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.
Jon Ortiz’s The State Worker blog is proving that serious news can get serious pageviews.
It’s not sports, nor gossip, nor opinion garnering the most pageviews at The Sacramento Bee, but the rather it’s Ortiz’s excellent beatblog on state workers in California. Ortiz picked the perfect time to start the blog — right as the budget impasse in California was beginning a year ago — and has provided incredible coverage ever since. The budget still isn’t fixed in California, workers have faced furloughs, IOUs are being issued instead of payment and, in general, the state is in upheveal.
Ortiz picked the perfect time to provide his unique brand of dogged coverage and community building and engagement. His blog is a great source for original news, curation and a strong community of state workers. Ortiz estimates that the blog is reaching one-third to half of all state workers in California.
Ortiz is showing that people are interested in serious news on the Web, especially if it A) impacts their lives, B) is timely and C) provides a great community.
Below you’ll find the top five blogs at the SacBee. Each had at least 250,000 pageviews last month, with The State Worker more than doubling that:
- The State Worker
- Sacto 9-1-1 (has a link on Yahoo! news)
- The Frame (a photo blog that The Bee is aggressively marketing)
- Capitol Alert (The State Worker’s sister political insider blog)
- 49ers Blog Q&A
Also keep in mind that The State Worker is a little more than a year old. It didn’t take long for this blog to really take off.
This article isn’t meant to be groundbreaking. In fact, its simplicity may annoy you. And yet, so many beatbloggers could benefit from the following words of advice.
Please, please, please be transparent.
A successful beatblog requires a way through which readers can contact the author. It sounds dumb to be even mentioning this to a group of professional journalists who “know this already,” but I can’t tell you how frustrating it has been to try to contact some beat bloggers.
A beatblog has to be sure to keep an open dialogue with readers. It’s the nature of the beast. Today, the blogs that interact most with their audience are the ones that become both economically viable, and help the author/s of the blog stay engaged and interested.
There are a lot of examples of blogs that follow the dialogue norms, but a problem arises time and time again. While commenting may be straight forward for the average user, sometimes private messages are important for all sorts of reasons. Many blogs do not have a straight forward way for people to email or message them privately.
Take for example Glenn Greenwald. An avid blogger and journalist for Salon.com, Glenn is world renowned for writing some of the most in-depth political articles out of there. When Glenn writes a post, if you blink, the post might be updated two or three or four times after the comments that readers leave, whether it be a typo or some news Glenn may have overlooked. But his Web site doesn’t make it straightforward on how to contact Glenn privately. Where’s his e-mail? In small text half way down the page.
Take a look at SciGuy, Eric Berger. He runs a fantastic science blog over at the Houston Chronicle. But scroll through the Web site or Google his name and I can assure it won’t be easy to find his e-mail. Same goes for Gene Sloan, Cruise beatblogger at USA Today.
Even Monica Guzman over at the Seattle PI doesn’t make it entirely straight-forward for readers to follow The Big Blog, with contact info buried between articles and cluttered content.
On the other hand, Brian Krebs, author of Security Fix at The Washington Post clearly posts his contact information at the top of his blog. Likewise, St. Petersburg Times’ Bay Buzz does a good job of stating what the blog is about and how to get in contact with Times editor, Heather Urquides.
I could go on and on.
You get the idea: There has to be a move to promote a private dialogue as much as a public one. And if you have a Twitter account that you use for work, make it prominent on your beatblog. It’s another easy way for people to interact with journalism.
If you’re a beatblogger and you’re not publicly allowing your readers — your audience — to get a hold of you, you’re missing out. Big time.
Beatbloggers, it’s time you start focusing as much on transparency as you do on content.
Jon Ortiz’s beatblog, The State Worker, and his users helped force Gov. Schwarzenegger’s hand in making a furlough policy change.
State workers in California have to take two furlough days each month as part of an effort to save money. The governor’s office occilated between two different furlough policies and was unable to come to a decision. One policy had two Fridays of every month being furlough days, which would have forced the closing of state agencies on those days.
The other policy was self-directed furloughs that gave individual departments leeway over when to have furloughs. The lack of a concrete plan caused Ortiz to write a column that said the whole situation was a mess and that state workers deserved better:
The state’s furlough message has switched from shutting down again on March 20 to going with “self-directed” furloughs after Friday that would let state workers pick their days off with management’s OK. Offices could stay open under the second plan.
So which is it?
The shifting messages have ticked off state workers already dealing with a 10 percent furlough pay cut.
