Tomorrow, National Public Radio will formally launch the Argo Project
, a group of 12 topic-based news blogs hosted by different NPR affiliates across the country. Two of the blogs are Bay Area-based: KALW's The Informant
, which focuses on criminal justice issues, and KQED's MindShift
, which looks at how technology is changing the way students learn.
While the individual blogs are pretty standard, Argo is a great primer
on how a smart mainstream news organization has decided to approach the web. Their approach is a mix of the strategic (integrated launch of blog, Twitter, and Facebook pages) and the retro (framing the blogs around big, enduring human questions).
The first choice -- given $3 million in funding from the Knight Foundation
and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help NPR "fill the growing gap in local news offerings
" -- was to build a network of blogs
. While there are still journalists who see bloggers as lazy, pajama-clad pundits
("It makes me crazy when I see these guys referred to as reporters. They're anything but," one Washington Post journalist noted
during a dustup over a Post
blogger this summer), blogging has
increasingly become just another, web-friendly style of sharing
This all sounds obvious to those of us who get much
of our news from sleek, topic-based websites, but it's not such an
intuitive choice for many mainstream news groups. Most still package
information for the web in newspaper-sized portions, with a newspaper
audience in mind. On daily news sites, blogging is often a catchall for
smaller stories plus bits of information that don't fit the standard
article format. Even web-only sites that provide content to newspapers, like The Bay Citizen
, tend to treat their websites like pixelated newsprint.
makes NPR's Argo blogs different is that they're not just a collection
of radio-style stories uploaded onto a website: They're a truly
proach to local news.SF Weekly
talked to Matt Thompson
a strategist behind the Argo project, as well as representatives from
the local NPR affiliates, about the essential elements of their their
web-first tactics. 1. Target a Passionate, Niche Audience
Tim Olson, KQED's vice president of digital media and education, put
it, print and broadcast companies are the big department stores of news.
They're used to assembling a lot of different kinds of news and having a
large general audience come to browse. But the web works under a retail
model. Readers can afford to be picky: "go to Gap for one thing and
Banana Republic for another," Olson said. In this kind of marketplace,
sites that become the number one destination for a certain niche
audience may be able to maintain the most loyal following--and the
steadiest page views. The benefit of the Argo Project, Olson said, is
that it allows the local NPR station to experiment with attracting an
even more focused web audience than the ones for its food
or capitol news
blogs. The goal is not to attract "wonks and insiders," Thompson said,
but people without expert knowledge who still have a passionate interest
in a subject and want to learn more.
Argo's dozen blog topics
, from immigration and cultural fusion
in Southern California to the business of fighting global poverty
in Seattle, were chosen to be "geographically focused locally, but nationally resonant," Thompson said. The Informant
focus on criminal justice in Bay Area in the wake of the Oscar Grant
trial is one example of this: a local news topic with the potential to
become a source of national interest
. 2. The Three Pillars: Reporting, Curating, Community Building
has asked its Argo bloggers to approach their subjects like
old-fashioned beat reporters, with plenty of interviews and
on-the-ground investigations. But that's only one part of their job.
Unlike the classic approach of a beat reporter, Thompson said, "It's not
just about them and what stories they can find and get in the paper."
In practice, this means
bloggers are responsible for "curating" the news, sorting through each
day's articles on a topic and pointing their readers to whatever's
noteworthy on other sites. Instead of viewing other news sites as
competition, this model views competing sites as participants in one big
collaborative conversation. Again, pretty standard web-friendly
practice, but something that is still not a given for many mainstream
news organizations. (In San Francisco, for example, the web-first Bay Citizen
has built this "link economy
" into their structure by forging content partnerships with local blogs
, while the San Francisco Chronicle's website
is largely link-free.) 3. The Stream, Not the Article
Keeping up with a voracious blogging schedule doesn't
just mean posting lots of shorter articles. It involves thinking about
news differently -- not in terms of articles or broadcasts, Thompson said,
but in term of a "stream of information," reported iteratively over
time in a way that becomes increasingly rich and sophisticated.
In part, this means focusing on how journalists need to educate
their readers on the big picture of what's going on in a particular topic area before they can really inform
them about what's new. As both Thompson and Jay Rosen point out
journalists typically explain the bigger context of the story in a
sentence or two, wedged in somewhere at the beginning of their story.
Readers who don't understand the bigger context often get turned off,
because what's "news" isn't understandable or interesting to someone
who--unlike the reporter--hasn't spent hours of his or her life learning
about a particular issue.
As Ezra Klein put it earlier this year, the news media may spend too much time on, yes, the news
, rather than making sure their readers first understand the basics, like what a healthcare "public option
How does this work in practice? In a sense, Thompson said, bloggers should aim to be like Harry Potter or Gilgamesh
taking their readers along on an epic quest to find the answers to A
Big Question. In this description, the Argo Project sounds like the
Great Books approach to blogging. Take a one of those big questions,
like, "What is justice?" and explore it through the lens of a cops, courts, and communities beat
in Oakland and the rest of the Bay Area. The challenge, Thompson said,
will be in constantly returning to that bigger question within the
weekly and monthly cycle of blogging.
Some of the Argo Project's
blogs have been soft launched for up to a few weeks, at this point, but
they're still on their first legs. How they evolve, and whether they are
able to successfully attract a strong niche community, won't be clear
for several months.
Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF and @SFWeekly