Friday, March 7, 2008

Koshblogging and the Elvis Syndrome

A few days ago Ron Hardy boldly declared the death of the Oshkosh blog ... Originally I had an elaborate post in mind as a response -- chalk full of Barthian analysis -- but, frankly, there seems little point in getting too cute with this topic so I will instead offer some priliminary thoughts in bullet-point form:

* Neither the Oshkosh Northwestern nor Gannett "killed" the Oshkosh blog. Such a conspiracy to commit homicide requires coordination, planning and execution. Gannett is too removed to care and the NW lacks the competence.

My general impression is that many local bloggers believe the NW has an obligation to cultivate the Oshkosh blogosphere. It doesn't. It would certainly be in the paper's best interests to do so, but I don't know if they've picked up on that (Stay tuned as I offer some helpful suggestions on how the NW can improve its online platform below!).

As far as Gannet is concerned, I have little reason to believe that the company's shadowy board of directors gives a shit about what's going on over here in the fly-over states. Several Gannett newspapers here in Wisconsin have been very successful experimenting with blogging, particularly the Wausau Herald and the Marshfield News-Herald. Other Gannett papers have experimented with blogs and failed spectacularly -- Appleton Post-Crescent, we're looking at you (something of a surprise since the P-C is the best of Gannett local print stable). So I have a hard time pointing the finger at Gannett: they seem to be willing to let its local affiliates do what the circumstances on the ground warrant.

* The Northwestern suffers from woeful lack of imagination. While we may not be talking about cold-blooded premeditated murder here, we may be justified in bringing up the possibility of negligent homicide. To date, I think many people would agree that the NW's most successful feature has been the awkwardly named OshKonversation.

Let me just get on the record as saying that the OshKonversation sucks. Everything about it is grating -- from the layout, to the tone of the forums, to the way they tend to be dominated by a vocal minority of showboats ... even the topics themselves seem to set readers up for a "conversation" that will inevitably devolve into personal attacks on neighbors. I stay away from it these days and only return out of a sense of morbid curiosity.

What the NW is doing better these days -- and which it should continue to pursue in the future -- is its work with video. Obviously, there are many kinks that need to be worked out, but Oshkosh is at heart a city that responds better to visual media over the written word. OCAT is beloved is this city while the NW is reviled.

This might be a good time to just come out and say it: people in Oshkosh don't like to read. People who don't read typically don't write. People who do write tend to stop if they're not being read. All in all, it's not a very fertile environment for blogging to blossom in the first place. That being said, I think the NW would be wise to invest more of it's time and energy in developing a more visual online platform. A 5-10 minute (semi-)daily internet video news program that focused just on the city of Oshkosh (and would optimally elaborate in more depth on articles printed in the paper) would be an instant hit here in town. I'm thinking something along the lines of HotlineTV ...

I don't know if "vertical integration" is taught in J-school, but the NW should look into it ...

* Wait: Are you suggesting the NW abandon its focus on print?

Not at all. I'm suggesting that the NW is going to have to work a little harder to accomplish a series of online objectives. The first is the traditional reporting duties for the print edition. The second is newfound devotion to video production. Lastly, something that can only help the NW in the long run is to get it's act together with regards to exclusive online content. This will only help Oshkosh bloggers, and this is what I mean by that:

For the love of God -- give the OshKonversation some direly needed structure or get rid of it all together. The OK in its essence is really nothing more than the dearly departed Questioning Everything, Always blog of yore -- only QEA was better (For one thing: all the posted comments appeared on a single page, which meant a reader didn't have to clock on over a dozen different pages to skim through reactions).

Ideally, I'd like to see moderators actually do some moderating, maybe direct the flow of the conversation a bit more than simply posting a question and letting the hoi polloi go apeshite. There shouldn't be anything wrong with challenging some of the commenters or at least asking them to elaborate. Occasionally there's the seed of a good idea to be found on the OK, but one that rarely gets anywhere because no one takes the initiative to cultivate it. This will only encourage more reader participation, not stifle it.

Those corrections, even if implemented, still do not excuse the fact that the NW still does not have some kind of blog as part of it's internet program. Several reporters on the NW's staff have personal web sites, but all of them tend to be about the authors themselves and have never had any impact on the larger discussion within the community.

I don't know this for sure, but I suspect that when the NW signed-off on their reporters having their own blogs, they advised their staff to stay away from politics to both keep their employees focused on breaking stories for the NW alone and to avoid the off chance that some sloppy blogging might reveal an individual reporter's ideological slant. I think it's high time the editorial staff have a little faith in their journalists.

That being said, they shouldn't have too much faith. I have yet to see an indication that any of the current reporters (or editors) at the NW have the ability to maintain something as enjoyable as Rob Mentzer's blog What's Your Beef?, but that doesn't mean the NW should abandon the project all together. I think that one model the Northwestern should try to emulate is that of, dare I say, The National Review's The Corner, a staff blog that more or less functions like a public e-mail chain.

This hypothetical NW staff blog doesn't have to be too elaborate. The paper's editor's could require it's staff to post at least once per day on any local subject at any length. That shouldn't interfere with traditional reporting duties and would allow readers to provide feedback on specific articles written by the posters.

If the NW is too worried about exposing the slant's of their reporters, then it should simply outsource the responsibilities. Look at how many blogs are hosted by the Des Moines Register -- how many of those folks get paid to blog? I'm going to guess very few (if any who are not already on the DMR's staff). There are plenty of people in this community willing to devote a few hours each week to keeping a running commentary on local events, lots of whom would happily do so for free. They shouldn't be too hard to find.