“But they don’t care about our lives or about the work we do,” state worker Stacy Garrett said in an e-mail.
The furlough message mess makes it hard to argue otherwise.
The same day the column was published, the governor’s office finally settled the furlough situation, after being prodded by The State Worker beatblog and its users. The really cool part of this story is how Ortiz’s users helped him to cover this situation. They fed him copies of departmental memos that had conflicting information and they pointed him to other discrepancies that were coming out of the governor’s office.
Ortiz took this information and fact checked it to make sure it was accurate. He said he had “hundreds of agents” helping him uncover information. Ortiz is able to get this kind of help because his beatblog is surrounded by a network of knowledgeable users, many of which work for the state of California.
“I had this network of user reporters, pointing out to me things I would have never known had they not be feeding me information,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz said the ability of his users to give him concrete examples of how the governor’s office was sending mixed signals about the furlough policy changed the quality of his reporting.
“You can tell people things or you can show people thing,” he said. “The users were allowing me to show very concrete examples of how this was out of control.”
This week’s Leaderboard is all about two-way communication by interacting with users.
The best beat bloggers have established networks around their beats with knowledgeable sources and users. Many of these users add significant value to the beat blogs they comment on. They link to additional resources and Web site, cite studies, forward the debate along and fact check a beat blogger’s work.
Beat bloggers may not always agree with these users, but they can’t imagine their blogs without them either. Beat blogs that are surrounded by an active and knowledgeable community offer so much more for people. These blogs feature great content from beat bloggers and from users.
Eric Berger | The Houston Chronicle
- Look at how Berger interacts with his users in the comments after his posts. They go back and forth, help each other out, publish links and more. Berger published the results of a new study that says that being overweight is as bad for a person as smoking. Berger’s users had much to point out and questioned whether the study is that definitive (Berger hinted that he was skeptical too).
- Berger’s users brought up several strong points: This study only looked at young males. Many suggested that it would be difficult to apply these findings to women, and they provided sources and links backing up their thoughts. Also, Berger’s users pointed out that there is a difference between becoming overweight/obese later in life than being overweight/obese from a young age.
- All of this back forth made for a lively discussion and the real value of this post become apparent after his users had a chance to weigh in. All Berger did was provide a succinct summary of the study and his users ran with it.
- Berger’s post was interesting, but the comments really take this to a new level. Plus, Berger’s users helped correct some mistakes in his original post.
Brian Krebs | The Washington Post
- Yet again, Krebs is providing a public service to his users. This post didn’t take long to write, but it will certainly help keep his users safer. For a beat like computer security, it’s important to give users real value. Krebs does that every week by helping his users navigate the rough waters of computer security.
- In this post, Krebs is explaining what to do if users receive unsolicited IM messages on GMAIL from “ViddyHo.” This is a phishing scam aimed at gaining access to GMAIL users’ credentials.
- Krebs also explains why this phishing attack can be particular bad for people; GMAIL accounts often use the same logins as valuable Google Adsense and Google Checkout accounts. Access to either of those could leave a person financial vulnerable.
- What makes this post truly Leaderboard worthy is how his users fill in additional information about the phishing attack and the ways that it can harm users.
Jon Ortiz | The Sacramento Bee
- This is just an all-around great example of beat blogging. State workers have been greatly affected during the financial crisis, and the financial crisis’s affect on state workers been a big part of Ortiz’s blog — The State Worker — the past few months. In California and other states, one of the major ways politicians have proposed covering huge budget shortfalls is by furloughing state workers, cutting their pay and benefits and even laying them off.
- Ortiz found issues affecting state workers in other states and linked to stories and blog posts highlighting how the financial crisis is affecting those state workers. He also wanted his users to check out the comments that state workers were leaving, because they mirrored the comments that Ortiz had been getting for months on his blog.
- This post is, at its heart, link journalism. It’s just very focused link journalism. The idea of finding a specific topic that is more niche than the beat itself and finding interesting links is an idea that more beat bloggers should explore. This bit of link of journalism got Ortiz’s users talking.
We thought we’d end this year with some of this year’s pace setters in the world of beat blogging.
These are some of best beat bloggers out there, and these people are constantly trying new ways to innovate. We do try to present a diversity of beat reporters on this blog, but on any given week, any one of these beat bloggers could be on the Leaderboard. Every week they are pushing the practice.
If you’re a journalist and you want to learn how to harness social media and other Web tools better, I strongly recommend you follow these beat bloggers every week.
