The Reality of Blogging in the Newsroom

Back in 2006 when “Naked Conversations” was written, blogging was really coming into its own. The term blogging was starting to become a dinner table topic. Today in 2009, it feels like blogging may have leveled off. Millions still blog, but the excitement and the wow factor has started to be less impressive. Blogging is a great tool for expressing one’s own first amendment right, but are all bloggers treated equal? And do blogs still deliver the return they had promised as a marketing tool, specifically if you are a journalists, in broadcasting?

Blogs can be a fantastic marketing tool when used correctly. Blogs can save a company’s images as they did for Microsoft, credited by “Naked Conversations” in 2006. Blogs can spark conversations and open dialogues. They can tell a personalized story, uninterrupted by outside forces. The power of the blog belongs to the writer. The writer can engage or dismiss the comments that follow a blog, but the writer chooses to direct the conversation, or whether there should even be one. A well-crafted blog can be highly entertaining or even be newsworthy, but to borrow from Old TV News Guy, just because you write a blog, that doesn’t make you a journalist. Writing blogs and being a journalist do not automatically go hand in hand.

The original idea behind blogs was simply an online diary, an outlet to express your freedom of speech, which is open for the world to read. Today, there are millions of blogs out in cyberspace; they all get read, just not by a lot of people. Very few blogs have an audience of any real size. Some statistics claim that most blogs are ignored or not updated after a few months of beginning.

Certain blogs do stand out among the crowd. Some are well marketed thus draw in a good number of web hits. Most blogs are read for their entertainment value, kind of like finding someone’s diary and being able to read it without getting into trouble. We love to know what is going on with other people, and blogs serve that desire.

I have a very close friend from college who less than a year ago was writing three different blogs. They were not anything special, just details of his life. He is a very popular person so it was just easier for him to keep folks up to date via his blogs, which makes sense. I just didn’t care enough to read three different blogs. Does this make me a bad friend? Perhaps, but honestly I simply wasn’t that invested into his life to want to read that much about him. I didn’t need to know that much about the details of his life. Who does? The same goes for the million of other blogs out there. While they provide great entertainment value, whom do they really appeal to? What kind of return are they expecting? This is not to say they should stop. I love that so many people are expressing their minds so openly. My friend eventually got burned-out from writing so many different blogs. At one point he tried to move everyone to one simple blog, then soon grew tired of that. The next step was micro-blogging through Facebook and Twitter, which I preferred.
I can know in one simple update what is going on in his life.

In “Naked Conversations” blogging is described as the “come as-you-are conversations.” The authors go on to reference broadcasters as having a “We talk. You Listen” mentality, but isn’t that what blogging is? Yes, the blogger is starting a dialogue, but only because people can comment immediately on a blog, or another blogger could hyper link and respond. The blogger dictates the terms of the conversation, if they want to ignore a comment, they can. The same can be said for a news station taking a viewers phone call with a complaint or criticism.

Also in “Naked Conversations” there are three stages detailed as how companies approach blogging; ridiculed, opposed, acceptance. I would like to add on one more stage, “now what.” A few years ago in my newsroom when the blogosphere caught fire and everyone jumped on board, many of the anchors were asked if they wanted to blog. Our morning show holds the strongest ratings at the station, so they were the obvious first choice. The web hits were staggering, when it started they would get roughly 1,000 hits a day. Our total daily web hits are roughly around 50,000 a day, less on the weekends.

The hosts of my show (which is on at 7pm) started to blog too. Much like the morning show, we told our viewers we were blogging. Our ratings were considerably smaller than the morning show. We were/are in second place at night as compared to the morning show who was/is in first place. Our blogs barley even registered. We did get a few hits, but it was rare when we broke 200. Soon the allure of the blogs wore off and the morning show started to drop in numbers. These days they get roughly 300 to 400 a day. Ours still run somewhere between 100 to 300 web hits per day.

