In 2006, as a producer with the top-rated TV news affiliate in Knoxville, Tennessee, I frequently found myself holding onto bits of information, news tips, commentary from the local blogosphere, and peculiarly fascinating local stories and photos—items that didn’t fit neatly into our on-air or online news coverage. To many in the newsroom, this was the throwaway chaff of the newsgathering process. But I’d been keeping a personal blog for several years and was active in East Tennessee’s surprisingly rich and diverse blogging community, so I knew without a doubt where this kind of material would fit best: in a blog.
However, at that time, the idea of a blog coming directly from someone working in the newsroom was an unpopular one around our office water cooler. Blogs, I was advised, were flighty, rabble-rousing fluff, not to be mixed up in any way with the serious journalism we were practicing within the inner sanctum. A newsroom blog would simply confuse viewers/readers and water-down our brand. Discouraged, I dropped the idea.
Then, however, in early 2007, I ran across a blogger working from within a television newsroom in another area of the state, doing exactly what I had envisioned, and drawing a large and highly participatory readership. Her name was Brittney Gilbert, and she was the brain, as well as the face, behind the cutting-edge blog “Nashville Is Talking,” (NIT) hosted by WKRN-TV.
Gilbert was the first blogger ever hired by a local news station specifically for the purpose of blogging, and she plied her trade right out in the middle of the newsroom. Working as a sort of human aggregator, she injected her singular voice and sensibilities into multiple posts throughout each day, most of which pointed her readers to the smartest content from the many dozens of Tennessee-based blogs from which she drew her material. Gilbert acted as sort of a salon hostess, guiding and shaping but never overwhelming the conversation that evolved on her blog through links, comments and, eventually, face-to-face local blogger meet-ups.
WKRN also had Gilbert appear on-air on a regular basis to discuss what Nashvillians were talking about online that day. Just as the station’s evening news anchors and morning show hosts became the faces for their on-air content, Gilbert became the face for the station’s online content. It was a forward-thinking and savvy strategy that paid off with growing blog traffic, as well as national recognition from journalism pundits. Today Gilbert has taken her newsroom blogging expertise to a much larger market, KPIX in San Francisco. But many credit Gilbert with bringing to life the strongly connected network of local bloggers that grew up around NiT and that still exists in the Nashville market today.
After I became a daily reader of NiT, Gilbert graciously allowed me to pick her brain, and she encouraged me to start my own similar enterprise within my station’s online brand. Although I still didn’t have strong buy-in from newsroom management, they never actually told me I couldn’t start a newsroom blog. So I did.
Over one weekend away from the station, I bought the domain KnoxvilleTalks.com, set up a free WordPress template, and started blogging. On Monday, I showed our Web master my handiwork, and he quickly figured out how to link the new domain to the station’s, so that any traffic to the blog would be credited to our news department.
For the first month or so, I didn’t have so much as a link from our station’s Web site directing people to Knoxville Talks, but I doggedly began taking moments here and there throughout my workday in the newsroom to guide blog visitors to the most interesting activity taking place at that hour within our local blogosphere. I developed a comprehensive blogroll, linking out to dozens of area bloggers. And I also linked back to and commented on the most interesting news content on our station’s site.
As traffic to Knoxville Talks grew, my news director became supportive, encouraging me to use some of my work-time to blog. Our managing editor started suggesting and pointing out blog-worthy items as they came into the newsroom. Comments on the blog began generating tips that turned into leads for on-air reporting, and the blog became a tool for promoting and teasing stories we planned to air or publish later that day.
Six months after launching Knoxville Talks, I left the job I loved with the TV station for a wonderful opportunity with E.W. Scripps. By that time, my little side project had generated nearly 350,000 page views for the newsroom, and traffic was building every week, still without any significant promotion beyond a link from the station’s homepage. And, most interesting to me, after years of having my writing published everywhere from the local alternative newsweekly to Parenting magazine to The New York Times, for the first time I had the experience of being recognized in public.
Offering a Distinct Voice
Daily visitors to Knoxville Talks grew to know my online “voice,” which they associated with the photo of me on the blog. People began approaching me to introduce themselves when they encountered me out and about. Or when I would tell someone new my name, he or she would respond with, “Oh, you’re that Knoxville Talks blogger!” Readers would then often want to discuss what I was covering on the blog, or suggest topics or other blogs I should check out. For a journalist used to working behind the relative anonymity of a byline, it was a revelation.
After leaving the station in August 2008, I started a political blog for a Scripps-owned newspaper, and in its first eight weeks, the blog has already generated close to 200,000 page views for that newsroom. My experience, and the success of a small but growing number of other newsroom bloggers across the country, demonstrates that even as the audience for “old journalism” is shrinking, there is a hunger for the type of very active, personality-driven, truly local newsroom blogging that characterized Nashville is Talking and Knoxville Talks.
While virtually all local news sites now offer some sort of blog or blogs, few are reaching their full potential in terms of audience or influence. There are several reasons for this. First, successful blogging requires a very specific skill set. Just because anyone in a news organization can blog doesn’t mean that just anyone can do it in a way that builds and supports an audience. Clearly, different types of journalists have their own spheres of excellence. For example, the top investigative reporter for the local newspaper likely wouldn’t fare very well anchoring the local TV newscast. Top-notch newsroom blogging is no different; it requires specific training, talent and effort. A successful blogger has to really know what she’s doing and, just as with on-air talent and the most popular of op-ed columnists, she has to offer a distinct voice and personality. That’s what keeps readers coming back.
This leads to the second reason why so many local news organizations continue to drag their feet when it comes to effectively leveraging the power of blogging. Far too many publishers, reporters, editors, anchors and producers still see blogging as some sort of second-class, redheaded stepchild. Bloggers aren’t real journalists, so the argument goes, and they certainly don’t belong in the newsroom. But as real journalists and journalism professors continue to grapple with what exactly it is they do these days, bloggers are out there just doing it—without the angsty navel-gazing or handwringing. Bloggers certainly can be real journalists, albeit ones who fall into their own category within the profession. The sooner the powers that be accept this new reality, the sooner they can begin reaping the benefits.
Katie Allison Granju is a project manager with the E.W. Scripps entrepreneurial fund. Links to her blogging projects can be found at www.katieallisongranju.com.