USA Today’s Ben Mutzabaugh was presented with a conundrum several years ago: how to get people excited about a topic like air travel.
When Today in the Sky began in 2002, the editors meant it to be a light supplement to the paper’s travel section, with some helpful tips for flyers. As Mutzabaugh took charge, he had it easy in one way, because USA Today already had a known audience of travelers. USA Today is ubiquitous in every airport, train station and hotel in this country: travel is already on many of its readers’ minds.
“We knew we already had a critical mass in the brand,” Mutzabaugh said. “We just had to bring them to the online content.”
The challenge was giving the traveler audience something they didn’t already know. Mutzabaugh came up with an intriguing solution. He came from a background as a college sports editor, and he had a sense of what sports fans wanted to hear.
“I just took that same filter and applied it to air travel,” he said.
Imagining airlines as teams and passengers as fans, he then asked himself what an air travel fansite would cover. On the “team” side, he listed major rivalries between airlines, airline business rankings and regulations. Then on the fan side, the beat would include anything that affected their flying experience, such as rising costs, new regulations, new airlines, airports, routes and runways.
The concept worked, and six years later, Mutzabaugh has a passionate and eclectic readership composed of airline management, travel agents, frequent flyers and travel fans. He finds the readers discuss airlines with the same passion as sports fans, especially Southwest.
“Southwest is like the Dallas Cowboys of airlines,” he said. ‘People may love ‘em or hate ‘em, but everybody’s got something to say about them.”
Mutzabaugh says he tries to keep the content as varied as possible to match his audience’s interests.
“Blogs are a moving target,” he said. “The readers’ preferences changes day to day. In 2002, people getting bumped from flights was hot, but people got used to hearing about that. The trick is to keep your finger on what’s going on in their minds.”
He also makes a habit of flying regularly to keep up with what customers are experiencing. For Mutzabaugh, being a flyer himself is essential to covering his beat. He uses the experiences to gauge rumors and complaints about airlines.
“Given our name, I know that I could affect airline business if I publish something negative,” he said. “I have to be very careful not to lead readers to make decisions that are unwarranted.”
The blog allows readers many spaces to contribute besides the comments section. There’s a useful weekly series called SkyTips where Mutzabaugh solicits tips on a different theme each week, from how to kill time in airports, to writing airline complaint letters and dealing with rude passengers. He also runs a popular weekly game called Name That Airport, where readers try to identify a photo taken inside a terminal.
Then there are user-generated forums on topics such as “What Airlines Won’t You Fly, and Why” and “Worst passenger experiences,” which several flight attendants have used as a confessional for all their horror stories.
Every Wednesday Mutzabaugh also hosts a live Q&A on air travel. To say he gets a wide range of questions would be an understatement. Here are a few examples:
“What’s your opinion on the new Delta service starting in June from SLC to Midway on 737-800s?”
“My son works at AA maintenance base (MCI), and the rumor is that AA will be closing this base in the very near future. Do you know if this is true?”
“Frontier PR has put out releases regarding their 5th consecutive quarterly profit. In the latest quarter they claim an operating profit, but a huge loss due to bankruptcy related items. Isn’t that still a huge loss, however you spin it?”
“My daughter is flying to China…They return on Monday, May 18th to O’Hare at the international terminal at 6 p.m. She has a flight scheduled for 9:20 p.m. that evening to STL. Is it possible that she can clear customs in two hours to make her Flight on AA?”
“Before Five Guys opened a location in Pittsburgh, I often chose a connection in DCA over a direct flight just to get a burger and fries. Are there any airport eats for which you’d go out of your way?”
The amazing thing is that Mutzabaugh answers everything from the restaurants to the stocks and the security wait, right there and in-depth.
“I’ve always had this gift at remembering minute details, like who went to the college playoffs in 1971,” he said. “It comes in handy when you’re expected to be an expert.”
Today offers some of the most in-depth knowledge of air travel anywhere on the Web and much of the information is reader-contributed. Mutzabaugh and his colleagues have created a space where readers experienced in flying and the airline business are interacting and passionately debating their field. The news pieces meanwhile are rich in detail and incredibly varied, while all staying inside the air travel beat.
