It’s 1999. Christina Aguilera’s self-titled debut album is at the top of the charts. Even if you eschew pop music, you might catch yourself humming “Genie in a Bottle” because it’s all over the radio, and it’s so darn catchy.
Meanwhile, ‘70s glam rocker Gary Glitter has just been thrown in jail for downloading kiddie porn. While some people are preparing for a Y2K apocalypse, others are “partying like it’s 1999” to a Prince song penned sixteen years before.
If you were a music journalist in 1999, the means by which you learned about and reported on newsworthy events was significantly different from the way you’d do it now. The speed of music news has accelerated from how quickly a publicist can hold (or lose) your attention on the phone, to how quickly a rock star can type a 140-character tweet. Gone are the days when aspiring music reporters were beholden to editors who could decide whether or not a story ever reached the general public.
Now, in the age of the blog, an editor might actually approach a writer and offer him/her a job that the writer hasn’t even applied for. In short, things have drastically changed.
Three Journalists — One Decade
John Nova Lomax, Ben Westhoff and Jeff Weiss are all music journalists. In terms of age, twelve years separate the oldest of the three writers from the youngest. However, all of their careers in music journalism began within the last ten years. The times at which each of them started in the biz — and the technology available to them — have given each one different experience of their field.
The veteran of the three, Lomax, is 39. In the late ‘90s, he became the sole contributing writer to the Houston Blues Society’s music journal. In 2000 he started freelancing for the “Houston Press,” an alt-weekly owned by Village Voice Media (VVM), and by 2001 he was the music editor there.
“I kind of came in through the back door,” he said. Lomax is now a staff writer at the Press. Over the years, his work has been featured in several VVM publications.
Westhoff is 31. He lives in Hoboken, NJ, and has made a living writing freelance articles, primarily on rap and R&B, for six years. He has written for “Spin” and numerous VVM publications, including “LA Weekly” and the “Village Voice.” Internet pieces for sites like Pitchfork and NPR.org have also become a mainstay for Westhoff.
“Over time, steadily, a bigger and bigger percentage of the money I make for writing has come from online stuff,” he said.
The youngest of the bunch, Weiss, is 27. He lives in Los Angeles. After graduating from college in 2003, Weiss said he wrote “all these really stupid emails to “Rolling Stone” and “Pitchfork,” like ‘Please hire me.’”
He ended up contributing to the “San Fernando Valley Business Journal,” and in 2005, he started his own music and pop culture blog, Passion of the Weiss. The blog took off, eventually landing Weiss writing gigs at the “Los Angeles Times” and “LA Weekly.”
Weiss says an editor at “LA Weekly” approached him about becoming a contributor to the paper. Within just a couple years, Weiss had gone from getting turned down for journalism jobs to being offered them without asking — thanks to the popularity of his blog, now receiving about 2,500 page views per day.
As one might expect, three writers in different stages of their careers have a mixture of similar and diverging opinions on their craft. What’s astonishing, though, is how much their industry has changed within a relatively short period of time.
In 1979, The Buggles declared that “Video Killed the Radio Star.” In 2009, the latest music casualties seem to be the publicists, dead at the hands of social networking sites.
“The Internet has sort of killed the publicist off,” Lomax said. “Not completely. But every year I’ve had fewer calls from publicists by a factor of about two or three.”
He paused and then added, “You know, which is great.” Though Weiss has only been covering music for a handful of years, he agrees — hypothetically, anyway.
“Ten years ago, you were relying on the publicists to get that promo, and if you didn’t get that promo, then you were kind of screwed,” he said. “Now with the culture of the leaks and with MySpace, you don’t really need that.”
Lomax couldn’t be more thrilled that music publicists are becoming a thing of the past.
“Publicists have made me break stuff in my office,” he said. “Through no fault of their own. I mean, they’re just doing their job. But you just get the same call, and they all have the same patter, where they’re saying, ‘I just want to reach out to you. This band will be in your area.’ And sometimes they don’t even get the fucking town right. Like, they’ll say they’re playing the American Airlines Arena, and I’ll go, ‘Well, that’s in Dallas.’ And they’ll go, ‘Oh yeah, uh, the Verizon Center.’”
To be fair, not all publicists are inept, and some artists still use them. But, increasingly, bands have learned a cheaper way to promote themselves: the Internet.
What do Legos, standardized testing, online museums and robots have in common?
Well, for one, there’s the GeekDad blog on Wired.com. Originally the brainchild of Wired.com Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson in March 2007, GeekDad has since become one of the most popular blogs on the site. (See our recent post on Wired.com for more of the history of the GeekDad blog)
By day, the current editor of GeekDad (since September 2007), Ken Denmead, is a civil engineer. He described himself as “very much a geek and very much a father.” By combining these interests to create the tone of the blog, Denmead said, “I’ve tried to turn it into the Wired.com parenting blog.”
