blogs

Blog Strategies

How should large media organizations handle their blogs? As editors struggle to increase their news coverage, to generate the indispensable serendipity and raise the “fun side” (much needed for legacy media that are often too stiff), how do they strategize their use of blogs? For an online media, is there an optimal number of blogs to carry? Should editors adopt a Mao Zedong “let thousands blogs blossom” posture? Or, on the contrary, be rigorously selective?

Unsurprisingly, there is no easy answer, no one-size-fits-all strategy.

A note before we dive into the question: I choose to set aside independent professional bloggers. This is no reflexion on the quality of their work: it is often excellent, and sometimes better than what traditional media blogs offer. But I want to narrow the scope of this column.

When asked to explain what a legacy media blog should be and how it should relate to the general newsroom-produced content, I venture into the following set of requirements (in no particular order):

A Byline. Because the power of a media is often associated with the trust placed in it, readers tend to connect with “their” columnists. Moreover, the writer should provide more personal content, quite different from his/her “official” production (columns, editorial, analysis, opinion page).

Dedicated writing style. In a blog, no one wants (or expects) to find pontification — even by a celebrity author. A blog is an ideal fit for first person accounts and, if not for completely untrammeled stream-of-consciousness writing, at least for a good measure of casual, intimate stories.

A good example is Nobel Prize for Economics Paul Krugman in the New York Times: he combines a great byline, specific writing and a clear-cut editorial distinction. His weekly  column is, as expected, a neat and insightful production. And his blog, The Conscience of a Liberal, checks all the boxes. (In addition, Krugman — who builds his content without anyone’s help by adding photos, charts and video all on his own — is quite prolific: he wrote 21 posts over the last seven days!)

A concept. I always liked former Vanity Fair and New Yorker editor Tina Brown‘s phrase about the key attribute of a good story: it must be “high concept”, she said, i.e. reducible to one sentence. This property, often ignored or downplayed by editors, is at the core of our business and must also apply to blogging: if the writer’s blogging intention cannot be boiled down to a straightforward idea, maybe the idea needs rethinking.

An insider’s view. Many blogs are valued because their authors are so specialized they border on being insiders. Their access, their expertise give them plenty of material that won’t find its way into the main site structure but is a great fit for a blog. See the Guardian Defence and security blog or, on the same subject, Wired’s Danger Room or, on legal affairs, the excellent WSJ.com Law Blog.
More broadly, behind-the-scenes blogs, or reporter notebooks often produce good results. Foreign correspondents are usually the first to use the blog medium. To them, blogs are the ideal vector to write about campaign-trails, being immersed in a remote place or group, with first-hand “you are there” accounts.

An ultra-sharp angle. Blogs are good vectors for ultra-specialized views or angles. To name but a few:  The Numbers Guy in the Wall Street Journal pores over statistics, or FT’s Datablog on data-driven journalism. For lighter fare, let’s mention WSJ’s  Heard on the Runway about fashion (one of the most viewed), or WSJ’s Juggle on “choices and tradeoffs people make as they juggle work and family”.

What a blog shouldn’t be: a dump of disorderly news contents belonging to established home page sections, random bursts of disorganized thoughts, or a receptacle for journalists’ frustrations. As for the question of collective blogs vs. individual ones, I favor the individual blog: better gratification for the writer and, for management, more accountability and quality control.

Let’s now turn to metrics. Is there a rule of thumb for the quantity of blogs a news media should host?

I live and work in France where newsroom managers tend to be lax on blogs, and writers are quite voluble. The result is a record high number of blogs. To take one example, Le Monde hosts 61 blogs manned by its own staff, 26 guest blogs, and they select 30 readers’ blogs out of… 753 blogs “updated over the last 60 days” (this is more a page view strategy than an editorial one). All strong newsrooms, such as Le Monde or other prominent French newspapers, host great blogs. But, for all of them, the audience structure is a classic “20/80”, one in which a small fraction of the blog production makes the bulk of the audience. I don’t see the point in such a long tail, especially since advertising tends to price blogs at the very low end of their rate card.

Here are some numbers based on my analysis of publications I read on a regular basis:

– New York Times : 68 blogs. Its Blogs Directory shows the best possible arrangement. Those guys clearly believe in the blog medium and their news staff of 1200 provides great quality and a good mix between serious and more entertaining fare. Some are more than mere blogs: the excellent Dealbook, manned by a staff of 16, is more like a business site than a blog. Or Lens is my favorite spot for photojournalism as it rises above the level or an ordinary blog.

– The same goes for The Guardian (61 blogs) whose newsroom seems to enjoy manning its own blogosphere. Their baseline says it all: “The Sharpest Writing, the Liveliest Debate”.(Plus, OK, The Guardian hosts a small set of independent blogs such as The Monday Note…)

– High on the score (quantitatively speaking) is the Washington Post (102 blogs), with a weird focus on religion thanks to an ecumenical catalog of 13 blogs.