When something big happens on either show the numbers shoot up for a few days, then return when the momentum has subsided. Also, as small side note, the author of the blogs matters a great deal. If the anchors blogged, the numbers were steady. If the producers or someone “off camera” blogged, the numbers dropped. It’s also worth mentioning that it’s rare when we see high numbers of comments on the blogs, if any at all.

When we first started blogging there was a real concern among the anchors and reporters of what they could say freely on a blog. Obviously blogs are a place where one can express oneself freely, but that is a problem when you want people to trust you. It’s ill advised for reporters or anchors to go off sharing their opinions. As a journalist, viewers need to be able to trust you to do your job. You don’t want them sitting at home doubting your neutrality and wondering if you can report on this topic in a balanced way. The viewers’ trust is everything. They need to trust you don’t have an agenda as you read/report them the news. This dilemma still plagues our reporters. Many stick to safe topics or talk about the story behind the story. If they were to “come as they are” and write “free of grammatical errors” (as stated in Naked Conversations), our viewers would pounce on them very quickly. They are quick to correct them on any little item, including grammatical errors. They hold them to a higher level because of their role in the world.

Another issue that came up was whether we should we be blogging everyday. We simply don’t have that much to say. There is only so much behind-the-scenes details, one can blog about, but on the other hand, these blogs have created a great bond with certain viewers. The regular readers of the blogs are all the same group, with occasional fresh readers or readers who stop by, but only check in on the blog. One specific moment changed all of this. My host Rob did an interview with Presidential candidate John McCain, shortly after Sarah Plain was announced to be his running mate. Rob didn’t ask overly tough questions, but he did as the questions you would want him to ask:

We did our interview, aired it, posted on the website and moved on with our lives. Suddenly, the video took off everywhere on the web, and those people came back to our main page and drove our web numbers into the millions. So the blog’s numbers increased as well. We did as much as we could to ride this high, to strengthen our show, but as the momentum faded so did the web numbers and the blog numbers, and we eventually went back to normal.

There is an argument to be made here about the work that goes into pushing our blogs to the rest of the world. In “The Secret Strategies Behind Many Viral Videos,” the author shares many of his tactics to making YouTube videos become so popular. I personally found many of his ideas to be basically spamming, or “sploggers.”

With regards to blogs and posting video, the author’s company pays blogs to post video. He also says “it’s effective and not against any rules.” Certainly in news, it is against the rules and highly unethical. He goes on to say how they saturate forums with their new threads and pushing conversations to their clients needs. Also they log on as multiple users to the forums and continue this saturation. Certainly this is not honest, and who has the time and staff for this, we don’t in news. He goes on to say how they hit up all their MySpace and Facebook friends’ pages with their embedding links, mass email all their friends, and then email those people’s friends. How is this any different from spamming? Just because I know you, doesn’t mean you’re not spamming me, and doesn’t make it right. While it doesn’t take away from freedom of speech, a marketing machine is pulling the strings, affecting the true sense of what people are talking about. I will take our shows small number of web hits over these tactics. Our readers come to us because they want to, not because they are tricked or forced to.

My show’s blogs are very well written and very well thought out. In this industry the bottom line to get readers or viewers is, to tell a good story. Storytelling is what makes a blog shine, but for the blog to be considered journalism, the blogger better be willing to be held up to the same ethical standards journalist are held to. According to “Naked Conversations” the General Motors vice chair, Bob Lutz, said in his first blog “In the age of the internet anyone can be a journalist.” While I agree that it is frustrating when journalists write with an agenda, or go beyond reporting the facts, they are held to certain standards, held accountable to what they report, where as the vice chair of GM, is not. He is free to express his first amendment rights, but that doesn’t make him a journalist.

Over the last year we have asked ourselves what is the point of working so hard on our blog when we see minimal results. While we do have a core group of dedicated followers, they are all the same. The idea of our blog was to bring us new viewers and generate ideas for the show. Sometimes that happens, but not in the numbers we were sold on when we started.