Denmeads sons, 11-year-old Eli and nine-year-old Quinn, have enjoyed some of the perks of their dad’s online moonlighting gig, and Denmead has learned some things from his kids. He often receives free, sample video games from companies who want their products reviewed on the blog.
“I won’t necessarily play them completely myself,” Denmead said. “I’ll throw ‘em to the kids and say, ‘Hey, play this, and then let me sit with you while you play it, and you tell me how you feel about it while you’re playing.’”
As a result, both the parent’s and the kids’ perspectives are reflected in the blog post — and Denmead gets to spend some quality game-playing time with his sons. Eli and Quinn aren’t complaining.
“A new game for the Wii or the DS shows up every couple of weeks, so they’re happy about that,” he said.
GeekDad contributor Matt Blum, a software engineer, also finds inspiration for posts from his kids. Blum has a six-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son. One day, when the whole family was in the car, Blum’s daughter asked where the first human beings came from.
“My wife and I are both staunch believers in evolution,” Blum said, and so his daughter’s question led to a discussion of evolution. “I wrote a post about that because it’s a tough question. We weren’t prepared for her to ask that sort of question.”
The comments from GeekDad readers, some with similar beliefs and some with different ones, continued the discussion online. Denmead said that the interaction with readers has contributed to the popularity of the blog — which averages 20,000 to 22,000 hits per day. He uses Google analytics to gauge the traffic.
“One of the weird things about GeekDad within the larger Wired universe is that we really do speak more directly to our readers as sort of a personal conversation, whereas most of the rest of Wired is much more about posting news articles,” he said.
In order to increase posts’ visibility on the Wired.com main page, Denmead encourages the bloggers to vary the tone of the posts between conversational and more formal news reporting because the latter have a better chance of being featured on the main website. This kind of publicity draws readers to the blog.
“It’s been a lesson in journalism and in good writing for publication,” Denmead said.
Still, the driving force of GeekDad is its awareness of its audience. Blum has utilized his readers’ knowledge when preparing questions for interviews. He has asked readers to respond via Twitter with questions they’d like to ask a particular interview subject, such as Adam Savage of the Discovery Channel’s MythBusters.
“He does tons of interviews, so I didn’t want to ask him the same questions that everybody had already asked him, because what’s the point” Blum said about interviewing Savage.
To avoid duplicating previously published information, Blum does his own research prior to interviews and said that the readers’ contributions are also helpful.
“I figure if I’m asking the readers,” he said, “not only are they helping me, but that way the end product will be that much more interesting to the readers because they’ve had some input into it.”
He said Twitter offers the perfect means of gathering information for this purpose.
For Denmead, his work as the GeekDad editor has blossomed into a book deal. He was approached by a literary agent and, after researching the agency to make sure it was legit, wrote a book proposal that got picked up by Penguin Viking. The book, which will probably be titled “The GeekDad Book,” is a collection of “geeky” projects that parents can do with their kids.
The test group for these projects? Denmead’s sons Eli and Quinn, of course. The book is scheduled to come out around Father’s Day in 2010.
This kind of family-oriented material is largely what makes the GeekDad blog so easy for its readers to relate to.
“It is very much the nature of GeekDad to try and be a community blog,” Denmead said.
All of the bloggers are unpaid and write from different parts of the country (and the world—one author lives in Australia), which provides the blog with varied and fresh perspectives. The bloggers clearly share one thing in common with each other and with their readers.
“We are literally what the title is,” he said. “We are geek dads — and a couple of geek moms.”
Wired.com has some of the most techno-savvy readers of any publication, and editor in chief Evan Hansen is not afraid to use them.
As it turns out, the online publication has fostered symbiotic relationships with its blog readers in a variety of different ways, all of which have been beneficial both to Wired.com and to its sharp-minded readers.
“You have the ability to reveal the story in progress, this sort of ‘process-is-content’ notion,” Hansen explained about blogging. “You reveal what you have, as it comes in, and then you invite the readers and the public to help you finish the story.”
This method of reporting has improved blogging at Wired.com, particularly when Hansen and his colleagues have taken experimental risks that have become incredibly successful. Most prominent among these experiments is the Geekdad blog, which features posts from self-proclaimed “geek” dads and moms. The contributors submit one or two posts a week, typically about science or technology topics that appeal to parents and kids alike.
