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I teach journalism students how to blog.
Ok, there’s a chunk of you out there right now with your finger poised over the back button.
What if I put it this way: I teach journalism students how to build an audience.
I use blogging to demonstrate being responsible for your audience; how to find, enthrall, and grow your audience. Finger still poised?
In the four years I’ve been using blogging as a teaching tool, I haven’t found a more effective way to show would-be journalists that the point of writing a story (or making a video) is that someone who cares about the subject will read it.
And through running a blog myself, I’ve found a really useful way to test the theories I teach.
Two weeks ago, the blog I set up specifically as a test-bed for teaching my students how to build an online audience reached one million page views. By the time you read this, it’ll have added around 25k views to that figure.
The site was at the top of Google and Bing for its primary search term (wreck of the week) within weeks of launch – beating The Telegraph, Guardian and all UK property websites, and it has never dropped from top position.
The site is a blog about property: www.wreckoftheweek.co.uk - the name picked to piggyback on a phrase already in use that my intended audience would be searching on.
It uses the most basic software and design options my students could choose, and there’s nothing about it that I don’t cover in half-a-dozen teaching sessions.
While most newsrooms (and some journalists) now have a direct relationship with the audience for their media product through responding to tweets and comments; measuring likes and interrogating stats, journalists by-and-large write for their peers not their public.
Reporters aren’t poring over Google analytics pages and thinking: “Blimey O’Reilly, that story about the park closure gave us a 20 per cent new visitor boost; I’d better do a follow-up. And I need to think about how I’ll bring those new visitors back for the follow-up.”
But that’s what effective bloggers do.
So I start by teaching my students how to pick the right subject for their own blog. I teach them about aligning passion with expertise, usefulness, or humour.
I teach them about the importance of what comes first on a blog; both in signaling intent to your human audience (this is what this blog’s about and what you’ll get from me) and in signaling intent to non-human search bots (these are the words that describe this content and here’s their relative level of importance).
I teach them about picking the right name (as with wreck of the week) and explain about site names vs URLs; placing of keywords; SEO tricks; design as signal; design for readability and always, always I keep bringing them back to thinking about how their audience will use their blog and what they’ll want to get from it.
Once they’re underway, I try to help them to focus on building that audience: who are they are and where are they; what will attract their attention; what will make them click and follow a link from Twitter, Facebook, a forum, etc?
I try to get them to dig into different types of user stats in order to analyze what content works for their audience and how – or if – they should respond to that.
Again, using Wreck as the test bed, I spend time working with analytics: what search terms bring in visitors; what makes some posts more popular; how many pages do and should visitors look at?
I get emails everyday from Wreck’s readers and that becomes a lesson too – what will be the best way for my students to engage with and respond to reader queries?
Finally, I start linking audience to income and encourage my students to think entrepreneurially – this is their work, it should have a value that reflects its quality or usefulness to their audience.
From there, it’s a hop and a skip to branding, marketing and how the concepts they’re practising on their blog could earn them six-figure salaries, but should at least earn them the price of the odd night out.
This isn’t about teaching journalism students how to blog, it’s about getting them to think about their work in relationship to the audience for that work. It’s about them understanding audience isn’t just something for editors and proprietors to worry about.
Most of all, it isn’t about how to get from one view to one million views but about considering who would want to see the story you’ve written and how you will get them to see it.
Sue Greenwood is a senior lecturer at Staffordshire University, specialising in web-based and entrepreneurial journalism. She is also undertaking a PhD researching Facebook’s dominance of the social web. She occasionally blogs about tech start-ups and journalism at http://whatworkedwhatdidnt.com