Top mistakes made by new online publishers

In reporting a story for the Web, the interview process does not end with publication. When writing a piece, always include an invitation for knowledgeable readers to add more to the story. Writers who fail to do this invite suspicion that they are more interested in promoting (and protecting) their own point of view, instead of allowing their work to compete in the marketplace of ideas. —Robert NilesTop mistakes made by new online publishers (Online Journalism Review)

This is an important concept. In the print world, once something has been published, you can more or less forget about it, because you are already deeply involved in the planning of the next publication. But publishing an electronic document is, ideally, just the start of your relationship with that document.

I still maintain web pages that I published years ago. If the site is popular, if I notice a teacher or student somewhere has found it useful in a class, or if I Google a subject and find my own work near the top slot, I will often take a bit of time to revisit what I wrote and refresh it. Typically that just involves checking the links, but sometimes my opinions have changed or my approach to the subject matter is more complex.

I recently wrote a bit about minimalism in video game design. While it only took a few minutes, I designed some bookshelves for a virtual living room, but now I’ve got to spend a lot of time designing stuff to go on the shelves. (In the picture, you can see I put a cylinder on the mantel… it might become a tankard or a candlestick, but I don’t know.)

But I would have been better off designing closed cabinets. If I need to put a concealed object in this room, I can make one of the cabinets openable, and put the thing inside. All the other cabinets could just be facades.

In a similar way, it’s important to learn to write an online document so that it has a long shelf life. I have handouts on basic skills such as how to write a thesis statement, or how to integrate quotations from academic sources. Nobody but my own students will need to read a specific assignment description, but I’ve re-used this explanation of “close reading” so many times in different classes that I should probably move it off the individual course blogs and work on a more substantial handout for my permanent site.

A few years ago when fiction blogs were still getting a lot of attention, I imagined that one summer I would pretend to quit my job, run away from my family, and blog as if I had joined the circus, and stumbled upon a centuries-old cult (or maybe got involved in an international spy ring, or found a government conspiracy, or whatever). To do that, I would need to plot out the work of fiction in some depth, so that I could seed my personal blog with details that would make the whole story seem to come together — such as creating a fake website that had clues, then creating a fake blog that asked a question and attracted a comment from a fake visitor who linked to the fake website, so that later when the plot required me to Google something, I could link to it from my blog.

I never got much farther than the “what if” stage, in part because “she’s a flight risk” was already doing this in 2003. Since then, commercial productions like “I love bees” and “Lost” have made those gimmicks fairly well-known.

It does take a bit of unlearning print media ways of thinking in order to keep a bank of old material fresh by pointing to it with new links. But blogs are great at contextualizing — linking to contrasting, supporting, and amplifying material which will help readers gain a broader understanding of the subject. Most readers will just skim the entry, a few will briefly visit the sites, but a small number will read, think about, and comment on every item you have linked to.