Stop The Presses!

By: Steve Outing

Weblogs: From Underground to Mainstream



‘Weblogs’ are in many ways the antithesis of traditional news Web sites.



They ooze personality, are quirky, creative, sarcastic, unpredictable,

fun. … By comparison, most news Web sites – while still far less

stodgy than traditional news media entities like newspapers and TV

– are bland and corporate.


It’s time that news sites started doing Weblogs of their own.


What is it?


It’s difficult to define a ‘Weblog,’ because the concept is a moving

target. Of the thousands of Weblogs being produced by individuals,

there’s much diversity not only of topic but of model. But for the
uninitiated, a Weblog is a site maintained by an individual (usually)
that offers a list of new links to other Web sites, along with pithy, often
sarcastic comments about the links. Most Weblogs add new items on top
of old, so that they end up being a long single Web page of oddball items

that get updated every day or so.


The idea is more than just a list of links on a particular topic, however.

Webloggers typically pour their personality into their logs, and develop

personal relationships with their readers. The whole idea of Weblogs

originated with people sending e-mails to their friends with interesting

sites they’d found, along with comments. That evolved into a regularly

maintained Web site, or Weblog, containing the links and commentary.


Weblogs are useful and entertaining when you want recommendations on
Web sites for a particular topic, or just a Weblogger’s ongoing commentary

on a topic. Among the multitude of Weblogs maintained by independents

are those on television shows, programming languages, news, law,

politics, popular culture – and hundreds of other topics. Many are

simply an individual’s random musings of the day. (For example,
Hi-Fi Action is a college student’s often daily ramblings on nothing in
particular.)


The key to the popularity of any Weblog is the person producing it.

Weblog readers often develop relationships with Weblog authors, and
Interaction between reader and author is the name of the game.


Weblog concept goes corporate


The concept of the Weblog is starting to get more attention and become

more mainstream, though the whole idea of the Weblog would seem to

resist ‘corporatization.’ At least two major U.S. newspaper Web sites now
run Weblogs, though the concept has yet to spread widely to other news

organizations:



San Jose Mercury News technology columnist Dan Gillmor
publishes a Weblog he eJournal , which is a sort of ‘insider’s’ look at
Gillmor’s week. He reports in brief items on things that he’s encountered
or reported that don’t make his newspaper column; tells Web readers
what he’s working on for upcoming columns; responds to reader questions
and comments; promotes his column on SiliconValley.com; etc. eJournal
gives Gillmor an outlet for stuff that falls outside what would be appropriate
for his regular newspaper and Web column, while giving his readers a more
personal glimpse at the columnist and what he ‘really thinks’ and a chance to
interact with him and each other.


At the Web site of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, online editor Gael
Fashingbauer Cooper started a Weblog a month ago on Star Tribune Online.
It runs in the ‘Variety’ area of the site, and contains Cooper’s musings on a
variety of pop culture topics and links to interesting Web sites. She already
had been doing her own independent pop-culture Weblog beforehand, and
began doing the second Weblog under the Star Tribune Online brand name
and on company time.




Columnists of the future?


Weblogging by nature has been a solitary pursuit, and its practitioners are

mostly independents. But as Gillmor and Cooper are showing us, the model

can work on a corporate level – if news organizations are willing to be more
free with their notion of what is acceptable content for their Web site.


Gillmor says eJournal is an experiment in what the Web experience can

be. ‘We’re still trying to figure out what it is,’ he says. ‘That’s part of

the fun.’ While the columnist is (obviously) at the center of the Weblog

with what he writes, Gillmor sees it as facilitating a multi-way

conversation between he and his readers, and readers and other

readers.


Hosting a Weblog is a way to add a personal voice to the corporate face,

says Jim Romensesko , one of the most widely recognized Webloggers. His
Jim Romemesko’s MediaNews Weblog, a daily-updated compendium and
commentary on news industry news, is now hosted and funded by the
Poynter Institute, the Florida journalism education facility and media think
tank.


‘It lets (a journalist) get out of the suit or the dress’ and be more casual,
he says, and the parent news organization gets to show a fun side

– which is important in attracting and holding on to a Web

audience.


The personality of the Weblog author is of course all-important.

Romenesko says that his readers have a pretty good sense of him as a
human being. When he posted a note in one of his Weblogs noting that he
was going to move to Chicago from Minneapolis, Romenesko says that
within a half hour he had received several e-mails from readers suggesting
neighborhoods that they thought he would like. His readers turned out to
know him pretty well, because his Weblog bares his personality.


Cooper says her Weblog allows her to try a different style of writing

Than has ever been possible in her previous jobs in magazines, newspapers
Or news Web sites. She can write in the first person and allow her readers

To get to know her personality, and the Weblog format encourages creativity

that might not be ‘acceptable’ in other venues.


