Are news-blogs like newspapers or talkback radio?

Tim Dunlop, of the leftish blog Road to Surfdom, is a few days into his News Ltd Blogocracy gig. Generally, newspaper attempts to run blogs haven’t been that successful. Maybe that’s why they have brought in a successful blogger, rather than trying to repackage journalists as bloggers.

But perhaps blogs haven’t worked on newspapers because the differences between them are too great. The most successful news-driven blogs – like Lavartus Prodeo on the left or Tim Blair on the right – are to me much closer to talkback radio than to newspapers or magazines. Both news-blogs and talkback are heavily reliant on print media for their stories, but add opinion – often of a strongly held and predictable kind from the blogger/presenter – and the opportunity for the general public to have their usually only slightly mediated say.

Personally, neither talkback nor the news-blogs do much for me. I want to learn new things, not read things I know already or could easily guess. I think Lavartus Prodeo isn’t nearly as good as it was when it was Mark Bahnisch’s thoughtful solo blog. Though there is still the occasional reflective and informative post, most of it is just the day’s soft-left talking points. Yet clearly this is a winning formula, as the site visit and page view statistics Mark sends around show.

The issue the newspapers are working on is whether the two forms of media can be combined. Though most newspapers have political leanings, all the main daily papers in Australia try to provide some balance and quality control (within the constraints of limited expertise and short deadlines). By contrast, the successful blogs, like successful talkback shows, thrive on being opinionated, with the quality control mostly after rather than before publication, via critical comments and calls.

Are newspapers taking risks with their reputations in adopting the blog format? I think there is some danger that the newspapers’ already fragile credibility could be undermined further by blogs which lack fact-checking or balance. But perhaps the more likely outcome is that the newspaper blogs won’t generate enough traffic to justify their existence, as they don’t provide the kind of content people who go to newspaper websites are trying to find.

13 Responses to “Are news-blogs like newspapers or talkback radio?

  • 1
    Mark Bahnisch
    November 8th, 2006 23:38

    You raise some interesting points, Andrew.

    But I think a lot of the change you perceive is just part of the evolution of the blogosphere as it builds an audience. If you go back to the days before the 2004 election, there were only a few Ozpolitical blogs operating – with longish posts and generally erudite comments. Back Pages broke the mould in terms of comments and sort of interactivity/community during the election campaign itself. Tim Blair of course already had something going much more similar to the US format. There has been a shift away from more analytical posts towards more news/opinion focussed ones, and more writing for a broader audience who will make lots of comments. Catallaxy, in my view, has recently taken that direction as well, though, interestingly, the number of regular commenters there has diminished at the same time.

    I don’t see it as necessarily a negative development. There’s still space for smaller blogs and longer, thoughtful posts on bigger blogs.

    Whether or not the “talkback” style translates to MSM blogs is, I think, an open question. Tim’s got off to a great start, I think. The big risk he has, though, is being on the news.com.au portal rather than a branded paper site is that the MSM audience may not be there because it’s more of an aggregator or a portal (though obviously Hugh Martin is trying to up the content). But, again, perhaps that’s not a bad thing for Tim – as it means that it’s the quality of the blog rather than its host that will drive the audience growth.

  • 2
    Andrew Norton
    November 9th, 2006 06:11

    I don’ t think talkback blogs are a bad thing in themselves, they are just not what I want to do as a blogger myself or so much as a reader of blogs. Catallaxy doesn’t quite fit the talkback model – you could hardly accuse Rafe of being driven by the news cycle, for example – but it has evolved in that general direction, with a larger proportion of posts that are essentially annotating their links rather than providing additional content, and often lively if not very good comments threads.

  • 3
    genevieve
    November 9th, 2006 07:40

    The point you raise about the content not being a predictable part of a news site is a good one, Mr. N.
    I have recently done the rounds of news blogs here and OS and in general they are not that exciting. The defensiveness of the journalists often sees to that, there is sometimes a tendency to jump on critics rather than talk to them which is rather jarring if you are used to the notion of blog as debating space.

    This could pass as time goes by, but it’s hard to see how papers can expect to replicate the blogging experience without sending journalists out to practise elsewhere first. It would be hard to move from a fact-checking, legalistic mindset regarding content to a public conversation in one jump. Very good idea to put a seasoned blogger into the traps to show them how it might be done, and replicates what is happening at The Age with James Farmer.

  • 4
    Robert Merkel
    November 9th, 2006 08:17

    I think there’s something to that. Certainly, with my recent guest posts on LP, I’ve tried (with only partial success) to make my posts reasonably short and make some obvious stop-off points for discussion; on my own, much less-read blog I don’t mind just saying my piece and if nobody has anything to add, well so be it.

    However, one key difference between blog discussion and talkback radio is the ability to bring facts and evidence into the discussion in a way that’s very difficult to do in the time-constrained medium of talkback. So even though there will be talkback-like stoushes on occasion, I think on balance even the chattier blogs can enlighten as well as providing a battleground.

  • 5
    Corin
    November 9th, 2006 21:50

    Andrew, there is a great deal of uncertainty for the newspapers about whether they create new sites for blogs or add blogs onto current news techniques.

    However I would say given CNN and the like running 24 hour stories – often ‘hot off the press’ – that the isks are there already on news channels so why not papers of getting it wrong.

    What the blogs do though is pass comment on stories which are ‘hot off the press’ and I agree they can come unstuck more here from a number of directions.

