Why blog?

It’s a question I ask myself often — usually around 5:50 p.m., when I can see I’m blowing deadline. Again.

At least for this Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter, blogging means doing everything that needed doing to “feed the beast” of daily print deadlines when P-I colleague Lisa Stiffler and I launched “Dateline Earth” in late 2005. Only now, we have our own little mini-beast, kept in a usually-quiet corner of the P-I‘s website.

On deadline at 5:50 p.m., I often have second thoughts about that half-hour I spent blogging earlier in the day. And complicated posts have taken me up to four hours.

Dateline Earth Website Graphic
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Yet blogging keeps my readers and me up to date on a lot of topics, and particularly climate change. “Dateline Earth” is a general environmental news blog, but there are weeks when a casual reader might think it’s all about global warming. That’s of course the story of the century, but it’s also a topic where things pop constantly, at a pace a single reporter couldn’t hope to match.

Blogging provides a chance to cover lots of material I wouldn’t otherwise, albeit usually in less depth than I’d deliver for the dead-tree product. Examples: The water-borne amoeba that eats your brain (Attack of the killer amoeba); how people once viewed as “kooks” for questioning fluoride in drinking water might have a point (NAS fluoride report makes me wonder: Does this mean we still have to floss?); and a roundup entitled “The Animal Kingdom Fights Back.”

But climate change is the flour in our cabinet of staples. Many of these developments may be worth a print story but, did I mention I already had a lot to do?

Often material from the beat that doesn’t rise to the level of a story is still worth blogging, so it’s a valuable outlet.

For example, when a source tipped me that NASA climate scientist James Hansen had received a stratospheric sum from George Soros’ Open Society Institute, I figured I was onto a revealing newspaper story.

But it turned out the “story” – actually musings from an Investors Business Daily editorialist – was just flat-out wrong. Yet it had been gurgling ’round the blogosphere. In that case I went on to write probably my longest post ever, exclaiming, “No wonder bloggers are getting such a bad reputation for accuracy.”

I write differently for the blog than I do for the P-I‘s carbonaceous version – less formal, and more fun. But “Dateline Earth” must maintain the same standards of accuracy and fairness. And the blog gives us a chance to be an even better friend to the reader with quick analysis based on previous reporting.

Examples? Here are excerpts from two posts in April 2006:

Regarding a report saying we stand ‘only’ a 5 percent chance of seeing an 11-degree-Farenheit temperature rise in the next century: “Eleven degrees??!! . . . We’re toast, man! Bear in mind that the last ice age ended when the global average temps warmed by an amount in that same ballpark.”

“I have to laugh a little bit when I see that the Financial Times has finally discovered global warming. The reason the pink-sheeted respectable read came to this conclusion? Roads needed by the mining and energy industries are melting in Canada’s far northern reaches.”

That doesn’t mean we’re pundits or advocates. We are expected to cover these topics for the newspaper, too – fairly and accurately. But blog readers appreciate depth and insight they might not get in the newspaper. So that depth thing works both ways.

Other times, though, I might dash off something in just a few sentences, like this one for a post-Thanksgiving Friday.

Headline: Buy Nothing Day:

Entire text:

” … do you know where your credit cards are? More here (http://adbusters.org/metas/eco/bnd/). Environment Washington (formerly the PIRG people), in a weird show of support, asks you to buy something from them instead (http://www.cafepress.com/envirowa). Hmmmm …. “.

Caption on picture, which shows grinning shoppers barely able to tote their boxes: “These folks in Federal Way apparently didn’t get the memo.”

Yes, in the blog we can have more fun than we’re allowed to in the newspaper. A classic chuckle was Lisa’s Photoshopped polar bear with water wings.

Blogging is big at the paper. More than 20 staffers blog, and management is so far happy with the numbers they’re seeing, even though not all blogs are scoring big with readers yet. Some, like “Family Man,” are more geared toward beat development than attracting eyeballs to the website. Selected readers also blog on the P-I site. Staff-written blogs are edited; readers’ blogs are not.

How does something get into “Dateline Earth”? It interests Lisa or me. We’re not writing about anything that bores us. There’s too much exciting going on.

We call the blog “Dateline Earth” in part because we feel we can cover news around the globe and not have to focus so much on the Pacific North West. People do seem to find their way to the blog from points far removed – so long as the topic interests them.

Lots of other environmental news blogs are popping up from mainstream environmental reporters. Check out the Louisville Courier-Journal‘s Jim Bruggers’ Watchdog Earth, freelancer Peter Fairley’s Carbonnation.com, and Andy Revkin’s New York Times DotEarth. (These are some of the journalists’ blogs I check most often.)

In addition, the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) maintains a steadily growing list of its own member reporters’ blogs.

Along with writing a blog and checking other journalists’ blogs, of course, I also regularly check blog offerings at sites such as Grist.org, Treehugger.com and TheDailyGreen.com.

One great aspect of blogs and online journalism in general: Readers are eager – and enabled – to discuss. So readers and we as reporters get a forum for vigorous debate and expression about what we write. That’s something that couldn’t happen with such speed and facility in the Letters to the Editor Column.


Robert McClure covers environment at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

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