Nintendo, NASA, and Legos are all fair game. Originally, the blog was run solely by Chris Anderson, but it became too much for one person to handle, so Anderson reached out to readers and asked whether any of them wanted to contribute.
“He found some people who were very qualified to do it, and he took that chance,” Hansen said, “and it worked out.”
“Worked out” is putting it mildly. Geekdad is now one of the most popular blogs on the site, and its contributors write posts for free — yes, free! — from all over the country. The blog’s unpaid editor, Ken Denmead, now has a book deal in the works as a direct result of the blog.
As of April 15, 2009, Denmead has sent out a call for more contributors. If the past is any indication, he’s going to get responses from plenty of enthusiastic, knowledgeable participants — just the sort of people who fuel the content of Geekdad.
As an editor who entrusts readers with blog content, Hansen laughed and said, “You’ve got to close your eyes a little bit and kind of just have faith that stuff that comes out is going to be in line with your brand and your sense of quality. It was a leap of faith, but it really turned out well. It’s an interesting and eclectic and, I think, very high quality publication now.”
Hansen estimates that 20-25 percent of what gets blogged about at Wired.com either starts with or includes tips from readers. The site uses a feedback tool developed by Reddit specifically for Wired.com blogs that allows users to upload text and pictures and also assists with sorting the content offered by readers. When Cal Tech grad student Virgil Griffith introduced the Wikiscanner in 2007, the Threat Level blog at Wired.com asked readers to submit IP addresses of Wikipedia users who were editing the online encyclopedia to suit their own agenda.
Using the Reddit tool to upload their findings to Threat Level, readers exposed hundreds of instances of corporate whitewashing on Wikipedia and then voted to determine the most appalling ones. In 2008, the project earned Wired.com a Knight-Batten award for innovation in journalism; Wired.com gave the $10,000 award to Wikiscanner creator Virgil Griffith.
The kind of reader/blog interaction that changes journalism is, of course, only available on the Internet. Hansen emphasized that Wired.com has the advantage of being a stand-alone Web site with original content, as opposed to being an offshoot of a print publication. Although Conde Nast now owns both Wired magazine and Wired.com, the two publications remain separate in terms of staff and news stories.
“The marriage back with the magazine has been very beneficial financially and otherwise,” Hansen said. “But, again, the structure here is that the Web site is considered to be its own business. We are very collaborative, and we share a brand, and we’re very respectful of the magazine…but we’re not the red-headed stepchild of a print publication.”
While the magazine and the Web site have different modes of operation, Hansen observed that the fundamentals of journalism apply to both.
“The most surprising thing is that the more we got into blogging, the more we realized it’s not all that different from ordinary news gathering,” he said. “The same rules apply in terms of accuracy, confirming information.”
For the blogs, Hansen said the goal is not to be an aggregation site but rather to do original reporting.
“Which means that you’ve got to pick up the phone,” he said. “You’ve got to talk to people. You’ve got to chase down facts and not just link to other people.”
And, it seems, it also helps if you’re something of a risk-taker — with very smart readers.
Check out part one of our profile on Tony Pierce.
Tony Pierce, Blog Editor at The Los Angeles Times, is a master of reader-blogger interaction.
Take, for example, the means by which he was able to afford a Caribbean vacation several years ago. After discovering that readers of his popular personal blog would donate money to a good cause, such as Pierce’s desire for an iPod (which he successfully procured via reader donations), he set his sights a bit higher.
“One day I said, ‘Let’s see how fast you guys can get me a thousand bucks,’” Pierce recalled. “Only about three weeks later, I got that, and I went to Aruba.”
Through such monetary “experiments”, as he refers to them, Pierce realized the importance of interacting with readers and the possibilities available to bloggers who effectively utilize their audience.
“I just kind of showed people that you don’t have to be a beautiful young woman,” he said. “You just have to have interesting content and have a good-sized audience. If they liked you and trusted you, and you’re being honest with them, they would probably give you anything you want. The car I just parked right now was from donations from my readers.”
So, how does one blogger’s ability to obtain reader donations relate to journalists with beatblogs? Simple. At the LA Times, Pierce understands the value of reader feedback.
He uses the expertise he developed as a solo blogger who engaged directly with his audience in order to further the readers’ participation at the Times’ blogs. In addition to ensuring that every blog comment at the Times is approved prior to posting, Pierce has also created the Comments Blog, the subheading of which is: “because sometimes the comments are the best part.”
The Comments Blog is an aggregation of the most insightful or interesting reader comments posted to the blogs at the Times. As a result, the Comments Blog attracts its own readers and furthers the conversations occurring on other Times blogs.
