Interview with Mark Leccese
For podcast release Monday, September 21, 2015
KENNEALLY: Where it comes to media, as digital diva Clay Shirky once noted, consumers are now producers, and that is the story. The once-great wall separating reporters from readers has crumbled like sand.
Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book. With great power comes great responsibility. Does it really matter today whether Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben said that or if Voltaire did? Probably not. High culture and low culture have pretty much found the same level on the infinitely flat web. In the just-released Elements of Blogging, coauthor Mark Leccese celebrates this democratization, though he cautions that the best blogs take hard work and require the authors to act responsibly. Mark Leccese joins me now. Welcome to Beyond the Book, Mark.
LECCESE: Thanks for having me, Chris.
KENNEALLY: We’re looking forward to chatting with you about the new book, because it’s a great time to remind people about the real value of blogging. Mark Leccese is an associate professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston. A veteran newspaper reporter, newspaper editor, and magazine writer, Mark Leccese covered politics and government in Massachusetts for more than 25 years and won several New England and Massachusetts Press Association awards. His primary areas of interest are public affairs journalism and online journalism, and his research is focused on political blogs. Mark Leccese is the author, with his Emerson colleague Jerry Lanson of the book The Elements of Blogging: Expanding the Conversation of Journalism. Lanson and Leccese also co-blog at theelemementsofblogging.com.
Mark, I guess we’re both old enough to remember when blogging was the big thing, about 10 years ago. Every month, you would see a new number for how many blogs there are. We stopped counting how many blogs there are.
LECCESE: Yes. When I was doing research for the book, I was unable to find a number later than 2011 that was reliable. There was a company that was keeping track. At the time, it was 183 million blogs. Ten years ago, yeah, blogging was a very hot topic and a hot idea, but it’s very interesting – what’s happened is that it’s come back. It’s the hot topic and the hot idea in 2015-2016.
There’s a man who was at the Columbia Journalism School named Sri Srinivasian. He’s now the digital director for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A lot of us in the news business and in new media look to him as a bit of a savant. He was here, gave a talk last spring. One of the things he said was what’s old is new. The hot things this year are blogs and e-mail newsletters.
KENNEALLY: And podcasts.
LECCESE: And podcasts. (laughter) You’re exactly right. Podcasts like this one – podcasts started as very much a niche. I cover podcasts in the book. They have just exploded. There are podcasts that have hundreds of thousands of viewers. Institutions are doing podcasts. You’re still able to create with a blog, with a podcast, media at very low cost in your home studio, which might be your kitchen with the door closed, and it can begin to pick up listeners and go more and more viral.
KENNEALLY: In that world where we’ve got so many blogs out there, what is it that’s brought them back to interest for people? Is there something that’s changed in the digital environment? How would you explain this resurgence of blogging?
LECCESE: I would say a couple of things. One is that everything that’s on the fringe moves to the center sooner or later. In, say, 1999-2000, there were less than two dozen blogs on the internet. You had to write – you had to be competent enough to write your own HTML code to make a blog. The first big change was the creation of blogging software, where it made blogging as easy as writing an e-mail. If you could write an e-mail with an attachment, you could now do a blog – Blogger.
The second thing was I said everything on the fringe moves to the center. When blogs started – take, for example, the 2004 presidential election. Blogging on the political side exploded, and you saw My Daily DD and Daily Kos. The mainstream media – that’s actually not a good term, mainstream media – the legacy media, the traditional media, the big media were just completely out of the loop.
What happened over the next 10 years is that blogs moved to big media. There’s not a big news organization, whether it’s radio or television or newspapers online – all of their online sites, they all have blogs. Blogging moved from the fringe to the center.
KENNEALLY: It became an extension of reporting. It was where everything that didn’t wind up in the print paper sort of landed online. Wasn’t that really how it worked?