Cooper’s Weblog contains a wide variety of material – sometimes

including very personal items, such as a comment on something she saw on

TV the night before. There are ‘no rules’ about what she can write in

her Star Tribune Online Weblog, and the newspaper has given her freedom

in what she writes. ‘I haven’t felt any restraints’ to write any

differently than she does in her personal Weblog, she says.


Expanding the concept


The Weblog concept is ripe for the picking by traditional news sites.

Everyone in the Web news industry is looking for ways to make users

‘stick’ to their sites, and Weblogs are definitely a ‘sticky’ feature.

They are personal, and tend to attract loyal audiences.


Newspaper columnists might wish to start Weblogs to supplement their

columns, just as Gillmor has done, in order to cement relationships with

readers. But this needn’t be restricted to technology columnists.

Romenesko says he’d love to see the New York Times ‘ Maureen Dowd
Do a Weblog – ‘where we could read, ‘So and so called and screamed at

me today.”


Weblogs should be focused, of course, but not be so narrowly defined

that there’s not a big enough audience. A Weblog for a personality, such

as a well-known columnist, makes sense purely from the force of the
celebrity of the author, without a specific topic focus being necessary.
That alone can attract a loyal Weblog following of people eager to get closer
to a celebrity writer. Otherwise, it makes sense to pick a topic for a

Weblog.


Independent Weblogs abound, and cover a wide range of topics.
(See the Eatonweb/Blog Portal site for a large list of independent Weblogs.)
Weblog authors who cover television and provide commentary and links to TV
Web sites and news develop a following based on their knowledge and reputation
as experts on TV, for example.


Romenesko suggests that news organizations consider commissioning

Weblogs for various topics. He thinks a Weblog on the stock market would

be a winner, as well as Weblogs on sports and politics, run by a news

organization’s speciality reporters or columnists. Newspaper journalists

typically gather much more information than makes it into the print

edition or Web site, so their Weblogs become an outlet for the extra material

– and the quirky and personal stuff that’s not appropriate for the

newspaper. ‘Reporters always have stuff that they have to hold back on,’

he says. The Weblog is an outlet for it.


Just about any section of a newspaper or magazine could be the genesis

of a Weblog. A food section might have a food editor do a recipes Weblog, for

example – a feature that’s sure to attract a loyal following of

‘foodies.’ The possibilities are just about endless in terms of Weblog

topics likely to draw a decent audience.


Most Weblogs are one-person shows, but there’s no reason that news

organizations can’t set up topical Weblogs that don’t rely on a single

journalist, and that don’t stop when the Weblog author goes on vacation,

says Gillmor. Another form is the event-specific Weblog – such as

the one that the Mercury News ran on Y2K in the hours and days after

the strike of midnight 2000.


You’ve gotta mean it!


Of course, doing a Weblog is not something that a news site can ‘just

do.’ Editors can’t assign a journalist to do a Weblog unless that person has

a true desire to do it. ‘Readers can tell if a Weblog is being done with a

gun to the head,’ says Romenesko. So look for reporters who are motivated

to embark on such a project because they truly love the topic, want to

interact with their audience, and have enthusiasm for the idea.


Weblogs also take time to do well, and it may take a while for

Readership of a Weblog to grow significantly. So publishers need to be
patient with their Weblog authors – recognizing that the result will be a loyal

following and repeat visitors to their Web site because of the Weblog

author-reader ongoing relationship.


In Gillmor’s case, pre eJournal he had been writing three columns a week

for the newspaper. Now, he writes two columns a week plus the Weblog.

The newspaper still gets the same amount of column inches from their

Star technology columnist, but on Fridays his print-edition copy is in the

Form of tidbits taken from the week’s best of eJournal. And with one less

traditional column to write, he has the time to experiment with the

model for eJournal and see where it goes.


‘It’s so obvious’


Weblogs are likely to become more widespread at Web sites of mainstream

news organizations, but the concept is one that traditional companies

are likely to be skittish about, so adoption of the model very well may be

slow. Gillmor wonders why the news industry isn’t jumping on the idea.

‘It amazes me that more people (in the news industry) aren’t already doing

this,’ he says. ‘It just astounds me. It’s so obvious!’


Slow corporatization of the concept will probably be fine with many of

The thousands of independent Webloggers who pioneered the concept. Romenesko

says as Weblogging becomes more widespread among corporations, there’s

likely to be some resentment from the pioneers who see it as an

anti-corporate concept.


Cooper, meanwhile, thinks Weblogs make sense in the corporate

environment, and suggests that they would be a useful feature of company

intranets. A Weblog pioneer herself, Cooper says that when she announced

she would be taking the Weblog concept to Star Tribune Online, the

reaction from the Weblog community was overwhelmingly supportive. Her

Weblog is even promoted occasionally on the pages of the newspaper, and

parts of it may appear in print at some future date.


The corporatization of Weblogs has begun.






This column is written by Steve Outing for Editor

& Publisher Online. Tips, letters and feedback can be

sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com.





(c) Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher

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