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March 13, 2006

Seeders of Clouds: Latest on Newspaper Blogging

User loyalty and engagement with the site: that's why newspapers need blogs. Some grasp that, some don't. "The puzzle isn't solved by newspapers starting blogs, even though it's a good idea to learn the form by doing it."

I started thinking about the import of newspapers starting blogs when I looked at Greensboro101 for the first time. It’s an aggregator for local bloggers. There was something portentous about it. You could see the day when a 101-style site—with better and bigger content—might swipe the main switchboard position from the local newspaper. Or at least offer serious competition for news-related traffic.

Mike Phillips, editorial development director for Scripps Newspapers, had a similar thought in comments he made at PressThink (Sep. 29, 2005):

There are days when I’m tempted to gather a few friends, move into a nice town with a newspaper run by one of the slower-moving publishers, start up something that’s digital and citizen-driven and make a nice living picking the big guy’s pocket.

Which is why John Robinson of Greensboro—featured in this profile at PressThink’s Blue Plate Special—was smart to get his newspaper into blogging in 2004, and to push the idea of the News & Record’s site as a “public square.”

Back in December 2004 I did a short interview with Greensboro101 founder Roch Smith Jr; and I asked him, “Who is your competition?”

I guess that depends on what I’m competing for. If it’s for local eye-balls, then the competition is the News & Record, although I think other local media will soon be interested as well.

Right, because an ambitious television station might say: Fellas, we’re going to swipe the main switchboard position from the local newspaper. We’re going to be the public square. (Remember: They have on-air promotion, you don’t.) Or for that matter, TV site as local aggregator.

That’s what KRON in San Francisco has done with The Bay Area is Talking, and what WKRN has done with Nashville is Talking. (Check out their general manager’s blog.)

These aggregator sites exist in lots of places. There’s Philly Future, an outstanding example. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Daniel Rubin—also profiled at Blue Plate Special—says Philly Future is “where I go first each morning to find out the buzz.” There’s also Pittsburgh Bloggers, and Universal Hub in Boston, to take three examples. Or rather, there’s…

Peggy Noonan’s love note to the blogosphere (Wall Street Journal, Feb. 17, 2004) ends with this passage:

Someday in America the next big bad thing is going to happen, and lines are going to go down, and darkness is going to descend, and the instant communication we now enjoy is going to be compromised. People in one part of the country are going to wonder how people in another part are doing. Little by little lines are going to come up, and people are going to log on, and they’re going to get the best, most comprehensive, and ultimately, just because it’s there, most heartening information from … some lone blogger out there. And then another. They’re going to do some big work down the road.

(Ellipsis… hers.) Down the road the aggregator sites, like Greensboro101, could do some big work too. You have to imagine how a “lone blogger out there” who has “the best, most comprehensive information,” as Noonan put it, comes together with others who have similar goods to make a high traffic site that can gain advertising. Sort of like John Battelle’s Federated Media concept:

Federated Media helps leading independent authors turn their publications into sole-proprietor media businesses, at the same time providing media buyers with a scalable mechanism by which they can tap the audience loyalty and engagement that are fostered by the best blogs.

Reader loyalty and engagement with the site: that’s why newspapers should be starting blogs. Dan Rubin, who does Blinq for the Inquirer, says, “On average, visitors tend to spend more time on the blog than they do the entire site.”

On March 1, Blue Plate Special released a chart summarizing what we found when we looked for bloggers at the 100 largest newspapers in the U.S. (See Facts About the State of Blogging at America’s 100 Biggest Newspapers.) One of the findings: only 14 newspapers had no blogs that we could find.

One of those 14 was a newspaper I grew up reading: the Buffalo News, owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway. (Disclosure: I’ve done some consulting for their law firm in two libel cases, which the News won.) There we find a situation not unlike the one Mike Phillips sketched… “town with a newspaper run by one of the slower-moving publishers.”

Take it away Buffalo Geek, reacting to our chart…

The Buffalo News website is a testament to poor design. It seemingly exists in an Internet vacumn as links to external sites or community groups are verboten and is simply a copy of what is available in the print edition. If there is no content on the site that cannot be found in the print edition, why even have a website?

Local newspaper asleep at the digital switch, Geek says. Check out the site and tell me how accurate that is. (There’s a cheerier by the same firm.) Meanwhile, the broadcast stations are stirring a little.

Channel 2 has had great success in driving participation and viewership with their Taxpayer Weblog. Yes, it’s poorly designed and it’s usability is questionable, however, it clearly demonstrates the market for community participation in the news cycle and is used to build a loyal following of readers and viewers.

I like his way of putting it. “The market for community participation in the news cycle” is going unclaimed in Buffalo. That’s where the 101-style sites come in.