Think of it this way: the NW reshuffles the "community members" of its editorial board four times every year. Each new member usually get at least one column to spout off on whatever issue they think is important. Frequently that column amounts to little more than a "thank you for the opportunity and, boy, did I learn a lot!" piece toward the end of that person's tenure. Why not just get someone who will maintain a blog while they are on the board and perhaps even after?

Above all, however, the NW needs to change its mindset about local blogs. It's extremely difficult to not get the impression that the NW views the existence of Koshblogging as a potential threat to it's business. If this is a concern, the NW needs to get over it and soon. The more robust the city's blogging community is, the more traffic will ultimately return to the NW because, for better and for worse, the NW is the only media game in town. It's the central nervous system of news here in Oshkosh and all roads will eventually lead back to it.

If the idea of more traffic is hard to swallow, then follow me down this thought experiment: The NW publishes an article on the opening of a new restaurant. That article is published online. By itself, the article (and the restaurant, for that matter) is at the mercy of Google -- it' just a single article in a vast abyss of digital information streaming across a series of tubes in binary code. But if if 5 or 10 or 15 other bloggers read the article, go to the restaurant, offer their opinion and ultimately link back to the original review -- well, then, the NW just increased the chances that someone from outside Winnebago County will be reading the Northwestern by 5 x's or 10 x's or 15 x's, etc. That's more advertising revenue.

What I'm saying is this: it's in the best interest of the NW to take the lead on developing a blogging culture here in Oshkosh. It's already gotten off to a good start without the paper's help, but the NW has the ability to infuse Koshblogging with an energy that no other resource can provide.

And how does it do that?

How about an article on local bloggers? Feel free to dismiss this idea as an act of shameless self-promotion, but it seems like a pretty obvious way to start to me. Whenever a dozen people get together in this town to do a common activity it's usually news -- what's so different about blogging? There have been countless articles printed in the NW about local musicians and artists -- why not local writers? The immediate effect would be to boost the readership of various local blogs, which would in turn boost the online readership of the NW.

After that, the NW should start to act like the central nervous system of information in Oshkosh -- highlighting alternative thoughts and ideas, encouraging more people to blog, growing the online Oshkosh community, etc. At the very least the NW can produce a directory -- with links -- of the city's bloggers. All that traffic will eventually come back to the NW if it does this the right way, and ignoring the phenomenon is not the right way.

... Alright, this post is a bloody stream-of-consciousness mess, so let's just take a step back for a second a review the ways in which the NW can get its online shit together:

* Reform the OshKonversation
* More video content (again, HotlineTV)
* Staff blog (The Corner)
* "Community voices" bloggers (Des Moines Register)
* A feature article on local bloggers
* Ongoing local blog coverage (directory, etc.)

There you go. A 6-point plan to re-energize the Oshkosh online community.

Now, I'm sure that if anyone at the NW is reading this right now, they're probably rolling their eyes and thinking to themselves, "Hey, why do we have to do all the work?" The simple answer is because the NW stands to benefit the most. In case anyone hasn't noticed, it's amateur hour out here in the Oshkosh Blogosphere. We're not getting paid to this. Sure, some people are receiving some material gain from their ongoing online existence (Michelle Monte did very well this last election, and while it is certainly debatable how much her blog had to do with her tremendous gains among voters there can be little doubt that it did not hurt her in the name recognition department), but most people are doing their thing out here for little other reason than they enjoy doing it.

* Is there anything bloggers can do to help?

Sure: keep on providing (occasionally) insightful content. That's about all that we can do.

Which brings us back to Hardy's proposition that the Oshkosh blog is dead. While it's true that the local scene may be suffering from a bout of malaise recently -- I think reports of the demise of Koshblogging are premature. Likewise, since the body isn't quite cold yet, it would seem a bit too early to scream bloody murder in the general direction of the "corporate media." Rather, I would suggest that Oshkosh blogging is in a bit of a rut for the exact same reasons normal people everywhere find themselves in a rut: they have children, jobs, mortgages, in-laws, vacations, student loans, a really great book that a friend gave them to read or the overwhelming desire to stay in and drink one's self into oblivion because this fucking winter simply will not end.

Go ahead and pick your poison ... I'm simply more inclined to believe the reasons are human rather than nefarious. It's been a busy news month, and one would imagine there would be tons of commentary to accompany it, but life doesn't always work out so conveniently.

Now, if I may be so bold:

Hardy's declaration of the death of the Oshkosh blog is actually an indication of the it's vitality, not unlike the way death turned out to be one helluva a career move for Elvis. While it's likely not the first instance, Hardy's post is certainly the most prominent piece of "meta-blogging" the Oshkosh blogosphere has heretofore experience. For the uninitiated, meta-blogging is essentially blogging about blogging and it inevitably occurs in any circle of bloggers. Meta-blogging typically only appeals to readers who also blog. Readers who simply read will likely find it narcissistic and masturbatory -- some would even call it rather adolescent, and that's exactly the point: meta-blogging is a sign that the an online community is making the transition from its nascent infancy to a more introspective, yet rowdy, adolescence. It's a sign of growth and means that people have invest enough time and energy into blogging that they now feel it's an important enough topic to discuss in and of itself. That's a good thing.

So before we start drafting our own eulogies, may I suggest we all just take a few deep breaths and continue to go about our business. The Oshkosh Blog is far from dead, and when it should pass away it will not be due to murder most foul, but simply the evaporation of substantive ideas from the bloggers themselves.

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