Why and how journalists around the world are using blogs to cover agriculture

“The bloggers are coming!”

By Jim Evans

IFAJ members and other agricultural journalists heard that message from Chuck Zimmerman during early 2005.  He and his wife, Cindy, were getting ZimmComm Communications under way in the U. S. and urging fellow agricultural journalists and communicators to look at the potentials of this new tool, the Weblog (or blog).

Political aspirants, citizens and others had been using this type of web site since the early 1990s to comment, describe events and share information in text and other forms such as graphics, audio or video. With free Weblog tools available by 2000, blogs were catching on rapidly by 2004. Mainstream media were noticing and using this new form of journalism.

During late 2005 agricultural communications researchers Emily Rhoades and Kelsey Hall conducted what may be the first analysis of agricultural blogs. They analyzed 52 agriculture blogs originating in North America and concluded that agricultural communicators cannot ignore blogging. You can read an abstract of their study and findings at: www.aceweb.org/JAC/index.html > Issues > 2007

By early 2009, time spent on social networks and blogs had become the fourth most popular online activity, ahead of personal email.  The Nielsen Company reported that, globally, one in every 11 minutes online is accounted for by social network and blogging sites.  The share of time accounted for by such sites increased 38% between December 2007 and December 2008.  In Brazil, for example, 23% of minutes spent online in December 2008 involved social network and blogging sites.  You can review a summary of findings at: www.nielsen-online.com/pr_090309.pdf

The IFAJ home page now features a repository of agricultural blogs from IFAJ members everywhere.  You can view it at www.www.ifaj.org > “Join the global agricultural blogosphere”

Also, professional study programs in agricultural journalism and communications are emphasizing use of blogs. For example, agricultural communications students at the University of Guelph, Canada, learn blogging, hands-on.  Coordinator Owen Roberts uses his blog (www.urbancowboy.ca) through the school year, “getting my students to blog about current events as citizen journalists, highlighting them in my blogroll and posting course curriculum on the blog, too.”

How are rural journalists using blogs these days?

Here you will find 11 uses of blogs by print and broadcast journalists who work for, or with, media organizations in covering agriculture.  We are mindful that the examples used here are limited in number and primarily English based.

  •       Encourage audience feedback and involvement
  1. Michael Thomson, Online Editor of Fairfax Media Agricultural Newspapers, based in Australia, puts it this way:

“I see the main purpose of my blog and those of my fellow writers on the FarmOnline site as being a means of engaging the audience in debate about issues affecting our readers.  They provide an avenue for formal opinion pieces to be published online, but rather than having to wait until the next edition’s letter pages as is the case in print, readers can debate positions directly and immediately with the author.  The nature of our blogs is that they are often written in a less formal tone than those appearing in newsprint, thus breaking down some of the barriers between writer and reader and facilitating an easier conversation.  I don’t consider our blogs to be agenda setting or groundbreaking, but rather a means of debating the positions of those whom we report.”

Thomson adds that along with their conventional, opinion-based blogs, they also allow readers to post comments on all of their news stories.  “Good, hard, breaking news will generate far more reader comments from our readers than any of our blogs.  Readers seem to like the immediacy of being able to debate the news as it breaks.”

View a sample FarmOnline blog of this type in The Land at
theland.farmonline.com.au/blogs/out-here/irrigators-are-people-too/1548600.aspx

  1. The Radio La Luna web site in Ecuador is enhancing citizen participation.  According to a recent report by Paula Carrión, the site now hosts more than 80 blogs covering a broad range of events and topics, including agriculture, development and communications.  It is reported to be one of the most visited web sites in Ecuador.

View the site at www.radiolaluna.com

  •        “Over-the-shoulder” diary

In his blog, “Mouth of the Wash,” Matthew Taylor of Farmers Weekly Interactive, United Kingdom, shares some of his activities and impressions of the day.  Even photos of dogs wearing wigs may show up.

View “Mouth of the Wash” at www.fwi.co.uk/blogs/lincolnshire-farming-blog/

  •       Cultivate audiences

In a recent issue of Masthead, Jim Boren of the “Opinion Talk” blog (Fresno Bee, Fresno, California USA) described his use of blogs to cultivate varied audiences.

“If we write about agriculture, we send links to all the farm groups,” he said.  Other ready-made email lists include “immigration groups, pro and con – another hot topic for the region.”

View the article at:
www.thefreelibrary.com/Cultivate+your+blog+and+its+audience:+cross-promote,+get+the+word…-a0194549320

  •        Cover events
  1. Chuck and Cindy Zimmerman of ZimmComm Communications provided the first blogged coverage of the 2005 IFAJ Congress in Switzerland. They continue to pioneer in the use of blogs to cover agricultural meetings and events in the U. S, and beyond.  Through what is now identified as ZimmComm New Media, they provide event coverage for a wide range of agricultural organizations and firms.

