NPR Takes 'Web-First' Approach to Blogging. What Does That Mean?

Categories: Media, internets
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Hello, Blogger...
Tomorrow, National Public Radio will formally launch the Argo Project, a group of 12 topic-based news blogs hosted by different NPR affiliates across the country. Two of the blogs are Bay Area-based: KALW's The Informant, which focuses on criminal justice issues, and KQED's MindShift, which looks at how technology is changing the way students learn.

While the individual blogs are pretty standard, Argo is a great primer on how a smart mainstream news organization has decided to approach the web. Their approach is a mix of the strategic (integrated launch of blog, Twitter, and Facebook pages) and the retro (framing the blogs around big, enduring human questions). 

The first choice -- given $3 million in funding from the Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help NPR "fill the growing gap in local news offerings" -- was to build a network of blogs. While there are still journalists who see bloggers as lazy, pajama-clad pundits ("It makes me crazy when I see these guys referred to as reporters. They're anything but," one Washington Post journalist noted during a dustup over a Post blogger this summer), blogging has increasingly become just another, web-friendly style of sharing information.

This all sounds obvious to those of us who get much of our news from sleek, topic-based websites, but it's not such an intuitive choice for many mainstream news groups. Most still package information for the web in newspaper-sized portions, with a newspaper audience in mind. On daily news sites, blogging is often a catchall for smaller stories plus bits of information that don't fit the standard article format. Even web-only sites that provide content to newspapers, like The Bay Citizen, tend to treat their websites like pixelated newsprint.

What makes NPR's Argo blogs different is that they're not just a collection of radio-style stories uploaded onto a website: They're a truly web-first approach to local news.SF Weekly talked to Matt Thompson, a strategist behind the Argo project, as well as representatives from the local NPR affiliates, about the essential elements of their their web-first tactics. 

1. Target a Passionate, Niche Audience

As Tim Olson, KQED's vice president of digital media and education, put it, print and broadcast companies are the big department stores of news. They're used to assembling a lot of different kinds of news and having a large general audience come to browse. But the web works under a retail model. Readers can afford to be picky: "go to Gap for one thing and Banana Republic for another," Olson said. In this kind of marketplace, sites that become the number one destination for a certain niche audience may be able to maintain the most loyal following--and the steadiest page views. The benefit of the Argo Project, Olson said, is that it allows the local NPR station to experiment with attracting an even more focused web audience than the ones for its food or capitol news blogs. The goal is not to attract "wonks and insiders," Thompson said, but people without expert knowledge who still have a passionate interest in a subject and want to learn more.

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How will traditional journalism mesh with 'curating'?
Argo's dozen blog topics, from immigration and cultural fusion in Southern California to the business of fighting global poverty in Seattle, were chosen to be "geographically focused locally, but nationally resonant," Thompson said. The Informant's focus on criminal justice in Bay Area in the wake of the Oscar Grant trial is one example of this: a local news topic with the potential to become a source of national interest.
   
2. The Three Pillars: Reporting, Curating, Community Building

NPR has asked its Argo bloggers to approach their subjects like old-fashioned beat reporters, with plenty of interviews and on-the-ground investigations. But that's only one part of their job. Unlike the classic approach of a beat reporter, Thompson said, "It's not just about them and what stories they can find and get in the paper." 

In practice, this means bloggers are responsible for "curating" the news, sorting through each day's articles on a topic and pointing their readers to whatever's noteworthy on other sites. Instead of viewing other news sites as competition, this model views competing sites as participants in one big collaborative conversation. Again, pretty standard web-friendly practice, but something that is still not a given for many mainstream news organizations. (In San Francisco, for example, the web-first Bay Citizen has built this "link economy" into their structure by forging content partnerships with local blogs,  while the San Francisco Chronicle's website is largely link-free.)   
 
3. The Stream, Not the Article

Keeping up with a voracious blogging schedule doesn't just mean posting lots of shorter articles. It involves thinking about news differently -- not in terms of articles or broadcasts, Thompson said, but in term of a "stream of information," reported iteratively over time in a way that becomes increasingly rich and sophisticated.

In part, this means focusing on how journalists need to educate their readers on the big picture of what's going on in a particular topic area before they can really inform them about what's new. As both Thompson and Jay Rosen point out, journalists typically explain the bigger context of the story in a sentence or two, wedged in somewhere at the beginning of their story. Readers who don't understand the bigger context often get turned off, because what's "news" isn't understandable or interesting to someone who--unlike the reporter--hasn't spent hours of his or her life learning about a particular issue.

As Ezra Klein put it earlier this year, the news media may spend too much time on, yes, the news, rather than making sure their readers first understand the basics, like what a healthcare "public option" is.

How does this work in practice? In a sense, Thompson said, bloggers should aim to be like Harry Potter or Gilgamesh, taking their readers along on an epic quest to find the answers to A Big Question. In this description, the Argo Project sounds like the Great Books approach to blogging. Take a one of those big questions, like, "What is justice?" and explore it through the lens of a cops, courts, and communities beat in Oakland and the rest of the Bay Area. The challenge, Thompson said, will be in constantly returning to that bigger question within the weekly and monthly cycle of blogging.

Some of the Argo Project's blogs have been soft launched for up to a few weeks, at this point, but they're still on their first legs. How they evolve, and whether they are able to successfully attract a strong niche community, won't be clear for several months. 

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