Letting the Blogs Out

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By: Jesse Oxfeld

John Robinson is an unlikely revolutionary. He’s the establishment, really. For the last six years he’s been editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., where he’s worked for two decades. And he certainly doesn’t like the implication he’s some kind of radical. “It’s kind of embarrassing,” he says, “as I sit here in a suit and tie and short hair.” But to those who spend time thinking about how, even if, newspapers will survive in a super-connected, empowered, non-intermediated, and ? here’s the word ? blogified world, John Robinson is on the barricades.

What’s Robinson doing? Merely redesigning his paper’s Web site. But he’s doing it in a way that also reconsiders the print newspaper, its staff, and most important, the relationship between the paper and its community. He’s incorporating more Web logs and increased transparency in an attempt to create, virtually, what the News & Record folks call a town square. When the paper’s overhaul is complete, it may be a model for the sort of 21st century paper that many journalism big thinkers have been talking about, chewing over, and confabbing on for the last few years. Greensboro will be the first place where this conceptually newfangled newspaper actually exists.

“This is a big deal,” Dan Gillmor, the influential tech journalist who recently left his San Jose Mercury News post for a grassroots-journalism start-up, announced on his blog. “I’ve been waiting for this,” New York University journalism chair Jay Rosen heralded on his PressThink blog. “The organization willing to be a little radical.”

Even Slate press critic Jack Shafer ? who earned a reputation as a blog-journalism reactionary after a column mocking the advocates’ triumphalism ? has only good things to say about the Greensboro initiative. “I find it an interesting, fascinating development,” he says in an interview. “They’re taking wonderful first steps at trying to see, as newspapers become increasingly digitized, as the division between the print edition and the online edition evaporates even more, if there’s something that compels people to come to the newspaper.”

But Robinson sees one downside: “The way it has taken off certainly surprised me, and it actually causes me some fear that we won’t meet the expectations the world has put on us.”

Enter the ‘ town square’

Greensboro is a city of 230,000 residents and three colleges in North Carolina’s north-central Guilford County. There’s a mix of Old South conservatism and college-town progressivism; it’s a John Kerry county in a comfortably red state.

The News & Record, owned by Landmark Communications, is the dominant media presence in the market. There’s also a thriving blog scene, best demonstrated by Greensboro101.com, a bustling and popular “online citizen’s alternative media hub,” as Roch Smith Jr., its founder, terms it. Tension between Greensboro’s old-money culture and a certain “rebelling undercurrent,” says Smith, has helped drive the blog movement there.

News & Record editor Robinson blogs. So do several local officials. Smith’s Greensboro101.com lists 50-odd local bloggers.

It’s an engaged community, but Robinson, 52, realized the community wasn’t always engaged with the News & Record. Like editors everywhere, he went looking for ways to keep people reading his paper. The trend lines for newspapers aren’t looking good, and last summer Robinson asked his city editor, Mark Sutter, to compile a report on what the newspaper needed to do to improve its readership.

“What he concluded,” Robinson says, “was that we needed to get much closer to the community and really create a ‘town square’ atmosphere in our newspaper,” an atmosphere that welcomed, involved, and addressed the concerns of readers ? who would then, presumably, continue buying the paper.

Also in late August, egged on by Ed Cone, a nationally known tech writer and blogger and a Greensboro local who contributes a weekly column to the News & Record, Robinson started blogging, “just to learn, really,” he says. Cone didn’t just work his magic on Robinson; when asked why Greensboro became so bloggy, Roch Smith says, “Two words: Ed Cone. He’s an excellent blogger.”

Soon enough, Robinson says, “It became clear that as part of this idea of the News & Record as a town square online could serve a huge purpose in that.”

In terms of connecting with readers, Robinson saw the online space offered huge advantages in immediacy and interactivity “and, frankly, the number of readers who are going online,” he says. “It seemed to be a place we needed to be.”

At the beginning of December, Robinson told his blog readers what he was thinking. “I am excited about the possibilities presented by expanding the voice and reach and impact of journalism,” he wrote. “We’re trying to transform the newspaper, and blogging is changing the face of journalism.”

The goals of this transformation? “Building a new way of doing smart, citizen journalism,” he explained on his blog. “More transparency. News as a conversation. It’s a world the News & Record must play in. This is not just the concept for online; this is the concept for the newspaper.”

Laying out the game plan

Robinson asked for advice from a likely source: Lex Alexander, who has been at the News & Record since 1987.

He’s been a reporter and an editor there, and, for the last year, he’s headed a three-person investigations team for which he both reported and edited. He’s also, basically by default, the newsroom’s go-to guy on the intersection of journalism and technology. “This is ironic,” he notes, “because I’m an English major, and I know nothing about computers.” He’s been blogging on and off since 1997 and continuously since April 2002, at a News & Record blog called “The Lex Files.” Robinson tasked Alexander with figuring out how best to create Sutter’s town square online.

Alexander, like any good blogger, then asked the world what it thought about plans to build a true public square. “We plan to take some large steps, soon, toward building an open-source, online community,” he wrote.

The response was overwhelming. Bloggers locally and nationwide threw in their two cents, as did readers of the News & Record, editors elsewhere, press critics, and media thinkers. On Dec. 23, only a week after Alexander put out his query, he turned in his report.

As Robinson points out, none of the individual suggestions in Alexander’s report are particularly new. “This has been portrayed as pioneering and all, and I don’t know about that,” he says. “Best I can tell, there’s nothing original out of this. All we’re doing is stealing other people’s ideas, from bloggers like Jay Rosen and Dan Gillmor and [Advance.net president] Jeff Jarvis. It’s just stealing others’ original thoughts and trying to make them work.”

