Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Herald's Blog Problem

I've been writing about the Herald's blog initiative for almost two years now. And many of the same problems I described back then still persist. By my count the Herald is associated with 29 different blogs covering a variety of topics and areas of interest.

I thought it might be instructional to put forward my opinion of what makes a good blog. Though I am no expert, I do run this blog and contribute more or less regularly to at least 3 other blogs with varying readerships.

By my way of thinking there's three things that blogs must have: opinion, analysis and community. Let's take them one at a time.

Opinion. A blog is like the opinions page of a newspaper. It's not news but it's about the news. People tend to read blogs to understand the opinions of the author, whether they agree or disagree. A news article that wasn't important enough to make it into the newspaper does not make a good blog post. A reaction to some news story wherever it comes from, can be. Reporters should not be writing for blogs unless the paper is willing to give them the authority to express their opinions on the blogs.

For some reason, sports columnists at the Herald are allowed to cross the boundary from expressing opinions to reporting news. They make it difficult for reporters to go the other way. One example that I'm familiar with is Joseph Goodman's Gator Clause. Goodman is the Herald's sports reporter the covers the University of Florida beat and most of his posts could be items in the paper. He injects very little opinion into his posts though what he does inject is significantly more than Oscar Corral ever did with his now defunct Cuban Connection blog.

Analysis. Closely related to opinion is analysis. Bloggers often take their subject matter and dissect the various aspects of it, often referring to outside sources of data and corresponding analysis. The Herald's Naked Politics which despite its provocative subtitle, The Raw Truth about Power and Ambition in Florida, is nothing more than a series of factual reports that could also easily appear in the paper. A quick scanning of the most recent posts shows pieces about John McCain opening a campaign office in Florida, a Broward county commissioner that went to New Hampshire to campaign for Barack Obama, etc., etc. No deep analysis into the campaigns and the issues, plenty of things that are no doubt true but no truths. That sort of thing would probably require the blogger to take sides. Take a look at the top political blogs like Huffington Post and Michelle Malkin. You never doubt where the authors stand on the issue they blogging about.

Community. Blogs generate their readership the old fashioned way: they earn it. How? They establish relationships with other bloggers that are writing about the same or related subject matter. Talented bloggers are rewarded by having people link to their posts. The more a blog is linked to, the higher it will place in search results. And if a high profile blogger links to your blog, you can expect increased readership in the short term. If that high profile blogger adds you to his/her blogroll (permanent list of links) it can lead to even more traffic in the long term. The thing is that it's all reciprocal. If you want a big blog to link to you, you should first link to it. Presumably you enjoy the big blog's work so you want your readers to go there. If you're doing a good job, the big blogger will eventually take notice and reward you with a one-time link or a spot in the permanent blogroll. The Herald's blogs live almost completely outside of this paradigm. Their readership is mainly supplied by Herald.com which links to all the Herald blogs, not just on its blog directory but also on the pages of related news articles.

If you look at the Herald's blogs, most of them don't link with bloggers outside the Herald's sphere. To use Joseph Goodman's Gator Clause as an example, he does not link to the top blogs that cover college sports like Deadspin and Every Day Should be Saturday. He doesn't even link to blogs about the University of Florida. As a result, I am sure, many bloggers don't link to Gator Clause. The top blogs, on any subject matter, don't just provide content, they point readers to others with content that they'll probably be interested in. No blog is an island.

Take a look at the L.A. Times blog on USC athletics. Although Adam Rose, the Times' blogger, doesn't have a permanent blogroll linking to outside blogs, his posts are loaded with links to other bloggers and outside sources. It's not simply a tool to promote articles in the Times.

So while the Herald has a ready-made blog readership from among readers of its dotcom it's missing out on the opportunity to bring more readers in by fully participating in the blogosphere the way real blogs do.

I say "real" because I think unless a blog meet the preceding minimum criteria it isn't really a blog. Some of the Herald's blogs offer no opinion or analysis. Others do but aren't really part of the blogging community. As a result the Herald is squandering its opportunity and therefore its resources on its portfolio of non-blog blogs.

