Journalist-bloggers write about sex, lies and conflicts of interest

 

Courtesy Maria Reyes-McDavis/Creative Commons License.

Why blog?

For some of the leading health and science journalist bloggers speaking at a January 2011 event hosted by the New England Science Writers, blogging is a way to satisfy many journalistic ambitions: Have an impact, engage influential audiences, break news, write more enterprising stories, achieve recognition, and draw attention to their other work.

The video is posted here (thanks to Dianne Finch and National Association of Science Writers). Summary and links follow.

Best job ever

“It’s a dream gig,” said Gary Schwitzer, founder of HealthNewsReview.org, a web site supported by the Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making. “I can write what I want. No one tells me what to say or how to say it.” Schwitzer said he “took on the voice of a curmudgeon” in countering misleading claims in news coverage of studies and their health policy implications. He was the only blogging member of the journalism faculty at University of Minnesota when he resigned in May 2010 to work on the Web site and blog full time.

When Schwitzer moved his blog to the HealthNewsReview.org web site last year, the daily web traffic skyrocketed from 1,000 unique visitors to about 4,000. And whether they agree with him or want to joust verbally, he said, it’s more satisfying than the whopping audience he once had at CNN. Schwitzer lets fly his own zingers. In one year-end rant, he detailed a sample of the “PR crap” inundating his in-box.

Schwitzer gave two examples of the impact of his blog. Within 24 hours of one post and after Mary Carmichael of Newsweek chimed in, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network pulled a “well-intentioned but misguided campaign” promoting indiscriminate screening without discussion of possible harms.

For two years, Schwitzer has led the criticism of Pfizer funding of journalism training fellowships offered by the National Press Club and promoted by the Society of Professional Journalists. His concerns over the possibly conflicts of interest have been shared by others (including National Public Radio) and led to a planned meeting to discuss the issue. (The meeting was postponed due to a snowstorm, and Schwitzer told me by email and as of this posting has not been rescheduled.)

Tips for blogging from Schwitzer:

• Find a specific niche and reason for people to care about your blog.
• Post daily to build audience. Best traffic in response to posts 10 am – 4 pm.
• Find a voice.
• Tell people who you are. Post a bio.
• Link to source material.
• Market your work at the micro level through Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook.
• Post a comments policy.
• Moderate comments or use a spam-reducing program, such as Captcha (the scrambled numbers).
• Flip cam is easy video for your blog (see this recent example on opinions of the Pfizer-funded journalism fellowships).
• Use curated posts to bookmark good stuff for yourself.

Blog for passion

“I always dreamed of being a writer,” said Dan Carlat, a psychiatrist who has strong feelings about the way pharmaceutical funding influences and corrupts continuing medical education (CME). He now blogs about twice a week for The Carlat Psychiatry Blog.

His blog story began with an op-ed piece for the New York Times. In it, he proposed that doctors should not earn credit for continuing medical education funded by the drug industry. He started his blog two days later in about 10 minutes. Subsequently, he wrote “Dr. Drug Rep,” for the NY Times Magazine admitting he used to be a paid speaker on the pharmaceutical circuit. In a subsequentOther NY Times writers seek his perspective on stories.

Carlat attributes his success to occupying a narrow niche and providing enough analysis and opinion to add value. His most popular post, with 107,817 page views, lists the “Top 5 Reasons to Forget Pristiq.” “People love short bulleted information,” he said, but “part of the fun is sinking my teeth into … a long story.”

More tips from Carlat:

• Blog for passion
• Think about exactly who your audience will be.
• Punchy grabby headlines should include topical search terms.
• Content should provide analytical depth and opinion but stay focused.
• Humor never hurts …
• But don’t be too snarky.
• Try to keep posts relatively short, and bulleted or numbered.
• In the absence of an editor, read your posts out loud.
• Attempt not to make stuff up – blogging is closer to journalism than it seems.
• Ask colleagues to link from their blogs or articles to your blog.
• Use Google analytics to help you create popular posts.
• Tweet your posts automatically.
• Moderate comments.

Blog with a friend

Former Wall Street Journal reporter Rachel Zimmerman posts six or seven times a day for CommonHealth at WBUR, co-blogging with Carey Goldberg, formerly of the Boston Globe and New York Times (who was in the audience). CommonHealth started in 2006 as a “wonky” expert-written blog documenting health reform in the state for a small loyal community. Zimmerman joined as a guest editor. In August, CommonHealth became one of 12 specialized topical sites within the NPR network (including one on climate change based on Cape Cod, global health in Seattle, environment in Oregon and technology in San Francisco).

