Can newspapers do blogs right?

Within the past few weeks two of America’s leading newspapers have watched staff-written blogs blow up in their faces. First, Ben Domenech left after outside bloggers uncovered numerous examples of plagiarism in his past work. And last week, the Los Angeles Times suspended the blog of Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Hiltzik (interviewed by OJR just before the scandal broke) after he was discovered to have posted comments under false identities on his and other blogs.

Can newspapers do blogs right? I e-mailed that question to several prominent online journalists. All have experience with “traditional” media and either blog or oversee bloggers in their work. Their edited responses follow:

Anthony Moor
I’m not sure we know yet what “right” is when it comes to blogs. We’re in an R&D phase here, for lack of a better term, when it comes to incorporating blogs into our “traditional” Web content. There are going to be missteps. We know that blogs are a powerful software tool for self-service, instant publishing with a built-in tagging capability that plugs us into the conversation online. We also know that blogs are fostering a new kind of editorial voice in our writing: intimate, off-the-cuff and breezy.

Now, how that powerful new force on the Internet intersects with our mission to provide accurate and credible information to our audience is what we’re figuring out. We don’t have to do what bloggers v.1.0 are doing now to incorporate blogs effectively into what we do, and I think we shouldn’t try.

What makes us journalists is our ability to gather facts, synthesize, and write about the world around us — and those are not necessarily the requirements of blogging. As long as we couple our essential skills as journalists with this new medium, I think we CAN shape blogs into a valuable new asset for newspapers.

Look, the analogy is this: When software became widely available to easily manipulate photos into photo illustrations, the public-at-large found a myriad of uses for it. And news organizations suffered some notable missteps as they began using it too. Now, however, we’ve learned how to incorporate this power into our journalism without giving up the essential things that make what we do journalism.

Xeni Jardin and National Public Radio
Newspapers will get it right when the people responsible for designing and launching blogs for them take the time to understand the culture, the process, the dynamics and the sociology of blogs. It’s important that newspapers not launch blogs for the sake of launching blogs. There had to be a purpose to other than to have the ability to tell the world that you have a blog.

What’s the point of interacting with your audience? Is the point just to leave snippy comments on the blogs of your critics? Or is the point of interacting to provide bits and pieces and nuances of information that traditional newspaper reporting doesn’t lend itself to?

I feel like way too often it is done as a gimmicky thing. Not to name names, but some companies launch blogs because there’s someone at the company who monitors search engine traffic, and one day that person recognizes, “Hey there are a lot of people searching about babies — I think we need to have a baby blog.”

Just because the traffic shows a lot of traffic, and potential for advertising revenue, they lanuch a blog and hire some inexperienced copy writter to fill it with stuff. It’s just an excuse to have something to sell ads against. I don’t think the Los Angeles Times created its blogs as an excuse to sell banner ads against, but too often in situations like this there’s disjointed thinking. There’s this idea that you stick a blog up there, you stick unmoderated comments up there, you don’t give your reporters who are totally unfamiliar with this medium any guidance, and you’re going to expect it to turn out well?

I think the fact that people make such an unnatural distinction between blogging and writing for a newspaper is part of the problem. Behave in your blog as you would in the paper.

Lisa Stone
Of course they can. Blog, wiki and audio technologies are just like the printing presses used to publish newspapers — tools that a broad spectrum of thinkers are using to get their word out. Period. Just like in traditional newspapering, some of these blogs, wikis and podcasts are superior, others are bird-cage liner.

Newspaper blogs that work are carefully planned, openly executed exercises in public conversation about news and information. These blogs allow comments and turn into 24/7 townhall meetings about everything from the headlines to how well the paper is doing to deliver and discuss the news. Newspapers that blog well embrace the community and use the blogs as an extension of their op-ed pages. There are dozens of examples, from MSNBC’s oft-ignored Bloggermann (one of the national media’s best blogs) to brave local daily sites taking important baby steps such as and

Newspaper blogs that don’t work tend to dismss blogs as, in Alex S. Jones’ famous words, the sizzle rather than the steak — as useless chatter rather than as an extension of the newspaper’s journalism that deserves the same care, feeding and standards of accuracy and ethical behavior. How can newspapers expect to survive if they keep mooning their readers like this? Answer: They won’t.

