The problem with newspaper blogs is . . .

. . . they are on newspaper sites.

I’ve come to argue that newspapers should not be big brands but big collections of brands.

If I develop a relationship with a blog, I don’t go searching for it through the many layers of an adventure game that is newspaper-site navigation. I don’t treat a newspaper as a portal to my blog relationships. I don’t recommend a brand and address that has too many dots and too many slashes in it. I mostly find posts via links from trusted peers or through RSS subscriptions. Blogs spread not because they reside on huge sites but because they have relationships with people, because the are viral. And the way to be viral is to live at the same level as other linkers: blog to blog, brand to brand, person to person.

So I think that if newspapers are going to blog, they should have lots of blogs at lots of addresses, lots of people creating lots of brands. And this also means that they must be written in the human voice of the person, not the cold voice of the institution. And, while we’re at it, this means that they must join in and link to other conversations; that is they only way they will spread and grow, not because they live six clicks deep into a giant newspaper site. We are seeing the links and the voice. But the architecture remains a problem.

Choire Sicha at Gawker, a man who knows his blogs, highlights the problem at newspapers as he points to their ghettoization into blog sections, as if we come in thinking, ‘hmmh, I feel like some blogs today — a little sports, then some gossip and maybe some politics too,’ as if we are really at a Mongolian barbecue saying, ‘I have a hankering for some chicken and pork and sprouts and put that sweet sauce on it, please.’ It only highlights the broken nature of the newspaper navigation and the portal. Well, Choire would argue, I think, that it’s not broken: We still come to a newspaper and newspaper site wanting to get sports and business. But we don’t come wanting blogs. We either will or won’t build a direct relationship with those blogs and to do so we need to get to them directly.

Architecturally, this returns to the idea that news sites shouldn’t be sites at all but larger, looser networks and not just of stuff they make but also — who can afford to make it all — stuff others make. It also points to the problem of presuming that sites can and should still consider themselves destinations; this, I argued, is one of the lessons of the death of Timesselect.

Now having said all this, I am happy to see that newspaper bloggers are understanding the need for a new voice and a new relationship with others. Simon Dumenco at Ad Age pointed this out in a column that is now behind a pay wall (Hey, Ad Age, can’t you learn a lesson from the Times on this?). One of the best examples of the new newspaper blog voice is Saul Hansell at the Times’ Bits blog. He gets personal and opinionated and is certainly breezier than his print persona and he also makes artistic use of the link to bloggers’ conversations and competitors’ news.

I’m also happy to see that the Times doesn’t think it has to produce all this bloggy goodness itself; that’s why it made a deal with Freakonomics. But the mistake, I’ve argued, was bringing Freakonomics into the Times’ site and navigation. I think that instead, it should have made it part of a larger Times network of content and ads. I should add that Prezvid, my other blog, was brought into syndication deals with the Washington Post and now CBSNews.com. This slurping-up of the content occurred for another reason (media lawyers’ fear of the copyright questions raised by news video on YouTube). And may be the idea that Prezvid’s posts can exist in four or five places is just a preview of a more distributed architecture for blogs themselves.

Still, I think Choire has important advice for newspapers. The blogs may be getting more plentiful and they are getting better. But now they’re ready to move out of the house and find homes of their own.

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  • Don

    FWIW bookmarked (canned) searches using google’s blog engine provide a workaround to create content for my personalized front page until a Mahaloesque entity invents a better solution.

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  • http://roborant.info Rob

    Great comments, Jeff. Here in Austin, we have the American Statesman, which has perhaps the worst newspaper blog in the US:

    http://www.statesman.com/blogs/content/shared-gen/blogs/austin/austin/index.html

    It’s got no human voice, it’s buried inside the website, it’s collaborative but without any of the members ever mentioning each other and it sometimes goes days without a new post, even during the middle of the week.

    I’ve tried to become a fan, but it’s hopeless. I’m not the only one, either. The last blog comment left on the site was five days ago. You obviously aren’t engaging a community of a million people when you go five days between comments.

    From my casual observation, it seems like they use the blog to cover stories that don’t quite make the cut for the dead-tree edition. No “important” story is ever mentioned there, which is just about the stupidest policy one can imagine.

    Please, Jeff, make these people pay you to clue them up.

