Assignment #4: Explain It!

January 31, 2019

Now that you know how to write an explainer, you’re going to make one of your own. This has a specific due date (included at the end of this assignment), so make sure you’re following directions. Using the posted guidelines, you’ll do the following:

  • Identify a subject in your area that requires explaining (again, see our own explainer for details on this)
  • Thursday, Jan. 31: Bring a subject with 10 links (mostly informational but media will help) that explain the story – UPDATE: There’s no class today, so you’re on the honor system!
  • Tuesday, Feb. 5: Bring (printed) an annotated subject and link list (sentence for each explaining relevance) to class. Ten links are the minimum! (5 pts)
  • Thursday, Feb. 7 (any time between 10a and 4p): Publish your explainer and post a link as a comment to this assignment. Remember again that a minimum of 10 meaningful links is required! (5 pts for use of supporting links and for posting link in comment)

Note that this counts as your weekly personal blog post. You’ll be graded on the usual 5 pts for quality of the post; the 10 assignment points come from your annotated list and the quality of the supporting links you provide.

How-To: Write an Explainer

January 31, 2019

NOTE: With today’s WVU snow day, I won’t be able to go over this in class, so I’ve created a how-to for you. Make sure you don’t miss the accompanying assignment, which will be due next week!

Any topic area has certain subjects that are important but complicated. Maybe it’s why the polls didn’t predict Trump’s win, or how boys can keep up with girls in school, or how to carry a gun while running, or why Cardi B and Nicki Minaj have beef. A common name for this kind of post is an explainer (and there’s even an explainer about explainers).

Notice how with each of those questions, there’s a complex set of reasons and perspectives informing the answer. An explainer isn’t based on a question with a simple answer like “why does a cat purr?” but rather one that requires breaking down some complex details with a variety of sources and evidence.

Explainers are a common tool for online media – Vox has its own section for them – and when planning your own, it helps to look at what’s come before. Let’s go back to that Cardi B and Nicki Minaj post (oh the sacrifices I make for education) and look at its components:


The Complete History of Nicki Minaj and Cardi B’s Beef

Okay, it’s a bit of a label, but you definitely know what you’re getting. Good explainer heds typically start with words that imply a question such as “How” or “Why” or “Does”.


For more than a year, Nicki Minaj and Cardi B walked on eggshells while rumors of their alleged beef bubbled just below surface. Through shady interviews and sneak disses, the rappers waged a cold war. Then, during New York Fashion Week at Harper’s Bazaar Icon party, photos and video of a physical altercation between Cardi and Nicki’s parties circulated the web.

Since then, their public feud has intensified, with memorable Queen Radio rants and viral Instagram posts. But how exactly did we get here? Was it Nicki’s obsession with being the queen of rap? Is Cardi too sensitive? Below we revisit the history of Cardi B and Nicki’s long simmering feud and the events that led us here.

This answers the “Why NOW” question. It’s an ongoing story that dates back to June 2017, but the New York Fashion Week fight is what made it newsworthy for its Oct. 30, 2018 publication date.


This particular post takes the form of a timeline chronicling the various slights cast by B and Minaj. It’s marked by entries such as:

August 2017: Nicki denies subbing Cardi on “No Flags”

Notice how the post is broken up with subheadings that start with the date and detail what happened then. Even if you’re not doing a timeline, this bite-sized format helps make the complexity more approachable.


This post in particular is so strong because it not only employs strong evidence for its explanation, it brings in a strong VARIETY of sources. Consider this passage:

Coincidentally, Nicki’s original verse on “MotorSport” leaked the same day as her interview, revealing she had referenced Cardi:

I’m with a couple bad bitches that’ll rip the party
If Cardi the QB, I’m Nick Lombardi
Pull up in the space coupe, I done linked with Marty
I can actually afford to get a pink Bugatti

The final version replaced Cardi’s name with Quavo, and it’s still unclear if it was meant to be shade or a shout out. Nicki later tweeted that she changed the verse per Atlantic’s request.

Here you’ve got a link to an article that leaked Minaj’s lyrics, followed by those lyrics themselves (which name Cardi B), then the detail that the final song changed “Cardi” to “Quavo,” and finally a tweet from Minaj claiming that Cardi B forced the change. That’s a pretty detailed documentation!

That’s typical of the article, too: throughout, it employs links, social media posts, screenshots and video to support every claim it makes. This isn’t just gossip, it’s a fully documented account.