Today is one of three travel blogs at USAToday.com, along with a cruise blog and a hotel blog, each with a similar structure. Each blog is supported by both print travel reporters and online staff, working with the chief reporter.
While Today allows for a lot of reader contribution, it could use a bit more on its author. There are no links to Ben’s e-mail or even a profile of him on the site, although his name and face appear on the banner of every page. This is partially because his blog is one of the oldest on the site: newer blogs like USAToday.com’s hotel blog include such information.
Mutzabaugh says there are plans to upgrade the blog with more personal details, as part of a complete restructuring of USAToday.com’s blogs coming sometime in the future.
In a conference at Columbia’s journalism school this April, Stephen Adler, editor-in-chief of Business Week, was asked how he felt his magazine had fared in covering the financial crisis. His answer: “I’m very scared of Dean Starkman.”
Dean Starkman is editor of The Audit, a Columbia Journalism Review blog that covers and critiques the business press. It focuses on big outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Business Week, CNBC, Forbes and the other most-watched sources for business news. Starkman and his writers act as both media watchdogs and public advocates, scanning for inaccuracy and bias and calling the business media to answer first to the public, rather than Wall Street.
Starkman is a former Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, as is his colleague Ryan Chittum. Chittum writes the Audit’s daily content, critiquing business news on accuracy and detail. Starkman meanwhile focuses on long-form journalism about the business press.
The blog was started by Herbert Winokur, Jr., a former member of the Enron board of directors. Winokur wanted to make sure the media didn’t miss a future conspiracy like Enron, and he created the Audit to be an advocate for better business reporting.
Starkman was hired in 2007 to head the Audit, after having spent eight years at the Wall Street Journal as an investigative business reporter. From 1996 to 2004, he saw the Journal go through cuts that hurt their financial reporting. He wrote in a 2009 Mother Jones piece that the Journal’s reporters were hit with “low morale, lost expertise, and constant cutbacks..[which] do not produce an appetite for confrontation and muckraking.”
Yet Starkman saw issues that demanded confrontation. After leaving the journal, Starkman spent a year researching how the insurance industry responded to the claims of Hurricane Katrina victims. He found that $100,000 claims were sometimes getting back just cents of compensation from insurers, and regulators were turning a blind eye. Starkman was appalled, and he soon began to see the Katrina debacle along with predatory lenders as part of a growing corrosion of America’s financial services.
But he didn’t see the mainstream media covering this. Outlets like CNBC were focusing on stories easy to sell to Wall Street: deals and mergers and acquisitions. They were treating the audience as “investors rather than citizens,” Starkman said.
“M&As were sucking the oxygen out of the business press coverage, and I wanted to push back against that,” he added.
The Audit was the perfect vehicle to do that, a business press watchdog hosted by a respected non-profit read by journalists all around the country.
However, Starkman underestimated the need to feed the blog daily. As an investigative reporter, he wasn’t used to putting out daily posts. So he hired Ryan Chittum, a former colleague of his at the Journal, to be the daily blogger.
In his daily work, Chittum critiques business news reports in the outlets that he and Starkman think are the most read and watched, like the Journal, the New York Times, magazines like Fortune and CNBC. The writing mostly is a fact-check with occasional snark thrown in. In one piece, he slammed a WSJ op-ed as “one of the more disappointing pieces I’ve read in this crisis — and that’s saying something.”
Becoming a critic has been a challenge for Chittum, after years as a news reporter writing in a neutral voice. It’s also been awkward to write about the work of ex-colleagues.
“Some people in the business…get ticked that I don’t call them before writing something. But that’s not my job,” he said. “Does A.O. Scott [NY Times movie review] call up Wes Anderson to ask why the forty minutes of The Darjeeling Limited are ponderous and self-indulgent? No. He reviews as a moviegoer who happens to know a lot about the business. That’s how I think of what we do at the Audit, only we review business journalism.”
At the same time, Chittum says it’s not right to blame individual reporters for bad journalism.
