Staff journalists who blog: Two cases

Last week I had the good fortune to hear two daily journalist bloggers speak about their work. (This was at the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute, which I have written about here, here and here.) They were:

  • Bridget Gutierrez, who writes the blog Get Schooled for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Gutierrez covers K-12 education for the newspaper. Previously, she covered K-12 education for the San Antonio (Texas) Express-News.
  • Jamie Gumbrecht, who writes the blog It’s All About for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. Gumbrecht covers entertainment, media, performing arts, online trends and youth for the newspaper.

“I had never read a blog until they came to me and said I had to do it,” said Gutierrez, who inherited her blog from the AJC’s previous education writer.

In spite of that — and the fact that she still reads no other blogs but her own — Gutierrez’s blog is quite good. It covers an area of vital interest to many people in the Atlanta area. She usually posts once a day (on weekdays). She writes her own headlines. Her blog is not edited by anyone other than her.

“I read my posts at least 10 times before I hit Send,” she said. Asked why there is no editing of blogs, she said, “It’s the way the system is set up at the AJC. The problem with having a blog edited is, that’s going to slow down the process of getting it online.” Still, she said, she would feel better if her blog were edited. Knowing that her readers will immediately jump on any error or contradiction makes her cautious.

Gumbrecht’s blog was inspired by a column in the print newspaper. She revived the column, which had gone dormant. When her editors later asked if she could “do a blog about something,” she thought the subject matter of her column would expand perfectly into a blog.

Under the old Knight Ridder/Real Cities system (which ruined many online news sites), she said, her blog looked so awful, it was hard to build an audience. After the sale of the Knight Ridder newspapers, she moved her blog to Typepad and changed the look. Afterward, the audience began to grow.

Like Gutierrez, Gumbrecht does her best to post every weekday. Her blog also is not edited by anyone other than her. “Sometimes I will ask my editor to look over my blog,” Gumbrecht said, “but he has 4,000 other things to do.”

How’s the Workload?

Gumbrecht live-blogs many events in the Lexington area. “I tend to post a lot late at night or early in the morning,” she said. She tries to cap the blog writing at one hour a day.

“Sometimes it takes 15 minutes. Sometimes, if I’m live-blogging, it takes four hours. Or four days,” she said.

Asked about overtime and comp time, Gumbrecht said, “We are a Guild newsroom, so we have to take that pretty seriously. I’ve taken a lot of Fridays off lately because I’ve worked a lot of overtime.” If she worked late one night “watching TV” (part of the subject matter of her blog), she will come into work later than usual the next day to compensate.

Gutierrez said that the AJC (not a Guild newsroom) prefers giving comp time to paying overtime. She gave the example of the previous week — the week when K-12 students return to school after the summer break — as one where she worked 48 hours and still could not finish everything she had to do. To make up the extra eight hours she worked, she would be taking the next Friday off.

Comments start coming in at 8 a.m., Gutierrez said — so she tries to post before then. She spends about three hours a day, most days, on her blog. That includes writing, editing and monitoring the comments. She added that it also takes time to research all the links she includes in the blog.

The Difference Between Blog and Print

Gumbrecht praised the ability to “link out” in the blog. “In the paper, you have to explain everything,” she said. In the blog she can be briefer, because a link can supply the background information.

“For anything I think is interesting, there will be a link out to it,” Gumbrecht said.

Both writers said they use a different tone in the two venues.

“Obviously, I’m never going to use ‘I’ in the newspaper,” Gutierrez said. “But I use ‘I’ all the time in my blog.”

She credited the blog for improving her writing in both mediums. The practice of writing every day, without fail, has loosened up her writing for the newspaper, Gutierrez said.

Becoming a Good J-Blogger

“One thing I love about the blog is, I can post things that would never get into the paper,” Gutierrez said. She gave two examples: “insider baseball” background about local education policy, and findings from research studies about education. These topics are probably too esoteric for many general readers, but her blog’s readers have a higher-than-average interest in education topics.

“I’ve been really impressed at the insights that readers have shared,” Gutierrez said. “It definitely helps you expand your reporting.”

Gutierrez has also learned about her readers’ expectations from their comments on the blog. After she once posted something education-related about the Veronica Mars TV show, her readers blasted her with protests. They informed her that a TV series is “not real” and has no place in her blog.

In contrast, Gumbrecht’s readers expect her to write about TV. One popular topic was the appearance on The Amazing Race by a couple from Kentucky — giving a local angle to a network reality-TV series.

Gumbrecht spoke about knowing where to draw the line in expressing her personal opinions in the blog. Since she does write about TV shows, she gives her opinion just as a newspaper critic would. But, she said, if she writes a blog post about in-fighting at some local radio stations, she would never give her opinion about that. She might link to the newspaper’s story about the situation, but she’s not going to speculate about who’s right or wrong.