    I would point out one thing though – if journalists had to be as accountable as politicians for what they say or claim – they would be in massive strife. As an example I was re-reading the ‘updated’ forward to The End of Certainty, in which Kelly addresses why Keating won 93. Well I think Kelly is the best Australian commentator of his generation and certainly the most influential – but re-read the forward and work out if he was correct: he was only in part and with Howard’s dominance in 96 he was often wrong.

  • 6
    Andrew Norton
    November 10th, 2006 06:04

    Corin – Newsapers have had the problem of usually not being first with the news for decades, so I would have thought they should make a virtue of their time delay and go in for more fact-checking to ensure higher levels of accuracy and (as they have been) more analysis to help people make sense of what is going on. Obviously being error free is just about impossible – especially about the future (re Kelly) – but they should be able to do better than more immediate forms of media.

  • 7
    Hugh Martin
    November 10th, 2006 09:15

    Andrew, this argument has gone round the block many times. There are a couple of points I’d like to make about it:
    * Traditional print journalists have tended to struggle with the style and format of blogs and often it’s because they are asked by their employers to blog as well as write news, features or columns. An exception is Gary Hughes who writes Gotcha at news.com.au. Gary has broken news stories and generally done some very interesting pioneering work in covering crime and corruption via a blog. Another exception is Andrew Bolt who has taken to the format like a duck to water.
    * What is news? Like it or not, it does mean different things to different people. So blogs on big news sites might not be telling you something new, but they are communicating news to a large audience, nevertheless.
    * The question of risk for newspapers in blogging goes straight to the old “Bloggers v Journalism” question. Tim Dunlop and I have debated this before. He would prefer not to have his blogging described as journalism, though as he admits it is “clearly a journalism related activity”.

    As far as news.com.au is concerned we are not a newspaper site so we have the benefit of not being constrained by a newspaper brand. That freedom is also a limitation in that we don’t have direct access to the resources of a newspaper newsroom.

    So in looking to develop and enrich our coverage I felt we should engage more with the blogosphere. And what better way to do it than via a successful independent blogger like Tim?

    As far as the question of balance goes, Tim’s perspective is eminently suitable to sit in our existing mix of voices and opinions. News.com.au doesn’t really need another right wing commentator, we already have access to the best. However, a dissenting voice who could add more colour and movement to the offerings on our site and engage our substantial audience in new ways is a potentially valuable asset.

    It’s less than a week old, but I am very pleased with the way Blogocracy is going and I’m sure Tim will thrive in his new environment.

  • 8
    Don Arthur
    November 10th, 2006 12:56

    I think it makes sense for news.com.au to recruit someone like Tim Dunlop rather than expecting print journalists to add blogging to their existing work. I hope blogocracy does well.

    In terms of personal preference, I agree with Andrew. I’m not interested in blogs which run behind the news screaming predicatable opinions. My favourite blogs:

    1. Tell me about things BEFORE I read about them in the newspaper.
    2. Add new information or analysis to already running stories.
    3. Discuss niche topics I’m particularly interested in (especially if people who know what they’re talking about inhabit the comments threads).

    When blogs get popular they tend to become less worthwhile for me. The comments threads become dominated by backslapping, ranting and abuse. I’m not really all that interested in hearing what a blogger or commenter thinks. What I want to know is why they think it.

  • 9
    Boris
    November 10th, 2006 21:19

    I think there is also a question how far the blogger (and even the commenters) can go with their opinions. On independent blogs freedom of speech is virtually unlimited (at least for the blogger). How much freedom the papers and even news.com.au can or will allow? How much self-censorship will occur? Presumably, Tim Dunlop is paid for running the blog. Andrew Norton is not. This can have an effect on their respective behaviour.

  • 10
    Corin
    November 11th, 2006 19:17

    Andrew, Blogs keep people online which is good for advertising revenue.

    Australian print media is a rather sad professional body – there is not nearly enough investigative practice (or pressure to get the story). As far as I can tell they often hunt in pack.

    The investigative and internal angle is often left to the ABC, SBS, and Sunday TV shows I think.

    Bloggers have become read because the papers are simply dull, and predictable.

  • 11
    Corin
    November 11th, 2006 19:18

    I meant ‘international’ not ‘internal’ – sorry.

  • 12
    Andrew Norton
    November 11th, 2006 20:04

    Corin – I’m sure the newspapers are hoping that blogs will keep people online and their screen cluttered with pop-ups. But so far the blogging audience is still pretty small. The figures Mark Bahnisch sent around about LP show that their monthly number of visits is still well below the daily circulation of even the broadsheets, let alone the tabloids. And Tim doesn’t seem to be getting any more comments at Blogocracy than he does at Road to Surfdom, and surely the interactivity is the main value adding? I’m not saying that this will always be the case – but that’s how it is at the moment.

    I blog because I enjoy it, free of delusions of political grandeur or media fame.

  • 13
    Corin
    November 12th, 2006 06:50

    Andrew, don’t be so modest – numbers mean little. Information can change everything as it spreads. Which is why I agree that proper investigative journalism – like the type on 4 Corners over Bielke Petersen – is far more valuable than blogs or even comment. I would say the same of a model of thought, or a framework with true worth (which is probably what you, John Quiggin (on the other side), etc, do well) is worth a million hits if it creates wider understanding as it diseminates.