Readers' Representative Journal

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Blogging the news

July 30, 2008 |  2:00 pm

The note from Lori Morse of Los Angeles explained that she was a longtime reader and she worried about the loss of features and staffers from The Times. She offered to help in any way she could. She also wrote, "I do not care for the blogs, I just see them interfering with real news reportage.  Everybody has an opinion but what are the FACTS." In a follow-up note, she added, "I feel it is a confusing term and one not associated with QUALITY news reporting."

On at least two counts, Morse is not alone. First, many readers have expressed fear and concern for their hometown paper, which they see and have been told is growing smaller. Second, many readers see "blog" and think "opinion."

The two points are related: As the print edition has fewer pages, the measure of The Times these days includes the reporting that appears online only. And the information on a growing number of blogs represents hundreds of reported pieces a week by the same writers whose work readers value in the printed news articles.

Tony Pierce, the editor who oversees the blogs, estimates that some 125 Times reporters contribute to at least one of the 43 blogs (each blog has two to 10 writers contributing). There are dispatches from Baghdad (Babylon & Beyond), news updates from Hollywood (Gold Derby, among others) and the great outdoors (Outposts). There's "the inside scoop on food in Los Angeles," as the Daily Dish describes itself. The Bottleneck Blog reports on Los Angeles traffic. Reporter Patrick Goldstein's The Big Picture, which started as a popular column in the Calendar section covering entertainment, media and pop culture, recently became a blog. Its transformation symbolizes how vital blogs are as vehicles for reporting. Goldstein noted in his first column online one reason for the growth to the Web: "The world of entertainment and pop culture is moving so fast that it's become impossible to keep up with all the action without weighing in more often than once a week."

None of the news blogs, though, is opinion.

Thus a reader of the Homeroom page could be informed by an exchange between education reporter Howard Blume and a reader asking a question based on Blume's article on how the state counts high school dropouts. The Health staff reported on its blog a study that suggests that the tobacco industry is manipulating the contents of cigarettes to appeal more to young people. And Countdown to Crawford ("the last days of the Bush administration") reports on a Supreme Court error.

"One thing worth noting is the difference between ‘voice’ and ‘opinion’ –- a lot of our blogs have a lot of voice, such as Top of the Ticket and L.A. Land," says Meredith Artley, who is the executive editor of interactive at The Times.

That "voice" might be one source of confusion for reader Morse and others who don't think of blogs as news. The post on the Supreme Court, for example, reflected a breeziness not as common in print articles. "It’s never too late to admit a mistake — particularly someone’s else mistake," started the post by veteran Washington bureau reporter David Savage, which described why Bush administration lawyers told the Supreme Court that one of its recent decisions was "erroneous." The post included as its third paragraph the informal, "Now you tell us, since the error arose at the Justice Department."

For a snapshot of how reporters work these days, look at the Business report on July 17. Readers could have found a dozen staff-written pieces in the print Business section -- one on buyers making deals on foreclosed homes, for example, and a report on the city attorney's office filing suit on behalf of the residents of Los Angeles against Blue Shield insurance companies. But five more staff-written articles appeared that day solely on the Money & Co. blog in items posted throughout the day. There, readers could learn about investors in Pakistan rioting at stock exchanges; second-quarter earnings reports by Google, Microsoft and Merrill; a rise in stocks of some small California banks, and more.

Tom Petruno oversees the Money & Co blog and, as his online bio says, "has been chronicling financial markets' highs and lows since 1979, and has been The Times' financial columnist since 1990." Petruno writes the Market Beat column every Saturday. Nowadays, he says, "I write almost exclusively for the blog ... except for my Saturday column. Some of the blog items are published in the paper, but not all.

"My Bank of America earnings story on the blog on Monday [July 21] was published in the [Tuesday, July 22] Biz section, for example. But several other items were exclusive to the blog on Monday."

"The blog forces me to be more cogent, picking out the main highlights of a story. Blog items have to be executed relatively quickly, of course, so I'm less likely to make the same number of calls to analysts, say, as I might have in the print-only days. I'm always looking for pieces of a story that might be of particular interest or relevance to Californians."

"Often what I seek to do with the blog is get an interesting angle up on a story to complement a broader staff or wire story that may be posted later (and published in the print edition) -- i.e., I'm not just looking to duplicate what a general news story on the subject will say; I'm trying to carve out an interesting piece of it."

Petruno is just one example of how Times reporters apply their experience to their writing at just as rigorously as they do when writing for the print edition. The subject of what readers perceive when they see the word "blog" isn't new, either at The Times (some readers in May 2007 didn't understand that The Times' Griffith Park Fire blog on the homepage consisted of minute-by-minute news updates by Times staffers) or elsewhere (see blogger Mark Cuban's essay on the topic on his own blog last March). Would editors at The Times consider getting away from the word "blog"?

Says Pierce, "I would agree with Meredith that there is a difference between voice and opinion, and newspapers have had both of those for centuries -– depending on what section you are reading. However, I am aware that the perception of a blog to the uninformed is that it’s navel-gazing opinion. Therefore I am happy that you would provide examples of how that’s not the case.

"Blog as a word is a funky term. It’s not elegant. It’s hard to take it seriously sometimes. But it is what we do hundreds of times a day. And it’s not going away, no matter how we tiptoe around it, in my opinion.

Adds Artley, "It’s always good to have conversations about these things. I still feel strongly that ‘blog’ is the term we should use because it most accurately describes the object in question. The word/platform does not inherently imply opinion-driven thinking. Plus, it’s common usage on the Web -- all of our competitors use blogs for both news and opinion, just as we do."