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.
Jane Stevens predicts residents of at least one metropolitan area will wake up sometime with the next 12 months and realize that the daily newspaper that they received news from for years is no longer there.
In its place “mini-metros” will form where metros once reigned supreme, Stevens said. These mini-metros will be niche products run by a small team that focus on part of a metro area. These products will focus heavily on core local issues like schools, government, roads and health. Perhaps the biggest change from the metro model will be how these mini-metros will incorporate beat blogging as part of their core product.
They won’t just report on the community — they’ll be apart of it. Input and information from citizens will be vital to the success of these mini-metros. They’ll be built around a collaborative model.
For Stevens, Web journalism demands a greater degree of interactivity, and larger papers that fail to deliver this will fall to those that are more interactive, often being local and/or topic-based.
Stevens highlighted four elements that news organizations will need to be relevant in the future: creative storytelling, social networking, beat blogging and basic essential information, such as schedules, maps, and other need-to-know information, depending on the topic.
She cites the example of West Seattle Blog, a site run by former print journalists that welcomes contributions from readers and is ultralocal in its coverage. These blogs include “serial” reporting on certain issues: they’ll update every hour on a certain event as things go on. They can serve their communities well on local issues of schools, roads, health, local arts and public policy.
They can also serve their community’s small businesses by providing advertising space. As many of the larger papers have become corporatized and bought out, Stevens noted that small businesses have often gotten priced out of advertising space to larger corporations like Budweiser. Local blogs like West Seattle can give the little guys better attention.
Stevens has been covering computer innovations for decades, and she headed the San Francisco Examiner’s computers column when it first began in the early 1980s. Over the years, Stevens stayed up to speed with new media and she became dissatisfied with how news organizations used the Web.
“They just took everything that they had put in print and copied it onto the Web,” Stevens said. “It was shovelware.”
Stevens didn’t understand why news sites were creating separate sections for multimedia content. She believed then and now that all possible media — text, video, audio and more — should be weaved together as the story demands.
“With web journalism it’s all about the storytelling, not just the writing,” Stevens said.
She noted Luis Sinco’s “Marlboro Marine,” a commendable portrait of an Iraqi Marine veteran struggling with his demons online at mediastorm.org.
“You figure out the best medium or mediums for the story, and if your story’s good enough, they won’t even be conscious of the medium when they’re watching it,” Stevens said.
Interweaving media is one of many benefits Stevens sees in online journalism. On her site rejurno.com, she spreads a positive view of the future of journalism. She says the future belongs to “jurnos,” an Australian term for journalists that Stevens has appropriated for the future journalist.
“A jurno goes beyond the traditional I write-you read kind of journalist,” Stevens said. ” They’re part storyteller, part community manager, organizer, watchdog, fact-checker and mythbuster. They are really there to serve their community, whether it’s a topic-based or geographical community.”
This year, Stevens is working at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) in Missouri on two major projects: first, her team there has created the RJI Collaboratory Network, which Stevens describes as an “incubator” for start-up news organizations that want to use social networking and beat blogging technology. Second, her classes are constructing a health site for the city of Columbia, Missouri. Rather than just looking for trendy health stories, the site will examine the major public health risks in Columbia and investigate the residents’ biggest health concerns, using all the media and interactive technology at their disposal to make the site creative and relevant.
Stevens is optimistic about the future of journalism. She sees the Web as forcing us to be intimately involved with the people we serve, and that intimacy forces us to be public servants as much as creative artists.