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The general-interest breaking news blog

Thursday, April 6th, 2006

Thursday, I argued that a blog’s fundamental features lend itself to two main things: news and speed. Comments, opinions and the rest are just gravy — they’re not unique to the form. Today, I’ll build on this, suggesting small newspapers should throw away their preconceptions that blogs must cover niches like local TV listings or the state legislature. In fact, for the hundreds of little U.S. papers who think they can’t afford to update their sites midday, a general-interest news blog could be the cheapest, easiest road to the holy grail of Web traffic: dynamic content.

It’s true, the notion of a general-interest blog might have offended me until I ran into two examples: the Racine Journal-Times’s Racine Report and USA Today’s On Deadline.

Look past the RJT’s NASCAR aesthetic and USA Today’s national scope. What are these guys doing? They’re simply delivering news in blog format: latest stuff at the top, older stuff sliding down. The approaches are different — Racine posts full-length stories as they come in throughout the day, while On Deadline is Web-only content. But the innovation — that blogs can be nothing more than a quick way to get midday news — is sound as a bell.

And they’re hits. I’ve talked with the folks who oversee both blogs, and both have been big traffic magnets. How many of the Racine Report’s thousands of readers know they’re getting their breaking news from a blog? Surely lots don’t. What they know is that their news always appears in reverse chronological order — why, how convenient!

On Deadline’s format will be a bit more alien to traditional news readers, but it has its advantages, too: since its writers don’t waste time crafting full-length articles, they’ve built the best place on the Internet to know right away if a big story has broken in the U.S. media. Rather than sift through the fourth rewrite of an AP piece, the heavy Web user can see what’s new right away.

Both blogs have downsides, too. The Racine Report is difficult to scan for topics of interest. With 30 posts a day, On Deadline is practical for only the heaviest of users — and small markets don’t have many of those.

Local papers should consider combining the best of these two approaches. Racine has embraced blogs because when they’re built on simple, free software like WordPress, they become a quick-and-dirty way to change a Web site. For papers smaller than the RJT (30,000 or so), quick is even more important.

So why not put a breaking news blog front and center on your Web site? Why not ask reporters to post two- to three-sentence summaries of news as it comes in? (Or assign a single staffer to gather tidbits from reporters as they write.) News won’t break more than a few times a day in a small market, so you won’t be overwhelming your audience of bored office drones. But when each new tidbit comes in, throw that up. Give readers a taste of the adrenaline in a developing story.

Worried about competitors swiping your scoop? Baloney. Save the investigative projects for the morning paper, but when local news breaks, you want readers to know you’re the place to go, no matter what. (Just don’t be afraid to link to the radio station when it actually beats you.)

And here’s an added bonus: you can assure your publisher that the Web content doesn’t endanger the print product, because it serves a totally different purpose — getting the basics out right away — and therefore a different audience. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine one of those bored office drones lingering over your print article the next morning, seeing how that story they were following at work finally played out.

Thinking abstractly about blogs

Thursday, April 6th, 2006

So the news that staff-written blogs can be useful has seeped into most small-town newsrooms. It’s just as important, though, for those small newsrooms to know what a blog really is, not just have a vague idea of the ways others seem to use blogs. Understanding the abstract features of a blog — and the reasons those features have led to the style and content of today’s blogosphere — can help small papers find innovative ways to tweak their blogs for small markets.

(I shudder to think how many times some blogger has taken it upon himself to explain “Just what is a blog?” Dauntless, I plunge on. This time, I’m answering it for small papers, and that’s different, see?)

A blog is a Web site where the new stuff appears at the top and the old stuff remains below. That’s it; that’s all. Other things touted as features of blogs — user comments, niche content, offsite links — are features of the World Wide Web, not the blogosphere.

So simple a definition that it’s meaningless? No! It’s liberating! Don’t want to moderate comments? Don’t allow them. Don’t like hyperlinking to unreliable offsite content? I’d say today’s readers understand the risks of the Web, but if you really feel that way, there’s no reason not to go it alone on your blog. Can’t think of a niche-y topic unique to your area? Hate to break it to you, but you’ve already got one. By Web standards, local papers are already niche media. If any Web site has useful, unique local news and information, readers will like it. (Just give people a way to find it without having to click on the word “blog,” for heaven’s sake.)

So should blogs be used for anything you want? No. Blogs do two things very well:

1) Because they’re organized simply, they let the reader quickly find the latest entry.

2) Because they uncouple content production and technical expertise, they give a Web site to anybody who can type.

