This post sponsored by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
At most news organizations, sports and entertainment blogs rule the roost, but at The Sacramento Bee, Jon Ortiz has been able to take a blog about state workers and their issues to the top.
After spending several months at the top, Orti’z beatblog The State Worker, is currently the third most popular blog at the Bee. With football season ramping back up, the Bee’s 49ers blog rose to number one. The Bee’s crime blog rose to number two on the strength of a permanent link from Yahoo!
It’s impressive and rare to see a serious blog like The State Worker consistently one of the top blogs at a major metro newspaper in terms of page views and unique visitors. Ortiz said the 16-month-old blog has resonated with users because engaging users has become a cornerstone of how Ortiz approaches his job.
Many journalists have started blogging, with varying degrees of success. Many of these journalists are approaching blogging like writing newspaper stories. Ortiz said this approach won’t yield much success.
“I think there is a whole generation of journalists struggling with that,” he said. “They want blogs to be moment-to-moment versions of print, and they’re just not.”
Other journalists have taken to adding opinions to their blog posts and writing in a more informal style. But that’s not the key to being a good blogger either. Good blogging is about building community, and engaging users is one of the best ways to do that.
Ortiz said any good blogger has to make himself read his users comments. In the comments, bloggers can find tips, corrections, story ideas and more, all of which can make a journalists job much easier. Ortiz has a regular feature dubbed “blog backs,” where he takes corrections, suggestions and criticims from users and posts them.
“You just really get into the mind of your most arudent users,” Ortiz said about reading comments. “The percentage of commenters to users is less than one percent. Commenters are probably your most passionate users — often the most knowledgeable.”
Ortiz said reading and responding to commenters is a great way to tap into the expertise of your most knowledgeable readers. These most knowledgeable users are the ones who can become future sources for stories and are the people who are pushing bloggers to become better. Ortiz also finds future sources through e-mail and said that responding to user e-mail is an important way to build a blog.
Ortiz has found that people who e-mail him, rather than post comments on his blog, are more likely to use their real names and be willing to go on the record for stories and blog posts (Ortiz writes for both print and the Web). If Ortiz ignored e-mails, he would have lost out on a lot of valuable, on the record sources.
But Ortiz takes e-mails a step further. He often gets thoughtful comments and stories of how new government policies are affecting state workers from users that he shares with his readers. Ortiz said these blog posts that originate as e-mails from users are some of his most popular posts.
Originally Ortiz would ask users if he could use their e-mails on his blog, but now many people e-mail him asking if he’ll consider posting their e-mails. Many of these e-mails share personal stories that help add a lot of color to Ortiz’s blog. This blog post, for instance, contains two e-mails from state workers discussing how furloughs have impacted their lives and abilities to pay their bills.
Users are now even CCing Ortiz on e-mails they send to politicians and government offices. Not only do these e-mails tell stories that Ortiz may not have been able to get otherwise, but they also provide a lot of traffic to his blog without a lot of work. All Ortiz had to do was engage his users, and they began responding back.
Between Ortiz’s beatblog, column and print stories, he reaches quite a few state workers in California. He estimates his beatblog alone reaches a third of state workers. With all those knowledgeable readers, Ortiz would be a fool to ignore their expertise.
“It’s me and nearly half of a million of them,” he said. “I would be a fool to think that I could ever surpass the knowledge of that collective audience. It’s just not going to happen. I can either embrace that realization and try to leverage my points of contact or I can just try to continue telling people what they generally already know, that’s not very helpful.”
If Ortiz’s users are so knowledgeable, why do they even need him or his blog? Because The State Worker has such a big reach with state workers, Ortiz can get the governor and government to answer questions, whereas most of Ortiz’s readers can’t. And because Ortiz gets those answers, he has built a very loyal following.
When Ortiz pitched the idea for this blog to editors, he said he wanted to change how the Bee covered state workers. Instead of just writing down what the governor said at a press conference or doing a write up of a new law or policy, Ortiz would report on new laws, for instance, while also sharing the stories of how these laws and polices affect state workers. The only way to really do that well was to actively engage with state workers, and that’s what Ortiz has done.
Unique visitors can be very misleading, especially since so many Web users are drive by users that stop by to view one Web page, before quickly going elsewhere.
What’s more important is how we engage with our users. Drive by users aren’t worth nearly as much to advertisers (or to content producers) as dedicated users. Try this statistic on for good measure:
Which one of those users is more valuable? Obviously, Facebook users are much more dedicated users than NYTimes.com users. Facebook is also getting less drive by users, and drive by users aren’t that valuable. NYTimes.com is one of the better journalism sites out there, and it does fairly well — as far as news sites are concerned — with time spent per user per month.
But news sites — and most Web sites — can learn a lot from leading social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Facebook is continually adding more features to make Facebook sticker: chat, applications (popular games like Farmville are making the site very sticky), the news feed, etc. In fact, time spent on Facebook has soared 699 percent since April 2008.
News organizations need to figure out how to grok what leading social networks are doing, because news Web sites need to get stickier. Clearly, people want to be social. News organizations need to embrace being social and start engaging their users better. News has to become a conversation.
Getting more users is good, but getting more engagement out of each user is better.