Back in 2005 and 2006 the wave of the future was certainly blog early and often. The sheer volume of bloggers and the effect it was having on the world seem to dictate the need to do it, the peer pressure if you will. Now in 2009, the appeal is not as strong for our industry. It’s still a good tool to have and use, but the readers are not as frequent and consistent. More viewers now want the micro blogging instead. They want to connect in a different way.

Blogging in 2009 can still be a good asset for the newsroom, but the rules are different for broadcast journalists, all bloggers are not treated equal. Overall you can build a connection with a core audience, but unless you are willing to spend considerable amounts of time shopping your blog to the rest of the world-wide-web, don’t expect a big return, but for the devoted audience, it’s worth it.


This Media Professional

Since this module has been all about media professionals, I thought it would be a good time to expand on what it is I do as a professional in the media world.


Human Nature?

While reading through everyone’s blogs from class tonight, I have yet to find anyone who fell in love with Second Life. What I have found are a series of mixed experiences, but one certainly stands out. Desiree’s blog recounts a near violent moment that is very scary. She was simply trying to interact with fellow people in Second Life when she was nearly attacked. Come one people! We are still human’s last I checked, not monsters. Even in a virtual world, there is a level of decorum one must expect from his fellow human beings.

During our class meet up tonight, we talked about how normal everyone in class chose to stay, especially with all the creative options one might have open to them in this virtual world. I had mentioned that even if we wanted to go crazy, we all still know each other through the class. Second Life is kinda like the out of control office Christmas party everyone talks about, where all the employees are drunk and doing the craziest stuff they would never do in a normal working day.

Certainly the point of Second Life is to go somewhere new and different to meet new people, and have pleasant experiences, and to check out of what can be a real stressful and crazy world. Why on earth would anyone want to go to an over-saturated commercial filled land where the average people are just crazy, and that’s the norm.

My advice to Second Life, if you want to stay current and still try and make it into the mainstream, find a better way to welcome new people in.


Social Games

Gaming has long been a part of our society, but today, video games have taken on an even bigger role in our lives. Are video games tools to help better our society?

I admit it, when I think of the typical “gamer,” I think of a guy in his mid to late twenties sitting in his mother’s basement, playing World of Warcraft, on X-Box Live, talking smack against his equally nerdy opponent. Well, I am wrong. While there are examples like the one I described (of which there is nothing wrong) gamers as a whole do get a bad rap. The spectrum of video gamers today can range from little girls to CEO’s of major companies. Whether video games serve to the advancement of mankind, or hinder us, is still a gray area.

Games in general have always brought people together. Major game maker “Milton Bradley” built their marketing campaign around “making it a family night” with their games. To this day one of my favorite board games is “Guess Who: The Mystery Face Game

Which I could still play endlessly. I became quite good at it, but not this good:

The point is that games have always had a place in our world, allowing us to relax, take a break from our realities, and/or grant us much needed mental stimulation. Violence in video games is swimming around in the afore-mentioned gray area. When looking at violence in video games I would borrow the slogan “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Most normal functioning people in society have, no desire to wake up one day and start out on a Max Payne- like killing spree. I would argue that if one has a serious chemical imbalance, and that disconnection lays dormant in one’s brain, then playing a series of violent video games could trigger that spark to go out and simulate the action one has just portrayed on the TV screen.

As most people play video games they do know right from wrong. They know this is a simulation. Most would not go and pick up a gun and start a rampage like in Grand Theft Auto. My argument goes past the individual playing the game. There is a reason for the well-marked ratings system we have for movies, TV shows, and yes, video games.

When I was a kid, our first video game system was a family event. When we would play on the Atari, my dad would watch over and even join in sometimes. Likewise when we watched TV, if there was a show that was too violent, I wasn’t allowed to watch it. I was always told “when you’re older” Parents have a responsibility to the kids. Yes, more and more games are out there heavily marketed to kids. Everyone wants a Wii or X-Box or whatever. But parents cannot allow the TV, or the video game system, to become the babysitter. Parents still need to establish for their kids the difference between right and wrong. Certainly one could be conditioned to be a crazy violent video game-like character, if they had no idea of right from wrong. It’s the parents role to oversee and step in when things get a little too “adult” for our kids. As we get older we can handle more. A person in their twenties and thirties can mentally handle a first person shooter game much better than a ten year old.

