Thursday, August 16, 2007

BostonNOW: Blog Use Not All Its Cracked Up to Be

Earlier this year, BostonNOW burst on the local newspaper scene with an innovative approach: integrating blog content directly into the online and print versions of the paper. And paying the bloggers, too.

Now that they've been up and running for a few months, I think it's a good time to ask: Is their new concept of integrated blog content working?

The publisher's answer: sort-of yes, sort-of no. The Boston Herald reports that the editor-in-chief has lost his job, although he'll "continue to work on 'the blog side' of the business as a consultant." A letter from the former editor, John Wilpers, says that they are still trying to figure out how to reimburse bloggers.

My answer: no, it's not working very well.

I base my position on:
  1. an unimpressive experience with having them pick up a blog entry of mine last month;
  2. idiotic policy requiring duplicate blogs;
  3. unclear instructions for suggesting blog entries to be included in their paper; and
  4. printed content so short that it barely qualifies as newsworthy.

My Experience: Part I

On July 9, I blogged on two alternatives that Boston College should consider for the three houses at 188/192/196 Foster Street. BC wants to raze all three houses; I suggested they consider building around them or moving them. Fair enough. Not breaking news, but ideas worth talking about.

A BostonNOW reporter, who either reads my blog or monitors an aggregated feed (like UniversalHub or, contacted me about their interest in running the post. OK, you have my permission, run it. No, that's not what they wanted -- he asked me a few questions in order to put together a story himself. All right. Oh, and he wanted to get a photo of the house(s) with me in front of it(them). OK. We made the arrangements, he took the photo, etc.

How was my blog going to fit in to this? Isn't including blog content the niche for BostonNOW? I was told that, in order for any blog entry to be included in the paper, I must create an entirely new blog on the BostonNOW website. I could just copy over my existing blog entry verbatim, or write something different, etc. But it had to be a blog on their website.

I proceeded to do just that. They have a neat tool that will upload everything from your blog automatically. It uploaded all my posts, the drafts of future posts, the labels -- everything. Nice and smooth.

I notified BostonNOW's reporter the post was on their website, but nothing out of the blog post made it into the July 11, 2007 print edition or the online BostonNOW Blogger Roundup for the day. (The print edition wasn't even delivered to newsboxes in the Brighton Center area that day.) They just wrote a story using my blog post as a starting point, and that was it. No blog content anywhere to be found, despite the fact that I wasted an hour or two setting up a mirror blog on their site and uploading content to it.

My Experience: Part II

Not completely discouraged, I tried a new tact: let's post some "local news" on my blog on the BostonNOW website, and see if they pick it up. Now that we're in campaign season for the open A-B District City Council seat, I asked every candidate if they supported or opposed Boston College's proposal to site two undergraduate dormitories on the former St. John's Seminary land recently purchased by BC. The neighborhood is totally opposed to this proposal, and all of the candidates stated their opposition to it, too. Not Earth-shattering, but a clear indication of a neighborhood rising up in vocal unison against a particular institutional expansion proposal. (The BC dormitory story is, in general, a big one: the Boston Globe ran it on the front page back in June.)

I uploaded the story to my mirrored blog on the BostonNOW website. It immediately showed up in their sidebar of new blog stories under "local news" (how I tagged it). In fact, it stayed there for a long, long time. There weren't other "local news" blog entries popping up to bump it down the stack. There aren't that many active bloggers on the BostonNOW website, and very few of them label their posts as "local news."

Look at the current "local news" blog entries at BostonNOW. When I wrote this there were only six entries in the last two days, eight in the last four days; inspection of them shows that half or so are crackpots, duplication of other newspaper's content, or written by someone at BostonNOW. That's it, two-a-day or fewer.

It's immediately obvious that BostonNOW's awful hurdle -- requiring bloggers to create altogether new blogs on BostonNOW's website -- has resulted in very little blog content being posted there. They are failing at being a clearing-house of local news blog content, such that they cannot rely on it for any significant portion of their day-to-day news content.

Unsure if they would pick up this blog entry to include in the paper (or the online version), I thought: How do I inform the editors that there might be a local news blog story on their website? There's no button to push on the "blog dashboard" (or account management page), no links anywhere I could find, etc. All I could find was an old page, written right around the time they launched the paper, with an email address for the editors to send them blog content. They created this page when their site wasn't fully functional. So I sent email to the black hole and never heard back.

The blog post never made it into their print or online version. It died there. RIP.

Brief Blog Content

One problem BostonNOW has in using its blog content is that they opt for very, very short stories. On everything. A few stories will get a half-page or a few paragraphs, but many of their articles are just briefs containing exactly two sentences.

I went through the August 8, 2007 print edition to look at how they used the blog content. Eleven blog entries total 27 paragraphs. That's 2-and-a-half paragraphs per entry. About half of them read like letters-to-the-editor, rather than news or op-ed. The other half were entertainment, sports, or gadgets.

The newspaper is just not much of a read. Their stories are so brief it's hard even to get the sketchiest outline of an issue. I can't imagine how shallow I would be relying on it daily for my news... er, well, how much shallower I would be.

Why is BostonNOW Not Succeeding in Using Blog Content?

More than anything else, their model of requiring users to create a blog on their website is probably driving 90% of their blog content away. Boston is the bloggiest city in the country, yet they can't seem to get more than two "local news" blog postings a day. BostonNOW needs to revise their policy so that they can use a far broader array of blog content.

The paper also doesn't have a clear way for people who think they have good content to notify the editors, or fast-track it onto the site. Partnering with, or with Adam Gaffin of UniversalHub, would be a good way to ensure local and/or quality content on a daily basis.

Finally, the paper strives to include mostly short stories or blurbs, often only two sentences or two paragraphs. BostonNOW is a little of a lot of things, but a lot of nothing. They should instead focus on fewer stories. Only then will they have content that people want to read -- and can't get anywhere else in print. Think Boston Phoenix, but without the masseuse ads.

Oh, and by the way, those BostonNOW guys seem to have gotten into a bit of a sticky mess over covering -- or creating -- a news story related to how Ron Jeremy's bus got banged-up.

1 comment:

johnwilpers said...


We should talk. Contact me by e-mail ( You've got a lot of good points and good ideas that I'd like to explore with you.

I'd also like to apologize for your experience with BostonNOW vis a vis the BC story. If I'd have known about your involvement as it was developing, it wouldn't have played out the way it did. I've always wanted to publish bloggers' news reports the same way we treat reporters' stories -- greater length, greater prominence. Ultimately it's my fault for not staying on top of that.

Since my change in status, I've been talking with a lot of editors and bloggers outside of BostonNOW and have been picking up a lot of ideas and critiques very similar to yours, which is why I'd like to chat in person. There is much room for improvement, but the platform and good intentions are in place so we have a really good base to work from.

In any case, let me buy you a cup of coffee and let's talk blogging and newspapers.

— John