  • http://jenslapinski.wordpress.com Jens

    interesting thoughts.

    I think copyright is actually not that relevant. What matters are the number of page views and the extent of the monetization via advertising. What good is content that you own, but that makes you no money?

    I think what we are witnessing is an age where writers are not paid for the words that they write (and thus the words are then ‘owned’ by the publisher), but by the ability of writers to attract readers and their ability to interact with them. In other words: as we are now able to measure how effective each individual article (or blog) is, we can pay writers on a commission basis. This means as a journalist you wouldn’t get paid for copy, but you could probably command a slice of the ad income generated from your content.

    As a newspaper, your job would now not be defined as commisioning articles and publishing them, but to attract the best bloggers and writers who can attract and retain large and commercially interesting audiences, and to then monetise their page views via a unified advertisding system.

    Just a stream of thoughts.

  • http://www.blognetnews.com David Mastio

    Maybe newspaper blogs can have a bit of both worlds? The letters blog at the Virginian-Pilot can be accessed through Bletters.com and through the messy newspaper navigation.

  • http://ronmwangaguhunga.blogspot.com Ron Mwangaguhunga

    I’ve always considered bloggers as being not unlike the syndicated columnists of the 1970 and 80s — the William Buckleys. So why shouldn’t newspapers affect that same loose relationship with some of the more interesting bloggers.

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  • Guy Love

    I much prefer forums and reader commentary on articles over blogs for newspapers. The downside to this is that most papers still don’t trust their readers and prefer to edit all comments before posting them (if they allow posting at all). This takes away from real time conversations that tend to spin up on interesting topics or articles. Every article posted by a newspaper should allow reader commentary, then the journalists could jump in on the reader commentary to further strengthen the newspaper’s ties to their reader community. This would help rebuild trust in their product and break the newspapers away from the ivory tower model of one way communication.

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  • http://blogs.chron.com/techblog Dwight Silverman

    Jeff,

    Interesting points, but I think you and Sicha are presuming something that’s not true. Yes, newspapers have blog indices, but that doesn’t mean smart newspaper sites aren’t doing the other things as well.

    Online newspapers have a dichotomy of readers. Some of them WANT the stratified navigation of a traditional newspaper applied to the online product. Any newspaper site that has done a redesign has heard from them, bigtime. They are more traditional and expect a newspaper to be, well, a newspaper, even online. And they are legion.

    That group is very different from the digirati, who live by RSS feeds, aggregators, link-tracking, etc.

    At the Houston Chronicle, we do both. You want an index page for blogs? You got it. You want RSS feeds? They’re there — but we also offer an index page of RSS feeds! You want us to link out? We do that.

    There is a LOT of information at the average newspaper site. Pointing all the various constituencies to all of it is a daunting design task. We can definitely do better. But again, just because we do X doesn’t also mean we can’t do Y, too.

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  • http://www.industrygirlblog.com Patricia

    The thing is, at the end of the day, newspapers and blogs are very much the same, and the lines between them are only continuing to blur. It isn’t about the format, but whether or not they’re hosting a conversation or providing something timely to what people in their niche want to read, as it happens. I think newspapers are becoming more and more agile and in tune with doing this, and blogs are increasingly becoming more and more like newspapers and magazines. At the end of the day, all of it is media, and anybody can tweak and copy the formula. Newspapers get a global look and have access to services and resources bloggers can’t really afford to have, so I will always, always be interested in the information they provide.

    I think it just comes down to their lack of a good formula, but a lot of industries are adjusting to this and I don’t think bloggers should get too cocky or comfortable. :)

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  • http://www.unclejayexplains.com Jay

    Maybe newspapers should create a MySpace page for themselves. Catch the wave of them youngsters now, while their habits are being formed. Hasn’t Maureen Dowd been writing in that style for years anyway?

    Jeff, I addressed this very topic (blogs working with or against traditional media) on my own site, and included a screenshot of your site. Hope you get the joke.

  • http://slamboard.com Martin

    On my browser, you have a toilet ad with a naked bum right beside your headshot. With a newspaper, you have more editorial control than that.

    …I’m just sayin’

  • Linda

    The Houston Chronicle does an excellent job as both a newspaper and providing blogs on a variety of subjects.