The problems of failing standards of accuracy and ethical behavior among the nation’s leading newspapers are not limited to blogs. As someone who grew up on newspapers and will never give them up, the past five years have been agonizing to behold, from Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg, to Ben Domenech and Michael Hiltzik. America’s newspapers have the opportunity to leverage blogs as credibility-building exercises — but the first thing we need to do is to stop architecting our own demise. To avoid meltdowns like this, newspapers need to do exactly what exceptional blogs do: For God’s sake, assume the position of the reader and behave accordingly. Readers want to know what they’re getting, who they’re getting it from and how, so that they can trust their sources — that’s you. Here are two easy steps:

Step 1: No more rookie maneuvers. Call in a blog expert with a journalism background and have this outside person walk you through community scenarios to test what your newsroom (and management) can tolerate and what you cannot. If nudie pictures on your wiki are a no-no, you have a choice to make: (a) Don’t publish the wiki, and/or (b) Don’t publish the wiki without human and/or technical filters. But you have to have someone advising you who knows how wikis behave. Or, say, if you don’t want a blogger to violate fair use acts on this blog or in previous blogs, (a) Check out their personal records, and (b) Say so and sign them to agreement that says so.

Step 2: Repeat Step 1 in an open conversation with your readers and ask them to behave according to these guidelines too. Publish your community guidelines and ask readers what they want and why. Edit your guidelines accordingly.

Step 3: Integrate blogs into the newsroom’s efforts. Starting slow is fine — but the best blogs are a team effort. In a newsroom unused to community conversation, to groaning when readers write and call-in, is to make it part of the journo’s job description — and their editor’s too. That means a conversation with the community via blogging (including Steps 1 and 2) needs to be embraced by the people at the top of the newsroom hierarchy.

Bob Cauthorn
I think it’s going to be difficult for newspapers to do blogs right because their DNA continues to be trapped in the “we talk, you listen” mode. Fundamentally, staff-written blogs are nothing different than what newspapers do now — simply spilling more of the same voices onto the public streets.

Sure, staff-written blogs have a fragile patina of interactively because some accept comments. Scuffing off that patina doesn’t take much.

1) Under the best case, newspaper blog comments are enfeebled interactivity. Only fractional percentages of readers comment on staff-written blogs. Maybe the public has simply given up on the idea of newspapers listening or caring. Consider the case of the Guardian’s staff blogs. The Guardian is one of the best online newspapers in the world and its commitment to the staff blog borders on the fanatical. They throw substantial resources at it. And yet, if you look closely at the number of comments per post (realize in many cases comments are more than a week old) and then you consider the total traffic on the site, you must conclude that the supposed interactivity of the Guardian’s blogs has failed utterly. I mean we’re talking less that 1/10 of one percent of all readers who are moved to comment! (FYI, I did a quick study of this last fall because the Guardian folks had a hissy over my post attacking the concept of staff blogs.)

2) Even if you get a few comments, the moment they turn hostile to the newspaper, suddenly the commitment to interactivity wavers. It’s happened a number of times. And indeed, the Hiltzik incident specifically highlights this. Today’s newspapers are sufficiently thin-skinned that the idea that people might use comments to attack the writers doesn’t go down well. So you either stop comments, or you remove the accounts of critics, or — as in the case of Hiltzik — you create deceptive online personas to respond to the attacks. It’s the “we talk, you listen” attitude taken to the extreme: Even if the public talks back, the media requires the last word! It’s a fatal appetite on the part of the modern newspaper. Some sociologists have pointed out that modern America can exert power on the global stage, but it no longer exerts authority (for authority comes from the nexus of wisdom, restraint, morality and cleaving to higher purposes). Newspapers are in a similar boat — they’re still powerful institutions but their authority is in shambles. OK, let’s get this straight: So we let the public speak and when a tiny number do we come rushing in with fake personas to defend the paper against attacks. We never let anyone else get the last word. That’s wrong and it’s stupid and it’s going to kill papers. Instead of stifling criticism, newspapers should embrace it and learn from it and grow wise.

(Incidentally, The fact that the LA Times perceives the Hiltzik’s actions as a violation of ethics is a *very* good thing. One of the dirty little secrets of newspaper blogs is that many, many of the comments come from unidentified staff members. I applaud the LAT for this move. It’s high time to stop this deplorable practice.)

So if newspapers blogs are not *really* about interacting with the community — and I challenge anyone to demonstrate they’ve been successful at that goal — what makes them different? They just offer the same voices you read all the time.

This is *exactly* what my beef with staff blogs is about and why I’ve been trying to get newspapers to change the approach. Jon Stewart put it nicely when he said mainstream media blogs “give voice to the already voiced.”

