Blogs Have a Place on News Web Sites

By: Steve Outing

I hope you’re not sick of Weblogs (AKA blogs) yet, because they’re not a fad that will go away soon. Blogs, it is becoming obvious to me, are where much of the innovation in online content is taking place.

Let’s dig deeper into the intersection of Weblogs and journalism. (Not all blogs can appropriately be called “journalism,” though many can.) Because if your news Web site isn’t publishing blogs of some sort, you are, like, so 1990s. It’s past time to get with it.

Who writes your blogs?

Last year, I wrote a column for Editor & Publisher Online suggesting that many reporters, correspondents, editors, and columnists at newspapers should produce Weblogs. I stand by that advice, but these days I place equal importance on non-staff members producing the content for blogs at news companies.

Weblogs present a wonderful opportunity to get the voices of the public onto your site. An area that’s ripe to capitalize on is digital photographs taken by members of the public — AKA witnesses to news. This, I am convinced, is going to be a huge trend in the next couple of years.

A handful of media companies have already experimented with the concept. BBC News Online solicited digital photos from people attending anti-war rallies prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The Dallas Morning News Web site collected images of space shuttle Columbia debris that had fallen to earth.

My advice is for news companies to set up a standard repository of public images and publicize how to submit photos (e-mail a specific address either from a photo phone or conventional e-mail). Then, the next time a tornado or hurricane rolls through, or a plane crashes in a populated area, a stream of witness images will pour in, ready to be filtered for publication. This concept can be deployed on any manner of public event or happening: a participatory event (say, a local marathon); an appearance by a presidential candidate; a Hollywood filming taking place in your town; etc.

Having a digital-camera-toting public at your disposal is, of course, the result of the popularity not only of digital cameras, but also picture cell-phones. It’s the latter that’s really exciting, and that will change the face of photojournalism. With a photo phone, the witness of a horrific auto accident can simply and instantly e-mail photos to a news organization. Indeed, that happened recently in Japan, when a truck driver used his photo phone to send a short (and grainy) video clip of the accident scene to a TV network, which broadcast the images, before professional photo-journalists could get to the scene. (With an army of photo-phone witnesses, you could argue that for stories that are less than earth-shattering, there’s not even the need to send out the pros.)

How big is this trend likely to get? A recent research report by IDC predicts that by 2005, unit sales of photo cell-phones will outnumber unit sales of digital and film cameras combined. When the devices are as ubiquitous as VCRs (and it’s heading quickly in that direction in gadget-happy Japan), news organizations can count on their audience members to regularly e-mail them news-worthy shots.

Learn This Word: ‘Moblog’



Weblogs come into the picture here in the form of “moblogs” (short for mobile Weblog). A moblog is typically a photo blog where an individual or group of people post images taken with photo phones, plus accompanying text (or even audio).

The moblog concept has caught on in a big way since first introduced in 2002. Many individuals maintain moblogs, and new moblogging services like TextAmerica.com make it super easy to have a moblog; to publish an image, you simply use your photo phone to e-mail it to TextAmerica.com. Some moblogs on that service allow anyone to post a photo — for example, the Traffic Jams Everywhere moblog
solicits photos from motorists stuck in traffic; Billboards of the World seeks photos of … interesting billboards, of course.

While photos of traffic jams around the world could be just about the most boring content imaginable, this concept deployed by a local-newspaper Web site actually could be useful. Imagine setting up a moblog to take in photo-phone images of traffic jams and traffic accidents. Assuming some minimal text submitted with photos from motorists stuck in traffic (to identify location), you have a moblog that offers a quasi-real-time visual traffic tool to supplement other traffic reports. (The idea is for commuters to check the traffic blog before heading out of the office.)

Public moblogs, populated with content from a news site’s audience, could be on a variety of topics. For instance:

* Celebrity sightings locally. (See Celebs Sighted at Starbucks for an example — but note that that particular moblog is a spoof.)

* Food. Readers submit photos of their dishes as served at local restaurants.

* Sports. Parents submit photos from little-league games for a kid-baseball moblog.

Think especially of temporary, event-driven moblogs — say, of a parade featuring shots sent in by attendees; or fan photos taken at an NFL team’s public pre-season practice sessions; or images of a political convention taken and submitted by delegates while they’re still on the floor.

In all these moblog examples, online news editors need to exercise some caution and some control. You want to make sure you filter out spoof photos, pornography, etc., of course. And to eliminate a long list of boring, amateurish photos, you’ll probably want to screen the submissions and only publish the best. Then the public moblog becomes compelling content.

Moblogs aren’t just for the public. Think about letting your professional staff — reporters, columnists, photographers — create them to supplement their traditional reporting. For instance, a city hall reporter might send in images taken during her reporting that go in a moblog that supplements text coverage in print and online. A society columnist’s Weblog might also include photos snapped during parties he attends. A restaurant critic snaps shots while dining for a review. Even a newspaper staff photographer might use a moblog for instantly publishing breaking-news images live from the scene via photo-phone, well ahead of online or print publication of higher-resolution traditional photographs.

