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Think Twice Before You Use News as Inspiration

This guest post is by Greg McFarlane.

If there are already 100,000 posts out there that express a particular viewpoint, what’s the point of adding a 100,001st?

Look for a different angle. If you can’t find one, then resist the temptation to rehash conventional wisdom, and go unearth yourself some unrelated subject matter.

When you’re desperate for ideas, the default method for finding something to blog about is, of course, to read the news. It’s not the most organic way to inspire a post, but sometimes it’s necessary—especially if you’re on a deadline. The problem is that hundreds of other bloggers with writer’s block are doing the same thing. Follow everyone else’s lead, and by definition your blog will become correspondingly less fresh and readable. Or as legendary baseball player Yogi Berra put it, “No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

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Here in the United States, our latest political scandal featured a narcissistic, libidinous, and ridiculously aptly named politician who thought that he could send erotic self-portraits to minors on Twitter and not have to deal with any ramifications.

A good number of bloggers felt obligated to discuss Representative Weiner’s indiscretions. Understandably, most of those bloggers felt that the kind of person who tries to get with women half his age while embarrassing his semi-prominent wife on the national stage isn’t fit for office. Others added that anyone who would initially claim that his Twitter account “was hacked into” should lose his job for showing so little respect for his constituents’ intelligence.

On the other side, the minority (mercifully) opinion was that this was a distraction and we should all just move on and concern ourselves with bigger, more prominent things.* But regardless of how you felt about how suitable Weiner was for his job, the very act of expressing an opinion on his peccadilloes lumped you in with the unimaginative blogging masses.

That’s the downside to blogging about an ephemeral news story, especially one that inspires such strong opinions. The story surfaces, then it quickly gets picked clean, leaving a meatless skeleton. There was little that was truly insightful to say about the scandal, and few arguments pro or con to make that weren’t obvious.

Worse yet, bloggers who wrote exclusively on their non-political subjects of choice tried to shoehorn the scandal into their efforts in an attempt to seem relevant.

Like everyone else, I wondered what I could do to gain attention and capitalize on the moment. A story that was so absurd on so many levels doesn’t come around every day, and you can’t exactly predict when the next one will appear.

My blog is about personal finance, the second-most unsexy topic in all of human endeavor (quilting remains #1). Was there a way to tie the biggest national news story of the day into something Control Your Cash subscribers could get value out of, without forcing it?

Absolutely there was, and it was seamless. I studied Weiner’s list of financial assets and liabilities—which America’s federal elected officials are required to disclose some of the details of—and found dirt far more ignominious than anything in his sex life (at least to an audience of personal finance enthusiasts).

Weiner’s credit card balance equaled about 10% of his annual salary, and was growing faster than he was paying it off. He’d spent years amassing and failing to pay parking tickets throughout Washington. He owned more cars than there were people in his household, and committed the minor fraud of putting the registration sticker for his cheapest car on his most expensive car to save himself a few dollars. On top of that, he was paying monthly processing fees on the credit card balance, which my blog’s readers understand is something of a mortal fiscal sin.

In short, he was yet another in the endless series of bad examples that we could poke fun at on Control Your Cash. But unlike the welfare mother with nine kids from seven fathers, or the lottery winner who celebrated his fortune by spending it all and then some, Weiner held the distinction of being partially responsible for taxing my readers and spending their money. That gave the post a potency that the bloggers who wrote merely “Should Weiner resign?” couldn’t hope for.

I blogged about the scandal only because the opportunity presented itself. Granted, I had to look for a way to fit it into my narrowly topical blog, but it didn’t take much effort to find one. Had there been no angle, or only an awkward one, I wouldn’t have. A far more famous politician found himself in far greater trouble a couple of weeks earlier, but Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t have any money problems that I could write about (forthcoming retroactive child support payments notwithstanding).

When everyone else is zigging, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should zag. It might be your cue to find your own unique tangent—to para-zig, if you will. Even the road less traveled can get congested at times.

*Oh, grow up.

Greg McFarlane is an advertising copywriter who lives in Las Vegas. He recently wrote Control Your Cash: Making Money Make Sense, a financial primer for people in their 20s and 30s who know nothing about money. You can buy the book here (physical) or here (Kindle) and reach Greg at [email protected]

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Comments

  1. Great tips. Finding an angle can get tiring at times, but I notice a difference in traffic when I share something that is a bit “out of the box”.

  2. Rob McGuire says:

    An issue I’ve had with blogging about current news topics is that those posts only stay relevant for a short amount of time and then collect dust. Evergreen content is something I try to focus more of my efforts on.