– WSJ.com has 54 blogs, officially. Plus what looks like a cemetery of 45 more. On the WSJ.com blogs home page, click on the Most Popular or Commented and the Latest; you’ll see which ones are the most active (Washington Wire on politics and the entertainment blog Speakeasy). This should make business pundits even more modest…

A random sample shows that a large number of blogs doesn’t equate with great quality. Too many blogs hosted by large media brands seem loose or rarely updated. That’s why a few specialized outlets prefer to focus on a small number of blogs: the FT.com (only 14 blogs) or the Economist (23 blogs) have opted for a selective approach — which more often ensures a better execution overall.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

The hype(r) local digital journalism

Everybody wants to go local. Internet-wise, it sounds like the new flavor of the month week. Going local is a digital and idealistic version of Mao Zedong’s “hundred flowers blossom”. (The Chinese dictator did actually encourage the expression of dissenting opinions; this turned out to have unpleasant consequences for those who took Dear Leader to his word). So, fine. Let’s see thousands of European and US cities generate a flurry of local websites covering city councils, local controversies, urban planning, etc. Every committed citizen will be able to monitor the community’s pulse just by clicking on a URL; it will be easy and efficient to launch (or to join) grassroots campaigns against the construction of an ugly overpass or for the clean-up a hazardous landfill. All of this is real.

As I write this, I listen to NYU professor Clair Shirky’s lecture delivered last September at the Harvard University Shorentsein Center (transcript and Video here). Always brilliant and convincing, Shirky revisited the 1992 pedophile priests scandal in Boston, one that was heavily covered by the Boston Globe, but died out due to a lack of resonance in the public. Evidently, today, things would have reverberated very differently.  So, yes, there is a useful future for local digital media.

Having said this, allow me to express a slightly skeptical view.

First, people tend to celebrate the hyperlocal web for the wrong reasons, that is the depletion of local coverage by traditional media. Last Thursday, I was at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston (UK) for its 12th Digital Editors Network. There, the British news agency Press Association presented a “Public Service Reporting” project. The PA would recruit legions of citizen journalists, they would be asked to comply with the agency’s ethics standards as they report on local issues. As for now, the PA is building several pilots and is looking for funding. Tony Johnston, The PA’s training chief who presented the case, stated its ambition: a network of 500 to 800 journalists costing £15m to £18m a year (€17-20m, $24-29m). In a preamble, he explained that the British newspapers’ shrinking local coverage paved the way to such an initiative (details in Journalism.co.uk here).

Well. There are two ways of considering such move. One is to say: Great, community members take over the coverage that matters to them, they use all available tools: social network, live blogging, Flip-camera produced videos, to give local stuff the exposure it needs.
Another view is this: Doing local journalism is as complicated as any other kind of reporting. Poring over local financial records requires the same amount of time, dedication and expertise as digging into a national political party’s finances. Yes, citizen-like journalists will do fine reporting on “lighter” issues such as the state of schools or of the sewage system. But uncovering and preventing what really matters, such as the misuse of public funding, rigged bidding procedures for large projects and so on is a very different story.

More broadly, a professional journalist is required to avoid take sides in doing his or her job. Leaving such coverage to self-appointed journalists is opening the pandora’s box to all kinds of agenda-driven reporting. More

Rotten Apples in the Reviews Barrel

A few weeks ago, professional blogger Kevin Dixie received a strange proposition: a US‑based company offered to buy from him 30,000 reviews for a new iPhone application at $1 per review. Positive reviews, needless to say. Moreover, the marketing company proposed to extend the deal for 30 applications, about 10 to 20 times a month. A huge potential windfall for Kevin Dixie — who declined the offer. This British entrepreneur living in France created two specialized consumer products reviews sites: FuelMyblog, and its recent offspring FuelMyApp.com launched in September.

In both cases, the idea is the the same: a casual blogger from the network writes whatever review he or she wants to in exchange for a free product. The item can be an electronic appliance worth a few dozens of dollars (sterling pounds actually, the company is UK based) or it can be a trip worth a thousand dollars. The brand pays FuelMyBlog 25£ ($40) per review, that’s how Dixie makes its money. (The process also results in those brands getting higher Google pageranks). With the explosion of the iPhone applications business, Dixie decided to roll out a dedicated site based on the same idea: the blogger purchases the app, tests it, writes a review and FuelMyApp reimburses him for the price of the application via its PayPal account. More

The News Cycle Heartbeat

How do mainstream media and blogs interact? How do they feed each other ? Everyone in the newsmedia would love to get a better view of the mating dance. A few weeks ago, scientists at the Cornell University unveiled a thorough analysis of the relationship between the two universes. Borrowing from genomics techniques, they dug into a huge corpus of politically-related sentences and tracked their bounces between mainstream media (MSM) and the blogosphere.

Their dataset:

  • About 90 million documents (blog posts and news sites articles) collected between August 1 and October 31, 2008, i.e. at the height of the last US Presidential race.
  • 1.65 million blogs scanned.
  • 20,000 media sites reviewed, marked as mainstream because they are part of GoogleNews.
  • From this dataset, researchers extracted 112 million quotes leading to 47 million phrases, out of which 22 million were deemed “distinct”. These phrases were important enough to be considered as news.
  • The phrases where political statements or sound bytes pertaining to the political race  and uttered by the two candidates, their running mates or their staff.
  • Processing these 390GB of data took about nine hours of computer time (using a complex set of algorithms, involving “markers”, as in genetics).

The findings, in a nutshell:

  1. Mainstream media lead the news cycle. They are the first to report a quote, the story behind it, the context, etc.
  2. The 20,000 MSM sites generate 30% of the documents in the entire dataset and 44% of  the documents that contained frequent phrases.
  3. It takes about 2.5 hours for a phrase to reverberates through the blogosphere.
  4. The phrases that propagate in the opposite way (from blogs to MSM) amounts to a mere 3.5%.
  5. A news piece decays faster on the MSM than on the blogosphere.

The comparative curve looks like this :

For those who want the complete analysis, the full report is available here.

As expected, this research triggered controversy. More