Planning your explainer

Here’s a few steps, via Poynter, for creating an explainer post of your own:

  1. Figure out what to explain: What’s a subject your readers need/want to have broken down for them? Look for a question that “requires more than a fact to explain.”
  2. Report the explainer: Poynter recommends contacting multiple experts; for a blog post, that translates into multiple explanatory links and media. Keep your questions pretty basic – think elementary school level – and along the lines of “why does this happen?”
  3. Craft the explainer: Don’t start with history, start with why it matters now. This is similar to establishing a news peg for any story. Poynter provides a tremendous example here: After President Obama signed a bill restoring Secret Service protection to former presidents and their families, Slate asked the question “does that include presidential pets?” (you’ll have to click through for the answer)
  4. Consider voice and style: (This one’s from The Word Factory) An explainer typically deals with a complicated subject, so it’s particularly important to avoid technical jargon or lengthy, complex sentences. Often, a more casual or conversational tone will be used to lighten a heavy subject (that’s up to the individual publication though).

Remember: You have an assignment on this as well, so start thinking now about what your readers need explained!

Read & Respond week 4: Links and Crowds

January 25, 2019

This week, we’ll be talking about connections, both the in-person links that create crowds and the digital ones that create, well, the Internet. Briggs talks specifically about “crowdsourcing” – what do you understand that term to mean? The term “the wisdom of crowds” was popularized by James Surowiecki, but it’s been around for a while. Some take issue with the idea that crowds actually have any particular wisdom; a crowd, after all is just a thrown rock away from a mob. Here’s a little tune on the subject from Nova:

Moving on to links and linking, consider some ideas from these posts:

You will need to post your response as a comment to this post no later than 11:59 p.m. Monday, Jan. 28. Keep it concise and relevant, and provide some useful examples!

Assignment #3: Find Your Community

January 24, 2019

So far, you’ve introduced yourself, determined a focus for your blog, and made your first posts. This week, you’ll identify points of contact that will help you stay in touch with your community of interest.

Part 1: Refine your focus

Last week, you created an “About” page with your blog’s mission statement. Now that you’ve had a chance to write some posts in this area, refine your “About” page and add some depth. Remember these points:

  • It’s not about you. Make sure your focus is a larger conversation, not a diary or “expert advice” (you’re not one) or “my crazy life” blog (nobody cares). How can you connect with a larger community?
    • Remember: No advice blogs, no reviews, no profile-only blogs, no whatever else I decide is off-limits (don’t worry, I’ll tell you if you’re doing it)
  • It’s not about everything. Avoid being too broad (e.g., “pop culture”) – if you say you will write about something general like “sports,” you’ll need to spell out what a reader might get out of reading your site compared to the countless other sports sites out there.
    • Think of yourself as the intersection of a Venn diagram with at least 2-3 circles
  • It’s not just links. Links are necessary, but a successful blog needs to add something to the information it synthesizes from elsewhere. Linking to a bunch of stories about the Pittsburgh Penguins is not blogging.

Part 2: Identify sources to help you

Blogging isn’t something you have to do on your own. With your focused topic in mind, it’s time to identify some sources to help you on that path. You will identify at least 10 individuals to follow: At least five bloggers and at least five social media accounts. Each of these should be a spiritual cousin to your own – they do something related to what you hope to do.

  • Blog Example: Dead Frog is Todd Jackson’s blog about the comedy business.
  • Social Media Example: Josh Marshall is the editor of Talking Points Memo. He tweet regularly about political coverage.

A few cautions: These can NOT be general, non-blog sites (e.g., @NYTimes,, but you may link to an individual blogger on such a site as long as you justify why that writer is an excellent source for you. The point is not to link to news sites you already know, it’s to find people and communities that are part of the conversation you want to join!

Part 3: Identify issues to cover (and the actual assignment)

As we’ve discussed this week, you need to get out of the way and cover your community and the current issues that concern it. After reading your sources, you must identify five timely subjects or issues they’re talking about that could serve as the focus of one (or more) of your upcoming posts. Each must include at least one link (more is better) to current discussion on the subject and explain what the focus of your post could be.

You’ll need to complete the following steps:

  • Add a blogroll (Links > Add New > Create a “Blogroll” category) and add your 10 blogs/accounts to it (5/10 pts for Assignment #3)
  • Write a blog post explaining (in 1-2 sentences each) each of the five issues you’ve identified and how you might cover each in an upcoming post – don’t forget to include relevant links for each item! (5/10 pts for Assignment #3)
  • This post must have a meaningful title, not a label (please don’t just call it “5 issues”) – you need to write more than just a list. At the very least, you’ll need an intro and a conclusion explaining why these 10 things go together. The end results should look more like an actual post than a class assignment! (5/5 pts for weekly blog post)

Due: 4p, Wednesday, Jan. 30 (due a day early so we can review in class)

  • To receive credit for this assignment, you must add a link to your post (with a short description) in a comment to this blog post.
  • You can post on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday as long as it’s up by 4 p.m.

Read & Respond week 3: Origins of the Internet

January 18, 2019

This week, we’ll go back to where it all got started. As you learn to be a more effective online communicator, it helps to know more about where online communication came from. First: A video clip!