LECCESE: Yes. But it also became a new way to report. I’ve been a college professor a few years now, but I was out there working in the news business, and I was in newspapers – you started to have to think not just about what was going to be ink pressed onto dead trees. That wasn’t all you thought. You had to think about, well, I need to update this blog two or three times today. Or here’s a piece of news I’ve come across. It probably doesn’t merit a full story, but our readers should know about it. I can write two or three paragraphs. That became a blog.
In the early part of this decade, liveblogging became really big. Take any event, from a baseball game – we’re in Boston, so a Red Sox game – to the Oscars, to a campaign visit to New Hampshire. There are people out there, and not just professional journalists, liveblogging the event. You can follow it that way.
KENNEALLY: The thing about blogging is there’s an opportunity to reach an audience globally in a way that people who were, if not amateurs, at least part-time journalists could never have done before. I think that’s remarkable. The point that you’ve made in the book is that blogging isn’t simply putting stakes down on a certain small territory and sitting there alone. Blogging inserts you into a community. It puts you into a neighborhood, along with all the other blogs that are out there, but the blogs that are also following, perhaps, the same particular interest that you have. Talk about the relationships that bloggers have with each other. Do they exploit those relationships in ways that provide an advantage to them? Do they sometimes forget about the other bloggers? How do they think about their companions online?
LECCESE: For several years, the Boston Globe asked me to write a media criticism blog. There are other people writing media criticism blogs around the country.
KENNEALLY: Only a few. (laughter) Just about everybody’s a media critic these days.
LECCESE: I guess I’m talking about – not to be snotty here – but people who had worked in journalism. When the Globe asked me, there had to be a couple parts of the deal. One was that I not get paid, because I didn’t want to compromise my integrity. The other was that they don’t edit my stuff, because I’m blogging about journalism for the biggest journalism organization in New England. But there were other folks around the country, and you might, in making a point in your blog, say, you know, this blogger in DC writing about media said this. Then you get an e-mail saying, oh, hey, thanks, man. What else are you working on? There’s that sort of thing.
There’s also the thing – linking to other bloggers helps create a community. Not only that, it helps build your blog traffic. If I’m writing a blog, and I say, here’s a blogger who works at this online publication, and I link to it, the phrase is link love. I’m giving him a little link love. If he’s got trackback software – if he’s got his trackbacks turned on – he’s going to see that I linked to him, or she’s going to see that I linked and going to check on my blog. There were times when other bloggers about media quoted me and linked back to my blog. There’s that part of it. There’s peers.
The other part of it is the readers. Twenty years ago, when you worked at a newspaper, you printed your story, and maybe there was a letter to the editor. Now, you write a blog post, you put it up there for the world to see, and the comment section’s open. People say, wow, that’s really interesting. Thank you. People say, I can’t believe what an idiot you are. (laughter) Discussions begin to happen in the comment sections back and forth. I think as a blogger, you can step in, and if somebody says, you know, you didn’t really consider this point, I’ll step in and say thanks. I hadn’t thought of that. A good blogger can create a community not only of other bloggers, but your readership is your community. That’s why we subtitled the book Expanding the Conversation of Journalism.
KENNEALLY: One of the hallmarks of the successful blogger is that he or she has a strong voice. You really know that this person is coming from a particular perspective. Mark, when you think about that successful blogger, you imagine an extrovert. But blogging is also a powerful way for people who may not want to jump into a conversation in the physical world – they can jump into a conversation online. So expanding this conversation really opens it up to people who wouldn’t otherwise participate in other conversations.
LECCESE: Exactly right. The first press critic of them all in the United States who wrote for a major magazine was A.J. Liebling in The New Yorker in the ’30s and ’40s. He wrote in a parenthesis in an article, I think it was in the ’40s, one of the truest things ever written about journalism. He said the power of the press belongs to those who own one. With the advent of desktop computers and an Ethernet cable that plugs you into the internet, everybody owns a printing press now. Let’s think of it as a platform.
