28 March 2008

SPOTLIGHT – BLOG II

Welcome to the second part of the SPOTLIGHT series on blogs, the sequel to last fortnight’s look at the mainstream media blogging landscape.

Having examined journalist bloggers in Part I, this post will shift the focus to online newspaper blogs written by non-professionals.

These can take the form of personal diaries chronicling the everyday experiences of the writer, or experts offering their thoughts on a range of current affairs issues or group blogging projects for specific events.

We’ll look at all these types of blogs in this post and will also discuss contributors to mainstream media websites who could be labelled “civic bloggers” – such as local politicians and other public figures.

And to finish up, we’ll offer some useful resources for anyone who wants to know more about blogs as a form of user-generated content.


All Kinds Of Everything


Having established in Part I definitions of a blog etc, let’s dive straight in and see some examples of how newspapers are incorporating citizen blogs into their Web output.

First up is the generic citizen blog – this is where newspapers invite any registered user to start their own blog about anything and everything.

Some take the form of personal diaries, others may concentrate on a single theme such as music or food, and quality as well as regularity of posting varies tremendously.

These open invitation blog networks haven’t really caught on yet in the UK but are growing in popularity among US news websites.

A typical example is Oklahoma’s Shawnee News-Star blogs page, which states: “Blogs are a great way to express yourself. You can post what you did for the day or things about what you enjoy doing.

“The blogs give you a place where others can read and post messages. It’s a great way to make friends or get your feelings out.”

The Bakersfield Californian has a similar citizen blogging feature, enabling users to publish their thoughts and views with just a couple of clicks.

Blogs on these sites can be labelled by name or by theme, which provides visitors with a way to navigate the many blogs on offer to find the one that may interest them.

Some newspaper sites also display automatically updated lists of recent posts, such as Cape Cod Today whose Blog Chowder section aggregates the latest blog posts.

In addition, the 100 or so citizen bloggers at Cape Cod Today see their work published on the Web and can have it distributed straight to the inbox of email subscribers.

Although these open citizen blog networks are not a common sight on UK newspaper websites, there are individual examples of personal diary-style blogs offered alongside those penned by journalists.

A particularly interesting one is a blog featured on the Birmingham Post website from English language teacher Nikki Aaron who has just moved to Beijing.

[Historical Advance for Post]

Readers can follow Aaron’s personal progress as she makes friends and finds a boyfriend and also read first-hand accounts about political events such as the recent switch-off of BBC services as Aaron describes no longer being able to catch Eastenders.


Special Interest


Citizen blogging isn’t all about diaries and personal journeys though – there’s a growing number of blogs appearing based upon a certain theme or hobby.

These can encourage the formation of shared interest networks as the interactive nature of blogs enables citizen bloggers and readers to engage in conversation.

A great example of this community conversation was featured on the JP Digital Digest recently when it covered the creation of a bilingual Polish-English blog by the Newcastle Chronicle.

The blog acts as an information resource for Poles in the region – as shown by this entry about driving licences – and as a social noticeboard.

Meanwhile, the Newcastle Journal has also introduced a special interest blog written by professional pool player Malcolm Clarke.

Visitors can read about life on the road with Clarke as he tours the UK to compete in tournaments.

Another useful example of special interest user-generated content can be found at the Yorkshire Post, which has a blog dedicated to the art of allotmenting.

Entitled A Plot For All Seasons, the blog is written by Leeds city banker Peter Coady and is updated about once a month.

In the US, gardening is an oft-occurring theme among citizen bloggers and a place where users can share hints and tips.

Have a look at the Philadelphia Inquirer’s a Master Gardener’s Journal for a typical example.


The Professionals


Citizen blogs may be written by amateurs with regards to the profession of journalism as it is traditionally known, but that doesn’t mean professionals aren’t getting in on the act.

In fact, many of the most interesting newspaper blogs come from the pens of experts across a range of fields.

Probably the most famous example at present is the Freakonomics blog hosted by the New York Times.

Written by a freelance journalist and an economics professor, the blog blends economics and pop culture and appears in Technorati’s top 100 blogs ranked by authority (most linked-to sites achieve the highest rankings).

There are a number of local UK newspapers which have enlisted experts to write for them in this capacity, including the Birmingham Post with a blog written by a criminologist from Birmingham City University.

James Treadwell blogs on issues such as law and order, crime and punishment, armed conflict and mental illness.

Another website which has recently engaged the writing skills of a professional is the new business site from the Liverpool Daily Post.

The site boosts its commercial credentials with blogs from local managers, lawyers and one from the managing director of a PR firm in the city.

One final example of this blogging genre comes from the States and forms something of a hybrid of all that has been mentioned so far.

Blogs written by servicemen and women are based upon their professional roles, incorporate the diary elements of personal blogs and could also be seen as a special interest item.

They are popular with readers and consistently provide leads for news articles – as illustrated by this blog written by Sergeant Patrick Lair for the Charleston Times-Courier.


“Civic Blogs”


The sub-set of the citizen blog genre to be examined here is that of civic blogging – where representatives from public life maintain regular blogs hosted by newspapers.

Leading the pack at present it seems is the London Times series of newspapers, which has secured the blogging services of the ever-entertaining Conservative politician Boris Johnson.

The MP for Henley and London mayoral candidate proved a draw with his very first blog post this month, which has attracted 67 comments so far.

In addition, the website has blogs penned by a local Liberal Democrat councillor and from the leader of Barnet Council.

The site states that the blog from leader Mike Freer provides “opportunities for two-way communication with Barnet’s residents”.

And civic blogging is not just for the politicians, as the Plymouth Evening Herald recently demonstrated with the launch of a blog written by the area’s highest ranking police officer.

[Bobby's Blog At Plymouth Herald]

Chief Superintendent Jim Webster uses the blog to interact directly with Plymouth residents and to discuss the latest community policing initiatives.


Blog By Project


This final type of citizen blog is associated with a particular project and can include both individual and group blogs.

For example, the icWales website currently has a blog entitled “Pole to Pole” where students visiting an Arctic island and a fellow student visiting Antarctica write about their experiences at opposite ends of the earth.

And in the US an open blogging project entitled Primary Place Online managed by New Hampshire Public Radio has just drawn to a close (further details on Poynter Online).

The initiative enabled voters to blog about their impressions of the presidential nomination candidates when they visited the area and these comments were then used to inform the station’s wider election coverage.

Similar projects are likely to come about here when a British general election is declared and Sky News has already put in place its plans to enlist a team of citizen bloggers.

[Citizen Bloggers Wanted By Sky]


Resources


The question of moderation often accompanies any discussion of blogs produced by users and here’s the Lawrence Journal-World’s policy for bloggers for an example of rules and regulations.

New media pioneer Steve Outing declares his support for citizen blogs in this article entitled The 11 Layers of Citizen Journalism.

Finally, the J-Learning website from the University of Maryland has some practical advice on setting up blogs and how to edit them effectively.


‘Til Next Time...


So that’s it for this fortnight’s SPOTLIGHT, next time we’ll be looking at the independent blogosphere and the latest means of blogging from video to mobile to instant messaging.

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