Snoring Out Loud
'Statesman' blunders with bland blogging
Last spring the Austin American-Statesman's top editors, Rich Oppel and Fred Zipp, launched a blog on the Statesman Web site, announcing their intent to personally lead the paper's charge into the hip new blogosphere. "We'll keep it short and frequent," Oppel assured readers, teasing them with the lively discourse to come. "Some days may be Fred alone, other days me alone. Who knows, on some days we could get a good Fred-and-Rich debate going," he wrote, whipping the audience into a blog-thirsty frenzy.
Six months later, after sporadic postings often focused on snippy complaints about the paper, the Fred and Rich blog petered out, after a final posting perhaps coincidentally titled "Awkward conversations." Zipp said in December it wasn't worth his time, considering the minimal response to the editors' musings from "what is at this point a small readership." "For a blog to truly thrive it requires constant care and feeding," said Zipp. But then three weeks later the blog suddenly reappeared, sending, at best, a mixed message about the paper's enthusiasm for the wacky, high-paced blogosphere.
Blogging the act of writing a form of Internet diary, or "Weblog" represents a major new initiative by the Cox Newspapers-owned Statesman to find a perch in the modern media world, which is growing increasingly uninterested in stuffy old newspapers. With circulation sliding, the Statesman vigorously trumpets its Web sites, Statesman.com and Austin360.com, as the great new frontiers, where readers count more than subscribers and the paper's profits aren't siphoned off by those greedy paperboys. "Young people are gravitating more toward digital ways of getting news," said Steve Outing, a senior editor at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and online columnist for Editor & Publisher. "You want to be publishing to where the audience is."
Considering that much of the Statesman today is remarkably similar to the Statesman of, say, 1957, the paper moved into the blog business with unusual authority and resources. Several Statesman staffers have been intermittently writing blogs for a while now, ranging from Chris Garcia's tales of his trip to Vietnam to Rhiannon Gammill's refreshingly snarky "Miss Adventure," chronicling her nightlife and irritants. Their banter is regularly featured in the weekly entertainment insert XL, often providing the liveliest element of a section that frequently reads like a poorly researched Zagat guide.
Not Yet Ready for Takeoff
The Statesman's big blog push came in September when it launched a public blog site on Statesman.com, with lofty ambitions of creating a new wave of "citizen journalists," invoking images of Statesman bloggers fanning across Central Texas to report on terrorist movements and insider business dealings. "If we can get a fraction of our registered users (which number in the hundreds of thousands) to write about their expertise and/or passion, we'll have better content, a bigger audience, and maybe make more money," Assistant Managing Editor Tim Lott wrote in a recent posting.
Instead, after three months, the Statesman's public blog site has the communal energy of the Yarborough Branch library on free beer nuts night. Anyone willing to root around Statesman.com long enough to find the public blogs will discover only three or four new posts a day, mostly about UT football. According to the Statesman, of its "hundreds of thousands" of registered users, 396 have signed up for blogs. Of those, only about 20% have been active users in the last 30 days. As of mid-December, those frenzied citizen journalists had generated a total of 1,141 entries, an average of less than three a blog, which doesn't quite suggest a bubbling cauldron of ideas and dialogue.
One of the more frequent posters goes by the handle of Netflixbugaloo and writes about his latest Netflix selections. Retired and living in Miami, the author says he writes the blog on the Statesman site because his son, who lives in Austin, was writing a Longhorn blog. "I think it's great," he wrote in an e-mail. "Here I live in Miami, four times the size of Austin and the Miami Herald has nothing to offer bloggers."
As with many blog sites, amid the ruminations on MTV shows and lengthy dissertations on Vince Young, there are a few gems. A frequent contributor identified as Tater Tot is an articulate and funny voice, a father and husband who writes about the black community and offers cartoons with more insight and humor than any commentator in town. "I figured, I'm coming from Des Moines, Iowa where the black population is about 2 percent," he wrote recently. "Surely, as they sang on The Jeffersons, I'd be 'Movin' on up ... to the east side.' I've been to Austin's east side. My move was lateral."
But most of the blog entries so far have zero comments, the sad notation of a tree falling in the Internet with no one there to read it. And there is little to suggest the site will spawn an army of citizen journalists, unless Austinites crave more reporting on baking tips. Despite ads shouting, "You be the journalist!" the closest thing to a breaking news report on the site recently came from a guy who blogged updates from aboard a plane stuck on the tarmac at Austin-Bergstrom.