“Many of the journalists I criticize are better reporters than I ever will be,” he said. “There’s a whole ecosystem responsible for how a story comes out.”
With editors, corporate bosses, advertisers, newsrooms and audiences all having an influence on the product, there’s plenty of ways good business reporting can go bad.
“It’s not about an individual’s shortcomings in a piece so much as it is about the institutions and what kind of sausage they’re squirting out,” Starkman said.
These days, Chittum writes two or three posts a week, and he’s established a rapport with his readers. With about 4-5 comments a story, he has time to e-mail them and often get helpful tips. Chittum says he appreciates every comment, whether harsh or approving.
“Every journalist can sometimes feel like they’re working in the middle of nowhere, especially in the field of criticism,” Starkman said. “Every love or hate letter helps you to know where you stand.”
Chittum says that dialogue is only possible because CJR readership is more select, which is exactly what they wanted.
“We never wanted it to get a million hits a day,” Chittum said. “We wanted to hit an influential readership.”
Chittum came to the business beat from an impoverished youth in Tulsa, OK, which offered him a unique perspective on the mortgage crisis in 2008. In Oct. 2008, he wrote a piece called “My Foreclosure” about his family’s experience of losing their home when he was a teenager.
“I’ll bet that very few, if any, business reporters working today at major media outlets have personally been through a foreclosure,” he wrote. “I’d go as far as to bet that, unfortunately, a surprisingly small number of working business reporters have even interviewed anyone going through a foreclosure. Sometimes I wonder if we had been in better touch with regular people outside our circles, we might have been more attuned to the perilous state of the American middle class and what the effects of the lending boom might be, and thus might have provided better warnings.”
“My Foreclosure” got Chittum the most responses of any piece he’s ever written for the Audit, and some of them were furious. One woman called Chittum an elitist, writing “Poor is a tarpaper shack and starvation, not renting.”
The Audit crew has also received criticism for ignoring blogs in its focus on mainstream business media. In a 2009 letter to Starkman, financial blogger Barry Ritholtz wrote that his blog, The Big Picture, along with Calculated Risk and Naked Capitalism were reporting the meltdown but were not getting heeded by the mainstream. He wrote to Starkman, “The story you missed was that the smart reporting and commentary was not being done by MSM [mainstream media], it was being done by others… Traditional reporting left a vacuum, one that was quickly filled.”
Starkman said he and Chittum would like to give more time for blogs, but besides lacking the resources, it’s also not their main concern.
“LA Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune, Business Week — for better or worse, they set the financial agenda for the country,” Starkman said. “They need to be reckoned with and by concentrating on them, we can have the most influence on the agenda.”
March 2009 brought the Audit its highest audience ever, with 73,000 page views. Starkman hopes to add more original reports and an archive of business articles from over the last few years, for students and others who might want to investigate the origins of the financial crisis. In that spirit, Starkman is working on a review of financial journalism from 2000 to 2007 that Columbia Journalism Review will publish later this year.
Beatblogging is all about niche. It thrives on a specific focus. For many beatbloggers, it’s the un-tapped niche that garners them attention and lures readers. It’s the “crime on second avenue” beat that gets noticed by worried locals and the “death of print” beat that gets noticed by worried journalists.
But what happens when your beat is too popular?
For Sascha Segan, PC Magazine’s mobile phone expert, that’s both the problem and the solution. Segan writes for the gadget beat on PCMag’s blog, Gearlog, “A Gadget Guide By Geeks, For Geeks.” Yet, it’s a niche topic that is covered by high-traffic blogs like Gizmodo, Engadget and LifeHacker.
“It’s absolutely very competitive,” Segan said. “We have our strengths , which is that Gearlog has grown out of a larger, more traditional organization — PC Magazine.”
According to Segan, it’s important that Gearlog be able to draw out all the resources of PCMag and have more of an establishment perspective than the other tech/gadget blogs. “We try to give a different spin and history behind our stories,” he explained.
What Segan likes about his job is that he gets to create original material, rather than just aggregation work or linking to other blogs.
“There are some areas where I do a lot more research and in-depth reporting than Gizmodo,” he said. “I do a lot more reviews than them, while they cover a lot of news events.”