    • Nico Julius says:

      @Rob, I also focus more on evergreen content (till now).
      @Greg, interesting article, never thought about news that way. I’ll give it a try in the future. But it won’t be simple as I write tutorials and reviews. But can be fun!

  3. Jacob says:

    Being in those non-sexy niches, we all want so desperately to get some of the traffic that is being generated due to the big news. However, sometimes you simply cannot do it. I have to say, it is a true test to your talent as a blogger that you came up with a unique idea. Instead of beating the same dead horse, you found something different…Very impressive.

    The unfortunate truth is that 99% of bloggers are genuinely not creative. And therefore, coming up with an idea like that would’ve never crossed 95% of personal finance blogs. And it’s too bad. But, for you, it’s probably for the best because you were able to reap the benefits of Weiner’s weiner and and stick to the finance.

  4. Dan says:

    Are there any niche markets that can be better spotlighted?

  5. This is fantastic! I have been commenting on a few “hot topics” recently (well, they were hot a few months ago) and trying to find unique angles to express. Yours is truly fantastic.

    How can I take what i see an incorporate it into my blog? Not sure yet, but I really like the idea. Find something totally different that’s relevant to my readers…hrm…

  6. Rezbi says:

    I’ve always had a problem blogging about current events. I usually just bookmark those articles directly.

    It does make it difficult coming up with something to blog about, but I scour the internet looking for something obscure but interesting.

  7. Nikole Hahn says:

    That’s why I don’t blog current events. Someone else like Michelle Malkin can do a better job. Me…I’ll keep on doing what I am doing.

  8. Daniel says:

    Great post Greg. The ability to do this certainly sifts the good from the bad.

  9. Hi Greg,

    I stopped watching the news 5 years ago.

    Negative headlines attract bottom-feeders. As a rule, I don’t hang out with bottom-feeders. So I rarely if ever used headlines as post fodder.

    If I do, I make sure the take is fresh. Cover an angle few have seen. Be different, think differently. Write something which makes people scratch their head. Your approach was wise. While most others beat the drum on a tired story, you took a different perspective.

    You thought before you posted. Others tend to follow – sheeple-style – posting without thinking, or piggybacking on a lame idea to begin with.

    As a rule, stay away from the news when searching for blog topics, because the news is old. Write stuff which helps people solve their problems.Write stuff that inspires, not stuff that pulls people into the gutter. Let the masses dwell on the negative stuff. Rise above. Your blog will attract more discerning readers, your presence will expand and you will enjoy blogging a heck of a lot more by writing about high energy stuff and leaving low energy headlines behind.

    Thanks for sharing a fresh take on the topic Greg.

    Ryan

  10. It is quite a prevalent practice to incorporate the latest headline to a litany of posts, which of course, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but to just muddle up an idea and interject it with the news is just plain unnecessary. If one is to attempt it, it must be written thoughtfully, so as not to just serve as a waste of Internet space.

  11. Megan says:

    Hi Greg, I can see where you are coming from and to a certain extent I agree with you. But I am going to qualify my answer just slightly.

    While a blog is read by other people and is primarily there to entertain or inform, it is also about the personal thoughts and views of the writer. You may not always agree with their viewpoint, but they certainly have the right to express it.

    For that reason I feel a blog should be written about anything the blogger has on their mind (within the confines of their niche and keeping their audience in mind – of course). Even if the blogger has the same opinion as everyone else on a subject, it doesn’t mean they can’t write it in their blog.

    I recently wrote a post on the News of the World scandal which has broken here in the UK. it was a short piece and probably not very insightful, but I just questioned where journalism is heading and to what extent the public has a hand in the demise of the newspaper. it was relevant to my niche as a freelance writer, but it was also simply my opinion and my take on the issue.

    I admit it has been said before and that it didn’t take the argument any further, but it was my thoughts and my opinion and that has to count for something.

    Being original isn’t the be all and end all of writing and blogging.Sometimes you just need to be able to express what is on your mind, even if it is on everyone else’s mind at the same time.

    Great thought provoking post, Greg.

    • Matt Owens says:

      I agree with @Megan. I have a rather small audience but one I’ve come to learn that appreciates my insight. I’m not necessarily looking for traffic. If a national story interests me enough to write about it, I’m assuming my regular readers would like to hear what I have to say. I also don’t write very often about news items.

  12. Jen says:

    I definitely was aware that a lot of blogs tend to only go over what’s on the “front page” of the news, and it’s so unoriginal, especially those who just cut and paste the article. I just revamped my blog and I have already started a segment where I will find health and fitness related news that are just mind blowing but you have to kind of dig to find it. I hope it catches my reader’s interests.