"The big hurdle for us is, how do we get people to put a blog to its highest and best use?" Zipp said.
Recruiting veteran bloggers to write might help, but the Statesman's blog initiative was greeted with a collective yawn from Austin's well-established blog community. (A good starting point for the Austin blog scene is AustinBloggers.org, a meta-blog site with regular updates from a wide variety of local writers.) Although it's free and easy to use, the Statesman doesn't offer bloggers the ability to promote their blogs and link to other sites, bloggers note. "It's a real basic blog for someone starting out, but it doesn't have the tools seasoned bloggers would want," said Paul Walhus, a local Web designer and founder of Spring.net, a collective blog and podcast site. "I see them doing a highly constricted, highly limited version of a blog." (Full disclosure: the Chronicle does not currently offer blogs on its Web site, although a handful of readers have turned the "Postmarks" online forum into a running town hall meeting on everything under the sun. Ed.)
As is often the case when old media attempts to enter the new media realm, the Statesman's blog site is chock-full of rules, disclaimers, and warnings sure to annoy anyone raised in the Internet era. Fans interested in responding to staff-written blogs are warned that their notes won't be posted until "reviewed" by the staffer. In a medium that thrives on the lack of boundaries and hierarchy, the Statesman promises to feature blogs the editors deem worthy, but only those from "people who are keeping their language clean and civil." (Zipp says only one public blog has been dropped from the site, for excessive use of the word "fuck.")
Newspapers want to maintain a level of control in a format that thrives on a lack of controls, says Jon Lebkowsky, an active member of the local blog community. "The editor filter has value in the journalism context, but the lack of those filters is valuable for blogs," Lebkowsky said. To attract dedicated bloggers, he says, newspapers would have to alter their fundamental mindset, "to change their sense of what journalism is." If they can't let go, "it's not really blogging. It's just a newspaper using a different content management tool."
While the idea of "citizen journalism" is a quaint idea for college professors to bat around over lattes at Starbucks, the best bloggers the ones drawing interest and audiences tend to be, at the very least, semiprofessionals, laser-focused on a particular industry, company, or community, not soccer moms with a zest for writing newsy diaries. Bloggers like DailyKos, Wonkette, Gawker, and even the slimy Matt Drudge provide a daily blizzard of insider information and tips, serving as repositories for gossip and buzz as much as hard news analysis.
Have Blog, will Pod
On a fundamental level, newspapers are uncomfortable with this new ilk of quasi-journalists unwilling to clear the use of the term "rat bastard" with an editor before hitting "send." But that basic idea of a freewheeling public discourse with theories and ideas flying around without vetting by graduates of properly accredited journalism schools flies in the face of all newspaper editors.
The best bloggers often make notoriously pompous newspapers look bad, exuding the type of life and energy missing from daily rags. In a day they can assemble a blizzard of links, sources, and data on a topic, exposing the shallowness of the daily paper's beloved two-interview features and myopic localism. New queen blogger Arianna Huffington recently wrote, "The qualities I look for in a man are the qualities I look for in a blogger: passion, relentlessness, risk taking, and a light touch" unmistakably, all qualities rarely found in a modern newspaper.
Blogging requires an intensity and persistence foreign to papers like the Statesman, as evidenced by Oppel and Zipp's sputtering commitment to the form. Statesman TV critic Diane Holloway, one of the paper's more frequent bloggers, took a month off at the end of November, which may be okeydokey in the bloodthirsty bullring that is the Statesman's newsroom, but it's a death notice in blog world.
The Statesman talks the cool talk about blogging and "citizen journalism," but there is a noticeable lack of commitment to the entire concept. A redesign of the site launched in December makes it even more difficult to find the public blogs, which are now accessed through a drop-down menu under the news sections, except for "featured" blogs, which are highlighted on the home page.
Lott may have provided a clue when he explained why until recently newspapers "largely ignored" the blog phenomenon. "The newspaper business in general is slow to respond to quick changes on the Web," Lott wrote. "Some think [blogging is] a fad. Others worry it might damage their credibility."
Meanwhile, more nimble media companies are already starting to look for the next big thing. News Corp., Rupert Murdoch's company, recently paid $580 million for MySpace.com, hoping to gain a toehold in the fast-growing social networking arena. Other media organizations, like National Public Radio, are embracing podcasting, which allows for the insertion of commercials, promising a potential new revenue stream. In some media circles there remains a concern that blogging may be, like, so 2004.