What Doonesbury's Rick Redfern did wrong

Last week I enjoyed reading about one of America’s most famous investigative reporters making the transition from print staffer to independent blogger. I am writing, of course, about Rick Redfern, the fictional Washington Post reporter from Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip. [You can find the strips on the Doonesbury website.]

For those not now following the strip, Redfern, a long-time WaPo veteran in Trudeau’s world, was laid off earlier this autumn and is now launching his own blog, a scenario not uncommon among many “real world” journalists. Fishing for tips, he chooses to launch the blog with an anecdote about Barack Obama playing basketball with U.S. troops in the Middle East.

Subsequent gags play to old lines against bloggers: their content is trivial; bigwigs don’t want to return their calls; their professional status is less than traditional media writers. Still, Redfern lands Obama on the phone; he gets his first inbound link. Ultimately, Redfern declares:

“It’s tough to leverage a byline in a media environment where anyone who can type gets a byline! I’m competing for eyeballs with millions of narcissists… almost none of whom expect to actually get paid!”

The series wraps up with a final gag about Redfern’s slacker ex-CIA son… who has his own blog.

Just as in Trudeau’s alternate universe, competition’s tougher today online than it was in print a generation ago. Redfern’s spot on – it’s tough to leverage a byline these days. But it can be done. (If Redfern supposedly was in part inspired by Bob Woodward, I am awaiting Trudeau’s version of Joshua Micah Marshall.)

The beauty of fiction is what it can tell us about our real lives. Here are three things Trudeau’s Rick Redfern did wrong in launching his blog, keeping him from better immediate success online (or, from losing his gig with the WaPo in the first place):

1) Start your blog before you leave the paper

As I’ve written before, building an economically viable audience can take months, if not years. Start the clock toward building that readership before you need it.

The real-world WaPo has taken one of the newspaper industry’s most aggressive approaches to staff blogging and chatting. If Redfern had worked at the real WaPo, he undoubtedly would have had the opportunity to start a blog long before he faced a buyout. He could have developed his blogging voice, as well as an online following, with the help of one of the newspaper industry’s top dot-com staffs.

That would have made a real Rick Redfern a far more valuable asset to the Post, perhaps helping him save his job. And even if it didn’t, he’d have a far easier time getting a base of existing online fans to follow him to a personal blog than he now faces building that base from scratch.

Reporters who don’t work for an outfit as aggressive as the WaPo ought to start blogging, too. Look at Curt Cavin’s OJR piece from last week, where wrote how he took a simple Q&A concept and built it into the most popular feature on his paper’s website.

2) Don’t change your game

If competition has made leveraging a byline online difficult, changing what that byline represents makes the task impossible. Redfern, an investigative reporter, should not have fallen into the trap stereotype that says blog entries must be short and superficial. If anything, going online allows Redfern the opportunity to write for a more engaged audience that craves greater detail.

I loved this e-mail that my wife received from a fan after she published a 5,360-word interview with violinist Rachel Barton Pine on her blog: “That RBP interview was just awesome. Isn’t it ironic that so many dead tree news sources are trying to imitate ‘Teh Internets’, and slashing article length, making them McInfoBites, and thus worthless, whilst here you do such a looooong lovely interview that would NEVER get printed in full in other print sources.”

Time spent on site has become the new fashionable metric for website success. What causes people to spend more time on a website? Longer articles. πŸ˜‰

Leave the short hoops anecdotes for Deadspin. Stay on your beat, and instead launch your blog with some solid evergreen pieces that explain, in plain, simple language, the players and issues on that beat. Take questions from readers, to discover what they want to know. Then assume, because you are now writing for a niche medium, that you can go long, in depth and intelligent and not lose any readers in the process.

Yes, your longer, in-depth pieces must offer real substance and engage your audience. But you are a professional reporter, right? If you can’t do that, you don’t deserve to beat the competition online.

3) It’s the “net” – so network

You can’t wait for inbound links to promote your blog. You must solicit them. Redfern should have gotten his son to link to his new blog, and he should be working his contacts back at the Post.

Let your fellow blogging journalists – at newspapers and independent – know when you have a scoop. Ask for links, and do not hesitate to link them when they post a fresh item. Ask other bloggers to make guest appearances on your blog, as you’d have guest “talking heads” on a TV news show. They’ll soon return the favor.

The real-world Washington Post has a voracious appetite for chat guests. Surely a real Rick Redfern could swing an invite from his former colleagues, drawing attention to his new blog in the process.

