Want to build your audience? Take a reader to lunch

John McClain covers the Houston Texans National Football League franchise for the Houston Chronicle. Like a growing number of other sports beat newswriters, McClain maintains a blog on his paper’s website. But McClain’s NFL blogs include much more than notes which couldn’t make the cut for the paper. McClain covers the Texans with text, audio and video entries, engaging his readers in an ongoing conversation, in multiple media.

I first noted McClain’s work in OJR earlier this year, when he posted a hilarious retort to the NFL’s new rule limiting the amount of video of players and coaches that news organizations could use online. I’ve been following McClain’s blog since then and last week, decided to touch base with McClain through an e-mail interview about his blog.

McClain’s no Web-head, blogging and video blogging just for tech’s sake. His print roots run deep, with a strong commitment to connecting with and serving his readers… a commitment that’s led him beyond print and into multimedia publishing.

OJR: To start, at this point, should we be calling you a newspaper columnist or a blogger?

McClain: I cover the Texans and the NFL for the Houston Chronicle. I write blogs and do videos and audio for Chron.com, our website. Our videos are run on YouTube and Brightcove and other sites. I write two columns a week for the Chronicle. I do four blogs a week for Chron.com. I also do six weekly sports talk shows in three cities: Houston, Nashville and Waco. I do a Friday night TV show on the local Fox affiliate, First and Ten with Mark Berman. So what drives the most attention to me? The only thing that can be accurately measured is our website. I had more than 37,000 hits on draft day. I usually get between 75,000 and 100,000 hits a week, depending on how much I do.

OJR: Walk us through how you decide what to report in each medium: in the paper, online in text and online in video.

McClain: On Sunday night after games, I talk with Megan Manfull, who covers the Texans with me, about stories we want to do in the Chronicle, and then I run them by the sports editor. Then, I call Anna-Megan Raley, who does videos with me for Chron.com and talk to her about possible videos for our website. When I write blogs, I just do whatever I feel like, usually based on the Texans because they generate the most interest.

OJR: Who were, or are, your influences as a reporter and columnist?

McClain: When I was growing up in Waco, I read the Waco Tribune-Herald and sports editor Dave Campbell, who had that job for more than 40 years and also founded Texas Football magazine in 1960. He was a god to anyone who loved sports, especially football, in Central Texas. I also read the Dallas Morning News and Dallas Times Herald, mostly about the Cowboys. I followed Bob St. John, Frank Luksa, Blackie Sherrod and Sam Blair. I read The Sporting News each week and loved columnists like Dick Young and Joe Falls.

No one has influenced me as a blogger. I started the first blog at the Chronicle several years ago when I covered the NFL, then stopped when I started covering the Texans in 2004, then started again when I realized how important it was to my bosses at the Chronicle and at Hearst in New York.

OJR: Do you talk about blogging with other members of the Chronicle staff who blog? What about with bloggers outside the Chronicle?

McClain: I talk to other Chronicle writers who blog but seldom to others who blog. We talk about sports and writing and radio and TV but not about blogging. Everyone has a different style of blogging. It’s something we develop on our own. Richard Justice, our lead columnist, and I generate the most hits in sports. Our styles are different. We talk about our blogs, mainly those who write us, quite a bit.

OJR: What tips would you offer other newspaper bloggers looking for ways to get readers more involved in their blogs?

McClain: Treat readers with respect. Ask them questions that make them think. Get them involved in your blog. I run contests and taken readers to lunch so I can meet them. I’ve done this three times, the last time for 15 of them, and will be doing it many more times. Write what they want to read. I cover the NFL, the most popular sport. It’s not hard to get them interested. When I travel, I try to take them with me, as if they’re traveling with me. I tell them about the sights, sounds and people I come in contact with.

OJR: Do you think that it is easier for journalists to blog on sports than on other beats at the paper? Why, or why not?

McClain: Definitely. Everyone’s an expert on sports. Fans think they know more than we do, and many do. They want to be heard. They want their opinions to be shared. They want to get a response to what they write. I give them a forum to do that. As for other non-sports beats, I don’t think everyone thinks he’s an expert on cops, or travel or business or food.

OJR: What’s your favorite part of blogging? Least favorite?

McClain: My favorte part is writing about whatever I want. There are no space limitations. I don’t have to stick to the Texans or the NFL. I can write about the Rockets, Astros or movies. What I like the least is having to read every comment before I post them to make sure they’re not crude or use words we don’t use. Also, some of the readers irritate the hell out of me, but when you let them know it, they’ve got you. You have to have thick skin if you’re going to blog and let readers say just about anything they want.

OJR: Do you think newspapers can hold on to sports fans, or is it ESPN’s destiny to become America’s sports monopoly (and eventual employer of every major current newspaper sports blogger)? What do newspapers need to do?

McClain: The only thing you can’t get on the Internet that you can put in the newspaper is your opinion, your expertise, your credibility. I think newspaper stories should have more opinion. That’s what blogging is; giving opinions. If you develop credibility, readers will come back.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.