From ScienceWriters: Stanford blog becomes a news source

By Karl Leif Bates

Cheap and easy blogging tools have given campus news offices the ability to self-publish some of the research news that has been increasingly difficult to place in the mainstream media. But when the media relations team at Stanford University School of Medicine started talking about launching a blog in 2008, they decided to go one step further and publish news not only of their campus, but general health and medicine news, including developments at other schools. Today, the Scope blog (scopeblog.stanford.edu) is a rich news source in its own right, with updates at least four times a day posted by 20 regular contributors and guest posts from dozens of faculty, students, and staff. I talked to Scope editor Michelle L. Brandt (mbrandt@stanford.edu), associate director of digital communications and media relations at Stanford Medicine, about how the blog was built and what she feels it has accomplished for their news office.

Karl Leif Bates: How would you describe Scope’s editorial niche? What was the original intent, and has it morphed?

Michelle Brandt: We typically describe Scope as a medical blog designed to provide external audiences with access to high-quality, timely biomedical news and conversation. Our decision was to become a content producer and curator for a general audience, not just a source for media outlets. The blog gave us a way to fill a gap and promote our own work. But we aimed for something larger and decided to cover stories beyond Stanford’s walls. Given that we’re an academic medical institution, I feel we have a responsibility to promote the research enterprise as a whole and ensure that the public (i.e., taxpayers) understand the importance of work being done around the country.

The main ways we’ve used the blog are to bring more eyeballs to Stanford stories that have appeared elsewhere as press releases, in our print publications, etc.; highlight Stanford stories that haven’t appeared elsewhere, for one reason or another; enable our experts to comment in real time on national medical/science/policy stories; and provide a venue for important discussions. The blog, unlike the other widely used communication tools at the time, has also enabled us to directly connect with our audiences and update Stanford stories in real time, like our recent Nobel Prize wins.

KLB: Who is the audience and how are they reading? Have you adapted your coverage in response to metrics?

MLB: Scope was designed to reach two primary audiences, both of which formerly would have heard about our news primarily from the outside media: (1) professionals who work in health care and in biomedical research, including clinicians, researchers, and administrators; and (2) educated, science-minded U.S. adults.

We know that our readers skew slightly female and have a strong interest in consumer health issues — so we keep that in mind when planning content. Some of our most-shared entries have been first-person patient pieces, so we feature one of those at least once a month. We do pay close attention to stories that seem to interest our audience the most. At the same time, we’ll write about pretty much anything under the very wide medical/health/basic science umbrella.

KLB: What’s the production schedule and how does planning work? Do you try to map out the plan or do staff just sort of jump in and post?

MLB: I serve as content manager and assignment editor — basically ensuring that we hit a minimum of four posts per day, except on Fridays and weekends, weekends when our readership is lower, and that we have a good balance of Stanford versus non-Stanford content. I also give a light review to almost every post. Our entries come in several forms, including write-ups of important Stanford and non-Stanford research studies; Q&As on timely, relevant medical topics with Stanford and outside experts; thought pieces from faculty members, medical students, and patients on a wide range of medical topics; and reaction/expert insight on major medical news, such as the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act. We only publish entries from our staff of writers or those contributors who have been vetted and trained. We also encourage writers to leverage their expertise and follow their interests. We believe the best entries are on topics that a writer is passionate about, so we place few limitations on story ideas.

KLB: In addition to high frequency, your posts are mostly very short. Is there a hard limit in the blogging tool or are your writers just super-disciplined?

MLB: We encourage writers to stick to 300 to 500 words, but we make exceptions for first-person pieces (most of which are 600 to 800 words) and entries on complex science. To be honest, our writers have never struggled with this limitation. It’s a nice break from our longer press releases, newspaper articles, and magazine pieces. In terms of style, we also encourage a lot of linking and block quoting.

KLB: What hasn’t worked, or didn’t work as you intended?

MLB: We’ve had the occasional entry or series that we thought would really resonate with our audience — and they haven’t. We had an interactive series called Ask Stanford Medicine, during which we invited readers to send in questions via Twitter to create synergy between the two platforms, and it didn’t go quite as planned. Most people preferred to submit questions via the comments section of the blog instead of Twitter. In addition, we didn’t get as many questions as we had hoped/expected for certain topics. Based on engagement levels, we reimagined the series and are now doing Ask Stanford Medicine as Google Hangouts.

The biggest challenge we face is resources. Like other news offices, we’re kept very busy producing numerous publications and products (while also catering to the outside media) on a budget. At the same time, a blog is like a beast that needs constant feeding. In order to be credible and powerful, it needs to have both quality writing and high-volume output, which requires manpower. No one person in our office — even me — is dedicated full-time to the blog, and keeping the blog going while working on other lines of work has been tricky at times.

KLB: And of course, the old reporter question: Is there anything I’m missing? What didn’t I ask?

MLB: Blogs are commonplace now, but we still think ours sticks out for a couple of reasons. First, the quality of our work. Much of the content our regular contributors produce for Scope is original, meaning it hasn’t been repurposed from one of our press releases or print stories. Second, the quantity and reach of our work: We publish a lot of entries, and our broad focus drives us to operate more like a mainstream, non-institutional blog in that we cover the entire field, not just developments at Stanford. We are, to our knowledge, the only institutional blog to highlight other medical centers’ work. In addition, the blog is widely read by journalists, many of whom have written stories based solely on Scope stories.

Karl Leif Bates (karl.bates@duke.edu) is director of research communications, Duke University.

Oct. 23, 2014

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