Newspaper bloggers should not hesitate to link former colleagues and competitors. If newspapers are going to sack loyal, hard-working reporters with multiple rounds of layoffs each year, journalists need to shift their loyalty from their publisher to their fellow reporters. After all, they’ll need the link help from those colleagues when they face the chop.

Five steps to encourage readers to blog on your website

How can you encourage readers to blog on your news website?

Anyone can start a blog, for free and in minutes, using established and popular services such as Blogger and WordPress.com. What would entice a reader to avoid those options in favor of maintaining their blog on your website?

The answer is one word: community.

Most readers, like professional writers, want an audience for their work. Putting a blog online isn’t like putting a magazine on the rack at Borders. Starting a blog on Blogger, while technically simple, does little to put a writer’s word in front of a potential audience. Promoting the new blog remains the writer’s responsibility, and many fall short of the challenge.

Launching a new blog within an established website community, however, gives a new blogger a head start on promoting his or her work. Within the community, bloggers become the audience for their fellow bloggers’ work. And if the blogging community is part of a larger content-driven website, such as an online newspaper, non-writing readers can more easily find and become fans of a new blog.

Newspapers are embracing reader blogging as a way to both attract user-generated content (and increased page views) for a website, as well as to build loyalty among readers. USA Today has built ambitious social media initiative within its website, and other Gannett papers now are inviting their readers to blog with them.

But… if you are launching a new blog community, how do you get the bloggers you need to make that community an alluring place for would-be bloggers to launch?

Chicken, meet egg.

Here are five steps that your news website can take to avoid that classic dilemma, and to build an active and engaging online blogging community among your readers.

1. Make it easy

I don’t want to make this article an analysis of individual software tools that could power your blogging service, but it is important that whatever tool you choose, it be easy for readers to set-up and to use. You will find it difficult to build a critical mass of bloggers if readers must wait for your staff to manually approve each new account, for example.

Registration and initial set-up must be as swift and automatic as setting up an account on one of the other free services, such as Blogger and WordPress.com. (If you are worried about abuse, make sure your tools includes a way for staff to close accounts and delete improper content easily.)

Readers should have an easy-to-remember, search-engine friendly URL for the home pages of their blogs, too. No one wants to tell their friends about their new blog at blogs.newspaper.com/users/front.asp?id=4231 when they could opt for theirname.blogspot.com instead.

Your tool ought to support automated services to promote your readers’ blogs, as well, including automatic RSS feeds, as well as pings to Technorati and Google Blogs when readers post.

2. Don’t hide your bloggers

Readers’ blogs should be easy to find on the website, and not hidden deep within a subsection of some subsection. Follow a basic search engine optimization rule and link your reader blog home page from your site’s home page. Link individual reader bloggers (or, at least the best ones – see point below) from that page, so that they will not be more than two links from your home page. That will provide them a powerful PageRank boost in Google, as well as the ability to be found and indexed quickly in other search engines.

3. Reward readers for blogging well

Reward them with prominence. Create a process through which either your staff or readers themselves can designate outstanding posts for the blog front page, or even the front page of the parent website. Once you get to the point where you have too many bloggers to link individually on your blog front page, reward your best bloggers with those links (and their search engine value).

4. Establish topic-driven communities

With the first three steps taken, you have established a strong framework for your blogging community. But you still need readers to move in. For that, you need to inspire their muse by asking them to write about something that animates their daily lives.

The problem with inviting readers to β€œblog here” is the same one that confronts diners opening a 20-page menu. What to choose? Too many choices can inspire mental gridlock.

And if you want high-quality content, you need bloggers who are writing uninformed opinion, but about the rich detail of something interesting in their personal lives. Certain topics, therefore, better lend themselves to robust blogging communities.

A personal example: The blogging section on my wife’s violin website has attracted several dozen regular bloggers, while blogs on my theme park website drew few writers. (We used the same publishing tool on both sites.) Playing the violin is a daily activity, one that becomes a significant part of people’s identity. Most people visit a theme park just once or twice a year. It isn’t something that defines most people interested in the topic. So it wasn’t as attractive a topic for personal blogging as the violin site provided. That’s why we shuttered the blogs on the theme park site and the violin blogs continue to prosper.

There’s nothing keeping a general interest site, such as an online newspaper, from creating multiple blog communities around several different topics. Just because your site covers multiple beats does not mean that you must stick with a single, generic reader blog community.