For information about their approach and current activities, see:
zimmcom.biz

  1. Blair Fannin and Edith Chenault, Texas A&M University, were also among the U. S. pioneers in blogging agricultural news. In August 2004 they tried web logging a three-day beef cattle short course and found encouraging response from news media.  They found that blogging provided these advantages:
  • It allows for instant posting of news and information.  No news cycle.
  • It permits incorporating digital photos and audio interviews.
  • It permits instant reader feedback and posted comments.
  • It can draw more traffic to other web sites.

You can read more about their coverage procedures and results at agnews.tamu.edu/saas/2005/fannin2.pdf

  •        Follow varied rural issues and affairs (and coverage of them)
  1. Freelance journalist and columnist Philippa Stevenson “kicks up dust” in rural New Zealand “The Bull Pen” blog.  In it she reports and comments on news, events and issues in the rural sector of that country.  For more than two years previously, she used a “Dig ‘n Stir” daily blog on the Rural Network to examine agricultural issues.

View “The Bull Pen” at thebullpen.co.nz

  1. In “The Rural Blog,” Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, provides “a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America.”  Reports on the blog provide a continuing snapshot of agriculture-related reporting about dozens of issues.  Among them:  renewable energy, health care, farm legislation, economic development, tourism, community journalism, animal welfare, broadband, open government, conservation and others.  These reports help spark coverage ideas for rural journalists. A veteran journalist, Cross is a journalism faculty member at the University of Kentucky.

View the “Rural Blog” at irjci.blogspot.com

  •       Supplement coverage of subject matter beats

Journalists working with some online agricultural periodicals are using blogs to supplement coverage of their subject matter beats.  For example, at the Farmers Weekly Interactive, United Kingdom: 

  • Philip Clarke posts “Phil Clarke’s Business Blog.”
  • Jonathan Long posts “Taking stock,” which provides news and views from livestock shows and sales
  • Ian Ashbridge posts” Property Editor’s Notebook,” which sheds light on the farmland market

View these blogs at: www.fwi.co.uk/opinions-blogs-home/

  •        Offer views and opinions

Stephanie Maunsell, editor of New Zealand Lifestyle Farmer, offers views and opinions from her unique perspective as an editor, working mother and dairy farmer.

View one of her postings at: straightfurrow.farmonline.co.nz/blogs/life-style/heads-down-bums-up/1537124.aspx

  •        Entertain

Tim Relf, rural life editor of Farmers Weekly Interactive, United Kingdom, uses his blog, “Field day,” to provide a “quirky news roundup from the countryside.”  Readers may find topics ranging (recently) from butterflies and beach buying to turkey carving and nettle-eating contests.

View “Field day” at www.fwi.co.uk/blogs/rural-life/

  • Support freedom of expression

Elke Schäfter, director of Reporters without Borders, is among those who have encouraged agricultural journalists to use blogging as a way to support freedom of the press in countries throughout the world.  Speaking to IFAJ leaders early this year at a professional development workshop in Berlin, she emphasized that blogs, journalist networks and journalist hotlines can give them a voice and make oppression public.

Read more at: www.www.ifaj.org/news/newsletter-archive/february-march-2009.html

  •        Offer inside views

Editors of Farmers Weekly Interactive use blogs to give readers an inside view of current activities and goals of their rural media organization.  Editor Jan King posts “Jane King’s Blog,” which describes how the Farmers Weekly group works.  Online Editor Julian Gairdner uses “Julian’s Blog” to share news about web site improvements, including the online activities of FW staff members.

View “Jane King’s Blog” at www.fwi.co.uk/community/blogs/janeking/default.aspx
View “Julian’s Blog” at www.fwi.co.uk/community/blogs/juliansblog/default.aspx

  •        Provide (and invite) links

Steven Clift has used a blog to share (and invite) links about rural matters.  In “Is citizen media skipping small town America?” he described his efforts to identify bloggers, social networking groups, wikis, online community forums and other online venues from rural/Greater Minnesota USA. They are difficult to locate, he reported. “Can anyone help me out?”

View at www.pbs.org/idealab/2008/03/is-citizen-media-skipping-small-town-america005.html

As a journalist covering agriculture, are you using blogs for any or all of these purposes – or seeing others use them?  If so, please alert us to them.

For what other and different purposes are you using blogs? 

Please get in touch with the author at evansj(at)illinois.edu

Thank you.

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This feature is provided through a professional development partnership of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists (IFAJ) and the Agricultural Communications Documentation Center (ACDC), based at the University of Illinois.

June 2009
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