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.