Q&A with 2010-2011 fellow Bobbie O’Brien

February 14, 2013

Bobbie O’Brien

2010-2011 fellow

View Bobbie’s fellowship work.

View Off the Base: Bobbie’s multimedia project on military life

Bobbie is a reporter at WUSF 89.7 in Tampa, FL. In this Q&A she shares her thoughts on reporting on military mental health and starting a blog.

How often do you blog about military mental health issues? What has been the audience response?

I try to blog at least once a day including weekends and holidays. My thinking is that service members and military families serve 24/7, so a blog focused on information for them and about them should reflect the same dedication. Veterans, especially those living with post-traumatic stress, need to be served 24/7.

Reader response to Off the Base continues to grow. The beauty of the Internet and blog format is that previous entries are as accessible as new entries. For example, my blog post from July 10, 2012 – “PTSD: 3 Myths That Hurt People” – was the most viewed entry for Dec. 2, 2012. It also generated 4 comments and several “shares.”

Has your audience grown since you began blogging, and if so, why do you think that is?

OfftheBase.org was started in mid-October 2010. That month there were 119 page views total. There were 18,132 page views for the month of Nov. 2012. Additionally, the blog reached a quarter-million (250,000) total page views on Nov. 3, 2012.

Posting daily and consistently is important to building an audience. I work to provide a good mixture of personal stories, information you can use as well as humor and heart-touching moments such as my use of Kevin Hanrahan’s “Military Dog Photo of the Week” (with permission of course). There’s nothing that brings a smile more quickly than photos of puppies or military working dogs on the front lines with their handlers.

Visuals are equally important for making a blog readable and popular.

I’ve used several social media strategies such as Tweeting my blog entries as well as linking to the blog from my WUSF News blog. I also cross-post on Facebook to my personal page and one I created for Off the Base.

Learning to write a SEO (Search Engine Optimization) headline is key. Despite the social media push most of my readers find the blog through an Internet search. So, writing a strong headline with essential search words is important.

There has been a lot of reporting on PTSD over the past few years. Are there any other areas in military mental health that are of concern or are underreported?

I believe PTSD will continue to be a top story because there is no one solution or treatment. The ongoing struggle within the medical and veteran communities will continue. The veterans and their families are in it for the long-term and the reporting should be there with fresh eyes and analysis.

The shortage of trained mental health therapists at the VA is ongoing and underreported and as the number of veterans grows so will that gap.

The mental health of military family members – the children, the spouses, the parents – is underreported, especially family members who are now caring full time for severely wounded veterans.

Another topic that’s been reported on, but that I see growing, is the military’s handling of sexual assault within the ranks. With more women being integrated into traditionally male units, it could be a concern because many question that the Department of Defense has not done enough to change the culture where the assaults were not reported.

You have covered this topic for a lengthy period of time. How do you keep the topic fresh and continue to rally your station’s support?

It’s the people I cover that keep the “topic” fresh. All I need to do is talk to a veteran or listen to a parent who lost a son in the war. Their stories are personal, unique and compelling.

WUSF managers have embraced the blog – posting a link on our station’s website. Additionally, I produce at least one feature story a week covering active-duty military, veterans and their families. And WUSF has produced three, 30-minute “Florida Matters” programs on veterans and veterans’ issues in 2012.

What have been your main challenges and how have you overcome them?

Time is always an issue because I am still a general assignment reporter and must cover breaking and general news as well as supply the blog 7-days a week.

I can’t say I’ve successfully “overcome” the challenge of not having enough time. But I do have some strategies:

  • Forgive yourself if you don’t get to it all. Just keep plugging away.
  • Build an Army of your own. There are several military family members and veterans who have contributed to the blog giving it authenticity as well as helping with new posts. I am not shy about asking people to contribute their personal essays.
  • Use what’s already there. It took me a while to learn that a blog is not solely information I gathered as a reporter. It’s okay to reference “experts” or share other reports just be sure to give credit and ask for permission if you’re using photos and full pieces.
  • Take a day off. I blogged every day for more than a year especially as a Carter Fellow – I felt an obligation. I have allowed myself to take a day off and a weekend or two.

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