History of the Internet

After viewing that, skim one or more of these links (they’re meaty, reference-heavy sources, so just get an overview):

From the early internet, the road leads to the social Web, and that road is littered with the corpses of early efforts. Ever hear of Friendster? It’s arguably the first major social networking site … and it’s dead now. MySpace is still out there, populated by some hardcore oddballs, but it’s nothing like it once was. And we predict The Death Of Facebook pretty much every year. The argument has been made (seemingly every year) that social media as we know it is about to change. What do you think?

Is the Internet something invented by an individual? What’s a specific surprising event you found in the timelines? What do you think keeps a social media site alive, and what comes next? Remember, your response is due as a comment to this post no later than 11:59 p.m. on Monday, January 21.

Assignment #2: The About Page

January 17, 2019

Your new blog needs a place for readers to find out what it’s about. You could do this as a first post, but over time, this will get hard to find – nobody likes scrolling, after all (well, kind of). Instead, you’re going to create an About page. Have a look at this read from blogtyrant on what makes a terrific “About Us” page – they include examples, too! With those ideas in mind, let’s get started…

Your about page should include the following:

  • What’s the blog about? Well DUH. But this means you’ll need to know that yourself, and that means spelling out the specifics of what readers can expect. You might add some links to similar blogs (while explaining what will make yours different)
  • Who’s the author? Tell us your background. What are you studying? What are your interests and accomplishments? (note: Readers don’t want to hear about YOU until they’ve heard about your blog!)
  • Where can I find you? You’re cultivating an online presence, so let interested readers know where they can hear more from you. You needn’t use an email if you don’t want, but at the very least put up your Twitter handle.

But how do I MAKE a new page??

It’s easy! In your dashboard:

  1. Pages > Add New
  2. Title: “About” or “About This Blog”
  3. Write some appropriate “about” content (you can update this as your blog grows)
  4. Publish!

What’s due

Create an About page on your blog and post the link in a comment to THIS post. Once it’s up, I’ll add your blog to the blogroll on our course blog.

Due: 11:59 p.m. Sunday, January 20 (must post comment TO THIS POST by this time)

Read & Respond week 2: Getting Started

January 11, 2019

How do I do these?

First, an overview of how these will typically work. I’ll put up a post here most every Thursday afternoon with some links to online readings in line with the week’s theme. You are required to post a response to these readings no later than 11:59 p.m. on Monday. You’ll post that response as a comment in reply to the week’s Read & Respond blog post (like this one).

Regarding length, there’s not a word count, but they should be long enough to address the question(s) and express a coherent thought (look at previous posts for examples). You don’t need to cite all the links, but you should reference a meaningful number of them. Be clear and concise (they’re only worth 2.5 points after all), but do cover your bases.

Now on with this week’s assignment!

As you work to develop your blog’s focus, consider a suggestion from Mark Briggs’ “Journalism Next“: “It’s not about you” (remember: “Nobody Cares”). What can you write about that gets beyond yourself and meaningfully adds to the ongoing conversation? How can you identify a community with issues that you can participate in and cover? See what examples you can draw from the links below to bolster your ideas.

Now read The Case Against News We Can Choose. This is a classic piece from 2010 by journalist Ted Koppel that gets into those filter bubble and “Daily Me” issues that persist today.

After that, pick a few blogs from this list. The content might not be your interest, but that’s not the point. Look at the structures: How do they use sources, and what kinds of sources do they use? How do they build their stories? How visible is the author’s opinion and voice? Are they single-authored or group blogs?

  • Coal Tattoo (this WV blog has been dormant since mid-2018, but it’s still one of the best examples of covering a community and its issue, and its author, Ken Ward Jr., is a WVU alum! Check out his Twitter account)
  • The New York Times’ blog directory (pick one or two)
  • Talking Points Memo (politics)
  • Deadspin (sports news without access, favor or discretion – feel free to explore the other Gizmodo blogs linked at the top instead)
  • Footnoted (corporate filings, but don’t automatically skip for that reason – great example of mining a REALLY specific focus)
  • DailyKos (VERY liberal and opinionated but also one of the oldest blogs still thriving today)
  • SCOTUSblog (law blog about the Supreme Court and its decisions – they’re on Twitter too)
  • AP Style Blog (fewer links and more expertise-driven than you’ll be doing in class, but notice how timely its posts are – their Twitter feed is often funny)

For your response, consider the questions above. I’d like you to identify some techniques from the blogs you’ve read and discuss how they could be applied to your first post. In addition, are there any other blogs you’d suggest? Be specific – even though may not have settled on a concept yet, write about some of the options you’re considering and suggest what you could do for a first post.

You will need to respond to these readings in a comment on this post no later than  11:59 p.m. Monday, January 14. A few things to make sure of:

  • You’ll be posting from your WordPress account, so make sure you’re logged in! If your name isn’t clear from your username, please add it in to the post (so you can get credit).
  • Remember that your first comments won’t show up until I approve them, so don’t panic (but feel free to email me if you’re concerned).
  • Specifically address the readings, but don’t just summarize – build on them!