The Writer's Guide to Surviving the Digital Age

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Back in 1999, when digital journalism was in its infancy, seasoned writer Dianne Jacob published her first online article, in the groundbreaking web magazine Salon. Much to her surprise, that piece sparked several emails from readers.

I was almost offended, she admits now, in an interview in Tel Aviv.

Jacob – and online journalism – has come a long way since the early days of Internet journalism. A decade after writing her first online article, Jacob launched her own blog, which has propelled her to levels of success she says would have been impossible otherwise. A key part of that is how she embraces her readers.

These days Jacob is perhaps best known for her book, a writing guide titled Will Write For Food now in its second edition, and her blog by the same name. In the latter, launched in 2009, Jacob urges bloggers to uphold professional-level journalism standards and addresses topics that including common blogger mistakes and the processes involved in writing a book. Her posts regularly draw dozens if not hundreds of comments apiece, yet Jacob responds to every commenter.

Jacob has been in the journalism and writing industry for more than 30 years, since earning a bachelor's degree in journalism, in the 1970s. She has edited newspapers and magazines, and was editor-in-chief at a book publisher before becoming a private writing coach in 1996. Many of the publications she used to work for are gone, she notes, reflecting the changing face of journalism.

Jacob, the child of Iraqi Jews who were born in Shanghai, was passing through Israel on her second visit to the country. Jacob grew up in Canada and lives in California.

Her first visit to Israel was 40 years ago. It was one of the two times in her life she saw her grandmother, who was then living in Nahariya. Jacob stopped in Israel on her way home from speaking at a writing workshop in Dubai.

Her success in recent years was made possible by her blogging, she says, while admitting that it was not an obvious choice at first.

I came from a print background, so I didn't think that blogging was so important, she says. She launched her blog in order to add a section on blogging to the second edition of her book, which was published in 2010. But the blog and the community it engendered quickly became an engine for that book and for Jacob herself, boosting sales and pulling in new clients and international speaking engagements.

It's no surprise, then, that today Jacob is a strong proponent of blogging and the new types of careers it offers for the self-employed, as well as the potential it holds for the average writer with talent.

The advent of blogging broke down the gatekeepers in traditional journalism – now anyone can publish anything, she says. There was a lot of writing that no one wanted to publish – [in particular] personal essay – and there was no outlet for it, she says.

Most bloggers do it as a hobby, but the top few reach a massive audience and make money at it.

There are very, very powerful bloggers, says Jacob. I'm telling you, people have no idea. Turning to her own field, she notes that the most popular food blog, Simply Recipes , which draws 22 million hits a month, has more readers than all the U.S. food magazines combined. Yet the woman behind Simply Recipes, Elise Bauer, has been profiled by traditional media only once, in a local newspaper. (Bauer notes that she's actually been interviewed twice by that local paper.)

At first, many traditional journalists refused to admit that bloggers were journalists, too, Jacob says. Journalists first ignored bloggers, then were resentful, she says. Now there's a better understanding.

So much so that newspapers are being forced to play catch-up with bloggers and their strategies. Many newspaper websites (Haaretz included, of course) host numerous in-house blogs, leave space at the end of articles for reader comments and are active on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. The top newspaper blogs can draw hundreds of responses per post, she notes, on par with the top blogs run by private individuals.

Blogging has always been based on the writer having a personal relationship with readers. Now, newspapers and professional journalists are also being forced into that format, some more willingly than others.

Print doesn't know how to do this, notes Jacob. In print you really have no direct relationship with your readers . Online, people have immediate access to you.

The reader's desire to be heard was a latent need long before the advent of the blog. Jacob recalls her days editing an automotive magazine in the 1980s. An initiative soliciting readers to send in pictures of their cars drew a huge response. That was considered revolutionary at the time, Jacob recalls. We never communicated directly with readers.

Thanks to contests and other reader-based strategies, that magazine doubled its circulation over the course of two years, she says.

Interaction with real, live readers is not something that was taught when Jacob was in journalism school, she notes.

The rise of the reader's opinion, the power of the reader's opinion is a huge shock to traditional journalism, she says. New media empowers readers not only with a voice, but also with incredible choice as to what they can read. This means even more competition for newspapers, who are being forced to acknowledge their readers like blogs do.

Before, the journalist was the king, she says. This is a new idea, that the reader might know as much, or more, than you.

Writing coach Dianne Jacob, at Tel Aviv's Carmel market. Credit: Liz Steinberg

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