When newsroom leaders brainstorm what’s next for journalism these days, the talk runs more to the basics of the craft—and the business—than to the horizons of technology. With many consumers dismissing much of the journalism they read, see and hear as not that interesting, credible or essential, the time doesn’t seem quite right for discussions of flat-panel delivery or reusable paper.

Right now, editors and publishers look to organizations such as the Readership Institute for help in reclaiming the fundamentals. Meanwhile, journalists scramble to be more compelling in their storytelling, more engaging in their presentation, and transparent in their ethical decision-making. Amid this understandable return to basics, there’s at least one technological innovation that can help. It’s the Weblog, the quirky, inexpensive tool journalists can use to persuade readers, viewers and listeners that they ain’t dead yet.

Technology makes Weblogs easy to create and consume, but it requires imagination, enterprise and commitment to make them engaging and useful for readers. Newsroom bloggers—mostly columnists and beat reporters—are using Weblogs to connect with the audience between editions (and broadcasts) with news, information, links, tips, ideas—even fun. And they are using material that once remained stuck in notebooks or was shared in e-mails to friends and colleagues.

Weblogs are providing journalists with more edge—helping them show more personality, style and immediacy than they might have ever displayed in their regular reports. “The surprise, to me, was how I immediately changed my writing style just because of the change of media,” says Carla K. Johnson, medical reporter at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane and author, since creating it in May, of the paper’s Health Beat blog. “The style is more intimate, playful and free. Let’s have some fun here.”

Daniel Weintraub, political columnist at The Sacramento Bee, launched his California Insider blog just a month before Johnson did. He shares her view of the impact of the process on the craft: “The biggest surprise is how it’s helped my writing. I had always heard that a writer should write every day, but I was never able to write for no audience. … Writing an online journal, I’ve discovered that when it comes time to write my column, everything flows even easier than before.”

When Weblogs Work Well

Weblogs will not save journalism as we know it. However, they might end up improving journalism as we know it.

Poynter Online
– www.poynter.org
They can help news organizations become more interesting, more credible, even essential in the lives of the people they serve. Especially when big news breaks, it’s tough to beat a Weblog. Think Florida Today on the day the shuttle exploded or Jim Romenesko during the Jayson Blair fiasco.

Weblogs also help journalists serve different niches within their audience. A newspaper is necessarily a smorgasbord; readers with intense interest in one area sometimes go away hungry. A Weblog can provide the added depth and detail they crave.

“Moving Toward Participatory Journalism”
– Dan Gillmor
Sometimes it’s the readers who provide the depth and specialized knowledge. Dan Gillmor, technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and author of the eJournal Weblog, is writing a book about what he describes as “We Media … what happens to journalism and society when every reader can be a writer (editor, producer, etc.).” As Gillmor explained in a recent Columbia Journalism Review article: “Our readers know more than we do, and they don’t have to settle for half-baked coverage when they can come into the kitchen themselves. This is not a threat. It is an opportunity. And the evolution of We Media will oblige us all to adapt.”

Weblogs also enable groups of journalists to join forces on a common topic, as Poynter’s Steve Outing and 20 contributors do in their daily briefing on new media issues. Says Outing: “Some of the best Weblogs aggregate the collective intelligence of a group of journalists or an editor-led Weblog group that brings in the expertise and voices of community members. It’s an exciting new form of journalism that’s just barely been tapped.”

Any journalist who has covered state or national politics during the past 15 years should get the Weblog idea pretty quickly. I recall becoming an instant addict to The Hotline when Doug Bailey and his colleagues pioneered it back in the 1988 presidential campaign. Now administered by the National Journal, The Hotline addresses the intense need for up-to-date information among reporters and politicos by providing a one-stop source of coverage of all state and national races.

Another example of a Weblog serving both journalists and others is one kept by Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette religion writer Kathy Shaw. On her Weblog she has chronicled coverage of the clergy sexual abuse story seven days a week since March 2002. After Romenesko, the clergy abuse tracker is the most popular page on Poynter Online.

Like most new things, Weblogs carry risks. In the hands of an inexperienced journalist, a Weblog can degenerate into a pool of personal opinion even less interesting than last night’s meeting of the zoning board of appeals. Unchecked, it can jeopardize the good name of the paper or the station. Weblogs are not for newsroom beginners. Done right, Weblogs require an extraordinary combination of skills not usually demanded of any single journalist in the newsroom—reporting, writing (including headlines), editing and news judgment, to name a few.

By way of refresher, a Weblog is a personal publishing platform that enables its author to post news or comments easily and directly to the Web, usually with links to entries produced by other Webloggers or to the articles of journalists whose work has been published online. But most of what exists in the blogosphere is not journalism. Some bloggers create public versions of personal journals, chronicling and assessing what’s happening in their lives. Other blogs resemble a makeshift journalism review, but not the sort where the work of journalists is critiqued by other journalists. These are more like a free-for-all exercise in which anyone with a computer and a connection to the Internet can evaluate the media. Some of the criticism from the readers’ perspective is eye opening and interesting. Some falls into the rant category, produced without much regard for spelling or grammar, not to mention accuracy, fairness or insight.

>So why would a journalist want to venture anywhere near such a neighborhood? Clues can be found at the Readership Institute, that says nothing about Weblogs but characterizes various attitudes as typical motivators of readership: “regular part of my day … looks out for my interests … something to talk about … makes me smarter … touches and inspires me … I connect with the writers … all sides of the story … guides me.” Produced with those kinds of comments in mind, a Weblog can help journalists build stronger connections to readers.

