happy with it. I no longer dismissed Web traffic as not my job, complained about writing promos for my stuff, or gave reader comments and emails short shrift. And I realized those folks on the business side were critical to our collective success, and could teach me things.
As an added bonus, I became a much better editor. I had no editor for Faith and Fear, so I had to learn both to line-edit myself and to review my own arguments and structure. That also made me a better columnist, one who turned in cleaner copy and constructed better arguments. I still needed an editor – all of us do – but that editor was able to help me more, because my columns hit his desk a lot closer to their finished form.
Having learned these lessons accidentally, I think news organizations could use the same process as a valuable teaching tool.
Plenty of young sportswriters could use personal blogs to make themselves into cleaner, stronger writers who better understand their own business and are more open-minded about its possibilities. Yet such outside pursuits worry many news organizations. They worry about conflicts of interest and whether a writer might say things on his or her blog that wouldn’t meet the paper’s standards. And this may be a valid concern, particularly with younger writers: Most independent bloggers work without a net, and without an editor to reel you in, you may write things you can’t take back. Experience alone isn’t proof against going too far, but it helps.
Too often, papers try to solve this problem by forbidding outside blogs or restricting them so severely that they’re more trouble than they’re worth. I think that’s a mistake that frustrates young writers or drives them to blog anonymously, potentially laying the groundwork for bigger messes.
Instead of forbidding or restricting personal blogs, I’d establish policies that draw a few red lines around critical issues and leave them free to experiment outside those boundaries. I’d encourage them to blog (and maybe even require it), seek ways to help them learn from the experience, and challenge them to build their own blogs into communities with real traffic.
I think the New York Times’ blogs policy is a great blueprint: It advises staffers to avoid topics they cover professionally; warns that readers will associate even private blogs with the Times; requires that blogs be temperate in tone, irreverent and informal but not defamatory, shrill or intolerant; and asks bloggers to avoid taking stands on divisive public issues. To this, I’d add a requirement that outside blogs carry their writers’ real names – professional journalists shouldn’t shed their accountability when they leave the office.
For sportswriters, the Times’ definition of “cover professionally” could prove a bit tricky. For example, if I ran a paper in suburban Chicago, I’d be thrilled to hear my high-school-sports reporter wanted to try his hand at blogging about coin collecting, medieval architecture or making ships in bottles. I’d be OK with him writing about curling or European soccer. If he wanted to write a blog about the NFL, I’d first want to know more about what he had in mind. If he wanted to blog about the Bears, I’d tell him no. I’d want to encourage the writer, but without confusing my paper’s readers or making an established beat reporter feel threatened.
I’d also try to set up some kind of structure through which writers could seek advice and talk about what’s working and what isn’t. In seeking mentors, I’d look away from their current editors, perhaps pairing young writers with more-experienced bloggers and/or setting up groups for discussion. As long as my experimental bloggers stayed away from those red lines, I’d be forgiving of mistakes, trying to remember that the idea is to encourage learning and push writers’ capabilities.
Such a system could give restless young writers impatient with minor beats and short word counts an outlet for more ambitious writing, helping keep them in the fold. It could give them the freedom to blog while helping them do responsibly. It could generate ideas for stories, beats and new ways to cover communities. It could make writers copy cleaner and stronger. And it could produce writers with a better sense of the business of news. All of that would help both writers and their news organizations.
Jason Fry is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing (www.faithandfearinflushing.com), and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom (www.reinventingthenewsroom.com). Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jason.fry, or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jasoncfry.