THE BLOG
03/14/2006 07:31 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Six Degrees of Newspaper Blogging and Why the Guardian is Ahead

Today the Guardian in the UK debuts its new site modeled on the Huffington Post, and founded on an insight about newspaper blogging: It's not enough for papers to "start blogs." Reader engagement and added value are the trick.

I started thinking about newspapers starting blogs when I looked at Greensboro101 for the first time. It's an aggregator for local bloggers in a town with a lot of them. 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 at my blog 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."

That's why John Robinson of Greensboro -- who is featured in this profile at PressThink's new Blue Plate Special site -- 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 '04 I did a short interview with Greensboro101's 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 news director at a local station might say: Fellas, we're going to swipe the main switchboard position from the newspaper. We're going to be the public square. (Don't forget: 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 full-time blogger 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 Pittsburgh Bloggers, and Universal Hub in Boston, to take three examples from plenty. Or rather, there's...

* Philly Future ("Philadelphia Regional News YOU Write")... and there's Philly.com ("the region's home page.")

* There's Pittsburgh Bloggers... as against post-gazette.com (zero blogs, by the way)... which is different from pittsburgh.com, owned by WPXI, Channel 11 in Pittsburgh.

* There's Universal Hub ("1011 Boston blogs and counting!") and there's boston.com (five blogs, hard to find.)

Ultimately who is to say which page will wind up becoming "the region's home page?"

Peggy Noonan's love note to the blogosphere (Wall Street Journal, Feb. 17, 2004; compare it to Arianna"s) 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 a user base and 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. Ultimately advertisers are going to realize that this is quality space and pay a premium for the blogs with a following. The numbers won't lie. 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 Philly.com site." But then he also says: "It's all-consuming. To do it right takes everything I have."

On March 1, Blue Plate Special released a chart summarizing what we found when we looked for signs of 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 at all that we could find.

One of those 14 was a newspaper I grew up on: the Buffalo News, then owned by the Butler family of Buffalo, now 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, says Geek. Check the site and tell me how accurate that is. (There's a cheerier buffalo.com by the same firm.) Meanwhile, the broadcast stations are stirring a bit..

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 have their opening. Geek gets it.

If people feel as if they are empowered, they will read and comment. Websites like WNYMedia.net, SpeakUpWNY.com, 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 gave 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.) Tom Curley, CEO of the AP, gave his innovate-or-die speech in '04.

If the Buffalo News, ignoring Curley and Glocer, is at degree zero in blogging, then the Guardian in the UK is at the extreme opposite end -- degree six, let's call it. The newest project there debuts today--March 14--and is similar to the Huffington Post, which serves as a model. (Quite a tribute to Arianna and Ken Lerer, founders of HP.) 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 is a major initiative, and unlike anything other UK papers have attempted. (See the editor"s welcome.) Reader comments will be allowed, but only with a valid e-mail address and registration, and the Guardian may try geolocation technology to identify where you actually are in the world when you post a comment. (The bug so far is that the system will spit out where your ISP, but not you, are.)

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, with the Blue Plate team, (The Best Blogging Newspapers in the U.S*) Starting blogs is not the problem for newspapers, and it's not the answer to anything, 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 on the Web, and engage users in it. The Guardian's new blog is about that.

On March 2, Emily Bell told the Online Publishers Association that she would be doing a disservice to the Guardian's columnists "if she did not show them why their major competition is now online." (via journalism.co.uk.) "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 a 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 contributors signed up already, including Arianna and myself and Glenn Reynolds) 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 (ZIP) and the hero-in-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. (And check out this Craigslist ad from LA Voice. It has a similar theme: lone bloggers, get with us!) 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.

What's this? mediabuyerplanner.com 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." 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.

Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University and writes the weblog PressThink.