Look, it’s easy to get this right: don’t have staff members blog and instead bring in the legitimate outside voices. There are many ways that a mainstream media organization can do this — make a blog about *outside* blogs, point some of your traffic to outside voices (even those who, gasp, criticize you!), invite some of the best outside bloggers in your community to post right on your pages. Give selected bloggers early access to your stories — particularly enterprise stories — so that they can have same-day reactions. (Make sure these are bloggers you can trust not to jump the publication, obviously.) In other words, genuinely and sincerely embrace *outside* voices. Allow the community to have a stake in what you are doing once more.

As stand it stands right now, newspapers keep shouting louder in a room that, increasingly, is emptying around us. Maybe, before the last reader departs we can convince people to stay by letting them know we want to talk *with* our community, not *at* them.

Chris Nolan
This is a pretty big set of issues that really, I think, go to the heart of what’s wrong with newsroom culture these days. Suffice it to say that the contempt that a lot of folks on the floor feel for people working online really has to stop. The problem is that guys like Ben Domenech and Michael Hiltzik aren’t exactly helping to make that argument. I’m not entirely sure that’s anyone’s “fault” as much as it is the result of having the news business open up to its audience at a time when newsrooms are in crisis and readers are better informed than they’ve ever been — thanks to the Internet.

The idea that the Post of the L.A. Times have somehow screwed up royally by hiring folks who cut corners isn’t the end of the world as we know it. It’s a series of mistakes. It’s done. We’ve learned a few things — among them, there should be an intermediate step between running your own website and writing for a big newspaper.

Newsroom editors and writers need to spend a lot more time reading and watching the talent that’s out here on the Web. Lots of folks sitting in newsrooms are going to have to get over the fact that people outside the building really do know what they’re doing much of the time. Just as online folks are going to have to stop cutting corners and claiming that they represent a new form of “media” free of all basic rules and constraints that’s some how superior to what’s being done in the ink-and-paper format. The way you produce your story has nothing to do with what the story says to the reader.

Fundamentally, the rules of the reporting game — be fair, be honest, represent the reader as you do your job, limit the harm you do as you do it, and always be aware that there’s someone on the other side of the story — are not going to change. Part of what’s going on with Domenech and Hiltzik is that those lessons are being meted out in a very public fashion. This, by the way, is how those things used to get taught by foul-mouthed city editors who thought nothing of yelling at new reporters. I knew a few of those guys … didn’t you?

Nick Denton

Gawker Media
Reporters, trained to put aside opinion, make uninteresting bloggers. And it’s notoriously hard to manage, in parallel, a daily news cycle and regular updates for breaking news.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. Come on, Robert. First rule of blogging…provide links to yr sources. Couldn’t you have allowed us to visit the blogs whose opinions are published here by linking to them?

    Also, I find as disturbing something you didn’t mention here. The fact that an AP reporter plagiarized an entire blog post written by Larisa Alexandrova (Rawstory), never acknowledged the source even after it was pointed out to them & never apologized. It makes bloggers lose all the hope that the MSM are ever going to “get it” regarding blogs.

    Maybe a lawsuit would do the trick??

  2. I’m a blogger (Tapscott’s Copy Desk and Tapscott Behind the Wheel) and a career newspaper journalist. Now I have the opportunity at The Washington Examiner to address this issue in a concrete fashion. I hope many more of the OJR regulars will post in response to this question because I am looking for all the suggestions, critiques, etc. of what’s been done thus far by other folks in the industry.

  3. The links are live now. Also, we mentioned the AP allegation (which the AP denied) last month.

  4. Charlie Barb says:


  5. There are many journalists “doing blogs right,” including Tapscott, Laura Rozen, Josh Marshall, Chris Albritton, Ken Silverstein at Harper’s, Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News, Ed Cone, Steve Lovelady and his CJR Daily, Rebecca MacKinnon … the list is a long one. Not all of them are associated with institutional press organizations, but all of them could be.

    The Post was incredibly dense in hiring Domenech, not just because they didn’t vet him adequately but because he was hired primarily as a provacateur rather than a writer or thinker; plenty of skilled writers and thinkers are also provocative, and there was no reason to skimp on the latter two qualities in favor of the former, particularly since, for good or ill, just about any opinionated blogger will provoke a good chunk of the readership at most newspapers.

    So, what does “doing blogs right” entail? Unless they’re doing straight-up reporting, bloggers ought to abide by the same editorial standards as a paper’s editorial columnists, which tend toward the liberal. When Daniel Okrent was the public editor at the Times, he told me the only restrictions on editorial columnists were that they couldn’t swear and they couldn’t libel anyone. Since then, the paper instituted an unevenly enforced policy requiring corrections of factual errors.

    That last should be a breeze for the Post, given their ombudsman’s “you should have known what we meant” standard.

