The News and Messenger tried doing a blog, and like so many others started by newspapers, it’s closing up shop. Editor Alex Granados ran the operation for about eight months and announced today he’s discontinuing the effort. While trying this is a good idea, and some mainstream media outlets (particularly the Washington Post) have been successful at it, the execution here was lacking. I’ll bet when the News & Messenger launched this, they didn’t really appreciate what they were getting into, and without a clear vision of what this was going to do (other than provide content for web advertising) it’s going to be a long, hard effort with little return.
What the News & Messenger didn’t quite realize is that you earn blog readers with content. Musing about what your next editorial will be doesn’t draw readers. Rehashing or providing the same drive-by reporting that appears in print doesn’t draw readers. The only way to do that is to provide something else, particularly more in-depth information than local media space restrictions permit, more breaking information, more of the information they’re not going to find elsewhere, and increasingly new multi-media content that can’t appear in print. With that you build an audience, that audience participates, and you build a resource where folks find value and contribute their own value, although sometimes the relative value of that contribution requires just a little bit of supervision. It’s not something you do well as an aside, it’s something you really have to focus on. I can’t imagine many editors would ever have the time to run a successful blog, especially when the return on that investment seems so elusive.
Commentary is also a poor foundation for a blog, and of course that’s what an editorial page editor specializes in. If you want opinion, there are seemingly endless places to find it, and most of it is just plain dull. Very few exceptionally gifted people out there are successful building a blog on opinion writing. If you want to draw readers and don’t happen to have skills that rise to the utterly stunning level of something like Eject! Eject! Eject!, it’s information that captures them. Information they’re not going to find elsewhere. And unless you have the resources of a big-time news operation and can break stories constantly, you’re going to have to explore all those somewhat undeveloped stories that don’t quite meet the usual journalistic standards. All those simmering stories where you don’t have the required number of attributable and quotable sources, where you have sources that can’t have their names revealed, that’s where the gold is. This is not the stuff editors are typically comfortable reporting, so they don’t.
Those stories are definitely out there, but you have to have the cojones to wade into them. You have to be willing to accept the risk. Newspapers, particularly local ones, just don’t have the tolerance for that. It’s not their culture.
The other problem for a newspaper operation is that they need a return on their investment. That’s just not going to happen with a blog. There’s no money in this. It’s all expense, and lots of time. To keep the content fresh it’s best to have a goal of posting five stories a day, something I used to do but even I can’t keep that pace most of the time. Who’s going to pay someone to post five well developed stories a day when they’re not going to generate any meaningful revenue as a result? Certainly not a newspaper. While sometimes it only takes a few minutes to knock out a blog post, most of the time a worthwhile post can take hours to craft. It can require the same level of effort as a full-time job.
So between high risk and negligible reward, newspapers wading into the blogging arena is a bad idea. Or so you might think, if you’re a green eyeshades kind of person making financial decisions based on conventional wisdom.
The problem is that the local newspaper is a dinosaur. They can’t get the resources needed in order to do the job they want to do, and end up being hollow shells of what they’re supposed to be. Underpaid, overworked staff chase stories to put in ever-shrinking page counts as managers try to squeeze every dime out of the operation they possibly can. They’re losing money, and closing down everywhere, even in the big metropolitain areas where they should have a chance at survival. Media General, which owns the News & Messenger is about the worst stock pick one could make and has been on a downward slide for years as advertising revenue continues to disappear. If they don’t figure out something new, they’re simply not going to exist in ten years. Dead-tree media isn’t going to last much longer, and local papers are going to fold first.
Their only hope is the internet, and you can smell the desperation of local papers by pulling up insidenova.com to get bombarded with cheap flash ads hawking every non-local scam product you can imagine, along with the usual comcast and verizon ads. If they could possibly cram in one more flash ad on their pages, they’d certainly try, and it creates a nightmare for visitors. They want to become an internet business, which would be tremendously cheaper to operate and possibly much more effective, but they haven’t figured out how to make that happen because they’re focused on revenue first, and value second. It’s a disastrous plan. Lots of people utterly despise the result.
So are newspaper-sponsored blogs the answer for dead tree media? Probably not, but whatever the answer is, I imagine something resembling blogging is going to be a part of it. The 24-hour news cycle, with a jumble of commentary and news, that includes opportunities for easy reader interaction that can be easily managed and supervised probably will be. Maybe it’s a mix of blog and discussion forum. Maybe it’s something else entirely. Whatever it will be, it’s not going to require printing presses, delivery people, and recycling bins.
So Alex Grandos made an attempt to chart a path to rescue this business, and in the end it didn’t work and the News & Messenger will continue its downward slide. Kudos to him for trying. Sometimes it was actually interesting. In time something else will replace the News & Messenger as a local news source, just as automobiles replaced the horse and buggy. Someone is going to figure out what internet-based journalism will look like in the coming years, and if it’s not Media General that figures it out it’ll be someone else. But someone, somehow is going to fill the gap. It always happens that way.
Until then, there’s still BVBL. I’ll be happy to pick up the slack, as always.
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