Tuesday, March 18, 2008

News, Noise, Annoys

It's time again for the annual self-absorption fest. The State of the News Media report gives professionals a great chance to whine about how the Project for Excellence in Journalism gets it wrong, how it does not fully understand their efforts and brilliance.

For years too, bloggers can increasingly warm themselves in reflected glory. More and more Americans visit blogs and claim to get news from them. The facts that nearly all of us are part-times doing it for free and rarely have any real news is not important. Some bloggers somewhere are doing it well...at this time when MSM are doing news decreasingly well.

The chant that blogs are all about pictures of pets has more often turned into a winger mumble that they are damned liberals confusing opinion with knowledge. In many ways, that has a good basis. Consider that most of us:
  • Write in snatched moments by a single blogger
  • Don't have staff to gather news and do what fact checking we can on the fly
  • Have the arrogance abetted by our readers that folk do pay attention to what we think
  • Are rarely at accepted sources for regurgitated quasi-news, like press conferences and other staged events
On the other hand, consider multi-contributor efforts that stress news, even the hyper-local snippets that I have sometimes derided.

H2Otown

This is true citizen's journalism. It's real and it's local. The Watertown site teaches the natives how to report, write and edit news. Some of it seems trivial to outsiders, but that's long been long been true of even beloved weeklies. News to someone who knows the people, pastry shop or street is meaningless to many others. There's a lot in every day's H2Otown that MSM like the Boston Globe or TV stations can't or won't cover. It's news, it's there, and if the site doesn't cover it, for most of us, it's like it never happened. In addition, sites like this create an archive for research and reference that exists nowhere else.

Universal Hub

Many in this area don't go a day without clicking into Universal Hub for the same reasons, but with a very different slant. Adam Gaffin not only finds, digests and presents Boston-area and related news, rants, pictures and other features, but his thousands of readers add their details. Some comments are eye witness accounts, while others just put another briquette of frivolity on the grill. The dozens of daily pieces are concise and easy to browse. As with H2Otown, there's a ton here that won't make the MSM. In addition, UH often scoops the local papers and stations on smaller stories. In addition, it aggregates news, saving us time from trying to find other sources on our own.

I note too that the Globe certainly blundered when it dropped Adam's weekly column pointing to Boston news and oddments we didn't see elsewhere. This was not particular surprise though. The paper has long run citations from blogs and other online sources with no links in its own online edition. That's kind of like a restaurant serving only pictures and descriptions of food.

How 'bout Bloggers?

So what's the noise about news and blogs this year, you ask? You can see just that section of the report here.

The punchline is that many more people are viewing blogs, but that most say they see them as entertainment and not news sources. We can stop and chuckle considering Fox (alleged) News and such that they do think they are getting news from daily.

Supporting the rationale, only 5% of bloggers (Pew polls) claim "they concentrated primarily on news and current events." A related makes-you-think number (Zogby poll), however, is that 15% of Americans read blogs for news and information. This 3:1 ratio suggests that the hobbyists and voyeurs are weighing more to blogs as news sources. I bet that next year's report will reflect more of the same as more bloggers add or increase their news content.

Navel gazers (blog about personal experiences) topped bloggers at 37%. The next was more my style of opinion ("issues of public life," in the survey) at 11%. The news motivation was third at 5%.

Interestingly, the report leads with "most Americans are not turning to blogs for news." Numerically that's true, but the trends have been for modest, steady increases here. (You can explore the four previous reports here.)

Just as internet users don't know quite what to do with blogs, neither do newspapers. The report spins it, "If citizens are gravitating to blogs more for personal pleasure, traditional media are working to connect them more to the news. Fully 95% of the top 100 newspapers included blogs from reporters in March 2007, up from 80% in 2006" (Bivings Group).

I won't be overtly catty about the value of newspaper blogs. I have noted that in the main, these are just additional duties thrown on busy reporters and editors. Looking at the Globe's for examples, their hearts and minds are clearly not in it.

Getting to the quick, the report includes "...blogging appears to have become a compelling way to attract new audiences online." The latest figures, from 2006, (Nielsen/Net Ratings) have it that, "..the number unique visitors to blog pages on the 10 most popular newspaper sites grew 210% from December 2005 to December 2006. Collectively, those visitors made up 13% of total traffic to these Web sites."

Implications in the report include that ad revenues online will continue growing, often at the expense of print. Newspapers and big websites will tussle for the money. More blogs will get ad money, some enough to sustain them and perhaps profit.

Disclaimer: Here ads bring in small amounts. This blog is also one of many that gets additional pittances from readers accessing us through pay services, such as Lexis. It's not enough to keep me in beer, much less skew any of my coverage or opinions.

Among the most intriguing figures in the report was expectations for bloggers and news hounds. These are tucked in the financial section. Consider:
The majority of Americans expect blogs to play an increasingly prominent role in bringing them the news. According to the Zogby Poll, 55% believe blogging will be an important aspect of journalism in the future. An overwhelming number (74%) saw amateur citizen reporters, as opposed to established media outlets, playing a key role.
Coupled with a youth-heavy skew to regular blog readers, this suggests considerable opportunity for growth and more blog news content. This has a solid fit with a 2007 Synovate finding that only 15% of Americans read blogs daily.

As frenzied efforts by newspapers and others make blogs common, accepted news sources can only expand that number. Older adults, boomers, were not early adopters of blogs, but are being sucked into the vortex surrounding them.

It's healthy for news in general. Rather than simply bemoan MSM cutbacks that lead to less and less local coverage, we can rejoice in the sites that more than putty these cracks.

I bet next year's report will show increases in blog readership for news as well as the percentage of bloggers who concentrate on news. We probably don't need much more than a doubling to 10% of news-oriented blogs to get a critical mass enough to attract those laggard online readers.

Ideally, this trend will capture more of the teens and 20s who grew up on those LITE snippets of TV news or what passes for news. Few of them read newspapers. If they get news and analysis online, we'll all be better off.

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