Opinion, Editor & Publisher Online, April 21, 2005
NEW YORK—Among forward-looking media thinkers, many of them with more experience in journalism that I have on this earth, I have developed an apparently unpopular opinion. The blog craze has prompted dozens of newspapers and other news outlets to produce or plan blogs for their own Web sites. Inevitably, the argument is that it's a good way to reach young readers who rarely buy the print edition. My heresy? Blogs are a horrible way to deliver journalism. Forget them.
This is not to say that I don't read them. For someone sitting in an office looking for story ideas all day, blogs are great. You can check back with them every hour, and if the folks behind the blog are tireless, something new will have appeared. But you can say the same about many news sites, including E&P Online.
Are blogs journalism? How could the answer be anything but an emphatic "sometimes!" Blogging is a medium, and some journalists use it to deliver their work.
But the coming generation doesn't use blogs to get their news. Some young political junkies (read: political science majors and student journalists) have the time to plow through the likes of Wonkette, Talking Points Memo, and Andrew Sullivan's blog. For most of us, however, we want a page with what print designers would call multiple entry points. We want to see the most important news on one screen, ranked by an editorial filter we trust.
That's why people between 18 and 34 are 35% more likely to get news at least once a day from a portal site such as Yahoo.com and MSN.com than from newspapers (or their Web sites), despite the fact that newspapers are considered just as trustworthy, according to a newly released Carnegie Corporation study.
Blogs are popular among some readers because they're fast, and bloggers often have a voice and attitude young people can enjoy reading. But blogging is an unfriendly medium. No one wants to have to go through clunky archives to try and find background coverage, and no one really wants to synthesize a bunch of chronological entries into a coherent view of the day's news.
The real story about blogs that most in journalism don't care about is the radical change in social interactions they promote among a certain portion of young people. This is where I admit that most of the blogs I read offer far from serious discussion. Many of my friends publish blogs; I publish one myself. It's one way for us to keep in touch at a stage in life when people constantly move all over the country and the world. Sometimes these blogs and their content streams will even bloom into very intelligent discussions about issues not addressed in academia. But most blogs my friends and I read are not journalistic material.
We don't use blogs because they're a good way to deliver information. We use them because they're cheap and easy, and we're not putting a lot of time into it. The same goes for the journalists who run blogs. If they had the technical expertise and the money to create a more reader-friendly medium, it's no doubt this chronological "Web log" nonsense would end.
Even if personal bloggers and journo-bloggers can't afford to develop something better, newspapers can't afford not to. To attract young readers, newspapers should first lose the fixation on newsprint. The newsrooms that produce newspapers are "news operations" just like any other journalistic outlet. Producing lower-quality newspapers to hand out free in urban areas is exactly the wrong idea. Why would anyone take a paper with 12-hour-old news when their cell phone has seconds-old news on tap? NYU j-school professor Jay Rosen has caught the scent in his recent blog essay "Laying the Newspaper Gently Down to Die."
Next, newspapers should get serious about pioneering methods for online content delivery. Forget about blogs and invest time and money in developing a useful interface that customizes the online experience for every user. Remember also that the home or office PC is not the only way people access the internet. Take advantage of the information devices we all carry with us, and develop usable mobile phone interfaces, maybe even in cooperation with mobile service providers.
Finally—not that I need to remind anyone—newsrooms cost money to run. Take a cue from cable television, where dozens or hundreds of channels attract very specifically segmented audiences, making them very attractive to individual advertisers. Go a few steps further than the Yahoo-type portals and customize the news mix for the individual reader (giving you a clear picture of who advertisers will reach). Beat the online portals in convenience and relevancy, and you've got a business model.
More than half of young readers already trust your newspaper reporters "a lot," according to the Carnegie survey. The remaining challenge is to relearn how to deliver their work.