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.”