Paper's aim: building blog for success

Times Staff Writer

It's been more than two centuries since this town last saw a revolution. In the last one, after tangling here with local militia commanded by Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene -- who became the city's namesake -- the dubiously victorious Redcoats limped away only to surrender seven months later in Yorktown, Va.

Many believe that the state's third-largest city is once again ground for a revolution, albeit bloodless and virtually invisible, but still one of national consequence. If ultimately successful -- and revolutions have been known to fail -- the city might instead become Blogsboro.

The city's local newspaper, the News & Record, which has a daily circulation of just under 100,000, has embarked on a journalistic experiment that could change the way readers approach and digest the news. The paper loosely refers to the initiative as its "Town Square" project, a word choice that recalls the region's proud colonial and democratic heritage.

Ideally, the paper hopes the square will be an online community for its readers, attracted as much to the website for its staff-written articles as for pieces by citizen correspondents. Bloggers will be a vital voice in the square, engaging in an ongoing online conversation with the staff, editors and themselves.

The city already has a robust blogging culture and it's believed by the paper that citizen bloggers can fortify news coverage, keep it honest, while also tipping reporters and editors off to stories the professionals might have overlooked. There's talk, too, of even inviting bloggers to editorial and budget meetings.

"We want to engage the community in a conversation rather than being that building on East Market Street you have to pass by a guard to get into," said News & Record editor John Robinson. "It's the message, not the medium, that's important."

Other newspapers are experimenting with some or many of the same elements -- particularly reader blogs -- but few if any appear as ambitious or committed as the paper here. The implication for the future is clear -- the website, not the print edition, might someday drive the newsroom. Although Robinson downplays this big-picture aspect of his newspaper's plan, others do not.

"There's no question people are watching Greensboro," said Jay Rosen, an associate professor of journalism at New York University and author of the journalism blog "PressThink." "What they've succeeded in doing is developing a strategy for the next phase of the daily newspaper."

The News & Record's move took on a heightened significance this month when circulation figures for the vast majority of newspapers, particularly larger ones like the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, were down and made front-page news nationwide. The latest numbers confirm long-standing trends -- newspapers are losing readers to other media outlets, primarily television and the Internet.

And most troubling for papers is that the average age now of their readers is about 53. Fewer than 30% of people in their 30s read papers and fewer than 20% in their 20s bother at all.

"The trouble with newspapers is that they've historically been so successful, they're risk averse," said Philip Meyer, author of "The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age," and a journalism professor at nearby University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. "Wild experiments like Greensboro's are so rare in journalism. They should be lauded just for sticking their necks out."

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Rolling out staff blogs

The News & Record simply has heeded these numbers on the wall, which helped push it to launch -- albeit slowly -- its new project earlier this year. As Lex Alexander, the paper's point man in the endeavor, put it in a report to Robinson: "As an industry, we're bleeding, if not hemorrhaging readers. Absent change, our business' remaining life can be measured within the remaining careers of most current employees."

Since the beginning of the year, the paper has rolled out more than a dozen staff blogs, which contrary to journalistic traditions are not edited. Robinson explains that he wants his reporters to develop their own voices and personalities -- the lifeblood of blogging -- something that editing can extinguish. So far, this tack has caused few problems, and no legal troubles over libel -- an ever-present worry for journalists, particularly for modest-market papers with limited pocketbooks. (The Greensboro paper is owned by Landmark Communications Inc., a privately held media company based in Norfolk, Va.)

The paper's blog has tackled everything from the paper's policy on anonymous sources to the best place for a bargain on light beer. In addition, the paper's site links readers to more than two dozen local bloggers, who could easily be seen as competition. Alexander, who writes a blog for the paper and one on his own, prefers the term "coop-etition."

"The News & Record doesn't see them as a threat," said Alexander, who has a background in radio as well as print journalism. "We see them as something cool we want to encourage."

One of the paper's best-read blogs is Robinson's. Reluctant to jump into the blogosphere at first, the tall and slender editor who has been with the paper since 1985 in various capacities now enjoys its immediacy. For instance, as soon as the Ventura County Star announced it would no longer allow reader comments on Web stories because of their increasingly abusive tone, Robinson clarified his paper's position in this Friday blog: "On some of our blogs, we've seen some comments border on the obscene and the abusive. Some people have gotten angry with us for permitting them. Others have said they stopped coming because of them. But the offending comments have been in the minority, and we've let them run."