Here is an example. Prior to becoming a librarian for teenagers, my girlfriend used to run an after-school program for kids between 1st grade and 5th grade. She would organize different games for the kids everyday and often played kickball. She had this one student named Finn, didn’t do much else at home other than play video games. Mom would just let him play because it kept him busy. Finn, who was about 7-years old, developed a “restart” line of thinking. When he played kickball with the other kids, and things didn’t go his way, he demanded a restart to the entire game. Most kids simply ask for a do-over, but Finn wanted everyone to come off the field, wipe the score clean and start fresh. When he did not get it he would have nasty fits. He was so used to just restarting in the video game world, he had a very hard time understanding that when he was playing a real game, with real people, he could not restart things.

On the other hand, games are also teaching tools. We start to play games at the earliest of ages because they teach us rules and boundaries. They help us perform better in society, even if we don’t realize it.

If I were to describe to you a relaxing place, where kids could go after school, to play video games – would you think I was talking about the library? A lot of today’s libraries are just as misunderstood as gamers, but that’s not the reason why video games are in libraries. Many people have the idea that their local library is a stuffy and a somewhat outdated place in these advanced technological times. Not so. Today’s libraries are widely under-appreciated for all that they are capable of doing for us, even in such modern times. Many libraries throughout the country now have departments designed just for teenagers. These teen programs often host gaming days. There are traditional board games played, but nowadays the majority are video games. Some libraries even loan out games. While the video games are not limited to just teens, that is generally the focus for the libraries. Why, you might ask? I will let the The American Library Association explain better. The following is from the gaming section of their website;

“Why should kids play video games at the library?
Lots of kids play video games at home – alone, with siblings, or with friends. The library is a safe and non-commercialized space. At the library, kids socialize with their friends and play video games while surrounded by books, librarians, and knowledge. Video gaming at the library encourages young patrons to interact with diverse peers, share their expertise with others (including adults), and develop new strategies for gaming and learning.”
“What do kids learn when they play games at the library?
Video games give kids a chance to practice reading, writing, and computing in the library’s safe environment. Popular video games, the ones that kids really like to play, are immediately engaging and make them work hard to succeed and ‘level up’. While playing these games, kids are constantly developing new strategies, predicting possible outcomes, managing multiple resources, reading and deciphering maps, tracking complex statistics, and adapting to increasingly difficult levels within the game. They learn a range of media literacies beyond basic reading that give them models for navigating our information-rich world.”

This is a prime age to get teens into the library, especially in a time when kids think they may not need such an important place. Get them in young and they’ll be devoted for life.

It certainly doesn’t stop there either. Video games can be a strong educational tool in schools as well. I was just reading today about a school in NY that built its new school year curriculum on what they call “game-inspired learning”

These two ideas really bring home the idea of “the experience economy,” as referred to in the 1998 July edition of The Harvard Business Review. The article highlights how many businesses, in our previously booming economy, were capitalizing on selling an experience, as opposed to just another destination. Meaning when you go to Disney World, it’s not just another amusement park, it’s a cherished memory. It’s an adventure. Obviously our schools and libraries are not trying to be Disney World, but with all of the options consumers have today, even schools and libraries need to compete to stay in the forefront of the consumer’s mind. As Liz Lemmon, from the show “30 Rock” says “I want to go to there.” They want us, to want to “go to there.”

When I first set out to make the case in favor of video games, I knew there were many gray areas. One argument that lands squarely in a gray area is whether video games help kids with Autism and Aspergers. Before I explain where I am coming from on this specific topic, let me make clear I have no intention of getting into any of the massive Autism or Asperger debates that already exist out there. My line of thought focuses directly with the connection of how video games are able to help kids that have been diagnosed with these two diseases. While it’s a very important discussion to be had, I am sticking to my theme of, “video games in our society”.

