Newspaper 2.0: The Blog Revolution
Traditional news sites need to be there or be square. Some are starting their own blogs, others are (for now) just making their own sites more blogger-friendly. What’s coming in 2005 and beyond?
You don’t have to spend much time online to know that 2004 was a big year for Web logs. Dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster crowned “blog” the No. 1 word of the year and, especially in the media world, this new form ? “a Web site that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer,” as M-W helpfully explained ? made its presence felt.
Bloggers were on the cover of The New York Times Magazine; they created the brief frenzy over Howard Dean and brought down Dan Rather (or so they’ll tell you), and they are still getting slammed for publishing leaked Election Day exit polls predicting a Kerry win. Wonkette’s Ana Marie Cox rode her collection of sex jokes and capital gossip to mainstream prominence. There’s even a blog called Regret the Error, launched in October, devoted to newspaper corrections.
So it’s no surprise that many editors of newspaper Web sites are looking at how to effectively integrate blogs into their content offerings ? and how to capitalize on the readership outside blogs often send to articles and features posted on newspaper sites.
Online editors report that the advent of blogs is just one of several trends they’re focusing on as their sites move into 2005. Major transformations are unlikely. “The changes you’re going to see are progressive and incremental,” says Kinsey Wilson, editor in chief of USAToday.com. “You’re not going to see huge leaps.”
These editors are looking to improve navigation on their sites, to ensure readers take full advantage of all the content offered. Happy to report near sell-outs of available ad spaces, they are now looking to find more commercial slots. They’re planning ways add more video and other rich-media features, taking advantage of the exploding popularity of broadband Internet access.
And they’re definitely grappling with how to adapt their sites to our current, blogified media world.
One basic issue is how newspapers should handle the new readers that blogs and other sources direct to their sites. The New York Times on the Web, for example, is about to embark on a site-wide redesign, driven partially by the new ways people reach online news.
“We haven’t redesigned the site in more than three years,” says Leonard Apcar, the site’s editor in chief. “In that time there have been a lot of changes in the way people come to The New York Times on the Web. For instance, a good percentage of our readers are not seeing the homepage; they are coming in because of search engines or RSS feeds, any number of avenues ? our own e-mails, other links. They’re coming in to an article page. Once they get to an article page, we need to redesign how else you engage the site and travel through it.”
Most newspaper Web sites are currently designed to reflect the paper itself, with sections for national news, metro, sports, business, and the like, each with its own front page. “Section fronts are very much a newspaper paradigm,” says Doug Feaver, the soon-to-retire executive editor of washingtonpost.com, and he argues that it’s not a very effective way of organizing the site. Washingtonpost.com isn’t looking at a total redesign, but they’re planning smaller navigational and appearance changes, he says, acknowledging that things like “search-engine preparation” and “a good link off the home page” are important to moving traffic through the site.
Across the country, at the San Francisco Chronicle’s SFGate.com, “We’re trying to get people beyond homepage/ click to story/click back to homepage/click back to story/ go somewhere else,” says Vlae Kershner, the site’s news director. “We’re trying to improve the site navigation in a way that will keep users around longer.”
At The Wall Street Journal Online, Bill Grueskin, the managing editor, looks at it more philosophically: “How do we make reading news online as easy and elegant and serendipitous as it is in the newspaper? How do you make the Web site even more compelling for people, so it’s a must-read rather than a can-read? And then, once you get them there, how do you sink your claws into them so they don’t want to go away?”
Like his counterparts at other papers, Grueskin is looking at “things in terms of the design of the site, the design of the story pages” to help move readers more effectively and efficiently through his site, and to better capitalize on those readers directed to them from blogs and elsewhere.
WSJ.com faces particular challenges in attracting and fully exploiting link-directed readers, as it is largely a subscription-only site and many bloggers prefer not to link to articles that aren’t openly accessible. It’s interesting, then, that the Journal’s has been among the most aggressive sites in recruiting blog traffic.
Starting in May 2004, Journal Online editors decided to make a certain number stories available for free each day, based on which stories they thought bloggers would be interested in linking to, and they do e-mail blasts, notifying them of the available stories. Two or three stories are made available for bloggers each day, and sometimes Journal Online staff will make other stories free when bloggers request them.
Starting soon, Grueskin plans to target bloggers more specifically, “engaging” them, as he puts, in a variety of areas ? technology, business and finance, media, and others ? with appropriate content.
It makes sense that newspapers want to take advantage of traffic blogs send their way. But do they want to get into the blogging game themselves? After all, blogs can help draw a lot of traffic to their host sites ? their constantly updated nature encourages repeat visits throughout the day. The popular liberal political blog Daily Kos, for example, averages almost 400,000 page views per day, according to Sitemeter. Wonkette gets 75,000 per day, and, for New York’s media-gossip blog Gawker, the average is 150,000.
“I think there’s a real role for blogs in the future of online journalism,” says Doug Feaver, executive editor of washingtonpost.com. But how exactly to handle them, he says, “is one of the main questions for mainline news sites.” For starters, there’s the question of terminology. “We’re going to have to call them something else,” Feaver says, noting the “baggage” the term carries with some newspaper editors.
