Blogs and newspapers have been getting cozy of late. The successful journaling experiments at dailies like the Greensboro News & Record and the Houston Chronicle, along with the launch of the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, are just a few examples that speak to the increasingly important role blogs play in newspapers’ coverage. Even the staid New York Times launched several blogs last year.
But perhaps the biggest sign that the turf battle between bloggers and journalists may be drawing to a close is the upcoming launch of a blog syndication network that will help newspapers republish existing blog content on their websites.
Several large newspapers, including The Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News, have signed up as “lighthouse partners” in the network. Syndicated blogs will begin appearing on those papers’ sites in the next few weeks.
While blogs have previously networked together to achieve greater exposure — Pajamas Media being one obvious example — BlogBurst is apparently the first network that was created specifically to syndicate blogs directly to newspapers.
“You have a lot of great bloggers out there, and a lot of time they blog about a subject you may not be as strong on on your own site,” said Jim Brady, executive editor of washingtonpost.com, adding that the paper was interested in supplementing sections like food and travel. “We just thought we’d get on the front lines and see if it’s something that would work long term for us.”
Newspapers are only testing BlogBurst right now. But in theory, the service will work like this: Pluck signs bloggers to BlogBurst and examines each blog to see if the blog’s content and quality are appropriate for syndication. A list of approved bloggers is then made available to newspapers through an online interface, and editors can pick and choose which blogs they want to syndicate, and for how long.
The blog content will appear on the paper’s site, but will be embedded with the site’s look and feel. Ostensibly, newspapers will benefit by supplementing their coverage, and bloggers will profit from increased exposure. Pluck plans to eventually share a percentage of ad revenue with the bloggers.
“Historically, blogs have been very tech and very political,” said Panos, “But mainstream media’s interest is much broader — food, wine, travel, for example. BlogBurst will help them tap into that feature level content around the Web.”
Follow the money
Newspapers are also attracted to BlogBurst for the advertising revenue the blogs could generate.
“If we’re selling plenty of travel advertising but don’t have the page views to actually serve it all, then it might be a good idea to syndicate a really good set of travel blogs,” said The Washington Post’s Brady, by way of example.
Brady may be understating the situation. By most accounts, companies are lined up to advertise online like planes waiting to land at O’Hare.
Revenue for the online ad business was only about $12.5 billion in 2005, or around 15 percent of what was spent on print, but it’s expected to grow by about 30 percent in 2006 and reach $55 billion by 2010, according to analyst firm Piper Jaffray.
But directly increasing ad inventory by publishing more pages isn’t the papers’ only goal. If a newspaper can spark a conversation on its site by using syndicated blogs, it may be able to increase its traffic, and thus its ad impressions.
“Blog content is significantly better than message board content,” said Jim Debth, general manager of statesman.com. “Just the level of discourse is so much better. We expect the blogs [we syndicate with BlogBurst] to be very engaging. We hope readers will come back again and again.”
Seeders of clouds
Newspapers have been striving to engage their audience online for several years now. In syndicating blogs, newspapers are borrowing a page from the blogosphere’s playbook: Start conversations and build communities.
That goal was most recently iterated by Reuter’s CEO Tom Glocer in a speech to the Online Publisher’s Association last month. Glocer said media companies must be “seeders of clouds” by starting conversations and embracing responses by both traditional journalists and bloggers.
By inviting that community inside the tent of its brand, a newspaper could tap audiences and voices beyond its general readership, increasing its visibility and relevance to the blogosphere.
“If the [newspapers are] managing a bunch of syndicated blogs then there’s ultimately going to be a relationship between the papers and those bloggers,” said Jim Kennedy, director of strategic planning for the Associated Press. “That’s a good thing.”
But do newspapers need to rely on a vendor to help them build relationships with bloggers? Why can’t publishers hire an editor to pull in the best and most relevant content from the blogosphere, which is already easily and freely available through RSS feeds?
The answer is less one of ability than editorial control. Newspapers need to pre-approve content for fear of diluting their brand. BlogBurst provides the first filter in that approval process.
“It’s a newspaper’s job to add editorial value,” said Barry Parr, a media analyst with JupiterResearch. “It looks like BlogBurst will give them a level of control they didn’t have before.”
Can a stodgy old newspaper reciprocate, adding value to the blogosphere? Well, if numbers from a recent Gallup poll are any indication, the answer is yes.
According to Gallup, only one in five Americans, or about 40 million of us, read blogs. By comparison, more than 55 million people visited newspaper websites in November of 2005 alone, according to a Nielsen//NetRatings analysis conducted for the Newspaper Association of America.
BlogBurst won’t reach nearly that many people, at least not at first. But NYU journalism professor and blogger Jay Rosen says that the syndication network is a first step in helping mainstream media readers understand and navigate the immense variety of blogs.
“It’s part of a bigger thing which is the rationalizing of the blogging system, which started out as no system at all,” he said.
Meet the new media, same as the old media
As bloggers become more acquainted with syndication, it should be interesting to see whether and how blogging habits change to accommodate newspapers’ publishing schedules and content interests.
There is a danger that syndication could change content expectations on both sides of the newspaper/blogger divide.
Clive Thompson noted in a recent New York Magazine article, “Blogs to Riches,” blogs are already becoming increasingly similar to traditional publications.
As for newspapers’ role in the relationship, said Rosen, “If it starts to become ‘blog this way because this is what we need from you,’ then I think it won’t be effective.”
Newspapers, meanwhile, will doubtless be wary of diluting their own voices by becoming effectively just another news aggregator in a media landscape populated by the same. Sites such as topix.net, Digg.com and Tinfinger already have a head start, drawing over $45 million in funding in the last two years, according to VentureOne.
Regardless, experimenting with blog syndication is a good way for newspapers to learn more about the vicissitudes of the blogosphere. At the very least, they’ll be broadening the dialogue with bloggers everywhere.
“We’ve been talking to publishers for the last 15 months, and there’s been a relative sea change in how pervasive the mainstream media interest in blogging is,” said Pluck’s Panos. “They’re all going to adopt the format, the only question is when and how.”