When Joe Bloggers take over the news

What happens when you let a bunch of bloggers loose on your paper’s website? Nick Turner decided it was high time his regional newspaper found out…

SHOULD NEWSPAPER editors take any interest in the phenomenon of blogging?

Probably not, if you believe the recent survey that suggested most people had never even heard of blogging and, in fact, more of them were familiar with the term dogging.

But while blogging – the craze for keeping an online diary of views or personal events – may not yet be mainstream enough to have entered into everyday vocabulary, it cannot be so easily dismissed.

A conservative estimate would suggest that there are 16 million blogs out there in cyberspace – with 43,000 new ones being created every day.

Research also suggests that as many as one in three people aged between 16 and 24 have either their own blog or their own website.

Rupert Murdoch focused on the significance of blogging when he made his new media speech earlier this year, and "web gurus" have been popping up at conferences to suggest that blogging represents a business opportunity for newspapers.

For example, Vin Crosbie suggested at this year’s Newspaper Society conference that blogs could send page impressions for newspaper websites through the roof, and told how one Kansas newspaper had doubled its hits with a range of blogs, including that of a lesbian housewife.

But not even that thought seems to have had much impact on the regional press. I surveyed the websites of more than 70 regional newspapers and found only two of them that hosted blogs.

So, it seems that with a couple of honourable exceptions, regional newspaper editors have concluded that blogs have little to do with them.

Perhaps an experiment I carried out with the News & Star in Cumbria might change that picture.

Having decided that we wanted to host blogs on our website, we charged off to invite various local people – such as nightclub owners, teachers and policemen – to keep a blog and their response was: "What’s a blog?"

After this disappointing false start, I posted a message on our home page one morning that was headlined: "We need bloggers".

The response was immediate and unexpected – within a week we had a dozen eager bloggers. They included two housewives, two Americans, two students, two Tories, a carer, a Cumbrian living in the USA and a struggling writer, among others.

But the one thing these people all had in common with each other was that they were all already internet junkies.

One popular blog was the diary of a Californian woman who was moving to Cumbria to marry a man she met on an Elvis Costello fansite.

We’ve had some fun with our blogs, but it’s also been a bumpy ride, with unexpected problems that are worth thinking about.

The first and most obvious issue has been resources. It takes time to read a dozen blogs a day, even when they are only being approved for publication rather than subbed and spell-checked.

Another issue is the potential conflict between blogging and the brand values of a newspaper. If everyone is able to write for you, there is a risk of your site turning into an online version of Speakers’ Corner, rather than a provider of fact.

Legal issues and complaints are bound to arise and these can be hard to deal with when you haven’t actually met the blogger. I’ve had to scrap two blogs because I didn’t feel I could trust the writer, and when another was suspended for a week I found myself dealing with the threat of the world’s first bloggers’ strike.

Which leads us on to this key question. The heroes of blogging have forced senators to resign and mounted campaigns against multinationals, but how does that ethic sit in the controlled environment of a newspaper that wants every fact checked and every comment legalled?

Not very well probably, but if you can link up with the blogging community there are some real benefits to be had.

You gain a new batch of correspondents with a strong emotional bond to the paper they write for every day.

Not only do their own blogs make stories, but they have provided numerous tip-offs.

Bloggers can also turn out to be useful when you are looking for a case study for a feature. And it is not just newspapers that have found this to be a benefit. One of our bloggers was recently plucked from obscurity to appear on Vanessa Feltz’s radio show.

Obviously the blogs generate web traffic. Not spectacular numbers, but a decent return when lumped together Blogs are also a great way to spot local talent that would normally have little contact with the paper. We have employed two of our bloggers on a freelance basis, including a certain Les Floyd who was recently part of the Press Gazette’s Press Cadets scheme.

A year ago, he was an alcoholic battling depression and agoraphobia.

But he found a voice through his blog and signed up for a journalism degree.

That has been an unexpected benefit and a personally rewarding vindication of our decision to open the door to Cumbria’s bloggers.

Nick Turner is deputy editor of the News & Star and the Cumberland News

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