Once upon a time, newspapers wanted nothing to do with bloggers, those amateurs who opined on anything that caught their fancy, whether it was interesting, or accurate, or not.
That was then. Now newspaper websites, desperate for readers and revenue, are increasingly in cahoots with bloggers, posting and plugging them and even sharing advertising revenue.
Purists may sniff at these online liaisons but, as the print newspaper industry shrinks, they may be inevitable.
"Any new information source is a potential competitor to a local newspaper. Smart newspapers are figuring out they don't have to fight with those competitors -- they can make alliances with them," said Robert Niles, editor of the Online Journalism Review, which is published by the USC Annenberg School for Communication.
This year, the Washington Post added a sponsored blog roll to its website, a directory of links to blogs that specialize in travel, technology, health and more. If the Post sells an ad on the blog roll's main page, the bloggers split the money with the newspaper. So far, about 100 bloggers have signed up.
To Caroline Little, the chief executive of Washingtonpost Newsweek Interactive, the ad network is good business. Most ad buyers don't want to take the time to buy space on dozens of different blogs, she said, and the staff-driven side of the website often doesn't have enough stories about technology, business or health for advertisers looking to place ads near that content. With the blog roll, the Post can grab ad revenue that might have gone elsewhere.
"It's about figuring out how to monetize other people's content," Little said.
The partnership has boosted ad revenue, she said, although the money made from selling blog roll ads isn't a significant part of online income, at least not yet. A spokeswoman for Adify, a San Bruno, Calif., company that supplies ad network technology to the Post, said the blog roll had increased the site's audience by more than 50%. Little couldn't confirm that.
Britain's Guardian newspaper and Hoy, a Spanish-language daily in Los Angeles (owned by Times parent Tribune Co.), have also set up networks that sell ads on smaller sites and share ad income with blogs.
Other papers are expanding coverage -- and, they hope, drawing traffic -- by posting the work of local bloggers. The Houston Chronicle, for one, has recruited 50 reader-bloggers whose commentary appears its website.
A note at the top of the readers' blog page reads: "Our members are responsible for this content, which is not edited by the Chronicle." Among the recent blog headlines: "Breastfeeding is obscene?"
Scott Clark, vice president and editor of Chron.com, said readers' blogs had expanded coverage. "Many of our readers have specialized knowledge and passions," he said. "By adding them to our site, we tremendously expand the scope of information that we're able to provide."
The blurred lines make many uneasy. "There's a lot of uninformed opinion on the Internet and not a lot of solid reporting," said Fred Brown, vice chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists' ethics committee and a columnist at the Denver Post. A professional journalist "respects the truth and lives up to standards of ethics. Certainly that isn't the case in the blogosphere."
Newspapers should make a clear distinction between staff-written and blogger-generated material as a service to their readers, said David Ardia, director of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.
But what if a blogger gets a fact wrong or makes a defamatory comment about someone?
Newspapers have to be careful, but federal law generally protects a website owner from postings by its users. As long as employees of a newspaper site have nothing to do with a blogger's work, Ardia said, the newspaper is probably protected, because it is simply posting content produced by an outsider.
At the same time, the law allows newspapers to act as good Samaritans to protect their readers, and Kinsey Wilson, executive editor of USA Today, said his paper had been doing just that.
The USA Today site has run excerpts from such blogs as College Football Resource and A Socialite's Life, the latter a gossip site that discusses and mocks fashion, celebrities and the media.
Wilson said in an interview that the industry wasn't adopting blogs in place of traditional reporting but in addition to it. In any event, he said, newspapers can't afford to think about distributing information the way they used to.
"The walled garden is dead. We're living in an era of distributed content," he said. One important role of a newspaper nowadays is to sift through rafts of information online, he said, and help readers use it.