When I was a political reporter for a chain of newspapers, say, I had a platform. I had a certain number of – we knew what the circulation was. But I had to work years and be hired by people and vetted and get promoted to this job to get that platform. Now, with a blog and an internet connection, you have a platform. What’s important to remember is – I think it’s David Weinberger – a writer on the internet twisted Andy Warhol’s famous phrase. Warhol said in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. He said on the internet, everyone is famous to 15 people. (laughter) There are plenty of friends and family blogs.
KENNEALLY: Which is fine. I guess one of the things that even someone who’s writing a friends and family blog, or someone who’s a professional, whether in business or in media, ought to think about is ways to really raise the level of the blog. You give a number of interesting suggestions in a chapter called “The Anatomy of a Blog Post.” There were two that I thought were particularly interesting. One was around links. You’ve been talking about links. You say, really be creative. I was disappointed to learn that for you, Wikipedia is the kiss of death. Don’t link to Wikipedia.
LECCESE: It’s not so much the kiss of death. It’s boring. OK? (laughter)
KENNEALLY: Almost the same thing then. Really, I was struck. That’s my takeaway. That’s another element that’s important from a blog post, which is the takeaway – something I can actually use. So my takeaway from that chapter was I’m not going to link to Wikipedia anymore. I’m going to do a little more work and find some way to get past that. You think that’s a good thing.
LECCESE: I’ll tell you why. If I’m reading an interesting blog post, and the blog post is about James Brown and his early music, and it says one of his key albums was such and such, and it’s underlined, and I click the link and go to Wikipedia, I’m disappointed. I could have gone to Google and found it myself in a minute. But if the link is to, say, a blog by a music writer who’s done a lot of research into this James Brown album and thought about it, now the blog is giving me more than just the blog. That’s my objection to linking to Wikipedia. Anyone can find any topic they want on Wikipedia in 10 seconds. Make the link more rewarding for your reader.
KENNEALLY: That really extends the value of the blog. It’s not just your own post, but you’re doing something that leads people to more exploration. This discussion should be, in that way, kind of encouraging research of your own, not just reading the research that the blogger has posted.
We spoke about the anatomy of a blog post. There’s also the anatomy of a blogger. There is one key physical requirement.
LECCESE: Thick skin. (laughter) If you’re going to go out there, and you’re going to blog about any topic – and a lot of people like to blog about – let’s say people like to do movie reviews, and you’re going to say you didn’t like this movie. Down there in the comment section, there are going to be a few people who say, you idiot, this is wonderful. You didn’t understand the movie. You’re not qualified to write about movies. If you’re going to stand on the platform and dish it out, you need to have the thick enough skin to take it. The alternative, of course, is to go to your blogging software and disable comments. But that, to me, defeats one of the main purposes of a blog, which is to create a community.
KENNEALLY: In fact, you want to see those comments. You mentioned in the previous physical world of reporting, you only very rarely even heard from readers. To hear from them regularly, even though there’s an occasional jerk out there, it’s kind of comforting to know that this stuff is getting read.
LECCESE: Absolutely. Absolutely. There have been so many commenters in blog posts I’ve wrote who have added information, maybe through research, maybe through their own knowledge, and they did it in a very helpful way. Oh, that was a very interesting post. You might be interested to know that also – and then they provided further information and often a link. I was quite grateful for that.
I’ve had commenters call me out on mistakes, on a factual mistake. What I would do then is go back, fix the blog, make a note of where the mistake was, because I think that’s the ethical thing to do, and in the comment section say to the commenter, thank you. Nice catch. I fixed the mistake. I appreciate your input. That’s creating community. That is, I think, the most rewarding thing about blogging.
KENNEALLY: We’ve been chatting with Mark Leccese, associate professor of journalism at Emerson College and the coauthor, with his Emerson colleague Jerry Lanson, of the new book The Elements of Blogging: Expanding the Conversation of Journalism, out just recently from Routledge. Mark Leccese, thanks so much for chatting with us.
LECCESE: It was a pleasure to talk to you, Chris.
KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights-broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs, as well as images, movies, and television shows. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, find us on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our website, beyondthebook.com.
Our engineer and co-producer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.