“We wanted to keep health reform, but make it more lively and more accessible and write about other parts of health care and medicine that we were interested in,” said Zimmerman, who began co-blogging with Goldberg. The team writes 6-7 posts a day. Monthly page views have dramatically increased to about 90,000.

Many of their posts involve “curation,” or collecting and annotating links from elsewhere, a quick way to supplement, extend or update original reporting on the blog. The team links to five interesting stories by others every morning and follows up with other continuing story lines of their own.

“At NPR, they talk about package, repackage and repeat,” Zimmerman said. “They talk about creating a river of news and a stream of stories. We’re going on a quest, and we’re bringing the reader with us. We post what we know, and when we know more we post it.”

For example, one of the most popular posts addressed the o.b. tampon shortage in stores, a consequence of manufacturing problems at Johnson & Johnson, as the NY Times reported shortly thereafter. The post started as a phone call from one of Goldberg’s friends who had been to 10 stores without success. “You would never imagine the passion women feel about o.b. tampons,” Zimmerman said.

“Everybody loves lists posts,” she said. “Our bosses at NPR talk about ‘numbers as narrative.’ But we also want to keep doing longer form journalism.” Zimmerman said she had unexpected success with a candid two-part “special report” drawing on personal experience about her quest for pain-free sex, which extolled the virtues of pelvic floor physical therapy as a solution to that problem. She cited two other longer enterprise stories on the blog, a report that day on a controversial talk by journalist Robert Whittaker charging that psychiatric medications cause more mental illness than they alleviate, and another about an innovative care care strategy that has halved the hospitalization rates of his elderly patients.

Zimmerman quoted this post by Robin Sloan for Snarkmarket about finding and maintaining the balance between daily news streams and memorable pieces of original reporting:

Stock is a static value: money in the bank, or trees in the forest. Flow is a rate of change: fifteen dollars an hour, or three-thousand toothpicks a day. Easy. Too easy. But I actually think stock and flow is the master metaphor for media today.

  • Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist.
  • Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.

I feel like flow is ascendant these days, for obvious reasons—but we neglect stock at our own peril.

Treat it like a beat

“Find a niche you care about it, and report the hell out of it,” said Ivan Oransky, founder of Embargo Watch and co-founder of Retraction Watch. Oransky blogs independently of his day job, executive editor at Reuters Health.

“I treat my blogs as beat reporting,” said Oransky, who credited an early ScienceOnline conference five years ago with inspiring and challenging him to begin blogging. “Why do I do it? I have strong feelings about the transparency and freedom of information and about the way journals and [scientific] societies control the flow of that information,” he said. “What keeps me going is partly that people have recognized it” and that it has changed institutional policies at least twice.

Embargo Watch features about two posts a week. On the newer and more popular Retraction Watch, Oransky and co-blogger Adam Marcus post about one a day. Oransky, who used to edit and write blogs for The Scientist and Scientific American, relishes breaking news on his own blogs. Marcus posted a retraction story on Christmas Eve, and the team felt rewarded to receive credit from Science magazine’s blog, ScienceInsider, which advanced the story further. One of his proudest moments came in a compliment from Ben Goldacre, a tough critic who writes the Bad Science column for The Guardian newspaper and runs the Bad Science website.

Other tips from Oransky:

•Collaborate with another blogger. It’s a good model if someone is as passionate as you on something.
• Create a page of what people are saying about you (example, example)
• Embrace the network and its tools. Use Twitter and trackbacks for blogging. Set up a Goggle alert in your name and with the actual URL of your blog.
• Curate as well as create. Some posts are, “Hey, look at what other people are doing.”
• Know SEO. Learn smart and ethical ways about how to help people find you when you have posts that interest them.
• Pay attention to tips, and thank people in posts.
• Develop a thick skin. Sometimes people saying good things, but need to twist the knife a bit. That’s OK.
• Don’t steal images. Try a Creative Commons search for commercial use on Flickr.

-ccm-

Corrections:
3/14/11 – Timeline adjustment in Carlat summary. Also of note: His book “Unhinged” came out in May of 2010, preceded by another NY Time Magazine story called “Mind Over Meds.” Thanks to Amy Harding for fact check.

 

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