Sacramento Bee's Daniel Weintraub says newspaper readership is far greater than what he gets online
Offline media are enamored with the Weblog form. But don't expect them to bet the farm on blogging just yet. The cash cow is still the newspaper, the cable TV channel or the print magazine, so any old media outlets that push into blogging are circumspect about how much power these blogs might gain. The moment a newspaper site's blog starts scooping the newspaper is the moment it would likely be shut down.
A case in point is Sacramento Bee political columnist Daniel Weintraub, who started the California Insider blog on sacbee.com in April after writing an e-mail newsletter for a couple years. He has 16 years experience covering the California State Capitol, making him the perfect person to do a Weblog on the chaos of a gubernatorial recall and budget crisis now gripping Sacramento.
Weintraub recently used his blog to report that California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley was delaying the verification of recall signatures, and compared him to Florida Rep. Katherine Harris, that state's notorious secretary of state during the 2000 presidential election.
Slate's Mickey Kaus picked up his item, and the San Francisco Chronicle's Robert Salladay wrote a front-page story comparing Gov. Gray Davis' operatives to those of Bush during the Florida mess -- Salladay even quoted Weintraub, though he didn't mention the Weblog. Despite the hoo-ha over this particular scooplet, Weintraub and his higher-ups don't see the blog as being a serious scoop generator.
"If it's too big of a scoop, or too big of a story, my instincts are still to put it in print," said Weintraub in an interview. "Over the years, that might change. But right now, my print column can reach up to a million readers, and my blog might be a few thousand people." Still, there are times when a scoop makes sense for the blog -- when the timing is crucial to beating a TV report or a competing print story.
Ralph Frattura, the Sacramento Bee's new media manager, would be concerned if California Insider scooped the paper. "We understand the value of an exclusive story," he told me. "And I'm all for putting it in print first. We're not in the business of undoing major exclusives for the paper. But there have been times where the print side has asked us to get something online fast if we know a TV report is coming."
The economics of scoops
Other journalist/bloggers say they take a similar tack for big news stories. Josh Marshall, who runs the popular Talking Points Memo and writes for the Washington Monthly and The Hill, says he usually saves scoops for print. But not always.
"Sometimes a scoop won't wait for your normal cycle or when your column comes out," he told me via e-mail. "But sometimes you get something big and realize it could be a big publicity generator for the site. And sometimes that outweighs the money gain of saving it for print. And if you're pouring lots of time into your site already, clearly you have motives that are not purely economic. So, I'd say, usually, but not always."
The San Jose Mercury News' Dan Gillmor decides on scoops on a case-by-case basis. He said that when he has something no one else at the Mercury News is working on, he usually puts it in his print column instead of his popular blog. "But there are exceptions," he told me. "Such as the Blogger/Google story earlier this year, which clearly deserved to be on the Web first."
Slate's Kaus, who said he's a big fan of California Insider, thinks Weintraub might change his view on scoops down the line. "If it's a big enough story, and there's no way the competition will get it, I don't see any harm in holding it for a few hours," Kaus said. "But it's not the bloggers' way. I predict he'll become addicted to the instant response."
Freedom to blog
For Weintraub, it will be a judgment call he'll make alone. Right now, he can post items on the Weblog without an editor's oversight -- though Mark Paul, his print editor, sees each item right after it's posted. That kind of freedom is rare in a big news organization, though it could change. Right now, the Bee's blogging foray is in its infancy, and editors consider it an experiment before setting rules in stone.
Weintraub is an interesting test case because he answers to the opinion department, and not news, for his column. And the online operation at the Bee reports directly to the publisher, leaving the news department, to some extent, out in the cold. That has caused some underlying tension, because sacbee.com has a history of not linking to outside sources, which runs anathema to a Weblog. For now, Weintraub is linking to some outside stories, but hasn't gone overboard with them.
Kaus doesn't think that's a big deal because Weintraub's strongest asset has been original reporting and commentary on the blog. But Gillmor disagrees and said he'd like to see more links in Weintraub's work. "I think Dan's blog would be even more effective if he pointed his readers more often at items, not his own, that he believes are worth reading," Gillmor e-mailed me. "I've had readers tell me that my blog is often as useful for what I point at as what I write myself (hmmm, should I be offended?)."
That push and pull is what makes Weintraub a good litmus test for other newspapers testing the blogging waters. And what if other outlets really jump in, putting columnists online and giving them deadlines every minute, as Weintraub puts it? It could bring a tectonic shift to the blogging world, with seasoned reporters and commentators providing insights, while "amateur" blogs could only link and comment with second-hand information.
"The currency of blogs has always been published newspaper reports that they dissect and critique," said the Bee's Paul, deputy editor of the editorial pages. "But Dan is different because he comes from the inside. It's possible over time that the insiders could dominate in blogging. Ultimately, it's having sources and reporting that makes blogs most useful, having inside expertise and knowledge." And Dan Weintraub has that in spades.
Publishing note: Glaser Online will be off this Thursday to celebrate Independence Day. The column will return again next Tuesday, July 8. Enjoy the holiday!