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A practitioner’s guide to blogging, social media, and the online revenue stream
On a Wednesday afternoon in early September, Boston College Journalism Fellow Maura Johnston invited her students in “Journalism and New Media” to open up their diaries—media diaries. The class of 15 had been asked to log their every use of online media over a single day, and to be ready to discuss the entries. The professor, voluble and cordial, sat behind her ruby-colored laptop at a table at the front of the room in Stokes Hall. She volunteered to go first.
A 1997 graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Johnston was, in 2006, a founding editor of Gawker Media’s music blog Idolator (regarding her influence, the New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones once tweeted, “If my Google Reader contains less than 50 percent @Maura, what’s the point?”). She is the former music editor of the Village Voice and current editor of Maura Magazine, an 11-month-old online culture review that features writing by herself and others from, she says, “a decidedly enthusiastic perspective.” (Recent articles include musings on the allure of the Amish on reality television; a retrospective appraisal of Nirvana’s 1993 In Utero album; and Johnston’s own look at the “maddening, endless appeal of Candy Crush Saga,” the popular puzzle game played on mobile devices.) Essays, reviews, and blogs by Johnston can be found online at Slate, Spin, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair Daily, the New York Times, and NPR. She has also taught music journalism at New York University.
Boston College’s Institute for the Liberal Arts (ILA) has brought Johnston in as its first Journalism Fellow. The one-year appointment also involves teaching and working with student journalists outside of class, as well as meetings with faculty members who are interested in writing journalistically. Johnston’s course is part of the journalism concentration offered since 2012 in the American studies minor directed by Carlo Rotella. An English professor, Rotella has written for high-profile outlets such as the New York Times and Washington Post magazines. He says one gap in the new journalism initiative at Boston College has been new media, and that is what led to the appointment of Johnston, whom he describes as a “founding figure and leading voice in online journalism.” Johnston’s fall course was added to the University’s offerings in late summer, after students had already registered for classes, but it filled quickly. Connor Mellas ’15, an English and communication student, says he heard about the class when “one of my friends tweeted about it.”
Poring through her diary in front of the students, Johnston mentioned several items that caught her attention. These included a new Miley Cyrus video (“boring, but I liked the song”) and a Washington Post article about low-income people whose homes are foreclosed because of small local tax liens, after the debts are auctioned to private investors. Johnston noted that nearly all of the articles came to her from reading favorite Twitter feeds and clicking on links. “I’ve been trying to wean myself off Twitter. It can be a time suck,” the instructor said.
The students sat at adjoining rectangular tables in the small seminar room, surrounded by whiteboards and a single chalkboard, located behind Johnston. The first to volunteer was a thickset young man with a crewcut and a closely shaved beard; his diary recorded that in addition to browsing MondayMorningQuarterback.com and scattered coverage of a presidential press conference on Syria, he’d spent time at FilmDrunk.com. Few in the room had heard of the site (self-described as “comedy for film lovers”), judging by the flurry of Google searches on laptops. Johnston interjected to ask why he goes to that source. He said, “It combines high writing skills with low humor. I like that.” Other students reported a somewhat balanced diet of entertainment, sports, and public affairs news, driven their way by Twitter mostly. A casual observer could easily miss the fact that practically all of the reading was done on their phones.
Getting students to think about the online air they breath is a large thrust of the course. According to Johnston, the class emphasizes both theory and practice—reflection and writing. Among other work, students are required to set up a weekly blog on the class website (“run wild” were Johnston’s final words when she gave that assignment). An end-of-semester project involves crafting a 2,000-word online feature story with multimedia supplements such as photo galleries, audio clips, and video shorts. The aim, says Johnston, is to help students forge their own “critical framework” for understanding the strengths and weaknesses of online media.
As to the state of the online world, Johnston can be more critical in an interview than she lets on in class. “I want them”—the students—”to figure it out on their own,” she says with an expansive wave of both hands. In the classroom, she asks fairly open-ended questions, and her declarative sentences end with an upward lilt, as though she were floating a question. Still, her views about online media’s present limitations come clear in her teaching. When summarizing her media diary, Johnston pointed out that it was “a reflection of the company I keep on the Web.” Later on, she elaborated for the students. Social media—Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and so on—create, she said, a “self-reinforcing sphere that makes your worldview seem like it’s the entire world.”
On September 25, Johnston opened class with breaking news: Popular Science magazine had announced it was shutting down the comments section that followed its web postings. The 141-year-old publication faulted a “fractious minority” of “shrill, boorish” commenters for skewing the online conversation.
“What do you guys think of this decision?” she asked.
A male student with a mop of dishwater blonde hair replied, “I don’t think my user experience has ever been enhanced by a comments section. It’s mostly toxic.” Another student sporting a long-flowing scarf disagreed: “It often gives me a different take on the article,” she said. That prompted two others to commend Deadspin, a Gawker-owned sports website that asks its readers, “Got gossip?” Then, two students with experience handling this issue spoke up. Emily Akin ’15, online manager of the Gavel, which bills itself as “the progressive student voice of Boston College,” related that the monthly magazine is planning to reroute its comments section to a Facebook page, to at least make it hard for readers to post anonymously. “We’ve had issues with that,” she allowed. Mellas, an assistant copy editor at the Heights, shared his experience two summers ago as a National Review intern with responsibilities for approving or rejecting reader comments. “That stuff is horrible,” he said of the inflammatory remarks and even racial slurs that he relegated to the trash bin.
With those thoughts fresh, Johnston moved the subject to blogging. After delivering a historical thumbnail of that “art form,” as she termed it (a milestone was 2004, when Merriam-Webster Dictionary declared “blog” the word of the year), she called for discussion and seemed genuinely taken aback by what she heard. The students associated blogging mainly with amateurish online ramblings. “It seems like something I would do,” one young woman said, in contrast to what she’d expect from an experienced professional journalist. Johnston, with years of professional blogging to her name, made an opposing case, saying that “blogging has become more responsible” and holding up such examples as the Corner at National Review and the staff blog at Talking Points Memo.
Assigned texts for “Journalism and New Media” include the Associated Press Stylebook (Johnston is partial to old-media standards, particularly diligent fact-checking and scrupulous attribution). Students are also required to read blogs and columns about online media, notably This Week in Review at Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab website. An unavoidable topic in the class has been the sobering revenue model of much online journalism, which often involves tying a writer’s pay and performance review to how many clicks or views each article receives from readers. This forces journalists to market their own pieces through social media and other outlets, including those operated by people and organizations they may cover. “Writers just have to do that,” Johnston told the class. But, she also said, “It’s an ethical dilemma,” alluding specifically to the need for boundaries between people who make the news and those who report it. Maura Magazine, with its revenue tied entirely to subscriptions, is one attempt to “create a sustainable model not based on page views,” Johnston noted in an interview.
Next semester, Johnston will teach a course called “Writing about Popular Music.” She will continue to participate in the ILA’s Seminar on Academia and Public Life, which brings together faculty of various disciplines who are trying to practice journalism in general-interest publications. And, it is hoped, she will continue to fill the three-to-five-p.m. slot on Tuesdays at Boston College’s WZBC, where, according to the program notes, her radio show, “Maura Dot Com Slash WZBC, ” offers “music that’s excited her and guests whose opinions . . . have tickled her brain.”
Read more by William Bole