    Dwight Silverman’s blog, http://blogs.chron.com/techblog/, is a blog that I read everyday. Dwight writes on a wide variety of tech topics and has legions of fans on the net.

    I happen to live in Dallas but the Dallas Morning News’ website is terrible. It takes forever to load the DMN website, so I have quit going there. Primarily, I get my news from chron.com and elsewhere on the net.

    IMO, the Houston Chronicle is an example of a newspaper getting it right. One thing that I can always count on with TechBlog is that I am going to always read about the very latest technology development on the net.

    Dwight posts anywhere from 2 to 6 posts every day, so it keeps the conversation lively and interesting, especially with his many readers chiming in with their comments. His posts are much more like sitting down and having a conversation with him over a cup of coffee.

    Kudos to Dwight and the Houston Chronicle.

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    I approved that ad.

    We all have them, you know. And not all as nice.

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  • http://www.writeslikeshetalks.com Jill

    Hi Jeff.

    I’m one of four Ohio bloggers writing at a new effort between Cleveland.com, The Plain Dealer and four bloggers. It’s called Wide Open,. We’ve got two left of center from NEOhio and two right of center Cincy area bloggers who contribute. We went live last Monday.

    Is it going to work? Who does it actually work for? We’re hoping all of us but no illusions. If people aren’t already comfortable with cleveland.com or don’t read the PD, or one of the four blogger’s personal blogs, I’m not sure how readership will increase or what purpose it serves other than to add value to cleveland.com and the PD – which I believe will be obvious far earlier than adding value to any of our individual blogs. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but what does it really do as far as stretch new media? Maybe a little but probably not a lot.

    Best case scenario? It’s part of a media literacy effort to get people from print into online sources. Worst case scenario? It doesn’t?

    It’s an experiment, that’s for sure.

  • Jim Smith

    I see that Buzzmachine is now sponsored by TOTO washlets. That’s right. All those fancy Japanese ass wiping machines are no suitable for American asses too.

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  • http://www.pharmalot.com Hass

    Breaking blogs out of gargantuan websites to form closer relationships doesn’t seem like a new idea. Papers have been doing it for years with their own content in the form of Sport Sections, A-books, Entertainment sections, etc. etc. Papers just seem to have lost their way when making the digital jump.

    And to shamelessly self promote: http://www.pharmalot.com A great blog from a newspaper, but free of the overhead that comes from the mothership.

  • http://bernaisesource.blog.com Dan Greenfield

    Interesting read. Regarding the ghettoization of blogs on newspaper sites. I checked out the NY Times and USA Today. When you click on the reporter’s name at a story’s lead, it takes you to previous stories that he or she has written. Would it be bad form to also have a link to his or her blog in the same place? It should be clearly marked – blog – but I think readers have the ability to know the difference.

  • http://robinsonnews.com Patrick Robinson

    There’s no doubt that vertically integrated sites (single topic, in depth) sites sponsored by and driven by newspaper and media companies, are going to be important in the near term (2 to 3 years) and likely in the long term. Driven by personal passions, the need to deliver focused advertising results, the changing online ad metrics, the availability of ‘general’ news from so many sources…AND the pure blizzard of information the web represents… the public at large WANTS some filtering done and Google is only good insofar as you KNOW what to search for. NEW knowledge isn’t necessarily served that well. People DO know that they like baseball, or that they want to go somewhere on Friday night…and blogs are such a primarily linear experience (not to mention shot through with often excessive ramblings) that while they ‘work’ they don’t serve certain needs very well. You could say that a section of a newspaper site…Sports or Entertainment could do this… but the limitations of the advertising models thus far employed tend to make this unsupportable. The vertical site…for Local Sports or Local Entertainment makes more “useful knowledge” sense and for advertisers… more “cost effective” sense. The search model for advertising essentially destroys the conventional “serendipity” model ie; ‘I was looking for the game stats and just happened to see your tire ad.’ But there’s still room for the old model… in fact with more focused content it’s revitalized, permitting more demographically targeted advertising than ever. Watch for more media companies to try specialized sites.

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  • http://www.briansutton.com Wedding Photographers

    I like newspaper blogs, especially when they are blogs written by the authors of the articles. I think those are the only blogs that should be “sponsored” by the newspapers, and if they choose to include other bloggers, they should be separate.

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