Last week I enjoyed reading about one of America’s most famous investigative reporters making the transition from print staffer to independent blogger. I am writing, of course, about Rick Redfern, the fictional Washington Post reporter from Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip. [You can find the strips on the Doonesbury website.]
For those not now following the strip, Redfern, a long-time WaPo veteran in Trudeau’s world, was laid off earlier this autumn and is now launching his own blog, a scenario not uncommon among many “real world” journalists. Fishing for tips, he chooses to launch the blog with an anecdote about Barack Obama playing basketball with U.S. troops in the Middle East.
Subsequent gags play to old lines against bloggers: their content is trivial; bigwigs don’t want to return their calls; their professional status is less than traditional media writers. Still, Redfern lands Obama on the phone; he gets his first inbound link. Ultimately, Redfern declares:
“It’s tough to leverage a byline in a media environment where anyone who can type gets a byline! I’m competing for eyeballs with millions of narcissists… almost none of whom expect to actually get paid!”
The series wraps up with a final gag about Redfern’s slacker ex-CIA son… who has his own blog.
Just as in Trudeau’s alternate universe, competition’s tougher today online than it was in print a generation ago. Redfern’s spot on – it’s tough to leverage a byline these days. But it can be done. (If Redfern supposedly was in part inspired by Bob Woodward, I am awaiting Trudeau’s version of Joshua Micah Marshall.)
The beauty of fiction is what it can tell us about our real lives. Here are three things Trudeau’s Rick Redfern did wrong in launching his blog, keeping him from better immediate success online (or, from losing his gig with the WaPo in the first place):
1) Start your blog before you leave the paper
As I’ve written before, building an economically viable audience can take months, if not years. Start the clock toward building that readership before you need it.
The real-world WaPo has taken one of the newspaper industry’s most aggressive approaches to staff blogging and chatting. If Redfern had worked at the real WaPo, he undoubtedly would have had the opportunity to start a blog long before he faced a buyout. He could have developed his blogging voice, as well as an online following, with the help of one of the newspaper industry’s top dot-com staffs.
That would have made a real Rick Redfern a far more valuable asset to the Post, perhaps helping him save his job. And even if it didn’t, he’d have a far easier time getting a base of existing online fans to follow him to a personal blog than he now faces building that base from scratch.
Reporters who don’t work for an outfit as aggressive as the WaPo ought to start blogging, too. Look at Curt Cavin’s OJR piece from last week, where wrote how he took a simple Q&A concept and built it into the most popular feature on his paper’s website.
2) Don’t change your game
If competition has made leveraging a byline online difficult, changing what that byline represents makes the task impossible. Redfern, an investigative reporter, should not have fallen into the trap stereotype that says blog entries must be short and superficial. If anything, going online allows Redfern the opportunity to write for a more engaged audience that craves greater detail.
I loved this e-mail that my wife received from a fan after she published a 5,360-word interview with violinist Rachel Barton Pine on her blog: “That RBP interview was just awesome. Isn’t it ironic that so many dead tree news sources are trying to imitate ‘Teh Internets’, and slashing article length, making them McInfoBites, and thus worthless, whilst here you do such a looooong lovely interview that would NEVER get printed in full in other print sources.”
Time spent on site has become the new fashionable metric for website success. What causes people to spend more time on a website? Longer articles.
Leave the short hoops anecdotes for Deadspin. Stay on your beat, and instead launch your blog with some solid evergreen pieces that explain, in plain, simple language, the players and issues on that beat. Take questions from readers, to discover what they want to know. Then assume, because you are now writing for a niche medium, that you can go long, in depth and intelligent and not lose any readers in the process.
Yes, your longer, in-depth pieces must offer real substance and engage your audience. But you are a professional reporter, right? If you can’t do that, you don’t deserve to beat the competition online.
3) It’s the “net” – so network
You can’t wait for inbound links to promote your blog. You must solicit them. Redfern should have gotten his son to link to his new blog, and he should be working his contacts back at the Post.
Let your fellow blogging journalists – at newspapers and independent – know when you have a scoop. Ask for links, and do not hesitate to link them when they post a fresh item. Ask other bloggers to make guest appearances on your blog, as you’d have guest “talking heads” on a TV news show. They’ll soon return the favor.
The real-world Washington Post has a voracious appetite for chat guests. Surely a real Rick Redfern could swing an invite from his former colleagues, drawing attention to his new blog in the process.
Newspaper bloggers should not hesitate to link former colleagues and competitors. If newspapers are going to sack loyal, hard-working reporters with multiple rounds of layoffs each year, journalists need to shift their loyalty from their publisher to their fellow reporters. After all, they’ll need the link help from those colleagues when they face the chop.