If people feel as if they are empowered, they will read and comment. Websites like,, local blogs, and BuffaloRising demonstrate the value and power of community involvement. Those sites increase awareness of local issues and empower participation in the political process.

Buffalo Geek is on a roll, in my opinion. His recommendation:

The Buffalo News should emerge from their technical coma, hire a few bloggers, promote community commentary, and empower the local community to fight for change. It would return the paper to relevance in this town and be the bridge between “Old Buffalo” and “New Buffalo”… we would then all be on the same page as we fight to revitalize this city.

Let the management at the Buffalo News know how you feel, demand that they respond to the community. Send them a link to the NYU study, this post, or links to any of the local blogs to demonstrate the value of new media.

Or as Tom Glocer, CEO of Reuters, put it in a recent speech: “The internet was not invented just to show a replica of yesterday’s newspaper with a few banner advertisements.” (Via Lance Knobel.)

If the Buffalo News is at degree zero in blogging then the Guardian in the UK is at the extreme opposite end— degree six. Its newest project is an expansion of the commentary section along the Huffington Post model. It’s called Comment is free… and described by Emily Bell, executive editor, as a “live comment blog which will pull in not only the best of our commentators’ work but the views of other bloggers, critics, academics, writers, technologists, thinkers etc., in a sort of British version of the Huffington Post.”

The site debuts Tuesday. Comments will be allowed, but only with a valid e-mail address and registration, and the Guardian may try geolocation technology to identify your actual location when you post a comment.

Simon Waldman is the director of digital publishing for the Guardian, and one of the forces behind Comment is free. The last time he was in New York, Jeff Jarvis and I had coffee with him. (Jarvis writes a new media column for the Guardian.) Waldman realized a while ago what I learned by doing this study with the Blue Plate team. Starting blogs is not the problem for newspapers, and it’s not the answer, either.

Once you create the first blog, it’s ridiculously easy to come up with more. In months you could be on your twenty-first. But there is a serious risk of over-supplying the market, drowning out your best voices, and publishing a lot of mediocre material. The blogging puzzle simply isn’t solved by newspapers starting blogs, even though it’s a good idea to learn the form by doing it.

The Guardian has learned the form. It has blogs, and will start more. (Also see its special report.) But Waldman doesn’t see starting more as innovation. The problem is how to create unique value. The new Comment section is about that. It is founded on an insight, not about blogging, but about the newspaper’s traditional columnists and the state of opinion writing online.

On March 2, Emily Bell told the Online Publishers Association that she would be doing a disservice to the Guardian’s old guard columnists “if she did not show them why their major competition is now online.” (via “This is where commentary is refining itself,” she said. “You have to think ‘where is this competitive landscape going?’ - and it is already there. Unless you take your writers there you are already dead.”

“Comment is free” is the vehicle for taking the Guardian’s writers there, and sidestepping their belief that a columnist’s opinion has prestige because it’s in a prestige newspaper. They will be voices in the Huffington-like mix (200 writers signed up already, including Arianna herself) and they will have to learn the new rules for how to stand out.

As Bell said, “columnists can now be challenged by anyone with an idea and a simple blogging platform— writers no longer need an international news organisation behind them.” Which means it’s not immediately obvious that Charles Krauthammer has anything on Captain Ed. What is obvious is that the Krauthammers of the world are never going to come to that realization on their own.

In between the zero innovation policy of the Buffalo News and the hero-of-innovation style of the Guardian, there’s the current state of the art at most American newspapers, with the Houston Chronicle and the Washington Post leading the way among bigger papers, while the Spokesman-Review, the News & Record and the Roanoke Times set the pace for papers under 100,000.

At the Chronicle, interactive editor Dwight Silverman wants to make writers out of readers, as well as bloggers out of journalists. But not just any reader will do. For his chron.Commons section, Silverman is hunting for knowledgeable and passionate people to fill particular slots. Here’s his wish list (Feb. 24):

We launched our reader blogs at the chron.Commons three weeks ago, and we’ve had a steady stream of new ones join the dozen that launched. We want to kick things up a notch, though, and fill in some gaps in topics.

We’re getting a lot of requests to do blogs that fit into the “Life” category, but I’d really like to fill out some of the others. Here’s a list of blog topics we’d love to have…

Silverman’s list includes fishing and hunting, dieting, building a house, home improvement, “someone starting up a business from scratch and writing about the process,” and computer security. There are standards:

We’re interested in Houston-area folks who are passionate about their topics, have some level of expertise and are clear, articulate writers.

E-mail me indicating your interest in these or other topics. If I like the proposal, you’ll be asked to submit some samples. If those meet the criteria, we’ll set you up with your own chron.Commons blog.

Which is a lot different than just throwing open the gates. The theory Silverman’s working with was stated well by Tom Glocer of Reuters:

Media companies need to be “seeders of clouds.” To have access to high-value new content, we need to attract a community around us. To achieve that we have to produce high-quality content ourselves, then display it and let people interact with it. If you attract an audience to your content and build a brand, people will want to join your community.