Item 1 lends itself to news, because the latest stuff is important, and to distribution over RSS, because it’s easy to aggregate something that updates predictably. Item 2 lends itself to speed, because the update process takes so little footwork.

Wait a minute. Timely news? Isn’t that the most important thing newspapers are supposed to be doing already?

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll discuss an underused idea that would make blogging central to a small newspaper’s site without driving away a single reader: a general-interest breaking news blog.

Reinventing news for a search-based world

Sunday, February 26th, 2006

On OJR, Robert Niles has a fascinating suggestion for completely rethinking online news: replace inverted-pyramid newspaper articles with staff-written wikis. (For which he suggests the delightful nickname “stikis.” You heard it here first, dear reader.) Why? To attract search-engine traffic.

I’m suggesting that — instead of distinct daily takes — news stories could be covered with encyclopedia-style articles that staffers would update with new information whenever available. How many more inbound links would such an approach get?

Inbound links, of course, being the current currency of the search-driven Web.

I see two obvious problems with the suggestion:

1) the writing required would be so different from that used in the print product that editorial resources would be taxed, and
2) the lede would be perpetually buried; that is, readers would have trouble figuring out what parts of the news are new.

Though the second problem might be avoided with constant rewriting and clever formatting, my hunch is that self-contained news stories will remain the dominant delivery device for news. They’re simply easier to pluck relevant details out of. This isn’t to say that local papers couldn’t launch parallel stiki or wiki services for their coverage area. But I doubt extensive stikis are likely to be worth their while.

Using tags in local newspaper archives

Sunday, February 26th, 2006

How can small papers get the most out of their archives? Folksonomy is sexy, but most Web audiences are too small for it to work well. However, old-fashioned, top-down tags can be a useful tool for the many local papers that, like many Web newcomers, still sort their Web content with print principles in mind.

(Yes, Washingtonpost.com has added del.icio.us links to all its stories. Yes, this is a terrific promotional move for a national paper. No, it’s doesn’t add as much to local papers, because they aren’t looking for national readers. But yes, local papers ought to consider offering it merely as a service to readers.)

But here’s something more important that small papers could easily do with minimal staff effort: make a list of a couple dozen possible “tags” for stories. When any story is sent to the Web, a staffer can glance over the list of tags and check any that apply.

A newspaper in North Carolina might write frequently about the pork industry. Does the print edition have a section entirely for the pork industry? Of course not. And as a result, the paper’s Web site doesn’t, either. But it should! A small set of staff-written tags are easy ways to build topical archives — whose index pages (available in RSS, of course) can then be used to cluster non-news content for the target audience, such as topical blogs, off-site links, and of course targeted ads.

What’s more, a tag system, unlike a print-style tree categorization, lets stories fall into multiple categories. And it can be used to easily locate similar articles, which have similar combinations of tags.

Readers should be able to navigate newspaper Web sites in various ways: search, vertical brosing (feature section->movies page->Brokeback Mountain review), and horizontal browsing (Brokeback Mountain review->Oscar preview). A staff-maintained tag system is one way to facilitate that.

Saving the suburbs from bowling alone

Tuesday, February 21st, 2006

The Web gives local newspapers a chance to fill a social vacuum that’s arisen in small towns and suburbs across the United States. One Illinois paper is setting out to do it.

The (Arlington Heights, Ill.) Daily Herald is the quintessential suburban newspaper. Penetration is weak, but they make up for it on volume, distributing more than 20 zoned editions to a sprawling footprint across Chicago’s wealthy west and northwest suburbs.

Character? Some. Soul? Um.

Beep, the family-owned paper’s new publication for 18-34s, wants to give the suburbs a soul. Not only does it aim to introduce local folks to one other online — log in to see the pleasantly quirky user profile page — it wants to become a social resource for hundreds of thousands of young suburbanites who feel alienated or lonely in the atomized modern world. It wans to let them know that they aren’t alone, that things are happening near them. And it knows that — unlike in the big city — the perfect distribution model for the car-addicted, shrub-encrusted suburbs is the Web.

This is not a trivial service to readers, or to society.

Though the who-attended-whose-party “community pages” of newspapers across the country are treated like vestigal organs, just waiting for their elderly readers to go blind, local papers shouldn’t turn up their noses at the past. Those were — remember? — the glory days, for newspapers as well as American society. The social institutions of the 20th Century have crumbled, but human thirst for physical interaction hasn’t. As the prime clearinghouses for local information, newspapers can use the distribution power of the Web to help people find each other again, and build institutions for the next hundred years.

Beep and its peers have an inspiring vision for the Web, and though I’m not affiliated with Beep, I’m proud to say I played a part in its creation.