It’s not easy to craft a strategy for starting and growing blogs on a news website. But it is important. Blogs can be a magnet to attract a loyal audience around the most important subjects, and can improve the whole site around them.
I talked with Megan Liberman, The New York Times’ deputy news editor for blog development, who tangles with these issues every day, to help identify these eight keys to starting the right blogs and growing them harmoniously on a news site.
When to create a blog
Blogs can be about anything, written by anyone. Where do you begin?
There are at least two essential ingredients for a good news website blog. The first one is Voice. You need the right kind of writer.
“Blogging is not [just] reporting… Blogs are not just news feeds. They do have to have more of an identity than that,” Liberman said. “There may be people who are great journalists and great reporters and even great writers, where blogging is less natural for them.”
One of the blogging format’s founding fathers, Dave Winer, described blogging most fundamentally as “the unedited voice of a person.” Of course some blog copy could use a second set of eyes, but the writing should carry the personal viewpoint or the authentic voice of an author.
A good blog author believes she has something important to say and a notion of how best to say it.
Some blogs, like The Times’ Bits and Dealbook, for example, may have multiple contributing authors. Even in those cases, it helps to have one leading personality (Andrew Ross Sorkin on Dealbook and Nick Bilton on Bits) setting the tone, Liberman said.
The second key ingredient for a news website blog is the right content niche. The sweet spot is to blog on a topic that the audience and the editors agree deserves more exploration, while trying not to duplicate the traditional news coverage already on the site.
For example, Dealbook focuses on corporate mergers & acquisitions and other Wall Street news, a subset of the broader Business category on the Times site. FiveThirtyEight focuses on polling and the statistical side of politics, a subset of the overall Politics category. Other blogs hit narrow niches like war reporting, India, Hollywood awards, parenting, the elderly or college admissions.
A few blogs, however, do serve more mainstream subjects like The Caucus (politics & government) or Bits (technology). Those overlap quite a bit with the Times other news articles on politics and technology, but that’s not a dealbreaker because blogs can serve different purposes than news articles.
Three advantages of a blog for news coverage
What do blogs give you that the rest of the news site doesn’t?
Speed in delivering breaking news is one advantage. Blogs are nimble and can get news up and out faster. Some sites, like the L.A. Times even create a breaking-news blog to report developing news as quickly as possible.
Blogs also create a gathering point for online community. Readers build stronger ties — with the author, the subject matter and each other — in a blog than they do with the broader site. They bookmark the blog, or subscribe to feeds.
That niche community grows loyal audience, and enables the blogger to tap their expertise for better news coverage. The Times’ Caucus blog asked readers to help identify a secret Super PAC donor. And war blogger C.J. Chivers recently asked his readers to help identify cluster bombs being used in Libya. Expert readers responded with emails and phone calls to help him narrow the search.
Finally, a blog can be an entry point to journalism across the site. An effective blogger can steer his loyal niche audience to the other articles published on your site that they would care about but might not otherwise find.
For example, the Caucus blog does an early morning roundup that summarizes and links to the handful of Times news articles that were published that day. In this way, a good blogger can be not only another politics reporter but your organization’s lead ambassador to the politically minded audience.
Manage the growth
So, now you’ve created some blogs and they’re finding a groove. How do you keep them on track and increase their value over time?
Communication and coordination is vital, Liberman said. Each blog needs to have a sense of when its work might intersect with other blogs and editorial departments. It’s important to keep those related editors in the same loop so you don’t duplicate coverage.
Avoid topic sprawl. A freestanding blog might naturally evolve over time, taking on new subjects. News site blogs often can’t do that.
As a sub-brand, blogs have to account for what the larger brand already provides. Find your niche, Liberman said, and don’t overstep your mission.
“These brands like Dealbook, like Bits or like Well, have to be somewhat defined within the context of the Times. They can’t just grow into being bigger and bigger and bigger and take on new subject matter,” she said. “They can grow in terms of volume, they can grow in terms of traffic … but they really have to stay fairly close to what their mission is.”
Blow out your big successes. A very successful blog can grow into something bigger. The Times has converted Dealbook, Bits and soon the health and wellness blog Well into something more like microsites than blogs.
Although they still are part of the Times site, they have their own branding and unique design that little resembles the rest of nytimes.com. Dealbook even has its own domain name at Dealbook.com and it’s own top-level navigation spot on the nytimes.com home page.
Liberman said the Times’ decision to blow out a blog like this is driven by two main factors: advertiser interest in sponsoring the blog more prominently; and enough direct traffic and news volume to warrant manually selected top stories and adding special features.
If you reach the point where your biggest problem is deciding how to cope with the overwhelming popularity of one of your blogs, you’re doing something right.