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Paper's aim: building blog for success

May 23, 2005|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

GREENSBORO, N.C. — 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."

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