    Everyone at a paper is, or should be, subject to the death penalty for plagiarism.

    The two examples cited here really have nothing to do with blogging other than that they involved bloggers. Plagiarism isn’t a blogger-specific problem, and even Hiltzik’s behavior has a precedent with John Lott/Mary Rosh, and probably others who haven’t made as much of a splash.

    This isn’t that complicated. I really don’t understand why people insist on screwing it up.

  6. I think there is a vital role for abitrating the nexus between the top-down information and the grassroots participation. Listening at that convergence point takes real talent, much as the editor’s role in traditional MSM.

    I’m writing a series on how it is being done well —New Media: MSM Tool to Close the Gap and the second part to that, Talk Back Newspapers as a series looking at the Santa Fe New Mexican for a macro view of the issue. I’ll be adding one, two or three more posts on it.

    There has to be a real listening component.

    Hattie @ MotherPie

  7. I agree, reporters blogging for the sake of reporters blogging doesnt make a lot of sense – and most reporters here were in fact uncomfortable with it. So we don’t have reporters write a specific blog, but since we allow readers to comment on every story, in essence every news piece is its own blog. The public adds their information, links, ideas, questions or criticisms to reporters who then take these cues and often shape their follow ups accordingly based on information from the public dialogue. What Ive tried to encourage is to get reporters themelves to join in the dialogue, and while a few do, there’s mostly hesitation to interact so visibly.

    We do have a few readers who blog on our site, with varying degrees of interest and followings.

    Bob, I’ll take your challenge. When a calamitous DWI fatality occured last summer, we channeled huge public outcry on our forums into a separate forum for reccomendations and proposals, which caught the atention of the DWI planning Council, a town hall meeting was created, and those public responses eventually had some impact and shape at the state level. We engaged the public to that level, starting from reader comments on a news story.

    Where I see most attempts at blogs or interactivy in MSM failing is that for all the talk of participatory journalism, newspapers wont participate. WAPO lost in the ombudsman affair in my view because they werent reactive or listening to the public enough to moderate and sufficiently engage the public dialogue till it weas far too late. Opening up readers to comment and then abandoning them isnt participatory, its passive.

  8. Bob says I took a “hissy” over his attack on staff blogs. No, I didn’t, we just disagreed. But, if it’s OK with him, I’ll take a hissy over the utter rot he writes about the Guardian’s blog project, which I run.

    In short, his assertions about the Guardian’s blogs are made without any understanding of the Guardian’s aims in this project, any knowledge of the total number of comments we take every day, or any clue about our blogs’ total traffic.

    Thus, Bob simply doesn’t have the knowledge to be able to brand our blogs a failure with regard to interactivity.

    Any particularly effort-rich form of interactivity (blog comments fit this bill) is going to be a minority sport against total user numbers, but there’s minority sports, and then there are minority sports. We’ve seen more than 160,000 comments to our ten or so subject-specific blogs (which no, have not taken “substantial” resources to do) and, so far, 25,000 comments to our new Comment is free blog project, which launched last month.

    Despite what Bob implies, our commitment to interactivity has never wavered, even when our readers are rude about us, or other people. Yes, there’s plenty we’re learning from them, but to follow Bob’s advice would lead us to not bother trying.

    If this is failure, I hope Bob continues to brand us one for many years to come. But I do wish he’d just talk to us about what we’re doing – we might not agree, but at least he could base his critiques on facts.

    Neil McIntosh
    [email protected]

  9. I do not think that since we are the online face of a television channel we can be added in the list of newspapers, but in the four months that we have existed, we have done blogs, (mostly internal and a splattering of external bloggers) on our website. The easiest way to answer the question is to quote someone else who had commented earlier that it is an R&D effort right now.

    Blogs can be done quite well by traditional media houses, but it takes someone who knows the blog topography and the medium well enough to lead the effort. This is because you do require a fine balance of staying within limits set by the traditional media processes and valuing the independence and critical thinking ability that most bloggers value more than anything else. Instances of plagiarism will be there, it is there in traditional media, so blogging, with lesser safeguards will not be exempt from it, you just need proper way to deals to with it.

    When we started out, we had a list of guidelines for our bloggers. Initially, they were ignored all over the place and there were problems, but that was also because most traditional print/television journalists are just not used what the concept actually means. But we took a calculated risk and let things run without too much intervention and I am glad to say that things have found a balance/acceptable level of its own. There still are problems, but overall, things have only improved.

