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Sept. 17, 2010, 11 a.m.

Network effects: The Houston Chronicle’s Eric Berger on newspapers and blog networks

Last week, I wrote about the Guardian’s new network of science blogs, which — in a first for the paper — is allowing its (growing) cadre of bloggers to publish directly to the Guardian’s site. The effort, though new for the Guardian, isn’t necessarily new for media organizations in general. In 2008, Eric Berger, a science reporter at the Houston Chronicle — and author of the paper’s SciGuy blog — assembled a team of scientists to contribute to a network of blogs whose topics include climate change, the environment, astronomy, and more. The goal: “to provide a neutral space for scientists and the general public to meet and speak on the issues of the day.”

The “.sphere” experiment — the blogs had titles like Atmo.sphere, Cosmo.sphere, and Evo.sphere — “had some successes and failures,” Berger noted in a later blog post. Some of the blogs fizzled; new ones were born. And one of the biggest determinants of success was, unsurprisingly, the dynamics of authorship: the people at the blogs’ helm. As the project evolved, the focus went from group contributions — several scientists, and some volunteer lay people, writing the content and guiding discussions — to blogs that are written “mostly by individuals.”

I spoke with Berger about that shift. We focused on science blogs; the lessons, though, are relevant to any news organization looking to extend its reach through tapping the talents and expertise of independent bloggers.

Personal interest leads to quality blogging

Blogging requires passion — about the subject matter and about communication itself. Dave Winer’s notion of a “natural born blogger” is instructive not just for amateur bloggers, but for those networked with professional sites, as well. “People have to want to do it; they have to be interested in it,” Berger says. “And if they like doing it, then they’ll do it more, and they’ll do it better. Because if you’re writing about stuff that you’re interested in and enjoying what you’re doing, it’s going to come through in your writing. It’s going to show your readers that you’re engaged — and going to make them more prone to be engaged, as well.”

Conversation is key

The common conception of the scientist locked in academia’s ivory tower is one held not only by many members of the public, but by some scientists, as well. There’s an occasional tendency, Berger points out, for scientists to see themselves and their work as isolated from the rest of the world. (That’s a tendency, I’d add, that can afflict journalism, as well.) Success in blogging, though, requires getting down to solid ground. “You’ve got to have someone who wants to have a conversation with the public about topics that the public is interested in,” Berger says. And, when it comes to guiding a blog, “a big part of it is convincing the scientists that it’s worth their time not only to write blog entries, but also to interact with people in the comments.” Many scientists have no interest in that, he notes — so the trick is finding the ones who are willing to join the fray.

“You’ve got to find the right scientist” – someone who understands the public with whom they’re conversing. Scientists in particular are used to communicating with peers, Berger notes. But “it’s different with a newspaper — it’s an audience of lay people. A lot of people are looking at the website when they’re at work – and so they’re looking to amuse and to educate themselves.” A good blog network will be populated by writers who strike a balance between those two goals.

Emphasize the news hook

In addition to looking for Winer’s “natural born bloggers,” you want scientists who are able to marry the expertise of their fields with the ability to connect with the public. “Generally, it’s the people who write more to a general level” who are most successful at blogging, Berger says. “People are not going to read a blog that is primarily educational,” he notes. And “most people aren’t spending their free time on the web to get astronomy lectures, I hate to say.” Instead, in general, “people want stuff either that’s related to the news of what’s happening or that has some kind of popular hook. It’s difficult for science as a topic to compete with things like sports or religion — or politics, of course — which are some of the most popular blog subjects here and elsewhere.” To make it compete, you need writers who are able to refashion science from a niche topic into one of general interest — by moderating content and by writing with, for lack of a better word, flair.

Good source = good blogger

Since communication is so important to the blogging equation (see point one), experts who make good sources might also make good bloggers, Berger notes. “If I’ve interviewed someone in the past, and they’ve been really helpful, or have explained things in a good way, or been willing to return calls quickly, then that person would be a good candidate – or at least someone to suggest” as a blogger, Berger says. Often, he points out, the PR people at universities have a good sense of their faculty’s comfort with external communication; they can be a great resource in finding academics who’d have both the interest and the ability to become good bloggers.

Don’t try to control (too much)

A good blog network, Berger says, depends in large part on a willingness to experiment — not only on the part of the bloggers themselves, but of the network leaders, as well. Perhaps the primary principle is trial-and-error. “I had some hits and I had some misses,” he notes of his two years of network-ing, but by being open to trying out different bloggers and formats and content areas, the network is also open to unexpected successes.

“You kind of have to let people do what they do, when they can,” Berger says. “Different people are going to write different things. Some people are doing it because they want to write, and they’re interested in saying their piece on things; other people are interested in educating. You just kind of let people do what’s to their strength.”

POSTED     Sept. 17, 2010, 11 a.m.
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