How metro newsrooms can recapture their local dominance

Proliferating blogs and micro-sites are producing so much local news, hard and soft, that the continuing shrinkage and even death of metro papers will leave no troubling void in metro coverage, Mark Potts concludes in an extensively linked post on his Recovering Journalist blog. Potts comes close to putting metros collectively in the past tense. They can’t make a successful transition from print to the Internet, he says, because all they offer are “your basic one-size-fits all metro newspaper Web site.”

But in this case the one size – large – is the right one. The metros’ problem is they don’t know how to exploit their size. For all their cutbacks, surviving metros still have considerable staff and other resources that could be mobilized to do what sweat-equity blogs and micro-sites can’t do nearly as well or at all.

A story crying out for attention is what’s behind America’s broken health-care system. Most health-care coverage comes out of Washington, but the real story of waste and profiteering is taking place in thousands of communities around the U.S. In its June 8-15 issue, the New Yorker zoomed in on health care in one community – McAllen, a city in southern Texas near the Rio Grande River border with Mexico whose metro area has a population of 750,000. The article, by Atul Gawande, said that in 2006, Medicare spent an average of $15,000 on each of its McAllen enrollees – twice the national average and well over the $12,000 wages of the average McAllen resident.

One big reason is that McAllen’s physicians are entrepreneurs as much as they are healers. One local hospital’s medical campus is packed with state-of-the-art health-care centers (specializing in surgery, heart cancer, imaging) owned by the hospital’s doctors.

Yet Gawande, a writer and also physician, wrote there was no evidence that this gold-plated care makes McAllen residents any healthier than people elsewhere. In fact, the outcome was just the opposite: “Medicare ranks hospitals on twenty-five metrics of care. On all but two of these, McAllen’s five largest hospitals performed worse, on average, than El Paso’s.”

What’s especially fascinating about Gawande’s piece is that it’s not built mainly around statistics – the way the media usually cover health care. Its old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting – the kind that one-person and other small websites can’t and don’t usually try to do. But that’s exactly the reporting that metro newspapers, despite their shrinking staffs, still have the potential to do well. Size matters.

But first, metros should quit wasting resources trying to cover everything, and thereby serving up, every day, the same thin reportorial soup that satisfies no one. Leave local restaurants and related coverage to Yelp! Don’t try to compete with on the local-local news front where Web-ified weeklies and micro-sites have firmly planted their flags. And why should papers hire clever typists to review movies – like the bankrupt Minneapolis Star-Tribune ? Where a blog or micro does an especially good job on one aspect of community coverage – like Baltimore Brew and Baltimore Crime two sites cited by Potts — metros can partner with the site or just link to it with a Huffington Post-style promotion.

On Monday, June 8, the Miami Herald went public with a feature recognizing the role of community blogs. Typically for how newspapers fail to use the Web creatively, the Herald is just aggregating blogs without trying to promote the best ones — a la Huffington Post.

By shedding coverage that’s redundant in the market, the average metro should be able to re-deploy enough reporters and editors to do big, long-term projects with major local impact.

Health care, which consumes close to 20 percent of the gross domestic product, is an obvious place to begin. A refocused metro staff would starts its homework by gathering all the data pertinent to the local area (as Gawande did for McAllen), but then reporters would use their shoe leather to translate the often-eye-glazing metrics into compelling narratives populated by people impacted by the broken system – something that Gawande, with just two feet, wasn’t unable to do. The other day, I learned that a nephew of mine eloped with his girlfriend in part to become a beneficiary on her employer-provided health coverage. With the national jobless rate pushing above 10 percent and many small businesses scrapping their employee health coverage, I doubt my nephew is an anomaly. Imagine the stories that would pour in to a well-built, interactive metro website that chronicled the health care crisis so close up and personally?

Reuters reports that “medical bills are involved in more than 60 percent of U.S. personal bankruptcies, an increase of 50 percent in just six years,” and that most of those driven into bankruptcy actually had insurance – but it wasn’t enough to cover costs that exceed overall inflation. Metros can repurpose that story in thousands of people-specific ways.

Newly deployed reporters would talk to local doctors who set up the mall-like health-care centers that Gawande says are a major cause of the super-high cost of care in places like McAllen. These stories, too, would generate a lot of interactivity with the community – pro and con, to be sure.

Not all the coverage would be negative. Gawande cites communities – Rochester, MN, home of the Mayo Clinic and Boulder, CO, among others – where health care hasn’t become a profit center and doctors are trying to forge care- as opposed to cost-driven treatment. Metros would talk to the patients in care-driven treatment to find out how they benefit. Interactive discussions would draw more patient response – and maybe entrepreneur-doctors defending the system.