The Comments Blog is similar to news-compiling sites like Metafilter and LAist (of which Pierce is a former editor), in that it assembles the most noteworthy comments into a single locale.
“Aggregating is definitely popular because we’re too busy to read everything,” he said. “So we need a computer or a human to tell us what the important stuff is out there.”
He warned, however, that some readers who leave comments have their own agendas. For instance, when congressman Ron Paul ran for the Republican presidential nomination, the LA Times blogs received many comments from readers voicing strong support of Paul. This trend, said Pierce, could have been easily misinterpreted, possibly leading people to believe that Paul had more constituents than he actually did simply because his campaign’s online organization was better than that of his competitors.
A barrage of biased comments can give a false impression that readers feel strongly about a particular side of an argument, when, in some cases, only the readers who hold a certain opinion are commenting.
“You have to be skeptical, especially when you see huge trends going one way or the other,” he said.
To weed out readers who use blog comments to further their own agendas, Pierce recommends being aware of where the comments are posted from.
“Sometimes they out themselves just based off their IP address,” he said. “If multiple comments are posted from the IP address of a business affiliated in some way with the topic of the blog post, it becomes clear that a small group of readers are dominating the comment conversation and do not represent the public at large.
On the other hand, Pierce noted, paying attention to what readers are saying in blog comments can provide journalists with additional sources or a new angle for a story. He suggested that journalists read not only the comments on their own blogs but also the comments at blogs with similar topics at other publications.
“When you get millions and millions of people all talking at the same time,” Pierce said, “you’re going to get an expert that will come out of that bunch.”
While a subject-matter-expert may not have a blog, he/she may offer comments that are informative and potentially useful to the blogging journalist — even if these comments appear on the blog of a competing publication.
Pierce advises that journalists value their readers’ comments and consider them — with an appropriately-sized grain of salt.
“Just take readers as one of the many sources that determine what gets blogged and what goes into print,” he said. “Like many major newspapers, the LA Times is evolving its online components, and connecting with readers is a key factor in the process. I think you’ll see that the LA Times is more open to reader feedback today than it’s ever been.”
Tony Pierce, Blog Editor at The Los Angeles Times, may have the most unconventional how-I-got-this-job story that the publication has ever seen. To use his phrase, Pierce is a “blogger-turned-pro.”
Formerly a successful independent blogger and later the editor of LAist, Pierce wrote the LA Times in 2007 after an internal Times email had leaked to the public. The email boasted that the top blog at the Times had surpassed 300,000 page views for the month. Pierce’s written response was congratulatory, but added, “LAist did four times more than that last month, and I never really had anybody paid on staff…I don’t know what the word is after quadruple, but I’m going to have to learn it — unless you hire me.”
Three weeks later, the Times hired him. Pierce admits that even he was surprised to have landed the job.
“It shocked people when the LA Times hired me because often time I was the strongest voice criticizing them, but it was mostly criticizing them because I felt like they had an opportunity that they were missing,” he said. “They had the ear of all the movers and shakers out there, and I didn’t feel like they were using that in a way that they best could.”
Since signing on at the LA Times in late 2007, Pierce has helped increase traffic to all the paper’s blogs by five fold. The two most popular Times’ blogs, L.A. Now and The Dish Rag, have seen increases of 10 and 15 times over the last year, respectively.
Pierce said generating consistent blog content is the most important key to increasing the size of the readership. Shortly after Pierce started at the Times, Kareem Abul-Jabar began blogging there about once a day.
“Unfortunately when you do that,” Pierce explained, “the readers might not come to your blog every day. They might just come once a week to catch up, whereas a blogger who is blogging multiple times per day and who is kind of obsessed with his platform will see people returning to his blog several times a day.”
Despite its author’s celebrity, Abdul-Jabar’s blog did not do well because of the relatively few updates posted to it. Due to his work at LAist, Pierce is a proponent of using multiple bloggers to supply the content of a single blog.
“By far I believe that the group blog is the best way to blog,” he said. “And I say that as somebody who was a Technorati top 300 blogger as an individual blogger. My eyes opened up when I started working for LAist when I saw the power of a group blog.”
He observed that, in order to generate a greater number of posts and to pool more information, a group blog is preferable.
“Collectively they can tell a story far better than any individual writer,” Pierce said.
Pierce said that getting other prominent blogs to link to your blog is essential to gaining a following. He suggested emailing blog post links to competitors and to like-minded bloggers to direct them to what you’ve written.
“As a blogger, I loved knowing through my email inbox what was happening,” Pierce recalled. “That way, it was easier for me to put together my next blog post. I loved getting story ideas from other bloggers out there. I loved being outraged in my e-mail inbox.”
