This blog is taking a summer break and will return the week of Aug. 29.
Ever since I started blogging, I’ve been asked questions about it – why I blog, how I choose topics to blog about, and so on. Since many of the same questions keep coming up, I thought I should share some of the answers on the blog itself. So here it is: An Exclusive Interview with the Blogger About Everything You Wanted to Know.
How long have you been blogging?
I posted the first entry on Dec. 1, 2008. So I’ve been blogging for… let me do the math here… 628 days. This post is the 396th.
Why did you decide to start blogging?
The West Central Tribune and Forum Communications were enhancing the website and looking for ways to make the most of our multiple online news platforms. We were posting video; we were posting audio; we were reporting breaking news on our website; we had an active comment section. The one thing missing was a local blog.
I was already a reader of several blogs, mostly of the news and health care variety, so I had a good idea of what blogging was about. I figured, “Well, heck, I could probably do this.” So I got the OK from the higher-ups and signed up. I keep hoping one or two of my colleagues here in the newsroom will join me in the blogging world, but so far I’m the only one who has crawled out onto this particular limb.
Why did you decide to blog about health care?
I had been covering local health care for more years than I care to admit. It was something I was familiar with, and it’s always good advice for writers to stick to what they know best. More than that, I find health care to be a fascinating and constantly evolving subject. Most people relate to it on a very personal level, and they’re often passionate and opinionated about it; I know I certainly am. I even talk about and read about health care in my spare time (when I have any spare time, that is), which I guess makes me a true nerd about it. There’s an endless amount to learn about health care. Most of the time I feel I’ve only scratched the surface, just enough to be reminded of how little I really do know.
What’s the difference between blogging and writing a news story?
Well, they both need to be credible and accurate. They both should be appropriately sourced. If you’re going to share your opinions, they should have some basis in fact. Beyond this, there’s considerably more latitude in blogging to be creative in how you choose and present your subject. You can explore the realm of ideas more fully. You can adopt an approach that’s more personal and less formal.
There are a lot of issues in health care that can’t necessarily be developed into a news story or a column on the opinion page, but they’re still interesting and worthy of discussion. Blogging is a great vehicle for showcasing these issues, especially if you include links so readers can expand their knowledge.
Blogs have tended to get a bad rap. People often see them as little more than collections of bloviation and/or snarkitude and therefore not deserving of any credibility. I think this is unfortunate. It’s true there are plenty of blogs that fit this category, but there also is a lot of smart, thoughtful blogging taking place. Bloggers have contributed significantly to the public discussion and I think it’s important to recognize this.
How do you come up with topics to blog about?
I look for inspiration from a variety of sources. Often it’s something in the news – a new study that’s been released, for instance, or an issue people are talking about. From time to time I post about health care issues and events that are local. I trawl the Internet on a daily basis, reading various news sites and other blogs to get a sense of what’s happening and what are the really hot topics.
Sometimes personal experience becomes fodder for a blog entry, although I’d caution people against reading too much into this; most of the time the personal experience is nothing more than a starting point. I also keep a list of ideas for potential blog topics. Whenever I think of one, I write it down, so that when the proverbial well runs dry, I have something to fall back on. Overall, though, coming up with a blog topic isn’t as hard as you’d think. What’s hard is having five or six good topics and being forced to choose just one or two because that’s all I have time for.
I’m not a policy or science wonk or a health care IT wonk so I generally avoid blogging about issues that are overly wonky. I try instead to concentrate on what I know about and/or can relate to the best.
I try to aim for variety. Not every post has to be lengthy, but they shouldn’t all be short either. If I seem to often focus on the patient experience, it’s because this is a subject I think many people are interested in and one that tends to trigger further thought and discussion, even when readers don’t actually post comments on the blog.
When I first started blogging, I mostly posted summaries and rehashes of what was already in the news. I guess you could say I was trying to find my voice as a blogger. In the summer of 2009 I started edging more into commentary and a less formal approach. The feedback was positive and I noticed the readership began climbing significantly. It’s a formula that seems to work so I’ve stayed with it.
Although I’ve been blogging for several months now, people are still discovering the blog, often when someone else links to or tweets a post. The number of daily page views continues to go up, which is cool to see.
My sense is that when people visit a blog, they’re often looking for some information or insight, or perspective, or an opinion they can’t necessarily find somewhere else and that invites them to think and explore their own point of view in a way that goes beyond the surface. If they can find that here, that’s great.
How do you find all the links you post?
I try to go directly to the source whenever I can – an article in a medical journal, for instance, or a news story or an entry from someone else’s blog. That’s one of the great things about blogging. You can instantly attribute all your sources by linking to them, sort of like an electronic version of footnotes. I also like being able to give more exposure to other writers and bloggers and recognize their good work.
