How We Did It: Q&A with Steve Thorngate, editor/blogger for The Christian Century
This is part of a series of interviews with award recipients in the 2015 Best of the Christian Press contest sponsored by the Associated Church Press. The “How We Did It” series offers an inside-look at what goes into the creation of award-winning publications. Here Steve Thorngate, associate editor of The Christian Century, talks about working on the publication’s Best-in-Class-winning blog.
The judge who awarded a Best in Class to The Christian Century’s blog said, “This is a blog that takes faith in the real world seriously.” What makes a good blog?
Seven or eight years ago I would have said, “a single and largely unfiltered voice, a loosely defined core topic with eclectic peripheral content, a combination of subject mastery and an openness about where it ends and speculation starts, writing that is punchy and funny, a space to host good conversation.”
Today, online publishing has changed so much that I’m not even sure what we mean by “blog” anymore. Much of the blogosphere has basically split into professional, edited, multi-author publications on the one hand and people’s Facebook & Twitter profiles on the other. That fertile middle space is mostly gone. I for one still think there’s an important place for short-form, lightly edited writing with a lot of voice in it. What’s largely gone (with notable exceptions) is the blog as an online conversation led by a lively host, and it’s not clear that it’s been replaced by anything uniquely identifiable as a blog.
How many writers blog for Christian Century? How are they selected?
We host three single-voice blogs in the older sense, two non-staff plus mine. These were existing independent bloggers we invited to move to our site. None of the three of us blogs as often as we once did.
We also run two different weekly online features, each with a large pool of writers—one on the lectionary and the other on religious history and current events. A person could also call these blogs. A third item in this category is our weekly preaching podcast, with a single host and a different guest each week.
The CCblogs network is 100+ independent bloggers who do their own thing on their own platforms. We read them and each week pick up a few of the best posts, give them a light copyedit, and run them on our site.
Finally, once a week or so, we run a post by a Century editor or a guest writer. There are some regular-ish contributors but no set rotation or anything; many of the writers have never written for the magazine. Some of these are solicited but most are submitted.
All of the above makes up our overall blogs page, which you could also call a “blog”: two or three posts each weekday from a wide variety of people.
What topics tend to draw the most attention from readers?
From our core readers, it’s almost always practical ministry or theology—I think with political and cultural topics, it’s a lot harder for us to stand out among so many other sites. Sometimes something on family spirituality or the like will go mildly viral, appealing to a larger group of Christian readers than our largely ordained readership.
How do you handle comments and keep the discussion civil?
We read them all and occasionally delete one or even ban a commenter. We don’t generally edit comments to make them comply or jump in to try to actively police behavior.
My philosophy is to set the bar pretty high for what it takes to get us to delete your comment, in the interest of promoting lively conversation. So, you can be incorrect or disingenuous or unfair, you can cite bad sources, you can even be a little snarky about it. But avoid ad hominems and hate speech and naked sales pitches, or we’ll definitely delete your comment.
What kind of synergy exists between the blog and your print publication?
We often try to develop a writer as a blogger, eventually converting a post to a (perhaps longer and/or more polished) essay. Also, our lectionary columnists double as lectionary bloggers, so there’s some administrative double-dipping there.
More importantly, our magazine isn’t just in print; there is also a complete web edition, with a web-only subscription option. Here the synergy with online-only content is more crucial: we’re always trying to get blog posts to function as entrance points to people reading other content. This might happen within one site visit, when people click around from one article to another, or outside it, when people become familiar with our magazine by way of a blogger they like.
Give us your top 3 tips for anyone wanting to start a blog.
1) Have a niche. As I said, I think it’s harder than ever to build an audience for a freewheeling blog built around personality rather than subject matter. Successful new blogs are narrower, more focused.
2) Related to #1: Know your content cold. The professionalization of blogging has made readers less tolerant of speculative, light-on-facts kinds of posts. This is not entirely or even mostly a bad thing! But it does make it harder to blog in an unfiltered, conversational way than it used to be. That stuff’s all for Facebook and Twitter now.
3) Make the most of the medium. If you’re not including helpful links, updating items as facts change, including multimedia when it’s helpful, and/or responding to (constructive) comments, then you’re using the internet less for what it is (interactive, fluid) and more for what it isn’t (expensive like paper, ink, and postage).
The Christian Century won Best in Class/Award of Excellence in the Online: Blog division.