5. Provide an example

We’ve written this many times before on OJR, but we’ll say it again: You cannot just build a user-generated content tool, and expect that people will come and provide great content. You must provide leadership. You must provide an example that readers can model. So you must have someone on staff blogging, using the same tool as readers, in the same content community.

Staff bloggers using a separate platform won’t have the same leadership effect on their site’s reader blogs as they would if they used the same tool as readers. That’ll just send readers the message that they are second-class citizens, and even being disrespected somewhat.

Of course staff writers ought to be producing better quality content, and ought to be given more prominence within the blogging community as a result. (One suggestion: Staffers get automatic promotion to the higher prominence slots described in step 2.) If a community is to prosper, readers need to a see connection between themselves and their community’s leaders. Writing on the same platform can do that simply and effectively.

Leadership also should include clear and consistent posted guidelines that can help prevent misunderstandings about what is fair game in the blogs, including rules about appropriate language and conduct. Don’t make all the guidelines negative, either. Guidelines can also suggest tips and tricks to help readers improve their observation skills, enable basic reporting and enliven their writing.

Reader bloggers can help deepen a publication’s coverage, with additional personal vignettes and original perspectives that staff writers wouldn’t be able to collect using traditional reporting methods and the same number of hours in the day. But a few moments of advance thought can help determine whether a new blogging tool will enable a vibrant community, or open yet another empty forum.

How social media can help shape society

Building on July’s YouTube/CNN presidential debate, 10Questions.com has opened a new channel of communication between the public and the presidential hopefuls.

Welcome to the agora of the 21st century: 10 Questions is a people-powered platform for presidential politics created by Andrew Rasiej and Micah L. Sifry of techPresident and high school physics teacher David Colarusso, who also runs a site called Community Counts. Anyone can upload a video question for the candidates. The public votes on the questions it wants to see answered, and the candidates respond to the top 10 questions.

Will such a forum bring the democracy of the Internet to politics? OJR spoke on the phone with 10 Questions co-creator and self-described “technical guy” for the site, David Colarusso. An edited transcript follows.

OJR: 10 Questions is based on the technology of your site, Community Counts. How did Community Counts get its start?

Colarusso: Back in the beginning of this year, YouTube began spotlighting individual candidates on its page by posting a video of the candidate asking the community a question. YouTube users were then invited to submit video responses. Lastly, the candidate responded to these responses. For example, the first question was by Mitt Romney: “What do you believe is America’s single greatest challenge?”. I submitted a response, and luckily, the first two candidates replied to my videos.

It became obvious to us users after a while that there wasn’t a good mechanism for the candidates to understand what the community valued. We thought the community should have some say as to what they wanted to see the candidate respond to. So we said, why don’t we just survey everyone? That turned into Community Counts.

When the YouTube/CNN debate came along, I had the tools necessary for people to vote on those questions. We got a good deal of press coverage. We had a lot of users: 30,000 votes by 6,000 voters. That got the attention of the people of techPresident.

After the debate was over, we thought about what we wanted to see happen, and that turned into 10 Questions.

OJR: How is 10 Questions different from the YouTube/CNN debates?

Colarusso: There are some rather profound differences. The primary one is that we’re doing this as a people-powered forum, not a debate. It’s a discussion with the candidates. The YouTube debate allowed people to ask questions, but CNN had the ultimate say in choosing the final videos. YouTube also took away the features that let users see their peers’ most popular videos. Community Counts allowed the users to vote on the questions themselves, to prioritize them. We pose the question: Do you think this should be asked of the candidates? Community Counts shows that when you ask that you get serious stuff.

Another difference is that we offer the ability for the community to comment on the candidates’ replies and to rate whether the question was answered.

OJR: As of this morning, 10 Questions had about 76,000 votes and 160 videos. What is the traffic like? How do you add traffic to the site? What do you expect in the final week?

Colarusso: We’ll probably get about 100,000 votes by November 14. The videos come in spurts as different groups get interested.

The idea of leveraging the wisdom of the crowds – that a group of people together can make better decisions – works when the crowd is diverse. The two ways we try to get diversity is to make the audience very large and to reach out to different populations. We have a collection of 40 cross-partisan “sponsors,” such as the Huffington Post, Hugh Hewitt, DailyKos, BET. There is no financial relationship. The sponsors let their readers and viewers know what’s going on over here. We have a nice mix of left and right voters.

OJR: How can you tell the political leaning of your visitors?

Colarusso: We can only say where they’re coming from – our main referring sites (our sponsors) have a nice mix.

