Independent bloggers on an MSM site

Part of my job at the Statesman is to make sure the reader blogging community is thriving. This is no easy task. I’ll explain why in a minute.

First, quick background: The Statesman was one of the first, if not the first sites in the country to host reader blogs on its site (and promote their headlines on the home page). We were one of Austin-based Pluck’s first customers when we began hosting blogs a long, long time ago (2005, haha). We have built a community of about 20 serious bloggers.

They’re great. They range in tone from the ever-informative Eugene Sepulveda to the ultra conservative “Nogirlemen” to the lefty former professor Bob Russell. We also have parenting bloggers, green bloggers, the chief meteorologist for the LCRA and more. We even had a 70+ first-time triathlete post her daily training regimen on our blog. One of my favorite Austin writers, Julie Brown Casey, is someone I discovered through our reader blogs. She has contributed several pieces to our Op-Ed page, and she just has a way of expressing herself.

I think that’s big value. Based on visits, they are an important part of our sites.

Another thing I do is recruit reader bloggers to cover big events. During Netroots, I had a conservative and a liberal blogger both attend with press passes and post their updates on their blogs. During the state Democratic Convention, I had two Democratic delegates post from the convention halls. Our chief political reporter, W. Gardner Selby, said he was amazed at the bloggers’ good reporting skills.

So, when the national conventions rolled around, Gardner helped me get in contact with some delegates to those conventions. I have a Democratic delegate blogging from Denver right now, and Eugene Sepulveda is also posting dispatches from Denver.

I’m lining up bloggers for the GOP convention as well. My biggest coup? Gov. Rick Perry has agreed to blog on our site from the convention.

The other benefits: We get a different perspective in our reporting and opinions. We have an active community (these bloggers all comment on each other’s blogs and encourage each other).

The negatives: Our blog topics are heavy on politics. And whenever there is an open debate about politics, there is ugliness. I’ve had to referee my share of fights. I’ve even had someone try to destroy the community by flagging abuse on a few bloggers’ posts to the point where the posts were disappearing (they reached a threshhold for abuse flags). It was annoying, and it eats up a lot of time to rectify. Also, since some of these bloggers are completely new to blogging, they’re taken aback by the negativity they can get in comments. It’s hard to console someone who feels like they were personally attacked. As journalists, we’ve grown thick skins over the years. It’s easy to forget how personally some could take this. And last but not least, Pluck pulls its blogs through a javascript call, so the SEO is horrible (nonexistent).

Overall, it’s a good experience. Before I took this job, I was the letters editor at the Statesman, so I was used to dealing with our readers a lot. I even managed to persuade a few of them to start blogging for us.

We in the media hate giving up control of content, and I don’t edit these blogs. I also don’t ban bloggers unless they are really breaking the rules. When we signed up to host blogs, I think we had a vague idea that we wanted a community on our site. Now that we have a community, I can’t imagine doing without it.

Do you read our community bloggers’s material? If so, what do you think? If you haven’t, check them out.

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