  13. Daniel says:

    I have seen a few Blogs that incorporate Political and social issues within a more Blogging related site, and they seem to do it well. It may or may not work on many Blogging( Industry / issues) related Blogs. For me personally, I would prefer to have a separate Political society related Blog, where I could “vent my spleen” until my hearts content.

    As to the overall concept of cashing in on the latest “Major news Scoops” you probably could do this in the same manner as many popular Political Blogs do it. You would need to keep relevant, update every day with a bunch of “Eye catching posts, “. When people see something on these Political / Social issues blogs that they feel very passionate about(Like or dislike, it does not matter) they can not resist adding a comment.

  14. TJ says:

    This is a great post. Being in Germany, I missed most of the Weiner scandal. As a reader your angle on the situation has been fascinatingly informative and as a blogger it’s inspiring.

    I feel however that you have made a small error stating that quilting is un-sexy and I’d like to point out that you used quite a bit of sewing terminology throughout your text; “seamless, zigging, zag…”

    Perhaps you’re repressing your inner seamstress?
    Best wishes from a proud quilter, tj

    PS – Quilters are masters at angles!

  15. Hey Greg,

    I think the temptation for newbies is to try and hit on a subject that will get thousands of website visitors. The initial buzz wears off pretty quickly though. You’re far better off getting 50-100 people that are interested in a topic and building value into your emails for them.

    The word of mouth from 100 Facebookers is huge!… Once I figured that out, I stopped trying to get visitors and concentrated on the value. ;]

    David Edwards

  16. James Greg says:

    The whole topic was discussed heatedly. Arnold had only put a toe out of line but Weiner crossed that line. This whole thing should be taken as a moral to not just harp about every news that circles about. A very good post with advise to all bloggers.

  17. Andy says:

    This is how it is in the movie niche as well with so many people just recycling and paraphrasing a news item they spotted on another blog that unless they are already a big site they have no chance of being discovered.

    It’s the same with reviewing movies as so many people just focus on new releases and get swallowed up in the huge tide of eager reviewers who are trying to deliver their opinion on the latest big screen release. Yet with a little thought you can find a different angle especially with so many new movies being remakes and sequels, those older movies which the newer ones are based on usually lack reviews. Yes watching older movies may not he so hip but those who watch the new releases often end up checking on what the originals were like and if your review is just 1 of 1000 instead of 1 of 1,000,000 well the odds are certainly better.

  18. Bogati says:

    Fantastic post, thanks for sharing

  19. I think it’s a constant battle coming up with new and unique ideas to elaborate upon. Bloggers really need to find effective ways to deal with writer’s block and share something worthwhile.

    Sometimes, all you need to do is provide a fresh perspective on a topic and the job is done!

    Thanks for the wonderful post!

  20. Guy Hogan says:

    Thanks for reminding me that I have to always look for the angle that will interest my targeted audience. My blog is about flash fiction. That’s pretty narrow; but narrow or not everything on the blog in some way must deal with writing or being a writer or flash fiction.

  21. Matt Smith says:

    Thanks for sharing, great post!!!

  22. darkduck says:

    Stopped reading this post after “Here in the United States”. I don’t care about political scandals in the US.

  23. You can always turn ephemeral news into immortal literature.

  24. Dionne White says:

    Hmmm quilting is the most un-sexy blogging topic of all time you say? So where would you place general needlecraft?
    At least with the most un-sexy or second most un-sexy you are an -est of some definition. Maybe finance is un-sexy but it will always get more readers than anything else as so many bloggers are looking to monetise their blog to the point where they can leave behind the 9-5 drudgery.

  25. Will Marlow says:

    Great post. I think avoiding using the news is a good policy in general, because, as one of my favorite bloggers (Penelope Trunk) likes to say: most people have no idea what a controversial opinion really is. Writing a boring or re-hashed opinion about something that is already all over the news is a quick way to highlight how boring your blog is.

  26. Ray says:

    There are a lot of things people can write about. Sometimes scanning the news can help with an idea when you have a little writer’s block going on. Current events can be tempting when everyone is talking about them. Sometimes they are almost too difficult to resist writing something about. I do try to avoid anything political because I think it stirs up a lot of fights and arguments.

  27. Aman Arora says:

    Thanks alot for these tips, what I do is as soon as new news is published I try to find my opinion on that and do some research to get more information and write the article. :)

  28. “Even the road less traveled can get congested at times.” Wow, what a way with words, I find it inspiring. It makes sense: when too many people chose the road less traveled, it becomes quite traveled too. Finding one’s own self, digging deeper into oneself to find that which no one does – that’s the answer. After all, “being yourself” is ultimately the most unique thing anybody can do.