Giving your sources blogs cuts out the middleman

A few days ago, Dave Winer wrote:

“I’ve said it many times before, it’s worth raising again. Any newspaper or radio or TV station with a good reputation in its community could embrace the fresh ideas of the bloggers in their community by offering free blogs to members of the community, who may be new to blogging. I suggested this to the Times in 2001 — when a person is quoted in a Times article, a few days after the piece runs, contact them, and ask if they’d like to have a NY Times hosted blog. There would be no control over what appeared on the blog.”

He’s talking about the New York Times and letting sources have a space to speak without the intermediation of the reporter (and editors). (Is that accurate, Dave?).

Newspaper-hosted reader blogs and local blog aggregators are starting to pop up all over the place. That’s one approach: Become the community water cooler by giving the chatty folks a place to do their thing.

Dave’s idea has a similar root to the recently announced and denounced Google News commenting feature: Give the people who give you quotes a place to add context and elaboration.

My first instinct — and I think it’s a good one — is to recommend that every newspaper offer the usual suspects — local politicians, gadflies, and activists — their own blogs on the paper’s site. It seems like such a no-brainer, I can already think of six or seven people in my town I would call up today and offer blogs to. Maybe I will.

Two Google News workarounds

Rob comments at Lost Remote:

“I try to work around the Google News situation by posting almost all of our video content to YouTube. So far that’s one place where our content hasn’t been usurped by AP. We also are trying to blog breaking news – and sending automated updates to Technorati in the process – as well as Twitter breaking news as well.”

Paul Bradshaw tweets:

“Newspapers should stop moaning about Google and imitate it: link to others’ content and profit from the traffic. Is that so difficult?”

A few basics of newspaper.com design

I’m about 1/5th of the way through my latest run of Preliminary Data Gathering (cue ominous music as if the villain just walked into the bar) for my thesis, which involves staring at newspaper.coms just long enough to figure out where they hide the blogs.

As I work my way down an alphabetical list of the top 170 papers with average weekday circulation greater than 50,000 but less than 300,000, I am prone to gasp in horror — or delight — at the online news design I stumble over in the night.

And so, without further preamble, in no particular order, here are a few pointers from the field:

  • Left nav is the devil. Just quit it already. Simple horizontal nav will get more readers clicking through to your robust section pages, as if they were, y’know, reading a newspaper and finding what they want, like the comics or the crossword or the box scores. Don’t worry, they’ll find other things to read, just like in the hard copy. Does your print edition have an index with 180 links to individual daily features on A1? I hope not.
  • Image-driven house ads on the right side of your page are invisible. Most of us are guilty of this: Promoting a feature of our site or a multimedia special or a secondary entertainment site or social network with, well, a display ad, more or less. Not only is the advertising that people actually pay for invisible to your readers when it’s just another Flash-y thing on the right side of the page, but the content you’re trying really hard to promote also gets sucked into the vortex of banner blindness. Either cut down on the images, or try something with a headline, small image, and linked text explaining what’s up.
  • Article templates should never be dead ends. Give me related stories, most popular stories, blog posts that link to this story — give me something to keep me clicking through to the next thing I might be interested in. Don’t leave me hanging with nothing to do but hit the Back button. (See also: Mark Potts.)
  • Clear organization of code makes for clear organization of content. Take a look at any of the Scripps sites* recently outfitted with a Django-powered Ellington CMS, and you’ll see newspaper.coms that look like they were designed on purpose, and not slapped together with bubble gum, dental floss and Perl scripts. To put it another way, these sites look rational.

Those are just some always-obvious mantras that have been rolling through my head as I churn through 170 sites on the long road to polishing off a master’s degree.

For a fresher, South American look at newspaper.com design, Mindy McAdams points to Julián Gallo and his work at MDZol in Argentina. Clear, clean, easy to navigate, unmuddled, with lots of links to follow when you hit the bottom of a story. I like it.

Got any pointers/wishlists you’d like to shout out at newspaper.com developers? Speak up in the comments below…

*Ryan Berg, a designer at Scripps, added a list of a few recent Ellington redesigns by e-mail. My favorite of the ones he sent: The Boulder Daily Camera. It’s clean, I can find what I’m looking for, and features like hot stories with lots of comments are easy to spot. 

All I’m going to say about the Google/AP thing

Google News now links to wire stories from the original source (AP, AFP, etc.), hosted by Google, in addition to the 5,137 versions of each wire story posted at individual news sites.

Three reasons why this is good for newspapers:

  1. Newspaper.coms no longer have to spend time, money, and resources on trying to build the best semantic, SEO-friendly code for their wire stories that are the least unique content on their sites.  They should work on doing that for local news and information anyway, but stop worrying about how you host AP stories and what that does to your placement on Google News.
  2. The rewards that newspapers with higher PageRank and more incoming links get on Google News might slowly diminish as the Google-hosted wire stories draw more attention.  Again, worry less about SEO and more about creating local content for local readers.
  3. The page view spikes from getting a wire story or an editorial on a national issue to show up on Google News are nearly worthless, anyway. A reader from Poughkeepsie who clicked on the AP story hosted by your newspaper.com in Jackson Hole isn’t coming back to find out how the rodeo turns out.

