news and blogs in Phnom Penh

I feel a lot of pressure to make this an excellent post, because I talked so much about the importance of strong writing at Barcamp Phnom Phen on Saturday. Now I look back and I want to recast my presentation a bit: the most important thing, make no mistake, for bloggers in Cambodia is the content they produce.

And that’s something they don’t need a presentation to understand.

Wikitravel today says this about Phom Penh:

For western visitors, even those who have visited other Asian cities, Phnom Penh can be a bit of a shock. It can be very hot and (in the dry season) dusty, its infrastructure is lacking, and it is very poor – much poorer than, for example, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Visitors who cannot adjust to rubbish filled streets, constant harassment from tuk tuk drivers and touts, and large numbers of beggars, may not enjoy the city (though by no means will you experience all of these things.)

My experience there was completely different. We saw live music, ate great food along the Mekong, and bargained with tuk tuk drivers, who were generally good natured. I did not feel harassed in the least. The streets of Phnom Penh (which are relatively clean, I might add) are peppered with Internet cafes advertising email, VOIP and hi5 social networking access. There are computer shops and small web design and tech businesses. It’s a youthful, friendly city where people are interested in learning and curious about the world.

It was important to me that I put what I was seeing into context. I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, otherwise known as S-21, where 17,000 passed through the high school-turned-jail on their way to the Killing Fields from 1975-1979. Only seven survived. It was a sobering explanation for Phnom Penh’s youthful feeling; a generation of educated people was eliminated by the Khmer Rouge.

So I appreciated greatly the bloggers and journalists and techies who I met at Barcamp Phnom Penh. I see them as a very important generation who work very hard to revive a professional and literate culture not just for themselves but for people all over the world who want to understand Cambodia. (In English, try the comprehensive writing of Tharum Bun on Global Voices, news tidbits from Soponrith, nice vignettes on, or Seanheng’s sweet photoblog with occasional essays.)

The organizers nudged everyone to suggest topics or lead sessions. I couldn’t hope to repay our gracious hosts – I certainly learned more at Barcamp than any of the campers learned from me – but I talked a bit about the importance of good writing. The campers estimated that there are between 500 and 1,000 English-language blogs in Cambodies – not very many in the grand scheme of things. So I wanted to help those bloggers (or “cloggers” for Cambodian bloggers) reflect on their own writing, since they are helping people all over the world to learn about their country.

(See Dengue Fever for some ambiance music.)

Just the basics

Here is the gist of the presentation: Journalists berate bloggers for their lack of editing and fact-checking and, well, grammar. Bloggers berate journalists for their lack of fact-checking and false objectivity. Somewhere in the middle, journalists and bloggers can learn from each other. So the presentation was called “News writing for bloggers.”

News writing for bloggers

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: barcamppp)

The old “inverted pyramid” style of writing news can be of real value to bloggers. Take a look at your RSS feeder – how many times do you just read the first sentence or the excerpt of an article or blog post? So getting the important information to the top is very important.

There are two basic kinds of first sentences, or leads, in news writing: direct and indirect. A direct lead seeks to give the vital information (who, what, when, where, why and sometimes how) up front, while the indirect lead seeks to draw the reader in. The point here for bloggers, however, is that the choice of what to do with that first sentence is intentional. Writing in time sequence or randomly does not usually make for compelling reading.

The other thing I’d like to emphasize is the importance of the second (or third or thirtieth) draft. You would never play in a piano recital having never practiced the song you are going to play. Don’t publish your first attempt at writing a post or article or essay.

A quick and dirty way for bloggers (particularly bloggers for whom English is a second language) to edit their posts is to simply read aloud. The ear can do wonders for a writer – you will hear problems much easier than you will see them.

Here are three online resources which I find to be clear and of great practical value: News University has a lot of sessions and many of them are free. Chip Scanlon’s Poynter Online column, Chip on Your Shoulder, has great advice for writers and addresses timely questions about the changing nature of storytelling. No Train, No Gain is a barebones, nitty gritty website that really does a good job of teaching news basics.

Some grey areas (or what I like best about presenting)

There were some interesting questions raised about the relationship between journalism and blogging at Barcamp Phnom Penh. Part of what is exciting about blogs is how fast they can get news out – does editing still hold the same weight? What about editing AFTER posting? Is that ok? Do bloggers need to write with the same attention to detail as journalists?

These are interesting points of discussion, and the wonderful thing about blogs is that I don’t make the rules, governments don’t make the rules and editors certainly don’t make the rules. Each blog belongs to the owner, and they can take what they will from others’ standards.

Barcampers, do feel free to comment – tell me what you agree with and disagree with, give me more links, correct my grammar.