This smarter coverage would generate more traffic and give metros a strong shot at re-establishing themselves as a dominant news medium in their communities. More than that, it might, if enough metros got on board, help force policy makers and legislators to confront the real reasons behind the health-care crisis.

Metros could use their new playbook to cover other long-term stories with high social impact, including all those under the umbrella of an economic/financial crisis that is likely to continue for many years. Right now metros do report-and-run stories on foreclosures and business closings, but they don’t use their resources to show how these events are reshaping entire neighborhoods and maybe the American dream

How is the $800 billion from the federal stimulus legislation being spent in each metro area? Who are there winners and losers, and why? How much waste, fraud and conflict of interest are occurring? Report-and-run stories won’t answer those questions.

Metros must become like Gulliver – not the shipwrecked Gulliver who came to his senses to discover he was ensnared by the six-inch-high Lilliputians, but the Gulliver who later outwitted his captors and escaped to freedom.

Gulliver got smart. Will the metros?

Quality Control: Q&A with John Battelle, Web content visionary

[Editor’s note: OJR welcomes back Sarah Colombo, a USC Annenberg graduate and former OJR student editor, who is rejoining us, now as a contributing writer, to cover the business side of online journalism.]

As founding editor and publisher of Wired magazine and the Industry Standard Magazine, John Battelle has certainly witnessed and experienced enough ebbs and flows in both the new and traditional media business to advise journalists on how to avoid common mistakes when establishing themselves online.

As a veteran technology journalist, Battelle is also highly skilled at engaging and maintaining an online audience on a level esteemed by many of his colleagues. His latest incarnations, Federated Media and Searchblog both appear to be strong examples of how to do it right.

Speaking by telephone from Federated Media headquarters in Sausalito, Calif., Battelle discussed the importance of establishing good conversation, and how his latest publishing venture has evoked a new way to help independent Web journalists get the bills paid.

OJR: What do you find that most journalists are lacking when they attempt to launch websites?

Battelle: The advice I give any journalist friend or colleague is to make the transition from that which I call packaged goods media–a finished television, news or radio report–to the conversational approach to [online] journalism. For most of us journalists who have spent a majority of their careers in the packaged goods area, it’s terrifying to hang it all out there and to admit that you might be wrong and to make mistakes and be corrected. It’s scary to say, I don’t have an editor and I don’t have a title but here’s my opinion and I can’t hide behind a newspaper or magazine masthead.

[Online journalism] is much more like performance art. I would compare the skill set [with that of] a radio talk show host. They talk to each other, they interview people and they take calls, and 50 percent of the callers are regular commentators. We as audience participants love to listen to the conversation. Blogs in particular have that same kind of conversation. On Searchblog, there are three to four times more comments than there are posts from me, and I would say that of the 10,000 comments on the site, probably 50 to 100 people are responsible for 8,000 of them.

OJR: Then how much freedom do you grant to them? Do you restrict usage or do users have to earn the right to comment?

Battelle: No, anyone can comment, but I will delete comments that are off-topic or that are obviously for self-gain. You have to be a moderator of the conversation. Journalists are very good at this, particularly the ones who are good at interviews because they know how to keep things on topic.

OJR: Searchblog is a member of your current publishing venture, Federated Media. Describe the general philosophy behind FM.

Battelle: The general idea is that not all journalists or authors who can draw a community want to be the CEO of a publishing company. They care about getting paid but aren’t very interested in selling ads. They care about making the site look good, but they don’t want to take care of the back end. They don’t want to necessarily hire and manage an accountant and controller, but they certainly care that their check comes on time.

After working on Searchblog for a while, it struck me that the site had gotten to the size of a respectable trade magazine, and I could tell the audience was pretty influential. So as a publisher I was thinking if I had 50,000 influential people reading a publication, it could be a real publication, but I didn’t want to do that again.

Meanwhile, Boing Boing came to me and said our hosting bill is way too high we can’t keep doing this little hobby of ours, so maybe we can figure out a way to turn it into a business. I started working with them on doing that and it struck me that between my site, which was a mini Industry Standard, and Boing Boing, which was more like Wired, there might be something there.

So I started looking for other sites and thought what if we federated all of our inventory? It struck me that the only way to really maintain a high quality of sites was to maintain a reasonably small number of them. These are not $1 or $2 RPM (revenue per thousand page views) sites, these are at least $15 to $20 RPM sites, and they needed to present themselves to advertisers as worthy of that premium. So, we’re now at about 85 or 90 sites and we have federations in various categories, including media and entertainment, tech, parenting and automobile markets.

OJR: So FM sites have already met a certain criteria.

