I can’t shake my newsie background even if I wanted to… I’m fascinated with the constantly shifting journalism landscape these days. Part of the shift is more or less traditional: ongoing trust issues between readers and media are part of that environment. Another part speaks to the economic challenges of generating news these days. Generating news means selling ad space, writing headlines and carefully managing your journalistic slant in order to get the lion’s share of the audience. But I think, more than ever, the shift in the landscape is influenced by the different ways in which people currently consume their news.
Keeping a watchful eye on the behavior of and solutions sought by the current news media to mitigate industry chaos may be one of the better tools a freelance journalist or creative/literary writer can use to help accentuate their own value in the downsizing publishing market.
One of my favorite blogs for covering news media issues is Next Newsroom, and they recently posted “Ten (small) things you can do right now to reinvent your newsroom.” I’m going to post the list in very brief terms because I want you to go there now and read the post in depth. There’s some really good advice here that’s completely relevant to all “content providers” regardless what they write and for whom. My notes are in green.
1. Start a wiki.
You can do this by yourself or collaborate with other writers. A Million Penguins tried the wiki novel format in 2007, and it probably wasn’t the best first result on a grand scale, but you have to give them credit for trying.
You can limit your wiki to a handful of like-minded writers and keep it private until the thing (novel? textbook? nonfiction book?) is ready for prime time. Creative writers are good at working off of prompts, after all. Poets can do the same with the wiki, writing an epic in sections collaboratively.
How do you write a wiki by yourself? Depends upon what you’re using the wiki for. For instance, I think it would be a great way for fiction writers to develop their fictional worlds outside the novels and stories they’re already working on. Sort of like making a fan site but not being the fan, but the writer. In that case, you may wish to put some controls on your wiki, such as the “Everyone can view pages, only members of this space can edit pages” feature at WikiSpaces.
Of course, newspeople were the first to do this, through the newswire, a system that feeds newsrooms stories through various kinds of information technology. We have it much easier these days, as writers. We can simply sign up with BlogLines or Del.icio.us or Technorati and follow updated news without having to go out and look for it. I love my BlogLines, but I also access feeds through Yahoo! and Google Reader. It’s like building your own personal newspaper. If you haven’t done this yet, then do it today. It’s as essential to your life as a writer as the cellphone or the Internet itself.
I used to tweet in Facebook, but found it to be a redundant task there, what with the “What Are You Doing Now?” feature at the top of the page. Still, there are people who don’t go to FB but who do Twitter. Twitter is like a mini blog; you simply post a headline and/or link to let people know what you’re up to (or what you’ve published recently and where it can be found). Perfect if you don’t want the commitment of a blog but still want to send little shout-outs to the universe.
4. Create a hub.
This is akin to creating your own social network. Writers of every stripe know the value of building networks. Do you need to create a new specialty network online? Maybe. Maybe not. I generated an interactive community for MRCentral so that people who were keen on magical realism could all congregate in one place. I didn’t get too fancy with it: a Yahoo! group setup, quarterly newsletters, resources and the like. Bits and pieces, automated as much as possible. It works and I’m finding the initial effort (and companion learning curve) more than worth it.
On the other hand, technology is only part of that equation. Maybe your hub is a single webpage with links to everyone who belongs; in the meantime, you’re all meeting live on a weekly or monthly basis to share news over coffee. Think of “hub” as “network.” Add some single way you can merge everyone’s info into one place for easy access to everyone who belongs. That could be in FB, a single webpage, a private dbase, a listserv, a web group, a blog, a printed or electronic handbook for members only. You decide what works best for your hub. The point is to simplify the way you exchange info and keep everything in one place.
5. Talk to each other.
It no longer goes without saying. People rely more heavily on email than ever before. Cellphones are a little bit more personal. Live meetings are downright pleasant (most of the time), but they usually take more time, need to be scheduled, and cost at least the price of coffee if you’re meeting in public. Whatever you do, keep talking to each other. If you can meet live, all the better. But talk, whatever you do. Keep notes. Follow up. And talk some more. Also, try to find people who do what you do and create a talking points missive that can be bounced off of them from time to time. Everyone does better working together, despite what some people think. The notion that competition in the environment can lead to reporters getting “scooped” is more or less far-fetched. The news is the news, sure, but how we all engage and work with the news is what matters. Aiming for a diversity of sources, voices and points of view should begin with who you talk with on a regular basis.
This may not be a good option for people who don’t have good recording skills, but podcasts are fast becoming the new way to plug into each other for information, entertainment, and advice. If you don’t want to learn how to podcast, maybe you can find someone who already does or who wants to learn. You can podcast a regular news column, or you can podcast creative writings that fit inside a one-time series, or you can work the podcast like an audio magazine and offer new content (from you and others) on a regular basis without a scheduled end-time. For fiction writers, consider using short pieces. Podcasting is also good for “reprinting” work you’ve already published. You’re not likely to make money on reprints, anyway, and podcasting doesn’t make you extra money initially. But you could find a host of new readers and followers through your podcast who might never have followed you before, and if you have designs on books and other items that could be sold, the podcast is like an unending commercial for your work.
People collaborate on blogs a lot these days, which I’ve always thought was a good idea. It takes the “write daily” burden off the lone writer and allows for some commingling with kindred spirits. Collaborations in article writing, short stories, novels-in-stories, and the like are also great ways to beef up your publishing credits while maintaining a connection to your network. And collaborating, if done between compatible writers, can be downright fun.
8. Live blog and chat online.
One thing I’ve learned in my live online workshops is that there’s a really good spirit to the conversation that gets lost in an email listserv environment. Chatters’ enthusiasm can be infectious and addicting. I’m definitely sad when my workshops end because I’ve so enjoyed the interaction with other writers. Blogging live (a new favorite practice among politicoes) and chatting online create a direct connect between writers and readers, and that can be an excellent thing indeed (as long as folks behave, of course.)
9. Get a beat blog.
This means talking all your sources into contributing to a blog. Creative writers are doing this more and more (see MetaxuCafe). A diverse cross-section of people who hover around a certain topic, say, book reviews or culinary arts or gadgets, get together to talk about what they know about their “beat.” Let me tell you, this is one of my favorite ways to learn what’s what. Most people with an expertise in something are genuinely happy to share, and what you can learn from them knows no real bounds.
10. Embrace social media.
Don’t let the naysayers embarrass you into resistance. Facebook, MySpace, and the new generation of specialized “socnets” are really much more effective ways to learn your subject, communicate your news and ideas, and market your work. It’s a huge mistake not to explore these automated and friendly ways to share and belong. You may have to get over your fear of strangers, but trust me, there are controls for keeping out the riffraff. If you’re a writer and you don’t belong to some sort of social network, then you’re doing yourself a huge disservice.
Hat tip to Next Newsroom