Career optimization: Being a journalist in the Internet age

In a recent message sent to a Mills College journalism mailing list, Laura Cucullu, a senior editor at CNET, told readers that an independent blogger in CNET's network earns about $90,000 annually — an impressive sum in an industry that has been hemorrhaging jobs for years. She shared technical advice on how to make independent blogging a profitable enterprise.

"Anyone working in online publishing," she wrote, "needs to think more about traffic than the number of words written. ... Charge per pageview; learn how to optimize your search results for Google, etc.; promote your own content to drive those pageviews higher."

The small subset of bloggers who are able to earn a living from their writing know the importance of search engine optimization, but those strategies aren't thoroughly embraced by the journalism establishment. At some journalism schools, that's starting to change.

Paul Grabowicz, director of the New Media Program at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, says he teaches basic search engine optimization, especially since the school launched Web sites like Mission Local last year and required students to report online. As part of the curriculum, writers learn how to create hyperlinks, tags, URLs, and summaries that will help readers find the pages, and how to use social media to promote Web sites.

Grabowicz says that many search engine optimization strategies, such as writing clear headlines and getting to the main point in a story's first paragraph, mirror the writing style employed by wire services like the Associated Press. But he emphasizes to students that strong, high-quality reporting and writing are the most important ingredients of a successful blog.

"Do we emphasize that [optimization] in class? Yes, absolutely," he said. "People have to find your stuff, absolutely. But one of the main things is providing good content. If you don't do that, I don't care how many search engine optimization sessions you go to, you're not going to make any money."

Last year, the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism required graduate students to blog from day one, says lecturer Dana Chinn, whose Twitter bio states that she's "convinced Web analytics will save journalism." USC hasn't officially incorporated Web analytics into its curriculum yet, but Chinn says it hopes to.

Dan Gillmor, a former tech columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, directs the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University and teaches students about search engine optimization and marketing.

"Any student who is going into digital media needs to understand these techniques and the issues that surround them," Gillmor said. "If they don't, they're quite possibly going to be missing something."

 
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