As for traffic, there are different drivers. Up to today, we’ve seen three major spikes. (We can tell by looking at the history for each of the videos – the top two videos would show these spikes.)

The first spike was our initial launch. In terms of unique individual visitors to the site, we had about 5,000. There was a peak of 7,000 visitors per day during the launch period.

The second spike in traffic, with a peak of about 11,000 individual visitors to the site, was on October 29, during Barack Obama’s MySpace/MTV dialogue. We had worked it out so that the top ten questions on our site at the time would be asked. MoveOn.org sent an e-mail to their users telling them to vote on videos. It generated a lot of attention and traffic. The result was that a question on net neutrality shot up to number one, and it’s still currently the top video. The following week there were discussions on the legitimacy of MoveOn.org. They were accused of “astroturfing”. We don’t think it’s the right characterization. Sending out an e-mail asking people to vote doesn’t guarantee that everyone will vote.

We do have safeguards on our site – only one vote per IP address allowed. At the end of round one [on November 14, when the top ten questions will be submitted to the candidates], we’ll start an auditing process to further refine those safeguards.

This last weekend, there was another spike of about 6,400 unique visitors, resulting in the question, “Is America unofficially a theocracy?” climbing into the current number two spot. A blogger had posted an entry asking his readers to vote on two questions on religion and politics. It took off like crazy after someone dugg the blog entry. It got a couple thousand diggs, and generated a lot of traffic. So in the course of the weekend, it pushed these questions right up to the top 10. Certainly this is not astroturfing. This is not an organized e-mail list. People came and stayed around to vote on other questions.

We’re big on being transparent. We’ve been blogging each day about the traffic. As of today, we’ve had about 65,000 unique visitors total since the site started. We’re pretty happy that these individual people came to vote, and then stayed around to vote on other videos. On average people voted on about three videos. That’s promising.

In the last peak, there were fewer unique voters but more voting. It’s interesting to see how these numbers are correlated. This is the mystery of the Web – how people participate.

OJR: Have you any idea which campaign is more Web-organized than others, in terms of submitting videos to the site or getting their supporters to vote?

Colarusso: It’s a tricky question. You see, you might have a small group that’s good at mobilizing its members – but it has few members. I can tell you that over the life of the site, we’ve got in the top ten list of referring sites (in rough order): digg, blogspot [both from last week’s spike], Crooks&Liars, MSNBC, Hugh Hewitt at Townhall, TalkingPointsMemo, HotAir, and Conservative Grapevine.

OJR: One of the hot topics surrounding the democracy of Internet-based forums is: Are the questions better? Smarter? More original? More relevant? What are your thoughts?

Colarusso: I think they’re definitely diverse, and that’s one of the main things we’re trying to get at – a sense of what our community, our visitors think are questions that should be asked. So it’s hard not to succeed with that rubric [laughs].

It’s interesting to note that these questions are different from the normal questions. I think that means they’re adding something. Policy-specific questions, such as net neutrality, or questions about whether America is unofficially a theocracy are obviously what this community feels strongly about.

OJR: What can journalists learn from this public forum?

Colarusso: An interesting question, but hard to answer at the moment. This is something that has to run its course. There could be another spike tomorrow and everything could change. This will work best when we have the most number of users participating. That’s when we’ll have the most diverse sample. The lesson might just be that there is a desire on people’s part to have this access to candidates. We see a lot of student voices, students asking questions. We see the participation of people who might not normally feel like they have access. It’s entirely egalitarian. We’re not promoting any one viewpoint. We’re just letting people decide. I think people very much appreciate that feeling that what you get is the will of the community.

OJR: Will the informal style of Internet home videos put an end to the sound-bite-driven style of politics on TV?

Colarusso: One of our goals is to provide a forum to allow politicians to move away from sound bites. It has to do with what we’re looking for. With all these debates on TV, candidates say they don’t get the chance to give nuanced answers. We’re giving them a month to submit answers. They’ll actually have to live up to that.

Additionally, having the community rate their answers lets the candidate know that they have an engaged community. And we hope that that will also provide an impetus for a more substantive answer.

As far as the informality of the questions, I think the main benefit is to put a human face on people who ask the questions, to make people feel more engaged when they are watching someone that looks more like them.

OJR: Is anyone analyzing or tabulating all the questions you’ve gotten?

Colarusso: We’re keeping tabs on it – trying to give commentary as we go. We’re providing data on votes and history. I’m definitely interested in seeing what the final tally looks like. There’s a lot to glean there.