DISD blog | The Dallas Morning News
- This award goes to both Kent Fischer and Tawnell Hobbs. They have produced one of the best beat blogs around.
- Who said that people don’t want to read about topics like education? The DISD blog is on track for more than 1,500,000 page views in its first year. That easily surpassed expectations. Just think of the page views that this blog could get if Fischer is able to build that blog on steroids that he is planning.
- Keep in mind that both Fischer and Hobbs also write for the print edition. This is a pretty impressive start for these two reporters, especially since their beat isn’t the easiest to get page views with.
- Perhaps the greatest success of the DISD blog is how active the community is around it. It has really spurred conversation and given people almost a public town hall where they can discuss the Dallas school district.
- You know how you surpass expectations? You provide in-depth coverage, including live blogging big events. You also provide a fantastic place for people to express themselves. And finally, you provide a community where people want to help you out.
- When you do that, your community can help you uncover big stories. They can also act as a truth squad by fact checking what public figures say.
- People will be more likely to be active in your community if you acknowledge when they write something smart. That’s why Fischer started hoisting comments.
Eric Berger | The Houston Chronicle
- The SciGuy is one of the most innovative beat reporters around. Some of the things he does aren’t exactly social media or Web related per se, but they rock nonetheless. He is the master at building a community.
- No, technically conducting random drawings for science books does not count as beat blogging, but it is one hell of a way to build a community and build user loyalty.
- Berger is sent many science books over the course of a year for review purposes. He thought it would be a good idea to conduct a random drawing for the five best books he received this year.
- Want to enter the drawing? All you have to do is leave a comment on his post about the book. So, not only is Berger finding a good way to recycle these books, but he also managed to get people talking about science topics. Check out all the wonderful comments left on that post.
- Plus, these posts might be a way to get people who have never commented before to start commenting. Why not do something like this?
- Berger does other innovative things, like asking his readers to be his assignment editor.
- Berger also understands that his users know more than he does.
Monica Guzman | Seattle Post-Intelligencer
- Want to know how to get a conversation started? Just follow what Guzman does. Her job is centered around getting people talking.
- One of Guzman’s core jobs is to analyze posts to cultivate conservations. She reads what her colleagues write and tries to find interesting jumping off points for discussion.
- For Guzman, cultivating conversations is a great way to build a community. Ultimately, building a community is at the core of beat blogging.
- We often call beat blogging a sort of Rolodex 2.0. It greatly expands the number of available sources that a beat reporter has access to. But the only way to meaningfully expand that network of sources is to cultivate a community.
- Guzman is also one of the most active beat bloggers on Twitter.
Jon Ortiz | The Sacramento Bee
- Ortiz has only been beat blogging for about six months, but he has easily been one of the most innovative and adventurous around. Perhaps because he is new to blogging he is more willing to take risks and try new things.
- Whatever the reason, The State Worker blog is a most follow. He has developed several distinct features that help break up the flow of his blog.
- His “Blog back” feature is something every beat blogger should copy.
- Ortiz has launched another new feature recently. This one he calls “From the notebook.” This feature is extra tidbits of information that don’t make it into columns or stories that Ortiz writes.
- This is another one of those features that Ortiz created that doesn’t take a lot of time, but it provides his users with something of value.
- Ortiz launched his blog early so he could cover the budget crisis in California as it broke. It turned out to be a momentous decision for Ortiz. Timing can have a big impact on the success of a blog.
It’s similar to hoisting comments, but it’s more in depth than that. Both features are ultimately about community building and help foment better and more sensible comments from users.
Blog backs are a combination of hoisting strong comments from users, and of clarifying of points of fact that people didn’t understand in posts from bloggers.
“People really need some amplification on points that we were making in the blog,” Ortiz said about starting the feature. “We also have some people who put some time and effort into their comments and we want to recognize those.”
This new feature doesn’t take long to create. His first week it took him about two hours, but he has streamlined the process since then. In his third week he was able to put this feature together in 20 minutes.
“Instead of waiting until the end of the week to review the comments and the blog entries, as the week went along I took would take note of comments that I thought were particularly blog back worthy,” he said. “I got everything done ahead of time as the week went along. It’s pretty much then just a matter of pasting that into Moveable Type.”
A post that takes Ortiz 20 minutes to create significantly increased traffic to his blog. Not only do the blog back posts themselves get a lot of page views, but the old posts that are linked to in the blog back see on average of about a 10 percent boost in traffic.