That being said, with regards to Autism and Aspergers, my experience is through two different families each with different, but somewhat similar cases relating to video games. I am respecting these families privacy by giving them alternate names. They are real people who have dealt with the harsh realities that comes with these diseases.

We will start with my co-worker who I will call Larry. Larry’s oldest son has Autism. According to my co-worker, games of all kinds have been amazingly helpful for his son to develop a more normal life with Autism. When he was in elementary school, he attended a school for kids with Autism and they used a lot of games to help the kids, specifically video games of various kinds. Larry’s son grew into more traditional video games which continue to help him grow even more. To teach the subjects like math, it was so much easier for the teachers to get through to them with a fun video game. The game would hold their attention, and help them to focus. Larry also said that now, when his son is somewhere playing a video game, other kids want to come over to him, ask what games he is playing and then they strike up a conversation about games. This is one of the ways Larry’s son is able to make friends.

Here is more information from the Autism Society about a specific video game that helps:

Autism Game

I also know another family who just recently found out their 12-year-old daughter has Aspergers. I will call the mom Elyse. This family has also discovered video games help this young girl as well. Elyse has explained to me that the games have set rules, and that with Aspergers, her daughter looks to understand what the defined rules are so she has an outline of what she is supposed to do. This allows her to be in her comfort zone, and also interact with others. It also lets her ask questions about life’s rules to help in her understanding. Video games have also been an entry for her to play with other kids. She gets to be more comfortable with others and she has the chance to observe them and understand and practice more social skills.

Here is an article from MSNBC about how Second Life can be an outlet for people with Aspergers, one Doctor refers to Second Life by saying “it’s a simulated environment and lets them practice social skills in a three-dimensional space.”

As I stated earlier, I wanted to keep my argument strictly to video games as a resource for these two diseases. I am obviously no doctor, and there is still a great deal of research being done on this topic. While the families I know are very much in favor of video games as a positive resource, I was shocked when I started to research this further and found that some groups are trying to blame video games for causing Autism and Aspergers:

Here is a blogger arguing that maybe this is not the case:

To date, there is no solid defined answers as to what causes autism:

I started out by saying this is a gray area for our society. Many demonize video games.

While video games can help build communication and social skills for those who need it, too much exposure to this technology can inhibit some social skills. An example of this was brought to my attention just today. During a visit to Lyndon State College, where I went to school for my undergrad degree in Television Studies, I was talking with one of my former professors about the habits of today’s students. One of the responsibilities kids have at LSC is to conduct on-camera interviews for our nightly news broadcast. When the kids are ready to begin an interview, face to face, many just stare at the subject quietly. Generally this moment of silence last a few minutes. The students are expecting the other person to start talking, as opposed to beginning the conversation they requested themselves. Needless to say this makes for a very uncomfortable interview. My former professor went on to say he is discovering that kids are so plugged-in to their video games that getting them to make real-life connections in conversations, phone calls, and even emails, is difficult. There is no computer-generated script or story, no directions to follow on screen, no help menu to try and lead someone. To help with this growing phenomenon, ironically, a new video game has been developed to help kids develop their social skills.

The Article states:

“The authors suggest that now may be a good time to reconsider how new media are affecting people. “Perhaps it is not that contemporary media use has led to a decline in civic and social engagement, as many have argued, but rather, that a decline in civic and social engagement has led to a ‘retribalization’ through contemporary media.”

To slightly counter-balance this argument, I found an article from MIT Professor Henry Jenkins trying to debunk myths about gaming.

In conclusion, there are risk with just about everything in life. If we ignore our children (especially at young ages,) and let the computer program the kids, then the wrong message could get through. We are at a crucial stage in the realm of video games. Today, video games have so much power over kids. This power can be used for good or evil, just like in the games themselves. If these video game systems are taken on as tools to help better our society, then that power will be used for good.