Newspapers and the Blogging Profession
Last fall, Los Angeles blogger Tony Pierce announced he would be leaving his position as editor of LAist.com to work at the LA Times in a new position running the newspaper’s 30 blogs.
Soon after the news broke, I learned about it over lunch with Bill Densmore, who directs the Media Giraffe Project at UMass. He wondered if maybe Pierce had attained dream-job status. "Isn’t your ideal job," he asked me, "to be invited to run all the blogs for the Hartford Courant?" In a way, being endorsed by a traditional media outlet seems like what any aspiring blogger-journalist would want.
When I freelanced for MassLive.com in 2005 and 2006, I might have been keen to be absorbed into the Springfield Republican newsroom to work with reporters and editors. Instead, I learned union rules strictly dictated reporters’ working relationship with production staff for the Web site. After freelancing later for the Valley Advocate, still vaguely craving and not finding a newsroom experience, I launched urbancompass.net and stopped trying to do work directly with traditional media.
SpringfieldIntruder.com blogger Bill Dusty said he would expect compensation if he collaborated with newspaper staff: "Why should I labor for free alongside people who are being paid for doing essentially the same thing I’m doing?" That was a question I asked myself every day, and it continued to eat away at my confidence that what I was doing had any value at all.
"The challenge," Mike Dobbs, managing editor of The Reminder, told me, "is to enlist people for blogs on specific beats, but enable them to understand journalistic protocol like attribution, avoiding libelous situations, and having the voice and spontaneity" already typical of blogs. "A lot of what is very appealing about bloggers is the independent voice, and sometimes their blissful ability to ignore the conventions of journalism," which make blogs fun and compelling to read, if also worrisome for experienced journalists like Dobbs.
In his role at the LA Times, Pierce will presumably manage at least some people who aren’t getting paid. "Blogging should be something you do out of love," he told LAist in his interview. Perhaps tongue in cheek, he went on, "All I hope to do is inspire the Times to continue to do what they’ve done brilliantly on paper—online. In all reality, I will just be an extended part of the marketing department."
When I blogged for traditional media outlets, this is how my work often felt—it was a mechanism for attracting more traffic, but it wasn’t necessarily going to yield actual dollars. That underlined the labor of love argument, but early on I began to feel like a chump. Was "popularity" supposed to put food on my table?
Dobbs is critical of such treatment of bloggers. "Would you really ask reporters to work for free? Of course not. [Bloggers] are doing something just as readable and interesting to certain groups of readers. To show professionals respect," he continued, "if you solicit someone to write for your organization, you need to show them the courtesy of paying them. Otherwise it’s a false economy."
The economy, I often heard, does not allow space at the table for mere bloggers, vocation versus avocation aside, to be paid much or at all right now. That is slowly changing, but there is still the prevailing view that unless you are working for a traditional outlet, you’re not credible.
"[Newspaper blogs] have the best writers," Pierce told LAist, and they have the talent and the infrastructure to support them. He thinks the destiny of newspaper blogs is to dominate the Technorati Top 100 in the next five years (even though none are there now), adding that "all links end up going back to an MSM source—not to a blog."
I don’t think traditional media owns all the talent or can even maintain its possibly top-heavy infrastructure. Increasingly, bloggers are showing they have significant value. For example, in a recent article in Wired magazine, Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post called bloggers "the pit bulls of journalism" because they tend to revive stories that need attention.
Beyond the pit bull effect, market forces are at work encouraging cottage industry news initiatives, some begun by people with journalism experience who are creating new economic models based on the opportunities technology now has to offer. As Exhibit A, I like to point to the non-profit newhavenindependent.org, which operates like a daily, and was never merely a labor of love, but happens to use the blog medium to distribute its content. What’s outstanding is the staff, from the top down, appears to be invested in the well-being of the New Haven community.
Users of newspaper Web sites are often not looking for just news anymore. They’re also looking for that sense of community around the news, ways to process it, give it perspective, and in a way give back to it. This is where blogs can have a role (not so much unmanned message forums), because of the voice they enable and their focused interactivity. But it takes someone who understands the community to be at the helm, monitoring what people are saying, being accountable for what’s published, and responding meaningfully with relevant published material, sometimes even coordinating with content-generating reporters.
Pierce noted in his interview, "If the public says they want [a given topical blog], they better support it by participating in the comments, linking to it off their blogs, and driving traffic to it; otherwise, how will we know it’s successful?"
In a market like LA, this may make sense. But in many smaller urban American markets, online life is possibly not quite as lively to be able to gauge all success by comments, links, or even traffic—and our ways of measuring Web traffic are possibly too divergent to have significant standards yet.
There are more nuanced ways success can be measured. Many people seem to regard our local rooms as disconnected from the community in the first place. If traditional media is preying on a community wanting only its traffic and related ad revenue, and doesn’t seem invested in the community’s well-being, failing to publish material of meaning and value, it isn’t successful. Bloggers often have a reputation for being invested (sometimes overly so), and this may be the very thing of value they can offer to newsrooms in need of a dose of community merit.
Sometimes bloggers don’t necessarily want to get paid as much as reporters would. Many have day jobs. What would keep them engaged? Possibly: opportunities to interact with newsroom staff, systems for keeping them engaged in what they’re doing, reassurances that the work is being read and consumed, and maybe even ideas for how to improve. In other words, for those bloggers the challenge is not an economic model problem, but a human resources problem—persuading newsrooms (and those in charge of their budgets and job descriptions) that spending time fostering a volunteer or token-stipend-paid corps is worthwhile and deserves plenty of time and attention.
I asked Dobbs, who has expressed interest in hiring bloggers, how he would structure a working relationship with them. "I would have them working in an office where they could talk to the news staff," he responded.
"The concept of saying that you have a print product, and you have a Web product, and you try to keep those staffs functioning in their ‘silos’ is just stupid. The whole idea is to sit, talk and bounce stuff off your fellow writer; it all should be a collaborative process."
"We have a freelance writer who gathers her story ideas independently," Dobbs told me. "People contact her because of her fine reputation." The same model would be in effect if a blogger were part of his staff, he said, because established bloggers come with their own audience and contacts, a track record of community confidence. Still, he says, "Ultimately, it’s all about content."
Everything seems to come back to money, though, at least for Dobbs. He points out a need for a new economic model for selling advertising, and the mushy way Web statistics work. "Because of the largely free aspect of the Web," he said, "everything depends on convincing advertisers they’re going to get value and reaction from a Web ad." Hits on a Web page can be interpreted so many different ways, he said, yielding varying ideas about solid user numbers, which makes advertisers uncomfortable.
Advertisers justifiably want firm statistics on which to base future decisions, which Dobbs thinks they should press harder to get. "If advertisers start asking harder questions about market penetration, response to ads, and things like that," he said, "a lot of [false traffic inflation] is going to chip away, slowly but surely."
"We’re at this very strange, gawky, adolescent point with this media," Dobbs ended. "We don’t know where to go next, in order for it to work as a means for people to do something creative, and get paid for it."
The talented Pierce will no doubt be very successful at his new job, and it helps that he admires the LA Times. When there can be mutual appreciation between bloggers and traditional media, perhaps it will be like the wolf dwelling with the lamb, although it’s not clear which is which.
–Heather Brandon, Writer and Founder of Urban Compass