Newspapers Try Again with Local Blog Networks

Recently, those who visited the front page of the Miami Herald's website began seeing a sidebar item labeled simply "Your Blogs." If you clicked on the link it would take you to a page containing a series of headlines and little snippets of opening paragraphs in a news feed format. If you clicked on one of the links, it would take you to an independent blog not affiliated with the Miami Herald, written by someone who lives somewhere in South Florida. Many of the blogs, though not all, have a regional bent. Some of the links would take you to film or music reviews, or commentary on national politics.

This blog news aggregator is a joint project between the Miami Herald and BlogNetNews, a company founded by David Mastio. For years now, Mastio has been pushing the idea that newspapers should be fostering closer relationships with local bloggers, linking to their content and in effect exposing their readerships to a wider range of media. Lately, he's been meeting with publishers from local newspapers, alt weeklies, and radio and TV stations to set up such networks using his own software.

Mastio's project is part of a trend in recent years of newspapers trying to team up with local bloggers. In 2006, the Washington Post launched a new ad network in which the newspaper's ad reps would sell advertising on local blogs and split the proceeds with the bloggers. I couldn't find any reference to the blogroll on the Post's front page and old permalinks to it no longer work. (I exchanged several emails with Washington Post publicity and advertising representatives, but couldn't get anyone to go on record before deadline.)

More recently, the Chicago Tribune launched a blog aggregator called ChicagoNow, which aggregates "50 blogs and growing." Newspapers and bloggers hope that such efforts could lead to mutually beneficial relationships, but the jury is out on whether those relationships enrich the business of either party.

A reader on-ramp

david mastio.JPGIn terms of teaming up with traditional news companies, Mastio has worked with organizations in Bowling Green, Ky.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Atlanta, among others. In addition to this, BlogNetNews has separate landing pages aggregating political blogs in all 50 states. He said that the basic idea when working with news outlets is to build an "on-ramp" for readers to find out what's going on in local blogs.

"What we do is use all the blogging services out there to find as many of the local blogs as we can -- that are somehow identified by geography, no matter what they're writing about," he said. "And then our system checks them every hour and runs excerpts of the latest posts, and makes all those blogs searchable in a narrow local blog search. We [include] a topic cloud that tracks what people are talking about in the last 100 posts. And we keep an archive of those topic clouds based on an entire day's blogging, so you can see what people were talking about yesterday, or six months ago or whatever you want."

Mastio explained that bloggers are linking to their local newspapers every day, so it seems selfish in some sense not to recognize the value in linking back. He said that doing so would provide a service that would be mutually beneficial for both the news organizations aggregating the blogs and the blogs themselves. These blog feeds would, in essence, create more content for the news site while at the same time sending valuable traffic to the blogs. He didn't have precise numbers, but based on some click-through counts for one of the networks he set up in Tennessee, he estimated blogs shown on the newspaper site received 10,000 click-throughs a week.

Monetizing Blogs

But what about monetary benefits? Mastio said that right now the main advantage to creating such a network is increased traffic, though he does have plans for future monetization.

"It's our plan that we're eventually going to use these networks to create local advertising networks so we'll be able to sell an ad that runs on the site and on blogs within its network," he said. "And in turn we would be able to share the revenue with the bloggers, but that's not something we're able to do quite yet."

Tracy Samantha Schmidt, editorial director for ChicagoNow, said that the bloggers on the site will get a share of the revenue based on page views. Unlike other newspaper attempts to monetize or aggregate off-site blogs, the Chicago Tribune actually approached dozens of Chicago bloggers and offered them contracts to blog on the ChicagoNow website non-exclusively.

"If the bloggers say, 'Sure, sign me up,' we pair them up with a community manager," she said. "We have four of them, and one of the managers will work one-on-one with them to get them trained on our system -- we use Movable Type -- and then we give them all sorts of support if they need training in social media. Whether it's training in SEO or building community, our managers will do that with them."

The team rolled out the beta site on May 25 and since then it has amassed over 600,000 page views. Schmidt said they have bloggers in several niches, from sports blogs to a blog about the city's parking tickets. Though many of the blogs are written by already-established bloggers, they've also invited some local celebrities and well-connected business types who have never blogged before.

I asked Schmidt why they didn't simply put the bloggers on the Chicago Tribune site.

"We are run by the Chicago Tribune, but we're calling it a flanker brand, because really what we want to do is be a separate website off the Chicago Tribune and have as little crossover between the Chicago Tribune and ChicagoNow as possible," she said. "Because we really want to reach readers that the Chicago Tribune hasn't been able to reach online. So that's why we're creating the separate brand."

In addition to traditional brand advertisement, Schmidt said the plan is to eventually launch "adverblogs," allowing local businesses -- in a "completely transparent way" -- to blog for the site. They will also create events around their bloggers and allow organizations and companies to sponsor them. At some point they want to open a classifieds section of ChicagoNow as well.

Posts, not blogs

tony pierce 2.JPGI spoke to Tony Pierce, the blog editor for the LA Times who first gained popularity in the blogging world by writing for his own personal site and then later for LAist. Pierce manages writers for several dozen of the LA Times' blogs, but though the newspaper has a few local LA blogs on some blogrolls, it hasn't adopted any kind of feed or network with local blogs. But surely someone who came from the local blogging scene could appreciate the potential for such a network?