I think Rick Hirsch the Herald's new media editor needs to take a serious look at the Herald's roster of blogs and set up some basic rules of the road. As I mentioned, don't have reporters blogging unless you are going to allow them to inject their personality and opinion into their blog posts. No reasonable person believes that reporters don't have opinions. Newspaper industry conventions dictate that they have to hide them, which as anathema to blogging. If Hirsch can't live with reporters expressing opinions then only allow columnists to blog or hire people that only blog. It could be a great training ground for columnists. Secondly encourage the Herald's bloggers to act like bloggers by exchanging links with other blogs.

Another thing. Good blogs are sticky. You want to check back and see if the author wrote a new piece or if he responded to your comment. A reader may check back on a blog half a dozen times a day or more. You have to constantly add content. I do a very poor job of that here and my metrics reflect that. But then again I'm not being paid to do this. All of the above advice is of course predicated on the idea that the Herald wants to increase online readership, and therefore exposure and click-through for its advertisers.

Which brings me to another point. One of the blogs the Herald touts most is Greg Cote's. If the number of comments posted to his entries are an indication of his traffic, he has a pretty good readership. Then why isn't there a single ad anywhere on his blog? In fact, most of the Herald's blogs serve ZERO advertising.

If the Herald is really trying to become the model newspaper for McClatchy on the Internet, then they have long, long way to go.

13 comments:

carlos miller said...

You're right about the elements to having a successful blog, but it would be difficult for the reporters to suddenly start spewing out opinions while writing objective new stories.

You can have one or the other, but you can't have both. That is why you have columnists and news writers.

We already blame the news writers for being biased, so how would it be if they start editorializing in their blogs?

Besides, newspapers don't even think of blogs that way. They look at them as a way to publish information that did not make it into the newspaper because of the ever-shrinking news hole, which is the white space that is not taken up by the ever-expanding advertisements.

Also, newspapers still have that arrogance where they believe the blogosphere is beneath them, so they are not about to start interacting with the community blogosphere.

On the other hand, they have weekly meetings as to how to better interact with the community they serve.

But their main criteria is to prevent the ever-dwindling circulation from continuing to drop.

Newspaper blogs are not going to stop this slide. Nothing will. The slide is inevitable as we become more dependent on our computers (and blogs) for news and information.

So newspapers should start looking at the internet for ways to increase readership and ads. And maybe some have.

But the Herald hasn't. That would cost money and as you know, they are in the process of outsourcing, so it doesn't appear that anything will be happening soon.

Henry Gomez said...

Carlos,

I agree with you on all points. My point about reporters is that if you want them to blog then you have to give them dispensation to allow their opinions to be injected into the blog posts. As I said this is a blurry line already. Why can Greg Cote or Dan Le Batard report a story but Joseph Goodman can't have an opinion? Why is sports different and why is it a one way deal, columnists can be reporters but reporters can't be columnists?

Solution: don't allow anyone to blog who can't express an opinion.

On the circulation, I agree. See my earlier post about the evolution newspapers are going to have to make. Instead of dreading the day the printed paper no longer exists, the management should embrace it and move toward it strategically. Blogging can be a very important part of the paper's online strategy. But not the ass-backward way they have done it to date.

carlos miller said...

Sports will always be different. All sports reporters are completely biased. They are required to lean for the home team.

I would make a horrible NFL reporter down here because I'm a Raider fan. But I'm a huge Canes fan, so that might work.

And columnists have to be reporters because otherwise they will just be some schmuck off the streets. They have to have some news sense and the ability to interview and the ability to research public records, even if they don't use those skills in their columns.

I think a good idea for newspapers is to start hiring reporters to blog about the big stories of the day.

They might even add to it through their own reporting, but they would also add a lot of attitude.

They will basically be cyber columnists and develop their own personalties, which is what we all do in the blogosphere.

But they would have to be separate from the daily reporters filling the paper.

That, of course, would require them to hire more reporters and all they've done is cut back on reporters.

Henry Gomez said...

