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 Washingtonpost.com 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

OrlandoSentinel.com
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

BoingBoing.net 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

BlogHer.org
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 Madison.com and FresnoBee.com.

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

CityTools.net
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

Spot-On.com
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.

Advertising, editorial lines blur as bloggers' salaries tied to traffic

Most freelance writers wait in dread for The Call — their equivalent of the “Dear John” letter from an editor who is calling (or sometimes e-mailing) to say they’re no longer needed. A number of years ago, The Call came to me from my editor at CNET, but with a twist. They were killing my humor column because it didn’t get enough page views. I even got a rundown of the numbers, though they were meaningless to me.

The Internet has been lauded for providing advertisers with exact metrics on how their ads perform, but it also can be turned against writers and journalists, especially at sites that live and die by traffic.

About.com pioneered pay for Guides that’s tied to traffic growth, and now Gawker Media is also paying a base salary for its stable of bloggers, along with bonuses for increased traffic. Plus, the new breed of “stand-alone journalists” such as Rafat Ali at PaidContent.org and Chris Nolan at Politics from Left to Right take on both editorial and business roles at their online publications. While this blurring of the Chinese wall between advertising and editorial could hurt the credibility of the nascent operations, few journalists can ignore the economic viability of their publications.

In a Q&A with OJR, About.com CEO Peter Horan explained how Guides are motivated to build traffic. “One of things we’ve institutionalized is that folks understand that time they put in to optimize the content is really an investment in their page growth,” Horan said. “There’s been enough success stories with the Guides, that basically they sell each other on the idea that this is a good thing to do.”

While the Political Humor Guide pulled in $20,000 per month around the U.S. election last fall, the average Guide only makes $1,500 to $1,600 per month, according to Horan, making this a part-time freelance gig, for the most part.

More highbrow online publications such as Slate and Salon have never paid writers according to page views. Slate editor Jacob Weisberg told me he is opposed to the idea for a number of reasons.

“First of all, how we promote stories has more effect on their traffic than what the writers do,” Weisberg said via e-mail. “Second, I wouldn’t want to push writers to pander for hits by writing only sexed-up stories. Third, all hits are not created equal. A small number of additional readers who come regularly to a less popular feature may be more valuable to us than something that swells traffic greatly but temporarily. Fourth, it would create an unproductive kind of competition among our writers.”

Salon editor Joan Walsh concurred and said the site had never tied pay to page views in any way before — though she wouldn’t rule it out in the future. But Walsh believes that letters from readers are more interesting indicators than traffic.

Calacanis, Denton diverge

But if Salon and Slate are Web 1.0 for online journalists, then Gawker Media and Weblogs Inc. are Web 2.0. Both of the newbie blog empires have tried out new models for paying writers, with mixed success. Gawker has been paying writers a base salary plus bonuses tied to traffic, while Weblogs Inc. ditched a scheme for paying bloggers based on ad revenues and now compensates them with a flat fee.

Nick Denton, publisher of Gawker Media, told me he modeled his system on the About.com model. “I’m sure the writers would prefer to take the maximum they could make in a month, and take it as a flat salary,” he said via e-mail, “but we’ve never offered flat salary. Pay has always depended on number of posts, with a bonus for appealing to readers.”

While Denton wouldn’t get into the details of his pay structure, one of his writers told me more about the complex system for compensation, though declined to be named for fear of losing the work. According to this writer, a blogger with high traffic growth can “accrue a lot of potential money.” The problem is that the bonus is “banked” and the entire sum can’t be taken out in one month, leaving it to drop as the traffic drops in future months. To make it even more complicated, traffic bonuses are weighted according to a multiplier depending on the subject matter of the blog.

“There’s a maximum withdrawal per month,” the writer said. “So you could actually make $50,000 in traffic bonuses per month, but you could only take out $5,000 or so. But by the time a few months have gone by, your traffic could have trended downward, and it could have eaten up the traffic bonus you had earned. … It makes sense for Nick, but it makes all of us really uneasy.” Lockhart Steele, managing editor at Gawker Media, wouldn’t explain the details of the pay structure to me but said that any bonus plan involves a certain amount of complexity.

“What if there’s an act of god, a surge of new visitors, none of whom comes back?” Steele said via e-mail. “What if a writer cashes a freak bonus, and then coasts, or walks? Should a writer really be penalized if their topic has a small niche audience? Our formula ignores huge spikes in traffic, so that an editor is neither ludicrously over-compensated in a freak month, nor penalized when traffic then declines. On the other hand, should writers on the Web just ignore traffic? No.”

Joel Johnson, who writes Gizmodo for Denton, called the pay structure “Byzantine” but says he’s happy with the amount he’s paid. “The worst part, though, is that so much of the pay is based on increasing hits, but we as editors don’t have any control over anything but the editorial content,” Johnson said via e-mail. “That’s the most important part, sure, but it sucks to think you might lose money because somebody decided to give you a retarded elf or a queer ninja as a mascot. … I’d rather be writing than learning how to trick Google.”