For instance, Segan recently broke the story on the Al Gore’s barring of “press coverage” at the CTIA Wireless mobile phone industry trade show.
“If Gore thinks that he’s going to somehow stop 4,000 mobile technology experts, all carrying smart phones, from blogging, tweeting and even recording his speech, he has a 19th-century idea of how information flows,” wrote Segan on Gearlog.
Other examples of Segan’s work include step-by-step notes on testing the iPhone for the first time (a great list of features, capabilities, as well as limits and let-downs), personally testing the Verizon G’zOne phone underwater, and live metablogging the Apple WWDC Announcement last summer. Or what about when Segan discovered a mysterious, password-protected page on Palmwc2009.com that ended up being a mistake on Palm’s part (The company intended only to let Palm employees see the site, not the public)? Segan’s articles are usually popular and ranked high on TechMeme.
But in the end — sites like Gizmodo and Engadget get all the traffic, so why not go write for them?
“I like everything about working for PCMag,” says Segan. “There’s a different mood here. We’re not quite as moment to moment as other blogs. Because we come from a magazine perspective, you can sit down and work on a story or review for a couple of days. You can be more focused on getting things neat, accurate and 100% correct in a very traditional journalism type of way.”
Segan added although some of the mainstream gadget blogs used to produce more second-hand news, many of them now do a lot of first-hand reporting and good journalism, especially Engadget (in his opinion).
In the end, Segan has found that the blogging world has a kinship-type structure that allows equal space for little and big dogs alike.
“There is some sort of respect on people that people who break stories,” he said. “They link to you, you link to them back.”
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.
Last year, in a sad twist of fate, readers finally learned the identity of a well-respected blogger who had spurned all interviews. Known simply by her childhood nickname “Tanta,” Doris Dungey, 47, was a blogger for the finance and economics blog, Calculated Risk and whose death ignited a hailstorm of blog posts.
When she succumbed to ovarian cancer in Nov. 2008, the The New York Times and The Washington Post both published obituaries honoring her work as a blogger. Through obituaries, blog posts and readers’ comments, a portrait of Tanta has taken shape, cementing her legacy as an exceptional mortgage expert and blogger.
Readers were able to put a face to Tanta’s words when her family allowed her photos to be posted on news publications. A pretty blonde with blue eyes, Tanta did not let readers identify her by her looks; instead they knew her through her knowledgeable and often acerbic analyses of the mortgage industry.
“She was a rare voice,” noted Noah Rosenblatt, vice president of Halstead Properties and the publisher of UrbanDigs.com. “Tanta discussed the inner workings of the mortgage market and the dangers that were lurking behind the scenes that no other analyst, economist or CEO would dare to discuss openly.”
Much of Tanta’s knowledge of the mortgage industry came from her experiences working as a mortgage banker for twenty years. Although she was merciless in criticizing the errors of financial experts and journalists alike, she did so under a pseudonym since she hoped one day to return to work for the mortgage industry, the Times reported.
Since her first CR blog post, back in 2006, Tanta was one of the few people who had sounded an alarm on the growing dangers behind the lending industry. In her post she criticized a report from Citigroup that predicted the mortgage industry would “rationalize” by 2007 as a warning that larger issues were looming.
“I bring all this up not just to stick it to Citicorp, but because we’ve all been asking the question lately of who will be the bagholder when the exotic/subprime mortgage problem finds a home,” wrote Dungey.
Tanta had many fans, including Federal Reserve analysts, who cited one of her posts, “Mortgage Servicing for Ubernerds,” in their report, “Understanding the Securitization of Subprime Mortgage Credit” and Paul Krugman, a Times columnist who included her quotes in his blog.
Alex Blumberg, a contributing editor for NPR’s Planet Money and a producer for the public radio program This American Life, credits Tanta for helping him understand the mortgage industry.
Blumberg and NPR’s international business and economics correspondent, Alex Davidson produced “The Giant Pool of Money,” a widely-acclaimed episode on This American Life which gave a clear explanation of the housing crisis and the factors that led to it. The episode won numerous awards, including the venerable Peabody Award.