See Weaver and Hartnett for more rational thought.

Mine, mine, it’s all mine!

Mine.

MyTimes. MyPost. MyThis, MyThat.

Without getting too far into slagging existing products for duplicating RSS readers or an iGoogle or MyYahoo or NetVibes personalized home page, let’s jump straight into a proposition:

If your newspaper makes me register and login to read stories, or participate in polls, or (important one here) add comments to stories, you’re going to need to give me something in return.

It’s a simple matter of give and take. I give you my personal information — even if it’s just an e-mail address — and you give me something — other than access, which I can get with BugMeNot if I really want it — in return.

And now, to the chase.

Here’s what I want:

I want to save my favorite stories, right here, at your newspaper.com. Because really, what’s the sense in Digging a story about my neighborhood? There’s no value in that, and it’s pushing it to say that Delicious or Reddit or any of the other social bookmarking tools we offer to readers have any real value to them at all — perhaps excluding Facebook.

When I share a local news story, I want to share it with my neighborhood. Hence, Facebook might still be useful to me to get a local news link in front of a classmate or a colleague or a friend from around the corner.

So why don’t newspapers offer something like a Digg profile, that keeps track of the stories that I save.

Then, instead of using a clumsy ‘e-mail this story’ function or copy/pasting an elaborate URL, I could just click the [save this story] button and point my friends to an URL like “newspaper.com/readers/gort581.”

Consider this a feature request, developers.

The long tail is a newspaper video strategy

Because I just can’t stay away from this topic…

Last time we talked about this, I wrote a post shooting down anyone who says we shouldn’t shoot newspaper video unless it’s top-quality stuff we’d, more or less, centerpiece on A1.

The responses from my friends in the multimedia blogosphere who shoot stills and video for a living at mid-to-large circulation papers in major cities ranged from irrational cynicism to completely rational pleas for me to watch some high-quality documentary style video and thank expensive cameras and dedicated video shooters for their work.

And I thank them.

But do you really think a photog carrying an HD cam (even if it shoots print-quality stills) is a viable (or rational) use of resources for a small community newspaper?

Here’s the deal:

Your big documentary video shot with a $2,000 camera and embedded in a big Flash package about a big issue is wonderful big-J Journalism. And appropriate. But it’s not something a small paper should be spending its time on with any sort of regularity.

Because we have inexpensive ways to gather and distribute video in larger numbers to our readers and viewers and users in a fragmented audience, equipping a larger number of reporters with easy-to-learn, easy-to-edit point-and-shoot cameras is a logical choice that makes sense for our readers.

Frankly, the fact that this might make good business sense for our publishers doesn’t really come into play when I think about this. If more community members watch more video on our site because there is, well, more of it that has a chance of interesting them, and that happens to mean more advertising revenue for us — or our corporate parent — who am I to argue?

Looks like I buried the lede again. Blink and you missed it:

“If more community members watch more video on our site because there is, well, more of it that has a chance of interesting them … who am I to argue?”

In an unbundled media universe, which is what you’re getting into when you take your online newspaper any further than shovelware, a big video documentary is an A1 centerpiece. It’s there, and it’s gone, and you can bring people to it from the wider Web if you archive it intelligently, but for all your readers who don’t happen to be affected by the issue, or interested in their story, that was either the only or one of a very few video options on the menu that day.

If YouTube has taught us anything, it’s that video users could care less about what you’re ‘Featuring’ or pushing on your home page. Just get me to the page with 50 thumbnails and headlines on it, and I’ll browse around for quite awhile. Show me one big video and little else, and you’ve lost me.

Why?

That’s where the long tail comes in, if you didn’t see it in the background of everything I’ve said about this so far.

A refresher:

The Long Tail
No idea where this particular LT image originated, but thanks to the Guardian and Valleywag for republishing it in a useful way.

On the left, up high with the mass appeal, that’s your A1 story.

Way out there on the right, those are all the tiny little stories that newspaper editors traditionally assume no one cares much about. They end up on inside pages, relegated to the crime blotter and the community calendar, but if you add up the number of people who are interested in those little stories, they give your big blowout Flash package a run for its money.

This is why topical blogs succeed, why categories and tags are useful things, and really, this is how Web 2.0 works. Individuals find what they’re interested in, and if your A1 isn’t it, they’re turning to the section with their neighbors in it in a heartbeat.

They’re doing the same thing with your newspaper video.

If I weren’t already knee-deep in an increasingly outdated thesis (a nearly approved proposal and vapor-research only at this point, I’m afraid), I would choose newspaper video is the variable and go out to do case studies of notable papers who have adopted different video strategies and figure out why that had done what they did and what the benefits have been, so far.

So far.

Those are two key words here. So have at it. I’ve argued both sides of this by now, and I’m still not tired of it, frankly. It’s fun to try to figure out because it’s something new an old medium can do to try and get a little, uh, newness.

I’ve also argued that every news organization should do what it can with its resources. If you’re at a big major metro working for a company with a video strategy that says Go Big or Go Home, more power to ya. You do beautiful work. I hope millions of people watch that video. I hope you win awards. I hope you change the world.

The rest of us are just looking to inform our communities, one little clip at a time.