Sometimes I have to do some research and some surfing around to find the sources I need. Google has become my very good friend. My main requirement for posting a link is that it comes from a source that is reputable and credible. I hope people take the time to follow most of the links because I include them for a reason – to augment the blog entry and give readers the opportunity to learn more.
What are your favorite posts that you’ve written?
Oh, dear. That’s a little like asking a mother which of her children is her favorite. Since you ask, though, one of the posts that was the most rewarding to write was “Harmed by medicine.” In fact it turned into a three-part series, “The second victims” and “The hardest words” being the other entries in the series.
The emotional impact of medical injury is something that has been little studied and even less understood. Most people probably don’t know this, but I’ve had personal experience with a medical injury and it was a very unhappy situation. So I felt it was a topic I not only knew about firsthand but also could articulate in a way that would be authentic and might help readers better understand the emotional dynamics surrounding medical injury. The way patients have historically been dealt with when something goes wrong, and the reactions that accompany this, are instantly recognizable to anyone who has lived it. I was surprised awhile back to discover the post is listed in an online encyclopedia of articles about the impact of medical injury. It was meaningful to me that someone noticed it and felt it should be included.
A couple of other posts that readers really seemed to respond to were “Fearing the needle” and “No respect for the thyroid.” Both of those generated a lot of blog traffic. The use of needles in medical procedures is so commonplace that many providers don’t even give it a second thought, yet for some people the prospect of encountering a needle is terrifying. I’m not sure there’s enough awareness of this, and there should be. When you really think about it, there’s a lot about the medical environment that can be deeply scary to patients, yet everyone is expected to just buck up and get over it. I don’t see that as helpful.
On a happier note, the thyroid post was fun to write. For some reason it struck me that it would be fun to make it a first-person conversation and that the thyroid should be this rather mouthy, cantankerous character with a Rodney Dangerfield complex. That’s one of the really enjoyable things about blogging. You have the freedom to come up with an idea and take the ball and run with it. I also liked writing “Real nurses.” It was one of those posts that just unfolded all by itself.
Readers tend to like it when a blogger posts a rant, so occasionally I’ll post something that’s ranty, at least by my standards. But I don’t like ranting all the time. Variety is the spice of life and all that.
Where do you get your photos?
Some of them are West Central Tribune photos taken by one of our photographers. I take some of the photos myself. Some organizations, such as the CDC, have an image library that’s available for the media. It can be very hard to find photos on the Internet that aren’t protected by copyright, so I also turn quite often to Wikimedia Commons. They have a huge international database of photos that fall under creative commons licensing or are in the public domain, hence aren’t subject to copyright issues. Plus Wikimedia Commons has so many photos, I can almost always find what I’m looking for.
Was that your herb garden in the photo essay last month?
Yes, it was.
When are you going to post a picture of your new cat? We want to see what she looks like.
I’ve tried taking pictures of her but she always wants to play with the camera, so unfortunately many of the shots are either out of focus or the entire frame is filled with a closeup of her paws batting at the camera lens. I’ll keep trying, though.
Have you ever had trolls on your blog?
The vast majority of the commenters have been polite, thoughtful and well-spoken. I welcome comments and I don’t mind if people disagree with me. In fact I expect there will be differences of opinion about what I post. That’s OK, as long as it stays civilized.
I did get thoroughly bashed last year by a couple of commenters on a post titled “Bad Santa.” One of them called me “pathetic.” Whatever. Right back atcha, pal. And for what it’s worth, I think both commenters totally missed the point of the blog. But to answer the question: No, I don’t get many trolls.
Do you think you’ll ever quit blogging?
Well, I don’t know. I’ve heard the lifespan of the average blog is three months, so I’ve already outlasted that prediction. It can be a struggle to keep up with a blog. You have to keep feeding the beast, because if you don’t post something new every few days, people will stop visiting your site. Quickie posts with a link or two tossed in don’t always cut it. Readers often want to see something a little more substantial, and I’d like to be able to encourage this. Quite frankly, many things about life these days feel like speed dating. I would rather not add to this trend if I can possibly help it.
My life would probably be more simple without this blog. Putting together a decent post takes time, thought and creative energy – all commodities that are spread perilously thin in the average newsroom. My goal is to post a new blog entry three times a week, and some weeks it’s really a stretch to do that.
At some point the blog will probably outlive its usefulness. When the time comes, I hope I’ll be able to recognize it and swiftly put the blog out of its misery rather than letting it dwindle to an undignified end. But my sense is this won’t happen for quite awhile yet. Right now I’m having too much fun to think about quitting.