“I didn’t know anything about mortgages or what underwriting was,” explained Blumberg. “Tanta wrote this thing called ‘The Compleat Ubernerd’ (Thirteen posts that explain the mechanisms behind mortgages) which was great for getting up to speed.”
Although Blumberg did not receive a response from Tanta when he tried to contact her, she later congratulated him after the episode aired.
“She sent me an email saying ‘good job,’ which made me really happy,” recalled Blumberg. “When I heard she had passed away, I was much sadder than I thought I would be for someone I had never spoken to and didn’t know at all. Even though she was an anonymous blogger writing under a pseudonym, there was an authenticity to what she wrote that was different.”
Not everything about Tanta was business, however. Hints about her personal taste and preferences occasionally appeared in her posts, which attentive readers eagerly picked up as clues to Tanta’s personality. In a memoriam page dedicated to Tanta created by Bill McBride, the owner of Calculated Risk, an anonymous commenter wrote:
And really, if she had a blind spot, it was she had no idea of the tremendous impact she had on her readers. Any casual mention of her likes and dislikes was seared into my memory, Van Morrison? Check. Jackson Browne? Check. ABBA? Check. ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?’ Check. Marianne Moore? Check. Ann Taylor Stores? Ha! For someone who engaged in as many and extended wide-ranging conversations with us all as she did, how could we not know her?
Other admirers have paid tribute to Dungey’s work by contributing donations on her behalf to various charities and a scholarship fund at her alma mater, Illinois State University. Dungey received a bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy from ISU and a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Doris Dungey Endowed Scholarship Fund was created for ISU students with financial needs who are interested in journalism and was fully endowed within 60 days for $26,000. In addition, a bench was dedicated to Tanta and placed by the Milner Library where she often liked to read.
Usually bloggers who stop writing fade into obscurity. It is unlikely that Tanta’s reputation as a knowledgeable and well-respected blogger will follow the same fate anytime soon. In response to Krugman’s announcement that Tanta had passed away, a commenter named Paula wrote:
I discovered Tanta’s work for the CR blog last night when I was directed to it by reading her obit in the Times. I’m finding her ‘UberNerd’ series of writings on mortgage securities enormously valuable this morning. I can therefore attest that Tanta’s legacy will remain vibrant and essential even to those of us who only just met her ideas.
Photo: Courtesy of family
Rachel Sterne interned at the State Department shortly after graduating from NYU in 2005, watched Kofi Annan plead with the Security Council to stop the madness in Darfur, and saw nothing happening. The classic next move in a situation like that would’ve probably involved buying a supportive “Save Darfur” t-shirt and turning genocide into her go-to talking point for dinner parties.
But Sterne wasn’t having that. Instead, she set up GroundReport.com, an open source global news site that shares revenue with its far-flung network of 4,000 citizen reporters. Called “the Wikipedia of news,” its goal is to democratize the media by making original, intelligent reporting possible for amateurs and professionals alike. More importantly though, the site produces international news at a fraction of the cost of the mainstream media by relying on locals for hyperlocal coverage.
While the financial benefits of this system are clear, Sterne maintains that the coverage you get from people who are living the stories they’re reporting is just as important.
“Everyone who’s reporting is experiencing these things first hand,” said Sterne, bent over her laptop at the WeMedia Game Changers conference. She showed some streaming video from the conference through GroundReport and elaborated on her belief that first-hand coverage from the people most affected is the way to go.
“You get the sort of perspective that a reporter from the states can’t really get,” she said.
And Sterne counts on this close up view to create public pressure around events like the genocide in Darfur. This is not to say that GroundReport is a hub for tales of martyrdom and whining about how hard life is in places where machetes are tools of government. By sticking to an objective, 450ish-word format that Sterne compares to that of The Associated Press, the site’s reporters strive to make their very personal coverage professional, as well.
“Whenever I look at global news Web sites, they tend to suck,” said Charlie Beckett, director of POLIS and author of “Super Media: Saving Journalism So It Can Save the World.”