“You learn that this really does matter to people,” Gumbrecht said. Readers use her blog as a resource to find out what’s new in town, and what’s going on that might be interesting to them. They learn about things they wouldn’t know about otherwise — even if it’s only the opening of a new vintage clothing store. Gumbrecht wouldn’t write about that in the newspaper, she said. “For the blog, it’s great content.”

(Note: This story was reported the old-fashioned way, on the scene with a pen and a notepad, on Aug. 14, 2007. This blog post took me 2 hours and 20 minutes to write and edit, including links. I read it through six times before posting.)

12 Comments on “Staff journalists who blog: Two cases

  1. Just about all of their comments mirror the experiences we’ve had here. One thing, though: were I Bridget’s boss, I’d gently ask her to spend a bit of time reading other blogs, at least around Atlanta. Aside from the obvious ability of getting other ideas from other people, she can tune into conversations about education, about the paper, and, possibly, about her blog going on without her.

  2. Addendum to the comment above: John Robinson is the editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina — and writes a very nice blog himself!

    Thanks for commenting, John.

  3. I agree with John’s suggestion. In Syracuse, columnist Sean Kirst found kindred spirits among other bloggers and invited them to meet at the sausage tent and the New York State Fair last year. Community is a big part of what he does.

  4. I’d love to keep a schools blog to get some items that don’t make it to print out there, or to let people know I’m working on something they might have insight into or be wondering about themselves. I’d also like to just open up the dialog on some of the things being debated in the board meetings but which I probably won’t report on until something more happens.

    But I have a really hard time imagining any circumstance where my editors would give me 3 hours a day (or probably even a week) to do it. I know it’s a lot different at a metro paper than a community paper, but still the question I’m wondering is how the blog workload has impacted their output in other areas, like, for the paper?

  5. Great question, Meranda. I think for a blog by an individual journalist, the time management usually falls to the journalist. If one person starts working 60 hours a week because that’s the only way she can get it done, I think that’s a poor decision. But some people might be doing it that way.

    The more practical approach is to keep your own time spent on the blog and all your other work to the actual amount of hours they pay you for. And yes — that must mean that some of the stuff you’re doing in 40 hours now is not going to get done.

    As Web sites become more important to the survival of the news organization, however, the editors are realizing that journalists do need to rearrange their time.

    The time you give up outside the blog may be a fair trade for the benefits you and your newspaper reap from the blog. If the interaction with readers (in the blog comments) improves your print coverage, that’s a big plus.

  6. Hey Mindy! One of our fabulous online interns pointed me toward this post. Glad you enjoyed the Bridget ‘n’ Jamie Show. It was really lovely to meet you.

    A thought on Meranda’s question: maybe you could consider a slightly different format to an education blog. Use it to compile all the education-related stories appearing in your paper, as well as those of note in other local or national publications. (You know, the ones you’re reading to keep abreast of a situation or to get story ideas.) If you’ve got something more to add about the story, do it there, but briefly. When you’ve got more time, write a longer, more thoughtful post, but use it more as an organizational tool, information vessel and discussion board. Frankly, those kinds of blogs can be far more useful and far less time consuming than those that require one person to riff on the issues.

    Good luck!

  7. Mr. Robinson: At the conference, I’m pretty sure I explained that one of the reasons I don’t read other blogs regularly (not never, mind you, just not on a daily basis) is that I don’t want to be influenced by what others may be writing. I want my blog to be as fresh and unique as it can be.

    Meranda: One of the biggest misconceptions about blogs (at least for people who don’t keep them) is that they don’t take much time. But just look at how long it took Mindy to write this blog entry. And her calculations apparently didn’t include the time she spent reporting — which, if memory serves, was at least an hour — or the time she spent responding to other comments.

    So, as you can see, the time quickly adds up. But my output (as far as my editors are concerned) has increased because now I’m contributing to both our print and online products regularly. If your editors are interested in building your newspaper’s online audience, then, trust me, they’ll want you to be blogging.

  8. Bridget, what I have in my notes is that you said you read no other blogs, mostly. That’s not a direct quote. But I could assume the “mostly” meant “not never.” I do have a quote to this effect: “I don’t want somebody else’s thoughts getting in my head and then coming out in the blog.” Fair enough?

  9. Fabulous reading. I’d just like to add that some journalists, like myself, maintain blogs as freelance projects as well. It’s a struggle sometimes to justify the work for the little pay, but I love the subject matter.

    That said, I worry that the blogging economy could eventually hurt journalism, moving us back towards a pulp fiction, penny-a-word pay scale where writers break pound out thousands of words for peanuts.

    As much as I love my blog, I think we need to be careful to encourage employers to value blogging alongside regular copy.

  10. Jason, I think you are right, I have not find many texts talking about this side of the situation so far. I think is very important to point the importance of, not just bloging writing, but internet writing. For a lot of employers, at least in my country (Spain), internet is still second best.

  11. Pingback: Meranda Writes » Blog Archive » Letting the young’ns have our say

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