The Star problem highlights what many critics contend are the limits of blogs: they are aggressively opinionated, self-absorbed, self-promoting and only occasionally enlightening. It would be a mistake, critics argue, to over-rely upon them to stave off the decline of print journalism because they're vulnerable to self-serving interests of advertisers and the marketplace, not to mention libel considerations. In a town like Greensboro, where strangers greet each other with a smile, a reliance upon civility may work, but it's unlikely to prevail everywhere, as the Ventura County incident shows.

"Blogs are a refreshing complement to the information spectrum, but they are not going to replace newspapers, television or major sites," said Tim J. McGuire, a syndicated columnist and former newspaper editor in a speech at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. earlier this month.

"Blogs are an imaginative, democratic information tool, but like other forms of citizen journalism they have severe limitations. Too many blogs become tools of special interests, and too many value shrill argumentation over trust, integrity and authenticity."

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Still a small circle

So far, the Greensboro experiment shows both the promise and limitations of the blogging world. Even though the city is considered to have the most robust blogging community in the state, the circle of commentators active on the paper's website is very limited. A core of about 75 are responsible for generating the bulk of blogger responses.

"It is a relatively small group of people," admitted Alexander. "But when we got into the Internet business 11 years ago, it was primarily a small group of people then too. Over time, it grew and I don't see any reason things would be different this time."

There's been some in-house resistance, too, to converting print reporters into bloggers and multimedia technicians. Staff dissatisfaction takes two forms -- philosophical ("We're reporters!") and time management ("We're already overwhelmed with work").

Robinson himself had to adjust to writing a blog and believes his staff eventually will as well. "What I think will happen is they will spend five minutes less getting coffee or they won't write that story that would have gone inside the paper anyway so they can blog instead. I'm willing to make that sacrifice."

Another part of the project, still three to six months off, will be the introduction of citizen journalists onto the paper's website. Feeling that towns in outlying areas are under-covered, the paper will try to recruit correspondents to file reports about their neighborhoods. Finding reliable writers and getting them to contribute in a meaningful way remain open questions.

The paper already permits registered users to submit articles onto its website. The stories undergo light editing for spelling and grammar. Only one story has been held back for concerns over libel.

Thus far, submitted stories include an announcement about the observation of household hazardous waste day, another about the dangers of carpenter bees, and a grandfather's writing about his grandson's grand slam in a Pony League baseball game

Still, the community seems to be responding, despite a lack of promotion, something expected to ramp up later this year. Figures for April show the blogs received more than 295,000 page views, compared with about 210,000 the previous month.

While encouraging, the News & Record's project isn't uppermost yet on the town's mind. Mitzi Barber, an educational programmer with the county schools, said she occasionally checks Alexander's newspaper blog. However, the longtime News & Record subscriber starts most mornings reading a popular non-newspaper local blogger called "Hogg's Blog," after its author David Hoggard. (The blog has a link on the paper's website.)

"I like the personal twist on a topic," said Barber, who typically reads the paper after putting her two children to bed in the evening. "He's a little outrageous."

It's unclear how all this will generate significant revenue for the newspaper. The paper's website was profitable last year, said Robinson, but right now he's not sure what the future business model might look like.

"We'll figure out a way to make money," said Robinson, who runs a newsroom of 120.

Like the town's namesake, the paper may be forced to retreat here and there, but in the end the struggle may pave the way for triumph. As Robinson wrote in his blog last month: "It may take us a while to reach our destination, and we'll almost certainly go down a few dead-ends and take the long way around. But we know where we're going."

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Talking back to the newspaper

Here is an excerpt from a Greensboro News & Record blog. In "Rasslin' Children and Strippers," the paper's editor, John Robinson, tried to address complaints about the suitability of a racy, Chicago-based story in the newspaper. The issue produced 16 comments over a four-day period.

* "... Since when does a newspaper use Jerry Springer as the yardstick by which it judges the quality of its content? Newspapers have a greater responsibility to their readers than Jerry Springer has to his viewers." -- Susie, May 18, 09:36 AM

* "This story seems to run into problems that are fundamental for why people aren't reading the paper: 1) The story appeared online a few days ago. 2) It's not local.... -- Jim Wilson, May 18, 01:51 PM

* "We published it because it was just interesting, a little slice of something happening elsewhere .... If you don't think it's interesting, that's OK. There were two other stories on that page, both of them local.... I think there are a lot of things in the paper to express outrage about, but they have more to do with man's inhumanity to man and hypocrisy in government and the like." -- John Robinson, May 18, 08:17 PM

* "John you remind me of a pregnant teenager -- lame excuse after lame excuse." -- yellowdog, May 19, 11:13 AM

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