The Institute also lists comments reflecting why readers are drifting away from newspapers: “wasting my time … drowning in news … too much makes me anxious … bothered by errors.” Weblogs can help journalists address these concerns, too.

The most comprehensive list of blogs produced by journalists is maintained by Jonathan Dube, a senior producer at MSNBC.com and the publisher (with the American Press Institute) of CyberJournalist.net. From there, click to Weintraub’s California Insider and his archives to get a sense of the ways in which a Weblog can surpass print on a story like the California gubernatorial recall. The Insider provided Weintraub with a range of storytelling dimensions beyond what he could deliver with his three-times-a-week, in-paper column on the Bee’s op-ed page. What follows are some examples:

  • The Weblog lets him publish breaking news without regard to newspaper deadlines. At 6:30 a.m. on July 28, for example, Weintraub posted an item headlined: “Arnold Will Not Run.” The 41-word item began: “Arnold Schwarzenegger will not run for governor, a very knowledgeable source close to the actor has told me.” After lunch, he updated the blog with a denial from the Schwarzenegger camp that any decision had been made. Still, Weintraub was sticking by his story: “I’m still hearing otherwise.” Nine days later, Weintraub had to eat his words with this late afternoon post: “Arnold Running for Governor.”
  • Provides links to published stories and commentary. On sites where registration is required, Weintraub even offers readers the use of his personal ID and password.
  • Gives tips to loyal readers about Weintraub’s upcoming appearances on political talk shows on TV.
  • Does live reports, as in one at 3:32 p.m., July 23: “I’m blogging live from the Secretary of State’s office, where Kevin Shelley is expected to announce the official Davis recall signature count sometime after the close of business today.”

Some journalists might find more that is worrisome than appealing in these reports—such as going with the Schwarzenegger report at dawn, without any review by an editor; linking to reports by the competition; promoting your own TV appearances; blogging live, for heaven’s sake. Not to mention the extra work.

The Appeal of the Blog

“A Guide to Various Weblogs”
– Compiled by Nieman Reports staff
As practiced by Weintraub and a growing cadre of others, Weblogging pushes journalists to do their work on the edge. Gone is the safety net provided by prior editorial preview and additional time to think and rethink before publishing. Weintraub’s incorrect Schwarzenegger post underscores the main danger of journalism by Weblog—accuracy sacrificed in pursuit of immediacy. That’s a risk for journalists working on any platform, of course, and it highlights the importance of such core journalistic values as precision and transparency.

“My language was too vague,” Weintraub said in a follow-up e-mail exchange. “Instead of reporting that a source told me Arnold would not run for governor, I should have reported that a source told me an announcement was being planned to reveal that Arnold was not running for governor. The source was right. The facts changed along the way. And I used less than precise language to communicate those facts.”

Weintraub said he wasn’t sure whether he would discuss those details with readers of his blog. Not to do so, at least in my view, would be a mistake. If journalists are going to expose readers to the risks of real-time reporting, credibility demands discussion and disclosure when the process falls short.

I can wring my hands as much as the next 55-year-old editor, I suppose, but I still find a lot more to like than lament in the Weblogging trend. Despite the problems with his Schwarzenegger report, Weintraub’s blog represents a significant contribution to political reporting. Day after day, often hour by hour, Weintraub lifts the shade to give readers a view behind the scenes of the back and forth of political coverage as it unfolds. As he explained when he introduced his blog: “Blogs by their nature are more spontaneous than traditional commentary. While I will strive as always to keep the facts accurate, the opinions I express might be more apt to evolve over time, as more information becomes available.”

In an e-mail interview, Weintraub described some of the differences between what he tries to accomplish in his print column and his blog: “In [the] column I always strive to reach a broad audience. I see myself as a translator, breaking down complex policy issues. … The blog is much more shorthand, chatty, stuff designed for insiders. But I am guessing even that appeals to a certain segment of the broader audience. … Response has been fantastic.”

Weintraub and Johnson file directly to the Web, with editors reading behind them simultaneously or later in the day. That’s also how it works with Jim Romenesko’s column on Poynter Online, with Romenesko filing directly to his page and News Editor Julie Moos or I reading after the material is posted. “If I have a question about propriety,” Weintraub says, “I’ll consult with my editor just like on anything I write.” Romenesko does the same.

In an e-mail interview, Johnson said her blog adds no time to her workweek because she uses the blogged items in her weekly Health Beat column in the paper. Adds Weintraub: “If you are a regular reader of both, you are essentially seeing me come up with an idea, advance it, and draft it on the Web before polishing it up for the print version. In that sense, it’s a time saver.”

It also appears to be a relationship-builder—both for Weintraub and the paper: “It’s been a great source builder. People are calling me and e-mailing me with stuff unsolicited, at a much greater rate than before …. Now stuff is flying over the transom.” The two-way dimension of Weblogs is crucial. The image of stuff flying in over the transom should excite newsroom leaders as much as it does a columnist like Weintraub. Opening up this kind of back and forth with readers carries a cost for newsrooms. What arrives will have to be checked out, and that means additional reporting time.

So add Weblogs to the issues newsroom leaders must address, along with the more familiar matters of readership, credibility and transparency. Maybe it’s time the bosses lifted the shade, too. Why not follow the lead of their more enterprising staffers and launch blogs of their own? Boss blogs—what better way for people in charge to connect with customers and discover what’s next for journalism?

Bill Mitchell has been editor of Poynter Online since 1999. He has also worked as director of electronic publishing at the San Jose Mercury News and as a reporter and editor at the Detroit Free Press.

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