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
In 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.
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
I 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.