6 tips on blog watching for local journalists

In past posts, I’ve written a lot about how journalists make use of blogs as a source of contacts, context and content. But how, I keep getting asked, can journalists – or anyone for that matter – go about finding and keeping track of blogs of interest to them. As I work primarily with local journalists, this post will focus upon local/regional content but those not necessarily interested in local content may still find some of the hints handy.

1. Look for blog aggregators and directories that already list blogs in your area.

It’s commonsense that you shouldn’t bother replicated the efforts of others but I’m often surprised that many people haven’t bothered to look at the various blog directories to see if there’s already a list of local/regional blogs. In London there’s London Bloggers, which organises the blogs of Londonders around a tube map. Other cities around the world turn up on Metroblogging. For the UK, there’s BritBlog, which breaks it’s directory down to regions. If you’re looking for blogs outside of the UK and, in particular, developing regions a good starting point is Global Voices. (There are also lots of topical blog portals out there.)

2. Take note of blogrolls and links on the local sites you find.

Many bloggers, particularly local bloggers, link out to their neighbours. Take for example Manchizzle, a Manchester (UK) based blog whose author actively seeks out and links to other blogs based in and around Manchester. Clicking your way through her blog roll, links list or whatever you want to call it will help you find much more local content than the directories and aggregators tend to list and, in turn, each blog you visit might list others you haven’t yet come across.

3. Tags on flickr can help you find photos of local places and events… and the people who published them.

The photo-sharing site flickr is probably the best known example of the use of tags: short, usually one word, descriptions of content. . Users of flickr upload a photo and tag it with meaningful descriptive words. For example, a photo of the London Eye could carry the tags “london, london eye, southbank, england, ferris wheel, thames, tourist attraction” etc etc. So here’s what you do – go into flickr, search for the tag of a local place or area, and then have a look at what you find. This might be a good source of photos, with permission of course, but you can also click on the profiles of the flickr users taking photos of your area and you’ll often find that their profile has a link to their blog. Just to prove this works, I searched flickr for photos tagged with “Des Moines“. The very first photo at the top of the list of over 13,000 photos was posted by this guy whose profile links to his blog. It turns out he was passing through Des Moines on his way from Los Angeles to the Special Olympics in Iowa City but you get the idea. Flickr isn’t the only site that uses tags.

4. Set up an account on technorati and start tracking keyword searches.

Technorati is a free blog tracking service used by bloggers to help them keep track of other blogs that reference them. This isn’t just about vanity (eg. “egosurfing”), but helps bloggers to stay part of the conversation that takes place across a number of blogs – bloggers tend to excerpt, link to, and discuss what other bloggers have said elsewhere. I did a search on Technorati for blog posts tagged (see 3 above) with “Des Moines“. If you click through to the page I’ve linked to, you’ll see that towards the top right there is a an orange subscribe button. This button allows you to subscribe to an RSS feed that will update each time someone tags a post with the tag “Des Moines”. I’ll return to RSS, which is an extremely powerful tool, in a moment. Not everyone who posts a blog entry about Des Moines is going to tag it with Des Moines, so Technorati also allows you to search the text of blogs for a specific term (here’s the results for Des Moines) and has a directory (see 1 above) that bloggers can, if they want, add their blog to (again, here’s results for Des Moines from the directory). Technorati ranks blogs by the number of sites linking to them, giving each inbound link a weighting dependent upon the same measure, links to that blog itself. So a blog with 20 links has more authority than one with 10 links UNLESS the blog with 10 links is linked to by blogs with lots of links themselves. Got it? When you search technorati, you can set it to return results in a list ranked by authority. This helps weed out the rubbish from the good stuff if you’re ok with the idea that quality can be measured by the number of links to content. Returning to the RSS thing…

5. RSS is a bit geeky but once you start using it, you’ll quickly realise how powerful it can be.

I used to have about 15 blogs and websites that I tried to take a look at each day. Sometimes I’d forget the name or URL of one of them and would, for a while at least, lose track of it. Bookmarking/favouriting helped but I don’t always use the same computer (I’ll return to this later) so sometimes wouldn’t have access to the links I needed. Now, using a web based RSS reader, I can keep up to date with around 65 blogs and websites. Each of them is listed down the left side of my screen and the number of new posts or articles since I last looked at each site is also listed. All I do is click on the site with new content I want to view and it opens up in the main window of my browser. The left side then updates to indicate I’ve seen the content. This all means that I can save time by knowing which content I’ve looked at and which I’ve not looked at, and to determine this at a glance (it also means that people using statcounters can necessarily see each time I read their content – yes, each visit you make to a website leaves an extraordinary trail of information behind). Not only does RSS let me keep up to date on the blogs and news sites I follow, but it also allows me to subscribe to the feed of the technorati searches I’ve made (see 4 above). The result is that everytime a blog mentions “Des Moines”, or whatever other search term I want to use, it shows up in my RSS reader. I can do the same with my blog’s URL, or the URL of any other website, and technorati will track the blogs that link to it and, again, this shows up in my RSS reader. Try adding your local newspaper website’s URL and, everytime a local blogger links to a story there, you’ll get an update and can see what they had to say. I’ve posted previously, and at greater depth, about RSS if you want to find out more.

6. Bookmark and share the content you find.

As I mentioned in 5 above, adding a web page to your browser’s favourites can make it easier to return to but bookmark lists can quickly become unweildy and if you use more than one computer or browser you’ll soon find that you’ve got bookmarks all over the place and never the ones you need at that moment. Web based bookmarking solves this problem and gives you even more useful functionality. I use del.icio.us, a free “social bookmarking” service but there are others like furl that you might want to try before you decide. When I bookmark a page on del.icio.us, I can add a headline, notes, and tags. This information helps me find and organise the bookmarks I add. And the social bit of social bookmarking means that, when I bookmark a page, I can see how many other people bookmarked the same page, what tags they gave it, and what other bookmarks they’ve made with similiar tags. Think of it as the bookmark equivalent of Amazon’s “other people who bought this also bought this…” recommendation tool. Another cool feature of del.icio.us is that I can allow people to visit to my bookmarks page and can set it up to automatically publish the bookmarks I make as a blog post each day. That way, if I’ve found good content, subscribed to the RSS and bookmarked the page but didn’t get time to actually blog about it, my readers can still see that I’ve highlighted the content as potentially being of interest to them. And if any of my readers follow the link they’ll show up in the inbound visits statistics of that site, alerting the owner (who may also have noticed the link via technorati!) that I’d linked to them and to the fact that I’m interseted in, and blog about, similar ideas and issues.

So, to wrap that all up: use directories and links from blogs, as well as blog search tools, to find local content. Have a look around sites like flickr too. Get an account on technorati, set up a web based RSS reader, and add all the local blogs and other content you’ve found, along with any technorati searches you’ve set up. Watch your feeds and when you spot something of interest to you or your audience, bookmark and share it.

With the above tricks of the trade, and a few free web based tools, you should find it much easier to find, follow, share and engage with local bloggers as a source of contacts, content and context for your output – whether it’s a blog, a local newspaper, a news broadcast, a campaign, or just about any other use you might have for it.

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