July 20th, 2007

Should Newspapers Become Local Blog Networks?

by

Chicago Tribune just relaunched its website with, of course, more blogs — A LOT more blogs — news, entertainment, sports, living, business travel, with multiple blogs in each category. It struck me that this is more than a “me too” step, as it was last year , when launching a blog was how traditional media sites tried to show they were still hip and relevant. Now, many newspapers — from the New York Times to my own local Loudoun Times-Mirror (which also just relaunched) — have dozens of blogs, covering every traditional newspaper topic.

What’s becoming clear is that blogs are now the organizing principle for newspapers’ original online content. And these are “real” blogs, i.e. driven by one or two individual bloggers, with (often active) comments, RSS feeds, the whole nine yards.

Washington Post’s newly launched hyperlocal site, LoudounExtra.com, is anchored by a strong blogger, and the site maintains a list of local bloggers. Sites like the Houston Chronicle have had a lot of success with setting up high-quality freelance blogs — this is not “citizen journalism” or reader blogging (as the Chronicle calls them — but they’re not readers anymore when they’re writing!) or (even worse) “user-generated content.”

These are freelance journalists, who happen to be doing it in their spare time and who happen to be using blogging software.

The word “blog” has way too much baggage — it’s too often equated with opinion. But a blog is just a content management system, and you can use it to publish shrill opinion, or you can use it to publish traditional journalism…or you can use it to publish journalistic reporting with a bit more point of view.

Most newspapers are actually using blogs as platforms for daily online publishing — platforms that allow one person to publish a “mini-publication.”

This got me thinking — maybe what newspapers should become in the digital media era is a network of local bloggers — some of whom are staff writers and some of whom are freelancers. Maybe most of them are freelancers. Maybe the full-time reporters are dedicated to beats like covering local governments, which require more time-intensive reporting to fulfill the Fourth Estate mission, but which can be supplemented by freelance reporting.

Maybe there are three tiers of journalists at these blog network “newspapers”:

  1. Full-time reporters and editors, who ensure breadth of coverage, quality and standards, and public mission
  2. Paid freelancers who write on a regular basis, but not full-time — these can be stay-at-home parents looking for supplemental income, retirees looking for extra income or to keep busy, college students, etc.
  3. “Witness” reporters (avoiding “citizen journalist” on purpose), who contribute to the reporting effort when they witness news in some form

Many newspapers are closer to this model than they may realize, but there a few radical steps required:

  • Use more freelancers who can post to blogs part-time
  • Create a platform for anyone to report news — but on the established blogs, not in some big sloshing vat of random submissions — if someone wants to contribute regularly, give them their own blog, a focus, and (just enough) structure

To really take advantage of the economies of this model, which could actually enable MORE local reporting, newspapers need to consider one final step — stop publishing in print.

The big problem with transforming newspaper business models is that there’s still so much less revenue online, and only the print revenue can cover the huge cost base of publishing the print paper.

But if newspapers adopted this lean, flexible, networked blog model, and stopped publishing in print, they would shrink costs radically, and, maybe…increase online revenue enough to make it work, IF online was the only game in town.

Most papers aren’t ready to seriously consider ceasing to publish in print, but they are ready to more deliberately restructure their news operations down the blog path they’ve already taken, so that when the time comes to consider stopping the presses — in five years, two years, next year — they will be prepared to survive the transition.

  • The next big trend in the web is localization. For some things, like online ordering, we need world connectivity. For the rest, we need internet groupware, and local blogs and social networking are part of this.

  • What Scott describes is more or less what we're doing at NewWest.Net (san print). Check out our local iteration at www.newwest.net/missoula...

    Jonathan Weber
    NewWest.Net

  • As one of those Houston Chronicle "reader bloggers," I have to say that I do not think of myself as a journalist - which to me suggests a role of digging up facts and stories and telling people about them. My particular blog is commentary on news, and while I enjoy it & it seems to have attracted a wide readership, it's not journalism. Maybe a form a freelance, unpaid, punditry.

    Some of the the other reader blogs do, I think, fit into the "journalism" bucket better.

    Maybe my definition of journalism is too narrow.

    The community aspect is important; I'm amazed that a core group of readers use my blog at the Chron as a discussion forum, and that seems to be the value they get from it - a venue for talking about the news.

  • The three tiers of journalists you define seem to have existed as long as newspapers. There have always been full-time and freelance writers and columnists, and readers have always contributed, whether in the form of 'letters to the editor' or as guest columnists.

    My point? You confuse the change in delivery format with a fundamental change in the medium. A blog is really just what we used to call an editorial column. We simply created a new name for it when it migrated to the internet.

    The only thing that rings true about your post is the observation that the only way to counteract the new, more efficient revenue model on the web is to also shift your expenses to the web. If all writers work from home, you don't need offices. If all content is ont he web, you don't nee dprinting presses.

  • Probably OT, but I find the design a bit plain and generic. It looks like one of those sites that you land on if you get one of the letters wrong on an URL.

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