How to blog without the time sink

Andrew Mason, via Flickr (CC license)
Yes, you can blog without all your time running down the drain.

Recently a colleague asked me a question that I hear from many people: “How can I blog without making it a time sink?”

It seems to me that the key to blogging efficiently is this: DO NOT treat it like writing an article or report. That is, make blogging part of your ongoing processes for research, notetaking, and communication.

A blog post is not (or at least, it shouldn’t be) a writing assignment you must prep for and deliver as a finished package. Let go of the idea that you must have everything nailed down, organized, and edited before you publish. (A tough one especially for writers and journalists, I know, but consider it a kind of experiment or Zen exercise.)

Here are some specific techniques to accomplish that mindset and habit switch…

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I’m learning Django, blame Matt Waite, grumble….

Jesie Hart, via Flickr (CC license)
Matt Waite, you owe me a drink. At least one.

So today I downloaded and installed Django, the web framework that apparently is one key to creating kick-ass data-driven sites. Adrian Holovaty just wrote a book about it (due out in September, I’ve pre-ordered it). Smart web developers and database geeks who really grasp the value of relevant journalistic information keep raving to me about it.

And then Matt Waite of the St. Petersburg Times, reporter-turned-geek who’s one of the lead developers of the data-driven presidential campaign truth squad site, had to go write this:

“PolitiFact was born when St. Petersburg Times Washington Bureau Chief Bill Adair called me in very late May with an idea he had. He wanted to take the “truth squad” idea and expand it. And he wondered if we could somehow use databases with this idea. He didn’t know how we could do that, just that we should, and that was why he was calling me. I was knee deep in learning Django, the rapid development web framework, and immediately knew we could use Django to make this happen. Based on our conversation, I quick sketched out a series of related tables — models in Django parlance — and PolitiFact was born.

“Learning Django has been a transformative experience for me. PolitiFact is the first Django app I’ve completed, and it won’t be the last. Not even close. Before this, I’d never developed a website before — I don’t count installing WordPress on a hosting account as developing a website — or done anything in Python.

“Learning Django was a challenge for someone like me with no programming experience, but the framework puts incredible abilities into your hands once you learn what you are doing. The documentation is a truly remarkable resource: It is a monument to it’s quality that 98 percent of PolitiFact comes from the documentation.”

Damn you, Matt Waite, I felt like such a coward after I read that. It haunted me. There have been too many times when I’ve hidden behind “I’m not a programmer” and found geeks for hire, rather than knuckling down and learning one truly geeky (rather than semi-geeky) tool that would allow me to apply my own data-driven creativity directly. So today I broke down and downloaded and installed Django. And it’s all your %^*%&^ fault, Matt Waite. I hope you’re proud of yourself.

Of course, I’ll be blogging my learning curve with Django — something that will take time and courage. I’m sure I’ll make a lot of stupid mistakes I’ll be forced to fess up to, and I don’t enjoy looking stupid more than anyone else. Well, if I can deal with it, so can all of you. I figure if I’m going to goad people into learning new online skills, I should be willing to take my own medicine — and then some.

So I’m officially a Django newbie.

And Matt, I’d say you owe me one helluva drink. I’ll Be in St. Pete. Sept. 16-17 for a Poynter seminar. Pencil me in. And be prepared to hear me gripe.

Teaching Online Skills: Journalism Prof Wants Ideas
MSU prof Dave Poulson wants to lead his students into the murky waters of online media.

(NOTE: I’m cross-posting this from Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits, since I thought Contentious readers might find it interesting as well.)

Today I received an intriguing query from my colleague Dave Poulson, associate director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. With his permission, I’m excerpting and answering it here.

Poulson wrote: “…I’m going to take your concept of coming up with a toolkit of basic online stuff a reporter should know and turn it into some class assignments. I’ll have them pick a beat and set up Google Reader to [subscribe to] relevant feeds. I’m not sure how I’ll evaluate the result.”

That’s a great idea, Dave! Make sure they practice subscribing to search feeds (about topics), as well as feeds from specific sources (like blogs). And here’s a short video tutorial on Google Reader I made for one of my clients. The first half of it is the bare basics, most applicable to what your students would be doing.

To evaluate this assignment, you could have student export their feed list as an OPML file and send it to you. In Google Reader, that’s under “manage subscriptions,” then “import/export” (choose the “export” option there.) You can then import that OPML file into your Google Reader (or many other feed readers) to see what they’ve subscribed to.

Poulson continues…

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It’s Not About Your Site Anymore

Amy Gahran
In your own home, you get to put the couch where YOU want it. Who cares if that’s not the living room?

Here’s another reason why learning to use a feed reader is a cornerstone skill for truly succeeding in online media today:

It’s not about your site anymore.In fact, it hasn’t been for at least a couple of years now.

In other words: The way online media works today, you’ll probably succeed more through participation and off-site distribution (syndication) than through publishing alone.

More and more people — especially, but not exclusively, younger folk (you know, the people you hope will become your community or customers someday) — prefer to craft their own custom hubs for information and interaction. That’s what’s driving the popularity of feed-supported, syndication-oriented social media experiences like Facebook, MySpace, MyYahoo, iGoogle, Digg,, YouTube, co.mments, Twitter, and podcasting. (And, on the bleeding edge, Zude, CoComment, and Pageflakes.)

It’s kind of like furnishing your home…

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Why Feed Readers and Public Comments are Cornerstone Skills

DanieVDM, via Flickr (CC license)
What makes a cornerstone skill online?

Recently I wrote about my frustration about what I perceive as low adoption rates for cornerstone skills for today’s online media — especially by people who are interested in online media.

Here’s a bit more explanation about why I think learning to use a feed reader and getting experience making public comments on blogs or forums (not just e-mail lists) are so crucial to really “getting” what’s so important and powerful about online media.

It all boils down to mindset. The catch is, changing your mind isn’t all in your head. The most effective, lasting way to adapt your online-media mindset, habits, and priorities is to actually use these skills — not just know about them in a theoretical sense…

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