"I think it really matters how good the local blogs are and how well they relate to the content in the newspaper," he told me. "I mean, you can have some really great blogs in your town, but if they're mostly personal or fragmented in their direction, then I don't know how it's going to play on a newspaper site. But if you have a city where you have a whole bunch of people writing about sports or politics or local events, then it would be ideal. As someone who competed with a lot of the local blogs in LA, I would say there's only about three or four that would really fit into a kind of a blogroll if we had that at the LA Times."

Pierce thought that simply creating a scrolling feed of every blog in the area wasn't exactly engaging in the medium. Instead, he thought that newspapers should put more focus on actually reading local blogs and linking to individual posts. For instance, several of the blogs he manages do daily link "round-ups," linking to blog posts within their niche. He often encourages his bloggers to click through their blogrolls and find more obscure content rather than simply linking to the latest Gawker piece.

"For the most part, this whole citizen journalism concept is fine for about three or four people per town, but that's about it," he said. "And most of those people are not journalists for a reason. Either they're crappy writers or they're crazy, which makes for sometimes interesting blog posts, but is that something that a major newspaper would link to? I mean, even my personal blog is certainly nothing I would have expected the LA Times to link to. I was swearing a lot, it was mostly very personal, plus I say on it that it's full of lies."

But if the newspaper didn't feel comfortable linking to all the local content, should it at least try to sell advertising on these sometimes highly specialized blogs, creating an advertising network that benefits everyone?

"It's just that if you have a whole lot of blogs getting 5,000 page views a day, you're going to need a lot of them, a whole lot of them," he said. "And even if you have a whole lot of them, where do you put that ad that it's going to be really valuable? It's a really tricky situation, and I might come across as kind of a snob -- I mean, I love blogs more than any other person -- but I'll be the first to tell you that most of them are crappy. Which isn't to say that individual posts can't be great, and I think that's where newspapers should focus."

Pierce said he thinks blog networks are only the first step toward true engagement. Despite the hype over Web 2.0, not all content deserves to be highlighted for a newspaper's readership. To be truly innovative, he said, editors are going to have to roll up their sleeves and wade through drivel to find the gems.

Simon Owens is a former newspaper journalist and an associate editor for MediaShift. You can read more of his writing at his blog or contact him at simon[.]bloggasm [at] gmail.com.

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The Bivings Group Releases Twitterslurp to Open Source Community

This week at the Personal Democracy Forum, a tool we created called Twitterslurp was used to track the Twitter conversation taking place around the conference.  In an effort to empower other organizations and conferences to use the tool, we are releasing the code behind the tool to the open source community.

You can download the code and read the documentation here.

If you use it, please drop a link to your implementation in the comments.  We’d love to take a look.

The Whatever’s

Guest post by David Cohn

Michael Wesch gave an amazing talk at PDF that I dare not try to summarize.

I will point to an anecdote that Wesch used to give insight into how our cultural conversation is changing all the time.

The word "whatever" has morphed over the years.

Pre 1960s: Whatever meant: Whatever, that's what I said.
In the 1960's: Whatever was a call of rejection: "Whatever man."
In the early 1990's: Whatever was a term of indifference. "Meh, whatever." Also captured in Nirvana's "Whatever, nevermind."
In the late 1990 to now: Whatever has become a term of self indulgence "Whatever" from Clueless.

The question is if the internet can create a sense of "whatever" that implies: By any means necessary or anything is possible.

How does the cultural conversation that takes place change as a result of our ever changing mediums of communication?

Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia all Over 100 Million Strong – What Now for Online Communities?

Guest post by Alan Haburchak

The morning of day two here at the Personal Democracy Forum conference was all about online communities, what they mean, how they can be used and what they say about culture and global culture and society today. Randi Zuckerberg (the other Zuckerberg), Facebook's head of marketing was up first and talked a little bit about how communities have arisen on on Facebook that have lead to real-life movements like the anti-farc protests that occurred in Colombia last year. But other than pointing that that that group had used social media to organize, she didn't have much more to say.

Next up was Alec Ross, who serves as Senior Advisor for Innovation in the Office of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Ross explained how Sec. Clinton is re-imagining the idea of diplomacy to not just be able "white guys in white shirts with red ties" talking to each other, but rather a citizen-to-citizen approach. As an example he touted the State Department's SMS-based Pakistani-relief initiative that they pioneered earlier this year.

The really amazing highlight of the morning however was Michael Wesch, a cultural anthropologist exploring the impact of new media on society and culture. Wesch gave a shortened version of a presentation about YouTube as a cultural phenomenon, which he and 200 students at Kansas State University created. There is video of Wesch's talk at PDF09, though the quality is not ideal. The amazing thing was the collective joy in the room as everyone felt the hope that Wesch expressed for what online communities like YouTube might be able to create in the face of the pessemistic attitude that according to Wesch, had been cultivated among a lot of young people since the 1990s. Highlights from Wesch's presentation were his clips from the Free Hugs and MadV - The Message memes.