Plagued by problems of lack of feedback and disorganization, international reporting sites can easily turn into disjointed messes requiring the sort of navigation that few readers are looking to participate in.
“I don’t want to go to GroundReport and spend half an hour digging around for something that’s interesting,” Beckett said. “I don’t have time for that.”
Fortunately for Beckett, he doesn’t have to. The front page of GroundReport is populated with the highest rated posts, as are all the site’s topic-specific pages.
“We have an active Wikipedia-style editorial team that can revise any content on the site and a rating system that determines what goes on the front page and in our RSS feed,” said Sterne when asked about the organization of the site.
While this does result in a scattered front page — stories like “5-Wheeled Car Slides Sideways for Parking” situated right below “Sri Lanka Announces Truce to Save Civilian Lives”— it also provides a departure from the chronology-based blog style that leaves readers like Beckett itching to get out.
Like most start up ventures though, GroundReport’s growth is hindered by a lack of capital. The site launched in 2007 with seed money from Sterne’s own savings and family contributions. Since then, cash prizes like those GroundReport won at the German “Open Source Meets Business” conference, content partnerships and advertising have helped defray the costs.
At this point, the site is paying for itself, something few global start ups can claim. The money being generated is enough to continue and subsist, but not enough grow to the extent that Sterne would like.
“The logo is probably the only thing I’m happy about right now,” she said of the amateurish appearance of the site. But until GroundReport sees an infusion of capital, the visual mock up of a more professional looking site will remain nothing more than a mock up.
But half the beauty of Internet-based projects lies in the unprecedented low overhead, which allows GroundReport to continue operating and testing its methods even without any major investments. And the aspect of the site most often questioned — its complete reliance on untrained citizen journalists and volunteer editors — is also its saving grace as far as money is concerned. The site shares ad revenue based on the quality and popularity of contributors’ articles, which spurs better contributions but also puts a natural cap on the amount that the site will have to pay for each specific act of journalism.
On GroundReport, writers succeed only when the website as a whole does. And while sums like $52.59 for 33 postings look paltry to Americans, they don’t seem so puny to contributors like Kenyan Fred Obera. “I’m not in it for the money, but it does make life better for a poor journalist like me,” he said.
Sterne added, “It’s enough to make participating worthwhile for some of our contributors in developing countries.”
It’s also a major factor in differentiating GroundReport from other citizen journalism and global reporting sites. The former rarely pay their contributors and the latter have higher overhead costs because they’re employing professional correspondents.
Chief among such sites is Boston-based GlobalPost.com, which employs professional journalists living around the world at a base rate of $1000 for four posts a month. Charles Sennott, Global Post’s Executive Editor and VP, is a fan of GroundReport but notes that, “our journalists, from what I could gauge, are considerably of a different realm.”
Offering contributors some amount of money for the posts does provide some incentive for good reporting, but it also keeps the site from reaching a level of quality necessary to compete with Global Post and the big boys of Internet-based foreign reporting. GroundReport can’t switch to the Global Post model, which generally means employing journalists living in foreign countries, without undermining its entire strategy of relying on hyperlocal coverage from the locals.
But I wonder if this very strategy will keep them from ever developing the audience they’ll need to expand.
Photo: Screen shot from CNN.com
Alexander Russo is not a journalist by trade and doesn’t work for a traditional news organization.
He’s just runs two independent blogs. So, forgive him if he seems to break some of the conventions of journalism. He does things the way he does because that’s what he thinks his readers want, not what he learned in j-school years ago.
He originally had a national blog, This Week in Education, that he began using to report on Chicago school news. Eventually he realized, however, that national readers didn’t care about Chicago school issues and Chicago readers didn’t care about national issues. The most logical solution was to split the blog in two.
Thus, District 299 was born. Like many bloggers, Russo started the blog because there was a niche to be filled. Specifically, he thought coverage and conversation about the Chicago Public Schools was sorely lacking.
“I was in in Chicago, and I thought the Chicago schools were an interesting, if dysfunctional world, that wasn’t getting much attention,” he said. “Basically, I was trying to create a place to track what was going on in CPS — Chicago Public Schools — and other people who were in the system or who were curious about the system could add their two cents or share what was going on their school.”