My sources tell me all the new hires have been for dotcom.

carlos miller said...

Well it's about time. We'll see what they do.

DMQ said...

Carlos, I don't know if I agree with you. A blog should transcend the dollars-and-cents of a reporter's day-to-day, and should instead help to inform the public. As a reporter, a blog is more of a safe haven for you to let your opinion be heard without being called bias. If a reporter covers cops as a beat, and he reports on a spike in violent crimes against police officers in print and online, he should also have a forum to give his take on the why. Where else will you get that opinion? He would be the best source. The Herald has no columnists in Gainesville, so I for one would prefer to hear Joe Good's take on Gator stuff when he isn't writing for print or online. But it needs to be his take, not just a notebook of stuff that happened. I think Pete Pelegrin's FIU blog is probably the best the Herald blog, because he links, has a readership that he interacts with, and he has a sense of humor.

Rick said...

Because it's coming from me, I have my doubts whether you'll even allow this to be posted, but here goes anyway.

Blogs don't have to have opinions. Blogs don't have to have analysis. The blogs you're used to reading do, but there are plenty of very successful photography blogs and lifestyle blogs, among others, that don't.

Political blogs certainly do have opinions and analysis and I suspect that is where you spend most of your time and leads you to your conclusions. Indeed, it appears as though sports and politics occupy most of your reading time, which is fine, I guess, but there is a lot more to blogging than sports and politics.

Yes, opinions do get you attention, but they also can alienate people and drive those who don't share the blogger's opinions far, far away....especially when they find they're not permitted to express their opposing views in the comments.

I do agree that successful blogs must have a community or a loyal following. That just makes simple sense, I think. "Success" in blogging terms is usually measured by the number of readers or stats or Technorati authority levels, all of which usually are driven by a community.

You fail to mention what I believe is the most important aspect to a successful blog: unique content. Offer something that few people provide, either on a national or local level, and do a half decent job of it and you'll get readers.

It isn't rocket science and I question whether or not all the talk about link love and commenting is worth the time and angst. Write fairly well and offer unique content: there's not a whole more to it than that.

.

carlos miller said...

dmq,

It really must be stressed that sports writers have different rules than news writers. That's just they way it's always been.

I see a potential problem is a reporter is covering the John Timoney Lexus scandal, and then is expected to give his opinion about it in his blog.

Henry Gomez said...

See, that's what I don't get. The reporter who reports on Timoney certainly has an opinion. The fact that he must suppress it is deceptive to the reader. The newspaper asks us to suspend our disbelief and pretend that he doesn't. In almost every other country the newspapers are open about their slant. In the UK we know there are conservative papers and liberal ones. Same in Spain and throughout Latin America. We're the only dolts that pretend.

carlos miller said...

You're right. Reporters are human. They have their opinions.

But in the case of the reporter on the Timoney scandal, where Timoney is insisting he is doing nothing wrong, then he can easily turn around and say, "see, the reporter is biased and creating something out of nothing".

He said that anyway and I'm sure some people believed him, but it would be harder for the reporter to defend against such charges if he was stating his opinions on a blog.

Robert said...

Greg Cote's blog is one of the few good ones at the Herald, precisely because it meets most of the criteria Henry laid out.

It is beyond embarrassing that The Miami Herald doesn't have a single functioning Cuban blog. Simply mind-boggling, but not entirely surprising.

Not amused said...

A functioning Cuban blog? You mean a real one, as opposed to the former Oscar Corral contrivance? You mean one run by someone who doesn't think of the exile community as "those people"? What do you expect? Blood from turnips?

C.L. Jahn said...

You make some excellent points about successful blogs; my own feeling echoes yours: the Herald doesn't actually HAVE blogs. But then I think that's not a bad thing. They simply need to identify them as online news columns.

By definition, a web log is a collection of URLS to websites that the blogger has been reading. That's it, a list of URLS. ANY OTHER CONTENT IS COMPLETELY OPTIONAL. Me, I obviously like the optional content.

There is one notable exception; Dave Barry's is a pure, unadulterated blog.