  10. Great article… thanks! Quoted Xeni in my article on experts talking about talking with the news. Dan Gillmore talked about this, too, but not blogging specifically in his Hearst Lecture at Columbia last night. The Santa Fe New Mexican is going a pretty good job of interacting and has been doing blogs for quite awhile and I’m writing more on this next week. Thanks. Cheers… MotherPie

  11. Let’s get perspective: this is a new “thing.” Give it a couple of years when the bloggers and journalists start to cross-polinate a bit more. As journo schools realize the value of “interactive” programs, and bloggers go to journo school, the journalist/blogger won’t be such a huge deal.

    The problem then will be in newspaper management. It will take a savvy editor who’s willing to stick his/her neck out and hire the blogger/journalist. But, I have faith that there are some smart–and forward looking–cookies out there who will see the advantage of a blogger/journalist and hire that rare bird.

  12. Robert Cauthorn says:

    Neil, in the first place you weren’t the person I was referring to when I mentioned a “hissy,” but I can see how you got that impression. For that, my apology. Nor did I suggest The Guardian had wavered on interactivity — although others have.

    Now to the meat of the matter.

    I can easily back up my view on the failure of the staff blog effort if interactivity is a significant goal. (If interactivity is NOT a significant goal then it’s just publishing as usual only a little shorter with different deadlines, right?)

    I did a quick tally of the number of comments on your site today — you have 4,300 (and change) comments. And those include comments over several days AND that number is skewed upwards by nearly 900 comments on the Guardian redesign (surely a special circumstance that inspires passions.) So the current per-day comment volume is south of 4,300 (by the way, I did this late in the day your time to ensure people had a chance to weigh in.)

    You don’t mention what time period the 160,000 comments you cite took place in — but let’s be generous and assume it was a month.

    Let’s further assume that every single one of them was posted by a unique person (which we know is not the case, but let’s give this the best possible odds.).

    At first blush and without context, 160,000 seems like a pretty wonderful number. But we’re all newspeople here and we like context. And reality.

    As of September the Guardian had 10 million monthly unique readers by its own count. And 100 million page views. Probably more now, but let’s skew this in favor of success and use the old numbers.

    So under the best possible case scenario — and one that is unrealistically generous — the Guardian succeeds in inspiring a paltry 1.6 percent of its readers to comment over the course of an entire month! And the real world performance is much lower, as we both know. (It was under one percent when I looked last fall.)

    Put it another way, no matter how many times you try to get them to comment in a month, 98.4% of your readers say “no thanks, mate.”

    Consider the page views. Over the course of the month, you have 100 million opportunities to stimulate readers to comment. Of those entreaties a mere 0.16 percent of your pages deliver a response. Again, best case.

    Or over the course of a whole month, 99.84% percent of the time people reading your pages do not find something moving enough to comment.

    If measuring response in fractions of percentage points is successful interactivity, how low do you have to go before you consider it failure?

    Try it another way. Here’s a comparitive figure: After I tallied your comments today, I looked at the front page of

    A mere six (!!) stories delivered more comments than several days on the Guardian, one of the world’s leading news sites.

    All of the stories on front page (JUST the front page) deliver more than twice as many comments as several days on, yes one of the worlds top news sites.

    Again, if this isn’t a picture of failure for staff blog interactivity, what is?

    The Guardian is a global brand, a national treasure and much larger than (although digg is growing fast). But wipes the floor with the Guardian when it comes to interactivity. Could it be that, maybe I’m right when I say newspaper readers are not imporessed with the existing bland approaches to interactivity?

    Put it another way — on any given day will have more comments than a full month on the guardian. In 12 days, it will have more comments than a year on the Guardian.

    Call it rot all you like. Anyone can see the numbers.

    How much evidence must one deliver before we say, “hey this isn’t working out as we hoped, let’s try something different?”

    The problem isn’t the Guardian’s *approach* per se. The problem is staff blogs themselves. They are not exciting and don’t really change the playing field. Newspapers need to do much more to convince our audience that we want to listen.

    The vast, vast majority of staff-blogs are self-delusional vanity projects, I think.

    I use the Guardian because it certainly IS the absolute best case scenario in this space. And even in the best case, staff-blogs still fail if interactivity is the goal.

    There are better ways to do this — the folks at the Guardian are smart and creative, reach for something more. Set the bar high.

    For the record, my criticism is specific to the staff blogs. I think most of what the Guardian does sets the benchmark for excellence in this industry. I’ve said as much many times.

    In this specific case, though, it’s failing and badly. Unless, of course we consider success to be a single comment and wild success anything over 1 percent response rate.

    Staff blogs are goofy and wrongheaded. Invite your public to participate through other less traditional ways. Invite your newsroom to new practices through more daring means, too.