Thursday, April 06, 2006

The general-interest breaking news blog

Thursday, I argued that a blog's fundamental features lend itself to two main things: news and speed. Comments, opinions and the rest are just gravy -- they're not unique to the form. Today, I'll build on this, suggesting small newspapers should throw away their preconceptions that blogs must cover niches like local TV listings or the state legislature. In fact, for the hundreds of little U.S. papers who think they can't afford to update their sites midday, a general-interest news blog could be the cheapest, easiest road to the holy grail of Web traffic: dynamic content.

It's true, the notion of a general-interest blog might have offended me until I ran into two examples: the Racine Journal-Times's Racine Report and USA Today's On Deadline.

Look past the RJT's NASCAR aesthetic and USA Today's national scope. What are these guys doing? They're simply delivering news in blog format: latest stuff at the top, older stuff sliding down. The approaches are different -- Racine posts full-length stories as they come in throughout the day, while On Deadline is Web-only content. But the innovation -- that blogs can be nothing more than a quick way to get midday news -- is sound as a bell.

And they're hits. I've talked with the folks who oversee both blogs, and both have been big traffic magnets. How many of the Racine Report's thousands of readers know they're getting their breaking news from a blog? Surely lots don't. What they know is that their news always appears in reverse chronological order -- why, how convenient!

On Deadline's format will be a bit more alien to traditional news readers, but it has its advantages, too: since its writers don't waste time crafting full-length articles, they've built the best place on the Internet to know right away if a big story has broken in the U.S. media. Rather than sift through the fourth rewrite of an AP piece, the heavy Web user can see what's new right away.

Both blogs have downsides, too. The Racine Report is difficult to scan for topics of interest. With 30 posts a day, On Deadline is practical for only the heaviest of users -- and small markets don't have many of those.

Local papers should consider combining the best of these two approaches. Racine has embraced blogs because when they're built on simple, free software like WordPress, they become a quick-and-dirty way to change a Web site. For papers smaller than the RJT (30,000 or so), quick is even more important.

So why not put a breaking news blog front and center on your Web site? Why not ask reporters to post two- to three-sentence summaries of news as it comes in? (Or assign a single staffer to gather tidbits from reporters as they write.) News won't break more than a few times a day in a small market, so you won't be overwhelming your audience of bored office drones. But when each new tidbit comes in, throw that up. Give readers a taste of the adrenaline in a developing story.

Worried about competitors swiping your scoop? Baloney. Save the investigative projects for the morning paper, but when local news breaks, you want readers to know you're the place to go, no matter what. (Just don't be afraid to link to the radio station when it actually beats you.)

And here's an added bonus: you can assure your publisher that the Web content doesn't endanger the print product, because it serves a totally different purpose -- getting the basics out right away -- and therefore a different audience. Indeed, it's not hard to imagine one of those bored office drones lingering over your print article the next morning, seeing how that story they were following at work finally played out.


Michael said...
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Michael said...

A postscript: for another take on small-paper blogs, check out Conor Friedersdorf's piece in PressThink's Blue Plate Special that small to medium papers have a chance to "publish the best blog on the Internet, and we ought to aspire to nothing less."

I actually disagree on this point -- big papers will always have more money to play with, whether they're in old or new media -- but he makes a provocative case. And he's right that the boundaries are lower than ever. He also has other lessons from blogs at small papers around the country.

Michael said...

Friedersdorf's own blog at the L.A. Newspaper Group is in fact a topical blog for a couple of smallish papers, and it does indeed aspire to be the best immigration blog in the country.

It's a great topic and a good read. I'm certainly not opposed to topical blogs, though I do fear that local papers will never find an adequate national audience for a locally written blog.

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It's a great topic and a good read.
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