Blogging: Keep your posts on track with storytelling and the eye of a journalist

Ryan Hodnett, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Want to improve the chances your company blog posts will actually be read by someone? 

Tell a story. Make it relatable to your audience. And have a little fun.

That’s what Scott Money does in this Metrolinx post updating the status of passenger railway track repairs:

It could easily have derailed into an overloaded recitation of work at any big construction site.
Instead, Money uses a journalistic eye to highlight details. He informs and entertains while keeping the story moving smoothly along the tracks.

I recommend you use his approach as a how-to guide in writing your own blog posts. These are efficient and effective ways of gaining and retaining audience attention. The blogging tips I highlight here are communication tactics familiar to anyone who’s written under daily deadlines in newspaper, radio or television newsrooms. They’re key tactics you can use to create compelling content for your blog.

What’s it like?

Money pulls readers into the construction zone with his selective descriptions. He invites them to ponder what it’s like as construction working with Highway 401 traffic zooming behind their backs. It’s Canada’s busiest highway roaring beside workers toiling on Canada’s busiest railway corridor.

There’s a photo with the blog post, but the construction site description provides emotional details the image can’t supply.

Money efficiently and confidently explains the what and the why. What’s happened and what’s next? Descriptions are clear and vivid. He focuses on the change and why it’s important. He salts the prose with a dash or two of railway jargon. I also liked his dinosaur reference to help readers wrap their minds around the magnitude of the project. 

Did you read all the way to the end of his blog post?

I did.

Fake News? AI fact-checking not all good news

Fake news has been around long before social media empowered it.

Every time I hear people talk about how artificial intelligence will save us all from fake news, I get uneasy.

It’s an appealing idea.  People blame social media and Google (on computers) for the unchecked spread of fake information (via computers) and demand the tech companies (computer experts) do something about the problem on social media and Google (those darn computers!).

So tech companies announce they’ll use artificial intelligence (AI, or computers that learn) to protect us from all the false news filling our social media feeds (on the little computers we keep in our pockets).

Here’s a recent pitch by a technology company to protect us from the ills of technology: Fake news detecting technology developed by DarwinAI

The Waterloo, Canada company wants to good by making AI do good for us dumb humans.  What’s not clear to me is how much the new AI is a partner with humans in identifying fake news. Or it is simply going to decide what’s truth for us? 

Fake news solution?

My fear is many people worried about fake news will grasp for new AI technology, and let computers solve our problems. Except that it’s people creating and profiting from fake news by encouraging people to use computers to solve all our problems.  And they’re using AI to create more fake news, too. Awkward.

Alternative facts” and deceptions dressed up as news has around long before computers and artificial intelligence.  People have long twisted the truth, stirred negative emotions and counted on entrenched group think to spread their version of “truth.”  Human brains react to threats in a heartbeat. It’s a hard-wired negative bias to the world around us.

That emotional self-protection circuitry is in control before the logical part of our brain processes more details for a nuanced response to a range of inputs. Think about you how you respond to rumour and innuendo in the workplace.  What does it feel like when you’re the target of gossip on the schoolyard? How effectively do you uncouple your emotions when talking politics over the dinner table? None of that will magically disappear whenever mercenary AI-powered truth detectors start scrubbing junk news from our computer screens. Learning and practicing measured responses to what I hear, see and read is the best way I know to manage a world of differing opinions. It’s also how I approach the concept of AI-sanitized storytelling in my social media feeds.

The only way I know to find truth is habitual questioning everything I see and hear.  What’s the source?  What emotion does the “news” I am told stir inside me?  What details am I missing?  Who benefits from the story I’m being told? 

If a news story stirs negative emotion in me and offers a simple answer to complex problems, I go on Fake News Alert.

Healthy scepticism

In 30 years as a newspaper journalist, I learned questions are wonderful things.  So is a healthy skepticism of everything I see and hear.  Trust, but verify.

Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin writes about how easy it is to trick our brains if we aren’t careful.  I’m a fan of his book “A Field Guide to Lies” (also published as “Weaponized Lies”) and encourage everyone to read it.  Here’s a video of Levitin speaking at Google (and I appreciate that irony):


I’m all for fighting fabricated news with all the tools smart and inventive people are able to develop.   What I am not ready to yet do is blindly trust technology to protect us from fake news.  That’s the same complacency purveyors of fake news count on to enable their strategies.