Battelle: Right. They have a validated audience. We’ve done demographic surveys, we’ve joined comScore, we’ve done all the things we do if you’re a real media company. Yet Searchblog is never going to spend $35,000 to join comScore. But FM is going to spend that $35,000 and everyone in our network is now in comScore–that’s the power of federation. And many of the sites that are small cast large shadows. Even though Jeff Jarvis’ site ( isn’t that big, it’s influential. Marketers like that mix, you get reach and good demographics.

OJR: What do you think the journalism sites on FM have accomplished to get to that point?

Battelle: For the most part the sites that have risen to influence, particularly in the technology sector, are sites that are written by people who are seasoned journalists. I think one of the reasons these sites are so influential is that they’re so read by journalists who have crossed the bridge from the conversational medium back into the packaged goods medium and write second-day, more definitive pieces. You see that a lot in The New York Times, and you know the political writers and tech writers are reading those blogs.

OJR: Especially considering the importance of user participation. The blogger may initiate the conversation, but the important piece of information is the conversation itself, not just the initial posting.

Battelle: Blogs have become archival footage in a way. I’m often referred back to posts I wrote six months ago or a year ago. One of the early examples of a major company breaking news through a blog is when Amazon let me break the news that they were getting into the search game. Later, Amazon announced that they were going to launch [a search site called] A9. Someone wrote me recently and said, remember that post? The A9 thing seems to be going away. I reread the post and 20 comments. When you see it as a whole, it’s really a powerful statement and [sometimes] the comments far outweigh the pure words of the post itself.

OJR: According to a recent post on the FM site, you’re not adding any new authors until you make sure everyone’s happy with what you’ve got.

Battelle: We’ve built momentum … so I had to make a business decision. Some of the FM sites have very ambitious plans. We have a different kind of conversation with them. But for the sites who are doing it on their own for the first time, we help them decide whether they should bring on an editor and how to use financing. There might be a time at which they want to hire their own sales force and fire FM. Frankly I expect that to happen and I expect to lose some sites at some point.

OJR: What if one of your bigger sites starts expanding on a huge scale right away? How do you decide whether FM should grow to accommodate it?

Battelle: That’s a very good question. With some of our sites that are bigger and have significant revenue opportunity like Digg or Boing Boing, we have to make sure that this still a true partnership, and we always have to be asking [whether it’s still] making sense. This is not a new model in terms of business, but in terms of the media business, it’s kind of new ground.

OJR: You posted a response on your blog about the Washington Post’s recent attempt to offer to sell ads on blogs and split the revenue with bloggers. Do you think it’s a profitable idea?

Battelle: I believe there’s a place for it. There’s no doubt that traditional media can and will continue, but it has a hard hump to get over. Traditional media is in the business of sort of corralling talent. [As a newspaper reporter], you don’t talk to readers. Your job is to talk to your sources. Institutionally, these organizations have grown up managing reporters, not talent. When I was editing at Wired, my job was to produce writers and manage 50-150 talented, half-crazy freelance writers, and I think it really got me ready to do what I’m doing now. People with influential blogs are talent and they don’t want to be told what to write about.

OJR: So, is the Post trying to copy the Federated Media model?

Battelle: It’s similar, but I don’t think it’s copying any more than I copied the ad rep/book publishing/music label/talent agency model. There’s a lot of great content out there and we all want to figure out a way to get involved in it.

OJR: In your book, “The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture” (Portfolio, a Penguin imprint), one of the principal theories that you describe is the “database of intentions.” What will the implications of search mechanisms be for online journalists over the next few years?

Battelle: The key thing here is that anything that has existed online will exist online forever and the privacy issues, the citizen versus state issues and the corporation versus reporter issues are profound because now so much exists. I don’t think that culturally we’ve really gotten very far in the discussion of what it all means.

Think about it: Every place you go, everything you do, everything you click on- it’s all meta data. And what really got me excited is that my great-grandchildren can access my searches. That’s an artifact that I want to give them. I’d like to have access to and editing rights to that information, but right now that’s an artifact that I don’t own.

Pass the politics, please: Science blogs peppered with commentary

You normally wouldn’t think of satisfying your jones for political and cultural commentary by visiting a “science” blog.

But a small network of writers at are trying to broaden scientific discourse by editorializing about everything from gay actors playing Christian characters to the embryo-worshipping antics of one Senator Fetus Fondler, more commonly known as Rick Santorum, Republican of Pennsylvania.

“Science doesn’t get a lot of comments,” said PZ Myers, a biologist and professor who runs the popular Pharyngula blog. “No, it’s the occasional post on atheism that gets people riled up.” was launched last January by Seed Media Group, publishers of SEED magazine. Seed recruited 15 of the best known independent science bloggers, offered to compensate them based on traffic, and set them loose to blog about whatever they wanted.

