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.