Good Writers Who Don’t Work for You



One of the more interesting experiments I’ve noticed is the amateur blog published by the professional journalism site. If news sites are looking for interesting, inexpensive (or maybe even free) content, blogs written by local individuals may be one answer.

Local entertainment site Lawrence.com is deploying this model with several of its blogs, which are written by members of this college-town community (Lawrence, Kan.) — such as the University of Kansas student who writes a teen/20s-oriented sex blog. The majority of the site’s Weblogs, which are featured prominently on the home page, are written by local freelancers.

During the Iraq war, some news sites published blogs written by soldiers stationed in the Middle East, their wives, and even parents. The Web site of WCPO in Cincinnati carried a WarBlog written by a soldier from Cincinatti, for example.

The concept of community members writing for professional news organizations is hardly new. Even at the outset of online news publishing, some of the pioneers invited non-professionals to write columns. The early online operation of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (this was pre-World Wide Web) featured a cadre of online-only columnists — often community members who simply wrote for the joy of it and wanted a venue for their words. And many small papers have a long tradition of running columns by unpaid (or minimally paid) “community correspondents.”

Blogging actually makes it easier for community members, because of the nature of the format. Blogs — typically consisting of a series of short items — take less time to write than traditional columns. So the bartender, the veterinarian, the child psychologist, the taxi driver, or the park ranger can more easily work a blog into their lives — and offer online readers something worthwhile.

Using Blogs to Attract a Younger Crowd



Chances are, if you say “blog” to a group of people in their teens or 20s, most of them will know what the word means. The percent in-the-know of an older group almost certainly will be lower. So some news sites — most notably Lawrence.com — are using blogs as a ploy to attract a younger demographic.

In Athens, Ga., home to the University of Georgia, the local newspaper, the Athens Banner-Herald, recently introduced the AthensMusic.com Weblog, which focuses on the local music scene and “is an attempt to bring younger readers into our brand,” according to Director of Online Services David Bill. Bill is the primary blogger now, but his intention is to open it up to local music fans “to add their thoughts and news.” He’s contemplating paying some contributors a modest fee. The music blog was launched over the summer, and the true test of the new feature will be when students return to school in a couple weeks, and the Weblog is marketed to them.

The Vertical Blog



For a handful of journalists, Weblogs have led to a new career independent of mainstream media companies. Rafat Ali, London-based writer, publisher, and sole employee of PaidContent.org, is journalism’s poster boy for career independence from news companies. He’s says he’s making a decent living writing a Weblog/newsletter on the narrow area of new-media paid-content strategies. PaidContent.org gets enough advertising — because it serves an industry need — to support him.

News companies could learn something from Ali’s experience: That there’s plenty of room on the Web for vertical journalism, and there’s money to be made from it. A newspaper Web site, for instance, might identify narrow coverage areas where there’s a local market need — and hire a talented journalist who specializes in that area to run an Ali-like blog under the news company banner.

There’s benefit to the parent media outlet from such a strategy: Excerpts or highlights of specialized blog reporting can be published in the parent newspaper. For instance, a Detroit newspaper-site blogger who covers auto industry news on a daily basis can occasionally offer scoops to the paper. A local-nightclub-scene blogger can periodically show up in the paper’s entertainment section. All this from a self-supporting vertical blog.

The Inner-Workings Blog



In what is a significant blog trend, some news organizations are opening up the curtain a little bit — using Weblogs by key editors to report on the inner workings of a newspaper or media operation. While not yet widespread, this is a technique that’s useful for showing newspapers to be something more than faceless corporations.

Speaking of faceless, that’s how the public perceives many editorial boards — those bodies that decide on a newspaper’s editorial-page positions. In a brilliant move to open up the editorial board kimono, The Dallas Morning News recently started DMN Daily, written by members of the board — who publicly discuss and debate among themselves the issues of the day. What a great way to humanize the nameless editorials of the newspaper and its Web site.

‘Action Line’ Blogs



Finally, here’s an interesting idea that comes from Allan Maurer, a technology journalist for LocalBusiness.com and Triangle Tech Journal in North Carolina: an “Action Line” consumer-help Weblog, where the audience helps answer consumers’ questions. Action Line columns have long been a staple of newspapers, but with one “expert” responding to questions (by researching the answers). The Internet equivalent done in blog format can tap the collective intelligence of the feature’s readership. (There would still need to be a columnist or editor overseeing the process, vetting out spoof replies and inappropriate comments and posting the valuable answers.)

Go With the Flow



I’ve presented lots of ideas in this column, but I’ve barely scratched the surface. Use your imagination and start blogging!




Other recent columns

Attract the College Set With Design, Interaction, July 16
How the Web Can Restore Journalism’s Credibility, June 25
Targeting Technology Should Boost Online Ads, June 11
Newspapers’ Taste Standards Get Loose Online, May 28
Profiting From E-mail In an Ocean of Spam, May 14
Online Business Model Progress Report, April 30
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