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Get Smart About Your Readers: Ideas & Insights
Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Blogs as community

(Rich Gordon)

In the past few weeks, American Journalism Review and an editorial page editor at the Wall Street Journal have weighed in with criticisms of blogs.

AJR, focusing specifically on newspaper blogs, worries about a "clash of values" between newspapers and "a swiftly changing medium that has grown in power and prestige precisely because it has flouted many of journalism's traditional rules." At the Journal, Joseph Rago writes that "journalism as practiced via blog appears to be a change for the worse."

Both pieces make good points, but I think they also both give short shrift to one of the most powerful ways blogs can be used by news organizations: as a hub for communities, both virtual and real.

Here's one example of a newspaper blog that seems to be creating just such a community hub.

Dave Oliveria is a longtime columnist and editorial writer for the Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Washington. He works in the paper's bureau in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, about 32 miles from Spokane. Besides writing editorials, he is the longtime author of the paper's Huckleberries column, a grab bag of names, news and gossip for residents of northern Idaho.

Oliveria started blogging almost three years ago because he thought the paper needed a blog expressing a conservative point of view. His first blog, "No Holds Barred," was published during the months leading up to the 2004 election. The blog gave Oliveria a chance to skewer "J. Flipflop Kerry" and generally advocate conservative positions. But he also started building a community around the column by linking frequently to other bloggers in Washington and Idaho.

After the 2004 election, Oliveria tried to figure out what to do next. For a while the blog was renamed "Hot Potatoes" and consisted mostly of short opinion pieces. Finally he relabeled the blog "Huckleberries Online" to connect with his print column. Most recently, at his boss's suggestion, he modified the format for the print Huckleberries column. Instead of running once a week (at about 20 column inches), Huckleberries the column became shorter (4-6 inches) and more frequent (five days a week).

The Spokesman-Review takes blogging seriously. The newspaper now publishes 33 blogs, a pretty remarkable number for a paper with an average weekday circulation of less than 100,000. Huckleberries Online has the most traffic by far, almost 150,000 page views in November, according to traffic data provided by Online Publisher Ken Sands.

"Huckleberries Online gets closest to the strategic model of what a newspaper blog can be," says Spokesman-Review editor Steve Smith. "It’s a blog that breaks news, it engages citizens and the movers and shakers in dialogue. In some ways it has become its own 24/7 source of news and information for people in that community."

Take a look at Huckleberries Online. Like the original Huckleberries print column, it's a grab bag. If you don't live in Idaho or Washington, you may not immediately grasp what makes it special. But here are some of the kinds of things you'll find:

"My philosophy is, 'It’s a new day, let’s have a whole bunch of fun,' " says Oliveria.

What makes Oliveria a good blogger? "He understood that the blog isn’t a place where he goes to preach his particular point of view or opine, though that's how he started," Smith says. "He understands that his role is part reporter, part moderator and part synthesizer, and if he identifies the points of interest and presents them in the right way, then he can generate citizen dialogue that moves the community forward. It’s interactivity, but it has a strong journalistic core to it. You can really see the reporter, the journalist, the analyst in his work."

Smith says, "Our least successful blogs are those where the author simply states a point of view. People respond, they get angry, but they rarely advance an issue or an idea."

Oliveria also benefits from being a longtime local columnist, and from the association between Huckleberries Online and its print counterpart. But it's also worth pointing out that Huckleberries Online generates several of the online experiences that Readership Institute research indicates will drive site usage. For instance:

  • Entertains and absorbs me ("The site has a very distinct personality to it" or "Often I go to this site just to see if it has anything new since the last time I checked it");
  • Looks out for people like me ("The people who run this site really seem to care about their visitors" or "This site has a strong sense of community to it");
  • Connects me with others ("A big reason I like this site is what I get from other users" or "This site does a good job of getting its visitors to contribute or provide feedback.")

Huckleberries Online has proven to be so successful that Oliveria's boss has modified his job description. He won't have to write as many editorials and expects to spend 80 percent of his time on the blog. Smith also wants Oliveria to coach other Spokesman-Review bloggers.

Oliveria is already thinking about creative ways he can take Huckleberries Online to a new level. He'd like to blog live from the scene of an important story, such as a key commission vote. He'd also like to take his laptop to a coffee shop and interact in person with some of his readers. He's looking forward to having more time to experiment with new approaches.

“Blogging the way I do it just consumes you," says Oliveria. "I’ve been just flying through this thing and haven’t had time to think about what works and where I’d like to go."


By Rich Gordon (richgor@northwestern.edu)
Rich Gordon is Associate Professor and Director of Digital Technology in Education at Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University.


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Comments:

For some additional reflections on Oliveria and his recent tendencies, go to either:

1) SpankingTheSpokesman.wordpress.com

or

2) SpokanePoliceAbuses.wordpress.com

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous at November 11, 2007 3:10 PM



 

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