The result has been an idiosyncratic glimpse at our culture through the eyes of one philosopher, one physicist, a few writers and biologists, a former Senate staffer, a computer scientist, and various and sundry academics and science-minded lay people.

“[Seed] got the idea that blogs can’t work with restrictions,” said Myers, who is known for his humorous vilification of creationists, conservatives, and anyone who traffics in blatant idiocies. “There hasn’t been a peep from the editorial desk.”

Since its inception, the network has since grown to 19 bloggers.

Science + Religion + Politics = Controversy

There’s no shortage of pure science content on ScienceBlogs — comments on the disease vector Aedes aegypti and its role in the spread of the Chikungunya arbovirus, anyone? And there are several blogs, such as Afarensis and Gene Expression, that tend to stay away from cultural and political commentary altogether.

But a brief review of recent posts on some blogs reveals titles like “Science guy harshes creationists’ mellow,” “Your morning dose of unintentional creationist humor,” and “Keep your Prayers to Yourself!”

A first-time visitor to might assume the network was a bastion of liberal-only, anti-religion commentary, where the bloggers preach to their choir. But the bloggers, for their part, say there are a few conservatives who visit every now and then.

Ed Brayton, who writes Dispatches from the Culture Wars, said that his blog gets more conservative readers than other ScienceBlog destinations.

“I am a libertarian, which essentially means that conservatives think I’m a liberal and liberals think I’m a conservative, and they’re both wrong,” he said.

Tim Lambert, who writes the Deltoid blog, said his posts about the war in Iraq, especially, incite arguments. “When you have people disagreeing with you vehemently in comments, you sure don’t feel like you are preaching to the choir,” he said.

Tara Smith, who posts to the Aetiology blog, said anything that she writes about AIDS draws a wide range of dissenters, including people who deny the disease’s existence. She said the best she can hope for is that people learn from what she’s writing, whether they agree with her or not.

The conversation and arguments the bloggers generate seem to be working. The network is garnering anywhere from one to three million page views per month, according to editor Christopher Mims, who manages the blogs from the Seed offices in Manhattan.

The Benefits of Networking

More traffic means more money for the bloggers. But while the compensation can be a useful supplement, it’s certainly not enough to make a living on.

“It paid my cable bill,” said Smith, who works full-time as an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Iowa.

“The draw wasn’t the money,” said Brayton, who also founded Michigan Citizens for Science and the popular science forum Panda’s Thumb. “Whether I make a nickel on it I’m still going to do what I do.”

Brayton said he was attracted to the blogging network because Seed takes care of the technical details. Prior to joining ScienceBlogs, he maintained his own site and server.

Brayton was concerned, however, about the editorial policy. He spent a few days negotiating his contract to ensure he had editorial carte blanche.

Smith and Myers also had concerns about editorial control, but were assured that Seed wouldn’t interfere with their posts. Both were attracted to the idea of Seed managing the technical aspects of blogging.

Another benefit of networking: increased visibility.

“I think the collective nature of this project improves traffic,” said Brayton, who said he’s seen the number of visitors steadily climb to about 4,500 hits per day.

Lambert said his traffic has increased 50 percent since he began blogging for He ascribes that increase to the quality of all the blogs combined.

The network effects extend beyond the sites themselves. Many of the bloggers knew each other, either professionally or through blogging, before starting to write for

Long-term view

Whatever success the bloggers have had so far, they’ve managed it without a big marketing or advertising push from Seed, which has allowed word to spread via the Web. Seed has run a few house ads in the magazine, and they took advantage of an ad exchange with the journal Nature to promote the blogs.

“We’ve seen a very positive response from the advertising community,” said Michael Tive, general manager of Seed Digital Networks. “We’ve seen a willingness to understand and explore blogs as a subset of digital media.”

Seed also operates a news aggregator called and the magazine site, They sell ad space on all three sites.

Currently is running Harper Collins ads, and has run ads from other large companies, such as Subaru. Tive said the blog format attracts young, educated readers who can be a very appealing audience for advertisers.

Seed expects to hire a full-time blog editor soon, and they’re considering a redesign of the pages.

As for the bloggers, they say they plan to continue blogging at for as long as the domain is active, and as long as it doesn’t become too much like work.

They credit with helping to make science more accessible to a wider community. Blogging, they say, hasn’t penetrated the scientific community to the same degree that it has technology and politics. But blogging at professional journals and magazines, such as Nature and Scientific American, is helping to legitimize the practice among scientists.

“In the scientific community, blogging is growing. It’s still kind of a fringe activity, still associated with teenagers and not really regarded as a professional pursuit,” said Smith.

“But it’s getting attention.”