The Lawrence-Journal World, often considered one of the most innovative U.S. newspapers, has made a company-wide to beat blog.
Many papers have at least a beat blog or two. Some have several but the LJ World is experimenting with beat blogs for a wide range of beats. One of the biggest reasons that the LJ World added beat blogs was because they wanted to tap into a broader network of sources.
“Clearly a community of 100,000 will know more than a newsroom of 50 ever will,” online editor Jonathan Kealing said.
One of the blogs that embodies that philosophy is Chad Lawhorn’s Town talk blog about the city of Lawrence, Kansas. The blog is billed as, “Blurbs and bites from newsmakers and your neighbor.” Kealing said it’s the kind of journalism that the LJ World could not do without a blog, especially in print.
Another successful beat blog is Heard on the Hill. This blog about Kansas University owes much of its success to its ability to harness the strengths of the Web.
“It’s short form,” Kealing said. “It’s videos. It’s giving people information in different ways.”
Alex Parker, an education reporter for the LJ World, recently launched a beat blog with fellow reporter Lindsey Slater called Schoolhouse talk. While Parker works for the LJ World, Slater works for a TV affiliate. The two bring different styles and strengths to the blog.
“The idea was to have an alternative method of interacting with our community,” Parker said. ”Ultimately we want to use the blog as just another way to disseminate news. A way that is a little less formal, a way to link out to other sites, embed videos, link to documents.”
Parker is hoping to get more comments on his beat blog. He believes that will be a big part of the blog’s success or failings, and so far he isn’t satisfied with the amount of traffic to his blog or the amount of comments on it. Schoolhouse talk is only a few months old, and the jury is still out, but typically it takes at least several months for a beat blog to build a loyal base of readers.
“It hasn’t become a destination for people yet,” Parker said. “We’re still trying to figure it out.”
Parker also reiterated Kealing’s thoughts on the crowd being wiser than them.
“You can bet your house that there are tons of people out there who know more about our beats than we do,” he said. “There is a whole wealth of information out there. We’re comfortable knowing that sometimes our audience does more than us.”
The LJ World hasn’t been beat blogging that long, but Kealing said they have learned several lessons.
- Not every beat is as well suited to blogging as others — For Kealing, this doesn’t mean not trying blogging with certain beats, but it does mean having reasonable expectations for each beat. The crime beat is immensely popular, while the health beat is less so. The LJ World doesn’t expect those two beats to have the same amounts of traffic or comments. Still, this might mean that a beat blog won’t for some beats.
- Timing is everything — I’ve mentioned this several times before on here. Kealing has noticed the same phenomenon. Basically, when big events happen, jump all over them. Cover them well. Nobody is looking for dated coverage, and beat blogging allows news organizations to be extremely current with information. Beat blogging also allows reporters to report more in-depth and link to important documents and other Web sites.
- Headlines are very important — SEO is a big part of this, but it goes deeper than that according to Kealing. ”That headline has to do a lot to draw people in,” he said. “A lot of times reporters are interested in over-arching headlines that don’t really say anything. You have to be pretty explicit, otherwise people are going to ignore it.” On the Web, being ignored is a death sentence. There are countless Web sites to grab users attention. Don’t give users a reason to go searching for something more interesting. The quality of a headline can be the difference between success or failure for a blog post.
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.