Thursday, March 15, 2007

Magna Blogga

Sorry for the painful pun (with the Boston accent), but we smiled when our entertainment editor, John Black, coined it...and we couldn't resist.

As BostonNOW attempts to go where no other major newspaper has ever gone -- welcoming the community into the pages of our paper and our website in significant ways -- we are facing questions no one has yet answered and we are developing a master plan no one has built as we strive to return newspapers to relevancy.

We are trying to publish a newspaper and website that truly reflect our community and we will be trying several innovative measures to achieve that goal, including publishing dozens of bloggers in every section of the paper, webcasting our news meetings, and allowing reader input into our decisions via a chatroom or actual verbal participation.

And in keeping with our commitment to transparency, we are going to be asking for your help in answering the key questions and developing the plan to make the vision a reality.

The effort began at our first blogger "summit" last weekend. The gathering, attended by 40-50 folks, was both exciting and daunting. There was plenty of enthusiasm and plenty of healthy skepticism.

Serious questions need to be answered as we head toward our April 17 launch date. We need to solve concerns about:

  • Blog quality.

  • The quantity of quality blogs.

  • Compensation versus exposure and brand-building.

  • Editing. Bias. Obscenity. Editorial standards.

  • Selecting what to publish and what not to publish.

  • Identifying blogs in the paper.

As difficult as these questions are, I believe we not only can solve them, but in solving them, we can convert problems into opportunities for us and for Boston's bloggers. For example, if, as some people maintain, there are not enough top-quality bloggers in Boston today, the opportunity to be published, promoted and paid will go a long way toward building a market for quality work.

The most difficult question facing newspaper editors as they contemplate publishing bloggers is: how to deal with the issue of bias, attitude, or point of view, which are, of course, the heart of many if not most blogs.

There are certain standards we must adhere to and avoiding libel is the easiest. We will not publish libel or slander in the paper. Obscenity, which can be in the eyes of the beholder, is a bit tougher, but I think we’ll be able to agree with bloggers on standards most if not all of them will respect.

Bias or attitude is more difficult. Color, character and point of view are all central to most successful blogs. We will publish blogs without judging their bias. It is not a question of "if" but "where" and "how." And I don't know the answer yet.

Do we label an article a "blog" and trust that readers know the rules are different? Do we put blogs on a separate part of a page, much like newspapers put columnists (bloggers before the Internet) off to the left? Do we just ID blogs with a tag under the byline (e.g., Dorchester Blogger)? Do we shade them with a color that is a visual clue?

There is no doubt bloggers with attitude belong in the paper. They will provide the color and spark and different perspectives sorely missing in most papers today. We just need to solve the questions of "how" and "where"...and we will -- with your help.

Then there's compensation. No major newspaper in the United States is publishing, much less paying, bloggers in great numbers to appear in their papers. There is no roadmap or precedent here.

In the beginning, we will offer Boston-area bloggers what we think is an excellent bargain: We will give them exposure to 150,000-170,000 readers a day in exchange for their content. For relatively unknown bloggers, whose readership may be measured in three or even four digits today, this is an incredible opportunity to expand their "brand," spread their word, and raise their profile. The visibility opportunity is enormous: Any blogger publishing just once a week in BostonNOW will be seen by almost nine million readers in a year.

For some bloggers, however, exposure will not be the permanent and sole form of compensation. We will work with any blogger who is interested to develop a compensation plan that measures success and addresses their interests and needs as well as ours. For example, some bloggers might prefer a press pass to an event in their area of interest over a monetary payment.

Another vexing problem, cited regularly by the anti-blogger naysayers, is the quality of writing in the blog world. It can be spotty. It can be infrequent. But even discovering a single-digit fraction of talented writers among the thousands of Boston-area bloggers will serve to prime the pump. I'm not looking for hundreds of bloggers initially. I'm only looking for two to three dozen to start. We'll build from there.

We can also contribute to a rise in the quality of blog writing. Creativity and excellence are difficult to maintain in a vacuum. Like all writers, bloggers, faced with a limited audience and no compensation (either financial or spiritual), are constantly challenged to maintain their edge and production.

If we offer bloggers opportunity and reward, we give them audience and recognition and the motivation to raise the bar for themselves.

While all of the challenges are significant, so are the stakes. If newspapers fail to involve the community, the future of print journalism is grim indeed. If our experiment does work, we'll have gone beyond helping to save an industry, we'll be helping to chart its future.

That sounds a bit grandiose, but the decline of newspapers is very real and only experiments like ours can help turn it around.

John Wilpers

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