Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Who Let the Blogs Out? Greensboro News & Record and the Piedmont Bloggers

Greensboro is in the heart, and mind, of North Carolina...and the world.

The prestigious Editor & Publisher magazine has been covering the revolution taking place in Greensboro, North Carolina, the main characters being their bold and open-minded major newspaper, The News & Record, and the local bloggers, chief of whom is Ed Cone, whose name has long decorated buildings, estates, hospitals, highways, factories, colleges and universities(among other things) , and whose vision is largely responsible for the world changing in our midst...

Here are some excerpts...but you really need to read both parts to get the big picture.

- Editor

Letting the Blogs Out
Why a daily in Greensboro, N.C., decided to get "a little radical" and create an online "town square." Now it's getting national attention. Part 1 of 2.
(via Ed Cone )

NEW YORK (March 14, 2005) -- John Robinson is an unlikely revolutionary. He's the establishment, really. For the last six years he's been editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., where he's worked for two decades. And he certainly doesn't like the implication he's some kind of radical. "It's kind of embarrassing," he says, "as I sit here in a suit and tie and short hair." But to those who spend time thinking about how, even if, newspapers will survive in a super-connected, empowered, non-intermediated, and — here's the word — blogified world, John Robinson is on the barricades.

What's Robinson doing? Merely redesigning his paper's Web site. But he's doing it in a way that also reconsiders the print newspaper, its staff, and most important, the relationship between the paper and its community. He's incorporating more Web logs and increased transparency in an attempt to create, virtually, what the News & Record folks call a town square. When the paper's overhaul is complete, it may be a model for the sort of 21st century paper that many journalism big thinkers have been talking about, chewing over, and confabbing on for the last few years. Greensboro will be the first place where this conceptually newfangled newspaper actually exists.


Enter the ' town square'

Greensboro is a city of 230,000 residents and three colleges in North Carolina's north-central Guilford County. There's a mix of Old South conservatism and college-town progressivism; it's a John Kerry county in a comfortably red state.

The News & Record, owned by Landmark Communications, is the dominant media presence in the market. There's also a thriving blog scene, best demonstrated by, a bustling and popular "online citizen's alternative media hub," as Roch Smith Jr., its founder, terms it. Tension between Greensboro's old-money culture and a certain "rebelling undercurrent," says Smith, has helped drive the blog movement there.

News & Record editor Robinson blogs. So do several local officials. Smith's lists 50-odd local bloggers.


Also in late August, egged on by Ed Cone, a nationally known tech writer and blogger and a Greensboro local who contributes a weekly column to the News & Record, Robinson started blogging, "just to learn, really," he says. Cone didn't just work his magic on Robinson; when asked why Greensboro became so bloggy, Roch Smith says, "Two words: Ed Cone. He's an excellent blogger."

Letting the Blogs Out, Part Two

NEW YORK (March 16, 2005) -- News & Record Editor John Robinson asked for advice on his plans to bloggify the newspaper from a likely source: Lex Alexander, who has been at the News & Record since 1987.

He's been a reporter and an editor there, and, for the last year, he's headed a three-person investigations team for which he both reported and edited. He's also, basically by default, the newsroom's go-to guy on the intersection of journalism and technology. "This is ironic," he notes, "because I'm an English major, and I know nothing about computers." He's been blogging on and off since 1997 and continuously since April 2002, at a News & Record blog called "
The Lex Files." Robinson tasked Alexander with figuring out how best to create online the town square City Editor Mark Sutter had envisioned.

Alexander, like any good blogger, then asked the world what it thought about plans to build a true public square. "We plan to take some large steps, soon, toward building an open-source, online community," he wrote.

The response was overwhelming. Bloggers locally and nationwide threw in their two cents, as did readers of the News & Record, editors elsewhere, press critics, and media thinkers. On Dec. 23, only a week after Alexander put out his query, he turned in his report.
Alexander lumped the suggestions into five categories: community, interactivity, site additions and alterations, and revenue.

Among the specific ideas:

Community bloggers, reporting on local sports teams and neighborhoods, and a consumer affairs reporter/blogger drawn from the current staff.

More interactivity, from something as simple as easily available RSS feeds of news and sports headlines to more in-depth efforts, like bio pages and blogs for everyone on staff, where reporters can discuss stories they're working on and why they made certain decisions.

Innovations like an interactive assignment desk that follows up on readers' story ideas; letters to the editor and obituaries restructured as blogs, allowing room for feedback and tributes.

Outlinks from all news stories to the sources for facts, information, and assertions; and feedback sections on each article, which the reporter must read and, where appropriate, respond to.

Alexander even suggested blog coverage of editorial-board meetings and news budget meetings. "Doing nothing is not an option," he says. "All the trends say that if we continue to do business the way we've been doing business, we're going to be out of business in a generation or two, tops."

He sees dramatically shifting the way newspapers work as a business necessity. "And," he adds, if the model changes as he's suggesting, "we're going to get better journalism out of it — better sources, better stories. What we do is going to more accurately reflect the way people live their lives in this community, and we're going to raise the communities trust level in us" — something that, today, is becoming increasingly necessary.

Commentators are exceedingly supportive. "They are charting a new course," NYU's Jay Rosen tells E&P. "That's why I'm excited."

The exciting part, everyone seems to agree, is the process. "Man, it's an exciting time to be in journalism," Robinson wrote in the blog post that introduced this project. On the phone, he sounds almost like an eager j-schooler, excited just to be figuring out how best to reach people.

"The goal is — you know, as I sit here and think about this, it sounds really hokey — the goal is what every journalist's goal is: to spread the news and to get people talking about the stuff that's important and what's happening in their community. If I have to do that online, I'll do it online. If I can do it in the newspaper, I'll do it in the newspaper. We want to help people make smart decisions for their life, and help give them the information they need to participate in democracy."

Ed Cone, the freelance tech journalist in Greensboro who turned Robinson onto blogs all those years ago, the man who in some ways got this whole thing rolling, is happy, at least, that the process is finally happening in his backyard.

"There's nothing unique about Greensboro, that this couldn't happen elsewhere, with other newspapers," he says. "There's not some hothouse environment, there's not some unique situation, the water's not different."

(Hear that, Jude? The water is not you once suggested. )

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