He also recommends writing headlines in ways that distinguish them from what already exists on the web so that Google searches will pick up on them. For example, when the Chris Brown/Rihanna scandal broke recently, the Times received numerous blog comments from readers who believed Brown to be innocent. Pierce aggregated these comments for a subsequent post “Readers Defend Chris Brown.” Simply having the word “defend” in the headline, in addition to “Chris Brown,” attracted even more readers to the post.
Pierce’s formula for blog success is simple: consistent content + links to the blog from other sources + SEO = increased page views. And, in his case, the formula also landed him a full-time job as an editor at the LA Times.
Stay tuned for part two of BeatBlogging.org’s interview with Tony Pierce and learn how to use blogging to take a trip to Aruba or buy a car.
It’s not often that a journalist gets to design his own job description, but, with the ever-evolving landscape of online media, some journalists are not only defining their own job descriptions but they are also redefining what it means to be a journalist.
Andrew Nystrom of The Los Angeles Times has assumed a new role — one which he essentially created based on the Times’s need for it. Nystrom’s title is now Senior Producer of Social and Emerging Media.
“It is a new role,” Nystrom said. “There’s never been anyone at the Times before who’s been dedicated to social media.”
As a result, Nystrom is spearheading projects that utilize the Internet’s unique capability to engage with the Times’ readers.
The most developed social media outlet at the Times is blogging. Nystrom says that most journalists at the Times are enthusiastic about the blogs.
“I think we have forty-something blogs right now, and there’s people constantly asking for more, and they want their own blog,” he said.
Nystrom observes that the solo blogger format is not always the most efficient.
“We’ve actually scaled back the number of blogs and gotten more of a group blog format by topic,” he said. “We find that works better in a lot of cases to keep more fresh updates and not have to have people feel the burden that they have to blog daily.”
The Times also uses Twitter to interact more directly with readers. Nystrom said the paper began using Twitter in 2007 as a way to provide quick updates from reporters in the field during the wildfires in Southern California. The Times now has over eighty Twitter feeds that are constantly customized to accommodate reader feedback.
For example the content of the sports feed reflects the Times’s acquired knowledge that, on the whole, Los Angeles readers “just want to hear about the Lakers and Dodgers and don’t really care about football.” The near-instant feedback that the Internet allows for readers has shaped the information that the Times offers.
The information delivery methods that readers use also affect the way the content is presented.
“I think with the convergence of all these social media…people online can sort of curate their own news feed and have that delivered how they want it,” he said.
He mentions tools like mobile applications, texting, daily digests, ticker feeds, RSS feeds and third-party desktop applications and explained: “News readers, if they’re comfortable with the technology, can customize how they get their news and what format they digest it in.” With readers able to filter the news for themselves, the Times must offer the information in a myriad of forms. Nystrom said his role is “to continually stay abreast of the technology, what readers want, and what reporters and editors want and to experiment with new news delivery systems.”
Sometimes, Nystrom must spread the gospel, so to speak, of the ways in which new media can assist reporters.
He said he has to evangelize and talk to people — particularly to journalists who have not yet realized the potential of tools like Facebook and Twitter to interact with readers and to gather reporting tips.
“Somebody would say, ‘well I’m already on Facebook, why do I also need to be doing text? Or, what use is Twitter,'” he said.
In such cases, Nystrom says his job is “to get social media tools into the hands of more reporters.” Additionally, he suggests that a journalist’s responsibility is not necessarily to function on the “bleeding edge” of technology, but rather to use already-existing technology to better cover ones beat.
One way in which the Times has employed social media technology already in existence is through the L.A. Mapping Project. The project is an interactive map, the goal of which is to clarify the boundary lines of neighborhoods in L.A. Beginning with information gathered during the 2000 census, the Times offered an online draft of proposed neighborhood boundaries and then opened the site up to readers for comments.
Readers can also re-draw boundary lines to create their own maps according to what they think is accurate. Through this project, Nystrom says, the Times is “creating a community and civic resource that will be ongoing.”
He adds,”but we could never do that before by just publishing a flat map in the paper.” Eventually, the map will be licensed under Creative Commons for non-commercial, share-alike purposes; it will be served in a KML format that works with Google Earth. Just as importantly, the map will be an internal resource for the Times so that the neighborhoods referenced in the newsroom are clearly delineated.
Nystrom believes that the integration of social media into newsroom enhances reporting; ultimately, however, the driving principles behind the practice of journalism are the same.
“We really want to give people the same information that we’ve given them since 1881 every day,” he said, “but in whatever format that’s going to get us the broadest audience and is convenient for them as well.”