Sifting truth from facts is work.  It’s often hard work.  And it’s worth it.

I have no plans to outsource the job and blithely trust someone else — or something else — to interpret what’s truth or lies. 

What do you think about fighting fake news with artificial intelligence?

Teaching Journalism 35 years after I finished school

Kevin Swayze at Conestoga College, Kitchener, 2019
Kevin Swayze returned to Conestoga College in 2019 to teach, 35 years after he first attended classes at the Doon Campus in Kitchener.

I went back to the future this month.

I am back at Conestoga College, 35 years after I first attended classes there.

Last time, I was there as a student – and graduated with honours from the Journalism-Print program. Found a job and made a 30-year career at newspapers. 

This time, I am an instructor.  I’m teaching “citizen journalism” for online presentations.  Both were unknown when I was learning how to stitch words together like a newspaper reporter.

I feel more than a twinge of nostalgia as I walk the halls as a journalism professor. It’s a long way from the farm where I grew up near Hamilton, Ontario. I realize I have far less hair now than I did in the 1980s.

Nostalgia in the halls

The Doon Campus building in Kitchener is where it always was, along Highway 401.  It’s now about twice as large as when I attended classes, after multiple additions to the buildings since I graduated.

On-campus parking enforcement remains as enthusiastic as I remembered from 1984.  Back then, I remember buying paper parking passes and put them on the dashboard of my two-door 1977 Pontiac LeMans gas-guzzling car.

Today, I pay for parking using an app on my Blackberry.  Tap, Tap, Tap to process a credit card payment.  It must be working since I’ve not yet found a metal clamp from parking services on the front wheel of my utilitarian 2010 Ford Focus.

There’s now an on-campus Tim Hortons coffee shop just inside Door 3.  Across the hallway is a student life centre.  And just down the hall is a beautiful, extensive library with big windows and glassed-in study rooms – but few books on the shelves.

And now after working 30 years as a newspaper journalist, my brain starts asking questions. Comparing today to yesterday’s so long ago.

All the students!  Far more than I ever remember.  Thousands of students. I’d guess there are double – maybe triple – the students now at Doon than I ever remembered before.

International students

Stepping back inside Conestoga also reminded me how things changed from the Ontario of my youth.

I don’t remember anyone who didn’t look or talk more or less like me or talk like me when I arrived at Conestoga in 1984 and walked the concrete-block walls.

Today, a third of Conestoga’s 18,000 full-time students are from outside Canada.  Most are from India and Nigeria this semester.

Conestoga College Hallway in 2021.
Conestoga College Hallway in 2021.

More than three-quarters of my class are international students.  It’s a blast. 

I’m learning international students are likely planning to stay in Canada, as part of a national immigration effort started about five years ago.  Students must complete two years of studies here – at three times tuition for Canadians. That earns them a work permit to stay and practise skills they’ve learned and, eventually, preferred path when applying for landed immigrant status.  

Staying in Canada

In several seminars for new teachers, the situation is described as a win-win-win.

A win for Conestoga, because there’s a decline in Canadian students applying for classes as the Canadian birthrate declines. A win for international students – most of them from middle-class families – are eager for a respected Canadian education – with the bonus of potential citizenship in a safe, stable country.  A win for a country that needs more educated, enthusiastic young people to keep the economy growing.

At the same time as international students are filling Conestoga, there’s a widespread effort encouraging enrolment from young people in Canada’s Indigenous communities. It’s part of a national effort to begin mending Canada’s ugly history of racism toward First Nations communities.  One of many steps towards reconciliation.

And there’s also an overriding effort to assist all students to succeed — with mental health counselling a phone call away and assistance for students with learning disabilities.  

All part-time teachers at Conestoga must attend five, three-hour training sessions to learn how to support and engage with students.   I understand something like half of the students at Conestoga have learning disabilities, diagnosed or not. I don’t remember hearing anything remotely like this when I was a student.

Walking the same halls I walked as a journalism student more than three decades ago, prompts me to pause.  

I think about what’s changed.  And a few things that haven’t.

And I still wish I had more hair.

This blog post is adapted from a speech presented at Cambridge Toastmasters, Jan. 19, 2019.

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