Thursday, April 06, 2006

Thinking abstractly about blogs

So the news that staff-written blogs can be useful has seeped into most small-town newsrooms. It's just as important, though, for those small newsrooms to know what a blog really is, not just have a vague idea of the ways others seem to use blogs. Understanding the abstract features of a blog -- and the reasons those features have led to the style and content of today's blogosphere -- can help small papers find innovative ways to tweak their blogs for small markets.

(I shudder to think how many times some blogger has taken it upon himself to explain "Just what is a blog?" Dauntless, I plunge on. This time, I'm answering it for small papers, and that's different, see?)

A blog is a Web site where the new stuff appears at the top and the old stuff remains below. That's it; that's all. Other things touted as features of blogs -- user comments, niche content, offsite links -- are features of the World Wide Web, not the blogosphere.

So simple a definition that it's meaningless? No! It's liberating! Don't want to moderate comments? Don't allow them. Don't like hyperlinking to unreliable offsite content? I'd say today's readers understand the risks of the Web, but if you really feel that way, there's no reason not to go it alone on your blog. Can't think of a niche-y topic unique to your area? Hate to break it to you, but you've already got one. By Web standards, local papers are already niche media. If any Web site has useful, unique local news and information, readers will like it. (Just give people a way to find it without having to click on the word "blog," for heaven's sake.)

So should blogs be used for anything you want? No. Blogs do two things very well:

1) Because they're organized simply, they let the reader quickly find the latest entry.

2) Because they uncouple content production and technical expertise, they give a Web site to anybody who can type.

Item 1 lends itself to news, because the latest stuff is important, and to distribution over RSS, because it's easy to aggregate something that updates predictably. Item 2 lends itself to speed, because the update process takes so little footwork.

Wait a minute. Timely news? Isn't that the most important thing newspapers are supposed to be doing already?

In tomorrow's post, I'll discuss an underused idea that would make blogging central to a small newspaper's site without driving away a single reader: a general-interest breaking news blog.

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