Finally the morning closed with Mark Pesce, know as a digital futurist, who talked about the inherrent potenital danger of what he called "ad-hocracies" on the web. As evidence, he pointed to the fight between Wikipedia and the Church of Scientology. Pesce's talk was intersting, discussing how because of their size, the members of the church were able to break the social contract of Wikipedia, ultimately leading to Wikipedia banning them from editing the site. Speaking after Wesch's emotionally charged YouTube presentation, Pesce's point came across as too academic, although important as internet communities reach critical mass.

Ultimately what I and I think most people will take away from this look at web communities is the sense of hope in was Ross and Wesch had to say. Diplomacy can be as simple and effective as sending $5 to someone in Pakistan who needs it from your cell phone, and while YouTube comments may be the worst thing on the internet, the ability of that community to be incredibly personal AND to inspire positive action en masse is amazing.

Google on Google

At the Aspen Ideas Festival, I got up to a mic to ask Eric Schmidt a question. No, it wasn’t, “what would Google do?” I wanted his reaction to a notion I’ve talked about here that has crystallized since I wrote the book: that we are going through something more than a financial crisis and more profound and permanent than a recession. We are shifting from the industrial era – and the age of mass production, distribution, marketing, and media – to what follows, a society built on knowledge and abundance. We are seeing the collapse of the auto, banking, and newspaper industries and large swaths of the the rest of media, retail, real estate, and others to follow. We’re not going to go back; the change is bigger and more fundamental than that. “Did I go too far?” I asked.

“Yes,” Schmidt said. “But you’re good at that.” He had been asked earlier how he felt about people constantly asking what Google could and would do about this problem or that. At that moment, he pointed to me and said that What Would Google Do? did that; it took the Google model and extended it. If Google is a metaphor for thinking differently, I am happy to be it,” he said and then demurred, “Google is a simple company.”

Then Schmidt reacted to my question and this is what’s fascinating to me: He said he wished I were right. He said that too much of our resource, people, government help and attention, measurement go to the legacy players, the big, old companies. He wishes that weren’t the case. He wants that change but fears we will return to old reflex. Innovation, he said, happens at small start-ups but they don’t get the resource and attention.

I asked whether Google could be Google only because it was new. He said it was because it worked in the open internet.

He told about being an engineer before Google and seeing whole businesses start because of a regulatory porthole in telecom called the T-1, the 1.5 meg line that wasn’t regulated like the rest of communication. If that ceiling hadn’t been there, he argued, our development of digital would have sped ahead by five years.

So I’m thinking about that: My view of the coming world order may be more a manifesto than a prediction. Hmmmm.

* * *

Here are some of my tweets and notes from Schmidt’s Q&A:

* Asked how he reacted on THAT day in September, Schmidt says, “I was scared.” Google took its cash out of banks to sovereign nations’ currencies
* He says he still doesn’t understand how we got into the financial mess: “the failure of information that got us to this point.”
* On recovery: “We’re on schedule. Because the people who got us into this told us that.”
* He reminds US that Google was not part of finance. “Had we been doing it we might have been measuring where all the money was.”
* “We already had our bubble… We had a great time. Next time, I’m going to sell at the peak.” He’s doing great stand-up.
* Asked whether we can innovate out of a recession, Schmidt said “recessions end on their own & politicians love to take credit.”
* Schmidt says the ups and downs will be amplified because there is more information.
* “You do not want the government to own your company… In many cases, they will turn out to be jobs programs.”
* He says simply that he hopes people will more likely say this (house inflation, Iceland’s economy) just “doesn’t make sense”
* Q: You guys are everywhere. Schmidt: “That is our goal.”
* “I learned awhile ago that the right way to run human systems is transparency.” Problems came from information hiding.
* Brian Lehrer asks schmidt where Google is so bit it needs to be regulated as a public utility. A: “no”
* I don’t know how to solve newspapers generic problem. He says they are working on products in this arena. (No more details.)
* “The internet is a great friend to small businesses.” He says Google does not favor big businesses and big businesses don’t like that. [I say: See news.]
* Asked abot Froogle, he says, “Why did you remind me.” Why didn’t it work? “It didin’t work because it just didn’t work. We celebrate our failure in the company because we want people to take risks.” [Me: There's the beta corporation.]
* “We love advertising.” 97 percent of Google’s revenue is advertising. “No, we love advertising revenue.” He said his board is looking for more legs to the stool and Schmidt says they do have other streams coming.

A free-lance prototype: multimedia and entrepreneurial

By David Westphal: The University of Virginia prepared Jason Motlagh very well for his career has a free-lance foreign correspondent. When he applied to take a journalism elective course, he was rejected because he wasn't an English major. When he applied for a job as food columnist at the school paper, he was also rejected. But Motlagh persisted, and eventually won a spot on the school paper as travel columnist. His specialty: Travel to fascinating world spots on very low budgets. Voila. Today Motlagh has five years of free-lance foreign correspondence under his belt and, in many respects, he is the prototype for the journalist of the future: a free-lancing, multimedia correspondent who knows how to market his work and live on a tight budget.