Neither blog is independent anymore. Russo’s District 299 blog was brought under the umbrella of Catalyst-Chicago, which is dedicated to school reform. This Week in Education is now sponsored by Scholastic.
Russo is also a Spencer Fellow at Columbia University, studying education reporting. He understands his beat better than most journalists, because, in many ways, he is an expert on education. Russo has crafted a popular meeting place — a virtual water cooler — where people come to discuss issues.
Russo doesn’t say District 299 is his blog where he owns the conversation or that he is the No. 1 source for news on the Chicago school district. Rather, he says his blog is “hosted by journalist Alexander Russo, District 299: The Chicago Schools Blog is a 24/7 gathering place for Chicago education news, official and otherwise.”
The concept of his blog centers around him as a host for conversation and ideas. He puts ideas out there and lets others run with them.
“I feel like the gym teacher from back in the day whose idea of gym class was to roll out the basketballs and let people play,” he said. “I feel like I provide the space, I provide some of the equipment or the content and I sit and read the newspapers and look up when someone starts crying or asking for my attention.”
He said he has learned as much, if not more, about Chicago Public Schools from his blog than he did when he covered the schools as a freelance journalist, because now he has people within the district regularly sharing their thoughts and knowledge.
“There are so many people out there with so many interesting, first-hand experiences,” he said. “They don’t want to run a blog; they don’t have the time; they are leading their lives but they want to say, ‘here is what happened today at school.’ I love reading that stuff.”
The vast majority of what is on the District 299 blog is not what Russo’s thinks or knows, he said. It’s about what other people think and know. That’s the concept of “hosted by.”
“The blog is very much focused outwards, towards readers,” he said. “It’s not all about Alexander. It’s not all about much of my opinions. I’m just trying to create this nice, convenient place for people to vent or share their thoughts or break news.”
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.
“I’m about as newbie as you get,” he admitted when asked about previous blogging experience. He’s so new, in fact, that he spent the better part of this morning in Twitter and Facebook training, learning how to use social networks for online journalism.
You see, that’s the thing about The Local, it’s unapologetically experimental. Its two pilot blogs — Newman’s in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene/Clinton Hill area and a second for Maplewood, Millburn and South Orange New Jersey— were born of “financial desperation,” Newman said.
They are part of The Times’ “endless search for any way to get into some enterprise that could conceivably make money.” And while this doesn’t exactly encourage trust that they know what they’re doing, it is a promising sign about the direction of the Times as a whole. After decades of God-like distance from the subjects of their reporting, the company has finally decided to gets its hands dirty in this new and very much unknown venture.
Where traditional Times credo puts professional journalists at an arm’s distance, The Local throws professionals (Newman) and amateurs (college interns and community bloggers) right into the neighborhood, albeit a bit haphazardly at this point. Internet newbie though he may be, Newman embodies this new, hands on approach. The very concept of “covering” a community is “old school,” he said. That type of distance between the subject and object won’t exist on The Local.
“Before we even launched, I spent most of the last couple months calling people in the area, having meetings, walking around and talking to people, getting them to want to contribute,” Newman said.
Plus, there’s the .nytimes.com in the URL, “which means something to some people.” As far as current inflow of content is concerned though, he acknowledges that they “don’t quite have the hang of it yet.” Content is flowing in, but the quality and consistency varies.
This week brought with it a successful community-driven back and forth between the Fort Greene Park Conservancy, readers and the Parks Commission. The Park Conservancy’s Web master submitted a post about banning grass-ruining soccer players from the park, readers commented copiously and a follow up from the Parks Department this morning essentially said we don’t care about the soccer players, let them be.
“There’s enough of an audience that’s hungry for this stuff that they’ll read both,’ he said.
As for competing with the Clinton Hill Blog and The Real Fort Greene, The Local is counting on its consistent posting and full-time commitment as opposed to spare-time commitment to differentiate itself.
All in all, the pursuit is admirable, the timing only a little bit late and the enthusiasm level promising. Now if only they could figure out that damn Twitter device…