Still, to see all those stolen ideas compiled in one document ? and a document from a newspaper planning to introduce many of them ? was remarkable. Alexander’s memo, which he soon posted on his News & Record blog, explained the origin of the project, looked at the trends that make it necessary, and boldly, rather than reluctantly, planted a flag for what Alexander called “the paradigm for the new community journalism on which we are embarking” ? followed by some 50 specific suggestions of new directions for News-Record.com.

Alexander lumped the suggestions into five categories: community, interactivity, site additions and alterations, and revenue.

Among the specific ideas:

Community bloggers, reporting on local sports teams and neighborhoods, and a consumer affairs reporter/blogger drawn from the current staff.

More interactivity, from something as simple as easily available RSS feeds of news and sports headlines to more in-depth efforts, like bio pages and blogs for everyone on staff, where reporters can discuss stories they’re working on and why they made certain decisions.

Innovations like an interactive assignment desk that follows up on readers’ story ideas; letters to the editor and obituaries restructured as blogs, allowing room for feedback and tributes.

Outlinks from all news stories to the sources for facts, information, and assertions; and feedback sections on each article, which the reporter must read and, where appropriate, respond to.

Alexander even suggested blog coverage of editorial-board meetings and news budget meetings. “Doing nothing is not an option,” he says. “All the trends say that if we continue to do business the way we’ve been doing business, we’re going to be out of business in a generation or two, tops.”

He sees dramatically shifting the way newspapers work as a business necessity. “And,” he adds, if the model changes as he’s suggesting, “we’re going to get better journalism out of it ? better sources, better stories. What we do is going to more accurately reflect the way people live their lives in this community, and we’re going to raise the communities trust level in us” ? something that, today, is becoming increasingly necessary.

Commentators are exceedingly supportive. “They are charting a new course,” NYU’s Jay Rosen tells E&P. “That’s why I’m excited.” Somewhere along the line, the standard model was set for a newspaper Web site: repurposed print content, some forums, maybe an online feature or two. No one ever asked the obvious question, says Rosen: “Suppose we start with what the Net can do. What kind of news site would we build?” Greensboro is finally asking.

Most importantly, John Robinson is on board ? “I think we’re totally rethinking the newspaper and how we’re seen by readers,” he says ? and so are his corporate bosses. “I applaud it,” says Bruce Bradley, president of Landmark Newspapers. Lex Alexander now has a new post: He’s been assigned to focus full time on how to implement these new ideas.

Large growth in small doses

Of course, this can’t happen overnight. Or, at least, not all of it. But the paper has already aggressively added new blogs to its offerings. By early February ? less than six weeks after Alexander’s report went to Robinson and other top editors ? there were a total of eight News & Record blogs. New additions come from the sports section and education reporters; the editorial page editor, the religion reporter, and a conservative Op-Ed columnist are blogging. The letters-to-the-editor blog, on only its first day, turned out to be wildly popular.

There are also several new forums, and, implementing another detail from his proposal, Alexander added a link on the home page through which readers can send him story ideas which he’ll pass on to the appropriate editors.

A long-planned visual overhaul of the site ? along with a software upgrade ?launched in February. But the major, conceptual overhauls, along the line of Alexander’s plan, are still to come, in some cases well down the road. Interestingly, the folks working on it seem fine with that.

What will the site look like in a year? “You know, I don’t know,” says Robinson. Comments Alexander: “I think it will be what we make it, and I think that we don’t know the answer to that question yet. We’ll have a better answer in a year or so, when we see what we have been able to do. My guess is that this is going to manifest itself in ways we’re not even aware of yet.”

There’s a bit of concern among local bloggers ? people afraid the News & Record will try to take their free labor and make money from it ? but more enthusiasm. “I think there’s a great deal of excitement in the blogging community,” says Roch Smith. He believes a rising tide of blog-awareness will ultimately lift all boats. “The News & Record has decided to jump in,” he says, “and that will only expedite things.”

The exciting part, everyone seems to agree, is the process. “Man, it’s an exciting time to be in journalism,” Robinson wrote in the blog post that introduced this project. On the phone, he sounds almost like an eager j-schooler, excited just to be figuring out how best to reach people.

“The goal is ? you know, as I sit here and think about this, it sounds really hokey ? the goal is what every journalist’s goal is: to spread the news and to get people talking about the stuff that’s important and what’s happening in their community. If I have to do that online, I’ll do it online. If I can do it in the newspaper, I’ll do it in the newspaper. We want to help people make smart decisions for their life, and help give them the information they need to participate in democracy.”

Ed Cone, the freelance tech journalist in Greensboro who turned Robinson onto blogs all those years ago, the man who in some ways got this whole thing rolling, is happy, at least, that the process is finally happening in his backyard.

“There’s nothing unique about Greensboro, that this couldn’t happen elsewhere, with other newspapers,” he says. “There’s not some hothouse environment, there’s not some unique situation, the water’s not different.”

Yes, there’s a critical mass of civically engaged bloggers in Greensboro, but there are similar clusters in other communities. Rosen identifies, for example, Houston and Philadelphia as other bloggerific locales. “But the News & Record people got it,” Cone explains. “They paid attention to it. And there was an organic, local blogging community that they watched and they learned from, and that they respected. That means you have to give a lot of credit to the N&R people for paying attention.”

He, too, doesn’t know what this will look like in a year. “I just know it’s interesting,” he says, “and that it is happening ? not just that it might.”

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