How the Other Half Thinks

By , 22 June, 2008, 1 Comment

I’ve been blogging a lot lately about the effects of digital news outlets on the print world, trying to identify the best and worst practices for confronting change. This weekend, at a conference of South Asian journalists, I attended a fascinating panel about blogs run by print organizations and written by beat reporters to “augment” their day job.

The speakers, Sewell Chan and Jennifer Lee from the New York Times, and Mark Seibel from McClatchy’s, each began with some general remarks on what makes a good blog and how blog posts might be different in content and style from a news story. Some of it was old news to those of us in the room who were bloggers already, but I’d certainly never seen such a methodical breakdown of what it is blogs do.

Blogs are good places for reporters to
–dump nuggets that didn’t make the final print cut
–keep up with a news story that is moving faster than the daily news cycle
–air opinions/debate contraversies that would be “unjournalistic” in print
–go deep into “color” items like community anecdotes, historical factoids or reader polls that wouldn’t be “news” items on their own
–do “spinach” stories, the social justice-type pieces that aren’t always sexy, but need attention to advance a cause

As at most conferences, the real show was the Q&A session, where I got an inside look into the business side of the print-blog equation. Pressed by the audience, Chan, Lee and Seibel spoke as editors and managers about the effect of blogs on a macro-scale, beyond the content of individual stories.

All the speakers reiterated the old clich√© that Web 2.0 explodes the linear structure of print news (front to back) so that every website has infinite entry points. You might reach a story from a newspaper’s homepage, but you might also link directly to the story from a blog, a Wikipedia entry or an email from a friend. Seibel took this a step further–if readers (87% in fact) don’t come to McClatchy’s blog posts through McClatchy’s, then something has to happen on the blog page to connect them to the brand. McClatchy’s has therefore redesigned not only every blog, but every story page, to include more links back to the home page. Smart call. Also smart is the way McClatchy’s blogs are all centralized on the company’s website, allowing them to build some sort of national/international news brand that complements the local nature of their many print newspapers.

The other major flashpoint was the question of copyright, especially given the recent tension between the AP and the Drudge Retort. Recognizing that most readers come to their blogs and stories through links from other websites, all three speakers were surprisingly lax about copyright regulations. Chan said the NYTimes does not police the internet too aggressively in search of those who copy and reuse its content. Seibel quipped that his company has only gone so far as to trademark its own name. Today’s readers, he added, are less loyal to one news organization brand. rather we might Google-search a subject and link to stories on that, sometimes arriving at an NYTimes or a McClatchy’s on the six or seventh click. Given that indirect path, no one journalist claims complete credit for giving a reader the 600 word article at the end of such a chain–copyright starts to unravel.

Some of the blog coverage of the AP fiasco tends to paint a picture of forward looking new media assaulting an old media establishment that is resentful of and hostile to change. I’ve always questioned that picture, but this panel confirmed that at the top of the print food chain, where the power’s at, blogs are viewed with excitement and admiration. As Seibel said, “I now find blogs more interesting than stories because [bloggers] tell what they know, without feeling compelled to balance all view points and get so many expert opinions that they end up not saying anything definitive.”

Indeed, there’s a lot more bitterness and resentment coming from some bloggers these days than I heard yesterday.

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