“The hit counts to the page are very high and I think it gives people a way to quickly look back and see what they’ve missed,” he said about his new feature.
Some other topics discussed:
- Have other newsroom bloggers adopted this feature?
- Are there certain kinds of blogs this feature makes more sense for? Do some blogs not work with this?
- Why should other bloggers look into doing blog backs?
Timing has been good to Jon Ortiz.
The Sacramento Bee had originally planned to launch his blog about California state workers later, but realized that it would be wise to capitalize on the state budget impasse between Governor Schwarzenegger and the legislature. That fateful decision instantly made The State Worker one of the most popular blogs for the Sac Bee.
Schwarzenegger laid off some state workers, reduced the pay of others and instituted a hiring freeze, which he hopes will force the legislature to provide him with an acceptable budget. State workers do not like being used as bargaining chips, Ortiz said.
Ortiz has been all over one of the biggest stories in years for California state workers.
Ortiz has several issues to figure out with the blog, however. He writes a weekly column, and is still sorting out how to best utilize his new blog with his popular column. Ortiz believes his blog will allow him to cover his beat better by allowing him to report on more stories and in new ways.
Ortiz says the blog is the first step. He hopes to incorporate more Web technology in the future for his beat. For him, it is about learning what the Web can do to help his beat.
While California does have a lot of state workers, 125,000, Ortiz has found more than just state workers find his blog interesting. He hopes his blog can help educate the public about what state workers do and help dispel some wife’s tales about state workers.
He says he spends about half his time on the blog and the other half on working for print. Like many other beat bloggers, Ortiz is spending more time working now than before. Maybe in the future this will change, but it can be hard to convince editors to cut down on the amount of print copy produced.
The State Worker is still in its infancy, and will have to change dramatically once the state budget impasse is over. Ortiz is hoping to make his blog into a community for state workers.
“Ultimately, I’d like to see the blog become the clearing house for state workers’ issues and debate,” Ortiz said. “I’d like for it to elevate the discussion amongst state workers about their jobs and the public they serve.”
Ortiz also discusses how blogging has changed his column, how the blog will allow him more direct access to his readers and how the blog will allow him to find new sources.
Content isn’t everything.
Timing is important too. Jon Ortiz and The Sacramento Bee recently launched a new beat blog ahead of schedule, The State Worker, because Governor Schwarzenegger announced he would fire some state works and reduce the pay of the rest unless he was handed a new state budget.
The Bee realized they had to launch The State Worker immediately, instead of on their original timetable. This was one of the biggest issues for California state workers in years, and the Bee wanted to get ahead of it:
Our well-crafted plan was to debut this blog and an accompanying print column next week. Events dictate otherwise, and we’re opening up the blog today.
In its first week, The State Work became one of the most popular blogs for the Bee, attracting tens of thousands of page views a day. Ortiz attributes the timing of the blog’s launch as one of the major reasons why his new beat blog is so popular less than a month into its existence.
Launching a blog for the presidential election, for instance, would make a lot more sense to do so in the run up to the primaries, instead of right after the presidential election is over. Capitalizing on events in the world is a way to generate traffic to a blog and establish relevance. The Bee picked a great time to launch a blog for state workers.
Ortiz wants his new beat blog to be a place for California state workers to come to and learn about issues impacting their jobs. He also wants his blog to be the place to have conversations about those issues.
There are also best and worst times to launch content during the day:
Luciani’s conclusion: between 1pm and 3pm PST (after lunch) or between
5pm and 7pm PST (after work) are the best times and Thursday is the
best day. The worst time to post? Between 3 and 5 PM PST on the
weekends – nobody cares.
These recommendations are for national sites, but they also are applicable per time zone as well. If the majority of your users are in the Eastern Time Zone, launch content between 1 pm and 3 pm Eastern and between 5 pm and 7 pm Eastern. Monday-Thursday are the best days to launch content, and Friday evening is a very poor time to launch content.
There are always exceptions. however. A college football blog should update on Saturdays. A blog for a major league baseball team could update any day during the season. But a blog like The State Worker should follow these guidelines to insure maximum traffic and visibility for posts.
The issue is simple. Late at night, early in the morning, etc are not a prime surfing times for many people. If content is launched then, it will sit for hours before traffic begins to pick up again. By then a lot of new content will get launched, pushing that content down in RSS readers and off of homepages.
Obviously, anytime there is breaking news, that content should go up ASAP. But for general content, timing can often be just as important as content. Good site analytics (Google Analytics is a good, free solution) can help content producers understand the best times to launch content.