Denton admits his writers have had “the occasional spasm of self-doubt” but have nevertheless come up with great ways to build traffic. He ticked off some of their accomplishments: “Johnson at Gizmodo (page views up by 276% since March 2004) won an interview with Bill Gates and the Bloggie award for best tech site. Ana Marie Cox of Wonkette (up by 125% since a year ago) has promoted the title heavily in television interviews and panel appearances. Jessica Coen of Gawker (up by 133%) has ridden the big celebrity stories with √©lan. John d’Addario of Fleshbot (up 440% in a year) links to earlier posts to keep readers on his site for longer.”

Meanwhile, rival blog publishing house Weblogs Inc. has ditched its original idea of splitting ad revenues 50/50 with bloggers. The company’s chairman and mouthpiece Jason McCabe Calacanis admits he was wrong about the concept, and that only 1 in 20 writers went for the deal. Now he’s paying a flat fee for bloggers ranging from $100 to $3,000 per month, and is signing up two to five people per blog because of the focus on part-time help.

“We’ve separated the concept of pay and traffic as I think it can be very dangerous to link the two,” Calacanis told me via e-mail. “The biggest problem with traditional media is that they are always chasing ratings, which is an extension of their 10Q [earnings report]. People are coming to blogs because they are NOT playing the ratings game! What difference does it make if a blog gets 10% or 20% traffic [spikes] if it alienates the core audience by playing the ratings game?”

Of course, the Weblogs Inc. honcho couldn’t resist a jab at his arch-nemesis in blog publishing, Denton. Calacanis mentioned how Gawker received a lot of traffic related to a Fred Durst sex video — including a lawsuit from Durst.

“I’d rather our bloggers focus on creating unfiltered, honest content,” Calacanis said. “It’s my job to make the money, it’s their job to make great content. Also, we don’t need to make a profit on every blog. … Chasing ‘nip slips’ is good for ratings, sure, but I wouldn’t build a brand around them. For a gossip or porn magazine, going for ratings isn’t such a major ethical issue, but it is a slippery slope like many things.”

Wearing the dual editor/publisher hats

While bloggers working for Gawker or Weblogs Inc. toil under a freelance contract, the new breed of “stand-alone journalists” have no one to answer to but themselves. And in these cases, the writer is also head marketer, head ad sales rep and head arbiter of ethical issues.

Longtime journalist Chris Nolan coined the phrase “stand-alone journalist” and currently fits the role well at her blog, Politics from Left to Right, which focuses on California politics. Nolan has written columns for the San Jose Mercury News and the New York Post, and is now even “syndicating” (i.e. repurposing) her blog into a column in eWeek.

Nolan doesn’t think the ethical dilemmas of a stand-alone journalist are much of a departure from the old-style conflicts in a newspaper newsroom.

“The idea that all bloggers are corrupt because they have to deal with the business side of their enterprises is a little bit of a red herring,” Nolan told me. “Newsrooms are filled with people who say, ‘You can’t write about Joe because he’s a friend of the publisher,’ or ‘you can’t write about Sue because she’s married to so-and-so.’…What you do is constantly balance the needs of the business against the editorial integrity, just like a real newsroom. The difference is that these are much smaller efforts, for starters, and second of all, we are not monopolies. If you don’t like what I’m saying, you’re free to go somewhere else.”

Nolan says she had to deal with one advertiser who was asking her to write about a subject that didn’t fit in her editorial purview. She simply ignored the request — but didn’t lose the advertiser. She’s currently raised $50,000 for her site from investors and is looking for more money to help expand the site with more writers. How will she pay them?

“[That’s] as clear as mud,” Nolan said. “This is a startup. We are not going to compensate people while they grow an audience. We’re going to try to see how they do. Once we see a decent ad revenue there, we’re going to do a split. We might also do a stipend or lump sum if we can syndicate it. There are a lot of different ways this thing could go…There are going to be as many solutions to the financial workings as there are going to be sites on the Web.”

One stand-alone journalist who has already hired five contract people to help his operation is Rafat Ali at PaidContent.org. Ali has struggled at times to divide his editorial and business roles, and hasn’t been shy about writing about sponsors and job listings in the main editorial space of his blog. But now he will be bringing on Robert Spears to handle the advertising and business development side.

“One thing I’ve realized over the last few years, is that as much as I like the journalism part of it, I also like developing products,” Ali told me. “But one of the tricky things is advertising. How do I go to the same companies I’m writing about and sell advertising? That’s the central conflict. It’s up to the individual to disclaim it up front. There’s no science to it, but it depends on whether you have ethical values to make the editorial separate from advertising.”

Ali will not usually do blanket coverage of every product launch by vendors who cater to the media business and advertise on his site. And he also has tight controls over who can advertise on PaidContent — thereby making the advertising more relevant for readers. He doesn’t like Google AdSense ads and is on the verge of kicking them off his site for being irrelevant, and doesn’t like the non-standard sized ads on BlogAds — or their content.

“The vendors are part of the site’s ecosystem, it’s a fact of life,” Ali said. “I am very happy when my advertisers are doing well business-wise, and I sometimes mention it. A company like Entriq has been doing well and expanded into the mobile space. I know these guys editorially and on the business side as well. So I’ll mention it and say that these guys advertise with me as well. … There’s no science to it, it’s just where you draw the line.

“It’s increasingly blurred, but what really helps — this may sound elitist — but being a journalist by training helps. As a journalist, you grow up being skeptical. I’m sure other people without a journalism background can develop sensibilities, but we come with an in-grown sensibility and that helps a lot in dealing with business issues.”