Jeff Jarvis explains the greatness of Glocer’s speech. Meanwhile, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has gone hunting:

We’re looking for Seattle-area residents who are passionate about something and want to tell the world about that topic, be it long distance running, the local live music scene, gaming, cooking, movies, poker, programming, getting fit, buying real estate, parenting - or something else. We especially want to sign up neighborhood bloggers to write about the issues and events in your corner of the world.

If you know a few fellow citizens/writers who would like to blog about a topic with you, we can start a group blog featuring you and a number of your friends. If you are already writing your heart out on a blog just a few hundred people are reading, talk to us about moving your blog to the Seattle P-I.

Which brings us back to Greensboro101, because clearly the P-I would like to be the blogging switchboard for the Seattle region. If it stays in business, that is.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links… says the Seattle Post-Intelligencer could go all-Web soon. “Talk has spread that the paper may leap directly to web as the nation’s first major daily published exclusively on the internet.”

The Guardian’s HuffPost-style blog is now live. comment is free…. According to Steven Vass, media correspondent for the Sunday Herald, the site is unlike anything other UK papers have attempted. From the editor’s welcome by Georgina Henry (March 14):

Welcome to Comment is free, the first collective comment blog by a British newspaper website. It will incorporate all the regular Guardian and Observer main commentators, many blogging for the first time, who will be joined by a host of outside contributors - politicians, academics, writers, scientists, activists and of course existing bloggers to debate, argue and occasionally agree on the issues of the day.

And I can announce that as of March 13, I will be a contributor to comment is free… , though they haven’t made me a page yet. Glenn Reynolds has a page there.

Do get a look at their Editor’s Blog, “a daily account of the process of editing the Guardian and Guardian Unlimited. It covers how editorial decisions are made, the events and discussions that take place and how the editorial side of the organisation works.”

Daily…interesting, that. Jarvis: “This shows the right attitude: opening the door and leaving it open.”

PressThink regular Daniel Conover, who is working on Internet projects for the Post-Courier in Charleston, had this to say Monday (March 13) at his personal blog:

One thing I learned on Friday: After looking at a bunch of the blogs cited on the Blue Plate Special list of blogging editors, I came away with the distinct impression that the blog I’d just built for my executive editor is going to look better and be far more readable/inviting than the majority of the other stuff out there. Why? Because I got a real designer (Janet) and three other guys with skills to design the template architecture.

“Our stuff goes live on March 22,” Conover says. “Watch for it.” We will, we will. Of course, he’s using Blue Plate Special exactly as intended. It’s a base line; after marking it you’re supposed to serve an ace.

In the comments to my March 1 post, Steve Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, author of the Trib’s Hypertext blog, made a sound observation about our study naming the top blogging newspapers in the U.S. He wondered whether having a main page listing all the newspaper’s blogs was all that important. “My understanding is that readers go to newspaper sites looking for news,” said Johnson. “So the more salient measure — or, at minimum, another salient measure — of a paper’s blogs ought to be how well they are incorporated into the daily news presentation.”

He’s right; we should have looked for that. Then, in reacting to this post, Johnson takes note of Daniel Rubin’s experience: “On average, visitors tend to spend more time on the blog than they do the entire site.”

His experience is not an endorsement of blogging per se, but rather of the idea that newspapers need to augment the “news,” in the traditional sense, with content that feels less impersonal, a little looser than the norm. That could be a great blogger, it could be (and often is) a great columnist, it could be a slam-bang entertainment site, say, that is distinct from the rest of the site. Any of those, done well, will surely grab people for longer than the site average and help firm up the relationship between reader and paper.

Check out this Craigslist ad from LA Voice: “Journalists, Bloggers - Get Exposure Without the Grind.” They too are soliciting voices.

…Getting published in the L.A. Weekly, CityBeat, Los Angeles Magazine, the Times and a dozen more L.A. papers and mags means you have to endure the grind: Editors don’t return your phone calls. They ignore your emails. They hang onto your work for months. If and when they run it, they mangle it or ask for late, massive changes and further reporting.

Over at Blue Plate Special’s feature on Canadian newspaper blogging by Mark Hamilton, PhD student Mark Federman has this comment about not finding many blogs at the Globe and Mail.

I think you’ve missed the point at the Globe. The entire online presence has been turned into a blog, with visitor comments that often turn into conversations on all articles.

The idea is not to have a thing called a “blog” (as in, “hey look at me - I’m bloggin’, I’m bloggin’”), but rather to change the web presence from a billboard into an active, engaging, conversation. The Globe’s redesign has got it mostly right, I think, regardless of how many of their journos are actually talking at us.

Posted by Jay Rosen at March 13, 2006 1:25 AM