His designated successor, Jim Brady, who takes over in February, notes that when they discuss blogs with editors from the print Post, they don’t use the “b” word. Plus, both editors point out that washingtonpost.com already runs a number of “blog-like” features, like Live Online chats, which incorporate reader interaction and a reverse chronology, and the World Opinion Roundup, White House Briefing, and Media Notes features, which provide links and commentary. But he adds there are definite plans to soon move beyond “bloggish” to actual blogs in 2005.
At The Wall Street Journal Online, Managing Editor Bill Grueskin makes a similar argument: sort of been there, sort of done that, want to do more. “We’ve been doing things for some time, even before they were called blogs,” he says, noting The Daily Fix, launched in 2001, which rounds up the best sports writing on the Web, and The Health Scan, which is a two- or three-times weekly look at big stories in health.
More recently, the site ran a weeklong Econoblog, WSJ.com’s first real blogging effort, which pitted two economist bloggers against each other, debating a different issue each day. It was “a very successful formula,” Grueskin says, and the Journal Online wants to revisit it ? but only on an occasional, event-specific basis. “On any spot issue of the day,” he says, “we might try to get a couple of economist bloggers to give their insight and analysis and then bring readers into it.” In early December, for example, the site ran another Econoblog discussing the news John Snow would stay on as Treasury Secretary.
USAToday.com’s editor in chief, Kinsey Wilson, is also a fan of event-specific blogs. His site has two ongoing efforts ? Today in the Sky, on air travel, and Hip Clicks, on pop culture ? and it has run two event blogs, one on the Athens Olympics, with two staffers dedicated to it, and another on election night. Look for more one-off blogs from USA- Today.com in 2005.
But one newspaper’s online guru sees no such limits for blogs. “We’ve been blogging for almost three years now,” says Ken Sands, managing editor for online at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., and something of a newspaper blogging legend. “We were one of the first newspaper Web sites to start doing it, and then of course we’ve really gone whole hog and embraced it.”
The Spokesman-Review currently features 18 blogs ? from the paper’s movie critic, from statehouse reporters in Olympia, Wash., and Boise, Idaho, and on concerts and auto racing and religion and much else ? and there were eight more during campaign season. “A blog is just a publishing tool,” Sands says, “but the content could be anything. The vast majority of our blogs are what I’d call a Web version of a print reporter’s notebook.”
The blogs provide niche information to readers, they provide content to the newspaper (which excerpts some of them on a weekly basis), and they generate print story ideas through feedback from readers. Next year, Sands is looking to invite local bloggers to move onto the paper’s site.
Non-staff blogging isn’t a unique idea. Chris Jennewein, director of Internet operations at The San Diego Union-Tribune, already has several community members among his seven bloggers on SignOnSanDiego.com. Elsewhere in California, the Ventura County Star, which just won the top Online Journalism Award for general excellence among smaller sites, runs a blog by a local soldier who’s a helicopter pilot in Afghanistan. But having people writing with a newspaper’s imprimatur who aren’t trained journalists ? or, frankly, even those who are trained ? raises questions of whether blogs should, or even can, be edited.
Howard Owens, director of new media at the Ventura County Star, is a blogging purist who argues against editing. “I’m not a big fan of that,” he says. Even Kershner at SFGate.com, which has previously run into problems with a staff columnist and his unedited newsletter, can’t imagine editing a blog. “Immediacy is so critical to it that I think going through an editor kind of defeats the point,” Kershner says.
But Feaver says, “I don’t see washingtonpost.com or NYTimes.com or WSJ.com running an unedited blog.” Len Apcar, editor in chief of The New York Times on the Web, agrees. “We’re an edited institution,” he says. “If someone blogs for us, there’s always another pair of eyes looking at it.”
At the Journal, says Grueskin, “we are very, very careful about what we say about companies, about executives, about the markets, because what we say has the power to really move markets.” So, yes, the Econoblog was “very lightly edited.”
USA Today’s Wilson sees a middle ground, a system that acknowledges concerns about both immediacy and responsibility. “In the case of the Olympics and election blogs, where time was of the essence, we were actively reading behind the person, as they were writing,” he says. Other blogs there are lightly edited before they’re posted. And in Spokane, Ken Sands follows his own logical system.
“If we have given someone a blog on our staff, we’re pretty comfortable that they’re not going to screw it up. So we read behind them; we don’t edit before publication on the Web,” he says. “For people who are outside the staff, our policy has been to edit them before publication,” which, he says, consists mostly of catching typos.
Of course, it’s unlikely many papers ? and especially the big ones ? will soon embrace blogs in the way Sands has. “I think if traditional newspaper sites go overboard trying to do what blogs do, then they probably won’t do it very well, and it’ll look like an old guy trying to look like a young guy,” says the Journal’s Grueskin.
But just as there are many different kinds of Web logs ? opinionated or reportorial, tightly focused or with broad interests, occasionally updated or near-continuous, first-person or third ? they can and will work for different newspapers in different ways. And you never know what might work.
“Our weather blog is surprisingly popular,” reports Chris Jennewein in San Diego, where the local convention and visitors bureau boasts a year-round average daily temperature of 70.5 degrees. “Even if the weather doesn’t change, people are fascinated by it.”
With readers flocking to blogged reports about San Diego’s monotonously beautiful weather, these newfangled Web logs must be powerful tools indeed.