Mark Cuban, Buzz Bissinger, and blog backlash whiplash

It’s no great secret that there’s a blog backlash going on right now. Case in point: Buzz Bissinger ranting and raving about sports blogs. If you haven’t seen the clip of him lashing out at Deadspin’s Will Leitch, check it out — if only to glean just how rabid the anti-blog sentiment has become.

Now, I’m a huge Bissinger fan. From “A Prayer for the City” to “Friday Night Lights,” he’s one of the nonfiction authors I most look up to. But his take on blogs — “blogs are dedicated to cruelty, blogs are dedicated to journalistic dishonesty, they’re dedicated to speed” — was one of the most poorly informed thought that has come out of his otherwise brilliant noggin.

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It’s not really worth delving into all the distortions Bissinger made on “Costas Now” — besides, he apologized and all but retracted his comments in a subsequent interview with Philly Mag (“Blog Battler Buzz Bissinger”) — but the incident only served to remind me of another blog crank, Mark Cuban, who sounded off about sports blogs back in March.

The difference between the two, though, is that Cuban took on not just NBA bloggers, but also attacked larger phenomenon of newspaper blogs. Unlike the profanity-lace Bissinger belch, he had a well thought out argument, which he set forth, ironically enough, in his own blog, Blog Maverick.

First, I should explain: I came upon Cuban’s rant while attending the “2008 Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism.” Like just about every other writer there, I wanted to mill about and network. In reality, though, this meant reading through brochures and reading blog feeds on my iPhone. Right before a seminar with the NYTimes.com gurus about their innovations in “new media,” I stumbled upon Cuban’s post. The title: “Blogging and Newspapers, a Lesson in How Not to Brand and Market.” It was effectively a rant against blogs in general — and the NY Times ones in particular.

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Same as with Bissinger, I have a huge degree of admiration for Cuban, who, cliched as it sounds, is a kind of Internet era renaissance man. 225px-mark_cuban_web_20_conference.jpgMicroSolutions, HDNet, Broadcast.com, Dallas Mavs — all that. I had the good fortune to hear him give the keynote address at BlogWorld Expo last November — as well as the less gratifying experience of watching him on “Dancing with the Stars” — and I think his blog is one of the best executive-authored ones out there. Plus, his own attempt to bankroll investigative business blogging, in the form of ShareSleuth, is truly innovative. (Read the Wired story about the venture if you haven’t already.) Obviously, the profit model for that site — i.e. Cuban trading on whatever dirt reporter Chris Carey digs up, before his investigations are officially made public — poses ethical dilemmas about as sketchy as the 1919 World Series, but it’s still an interesting experiment.

OK, so all that said, Cuban’s assault on newspaper blogging was one of the most wrongheaded things I’ve read in the entire anti-blog backlash. Yes, it’s so idiotic that I’m still miffed about it months later. Needless to say, given that I’m posting about it to TurkeyMonkey — on a Sunday, no less — I can’t quite let the topic go.

Now, you may wonder, hey, Ted, don’t you write a newspaper blog yourself? Yes. And aren’t you partly responsible for a network of 60+ blogs at The Journal News? Yes, on that count, too. And while being a kind of blog czar for a mid-sized newspaper in suburban New York obviously gives me a completely biased position, it’s also given me more than enough time to ruminate on the subject.

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My problem with Cuban — who briefly tried to ban all sports bloggers from the Dallas Mavs locker rooms, until the NBA overruled him — is that he misunderstands a few fundamental functions of newspaper blogs. Namely:

1. Blogs are a secondary content management system, which is, almost inevitably, superior to the newspaper’s main CMS.

2. Blogs come in all shapes and sizes — including reporter notebooks, analysis, commentary, link fests, and, yes, snarky cespools

3. Thanks to truly robust mechanisms for comments, categories, tags, podcasts and RSS feeds, blogs represent one of the last, best ways for newspapers to elevate the overall funtionality of their sites.

Which brings me to my other beef: It’s not just Mark Cuban (or Buzz Bissinger) who doesn’t get these things; indeed, most newspapers (present company included) fail to see them, too. Remarkably, the NY Times may be one of the only papers that appreciates (a) that blogs can be seen as a CMS, (b) that they can house all kinds of different content, and (c) that they should be integrating them into their website more, not less.

After the break, I’ll explain more about how Cuban’s assertion that “a blog is a blog is a blog is a blog” is dead wrong, and that, likewise, publishers (newspaper, magazine or otherwise) who see them this way risk ignoring what may be the single greatest publishing innovation of the past 20 years.

Blogs as Content Management Systems

Cuban’s first argument for why newspapers shouldn’t offer blogs is, basically, because anyone with internet access can create a blog. “Never, ever, ever consider something that any literate human being with Internet access can create in under 5 minutes to be a product or service that can in any way differentiate your business.” He goes on to say that blogs give off the whiff of a me-too gimmick. Further, he says that if newspapers must blog, they should call it something else, like “RealTime Reporting.”

Let’s ignore for a sec that he’s essentially proposing a dopey marketing gimmick that no savvy web reader would ever buy (in exchange for a perceived marketing gimmick, no less). The bigger issue here is the idea that somehow the publishing platform is somehow flawed because it’s available to the masses and — gasp! — free. I see this all the time in the newspaper world, too. “If it’s not costing us thousands of dollars and approved from corporate, it must be crap!” seems to be the thinking.

So, what happens? Media companies still spend head-achingly large sums of cash to buy blog software that is indisputably inferior to open source platforms (trust me, I’ve tested them all out myself). They end up with a barely operational blog software that no reporter in their right mind would get excited about.

Now, on the flip side, you have platforms like WordPress that embody the Open Source ethos. If Cuban or anyone else wonders why the New York Times (or the Wall Street Journal or Time or my paper) would go with a free software like WordPress, I have three words: It’s the best. It’s got the best user interface, the largest developer community, the most versatile plugins, the best multi-user/multi-blog version (WordPress MU), and so on. Why any newspaper wouldn’t embrace free technologies like this (and, for that matter, Google Docs) — especially in this era, when media companies need every penny they can spare — is beyond me.

Still, choosing a good blog software is only half the equation. Actually embracing it as a content management system is the real trick — and why, unlike Cuban, I loudly applaud the Times.

As I’ve suspected for a while — and learned for certain at the Nieman conference — is that the nytimes.com staff doesn’t just treat WordPress as some kind of third-party application. They call it their secondary CMS. In fact, the Times Company was part of a group that invested $29.5 million in Automatic, a company created by WordPress’s founders to support the blog platform. It’s almost as if the RadioHead pay-what-you-will model of distribution kicked in — even though WordPress never asked for a dime, newspaper publishers liked the platform so much they couldn’t help dole out funding.

Why does the Times, arguably the best funded paper in the world, need a secondary CMS? As Khoi Vinh, Design director for NYTimes.com, put it to me when I asked that question, “like everybody’s content management system, we really, really dislike it.” Here, audio from the conference:

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Which is to say, no matter how great your resources, there’s no way a newspaper CMS will ever be able to do everything you need it to. (Don’t even get me started about newspapers that try to build a blog apparatus into their exisisting CMS’s — if they Time can’t do it, trust me, you’re barking up the wrong tree.)

What Vinh and others have done to really set the Times apart — at least, when it comes to blogs — is integrating the blog content throughout the site in a seamless fashion. Go on any page of the site and you’ll see examples of blog content intermingled with breaking news, editorials, and AP stories. It’s a beautiful thing. And, I think, partly a response to a Gawker critique from last September: “Newspapers Now Stuffed Full Of Blogs, But No Clue Where To Put Them.”

So here are just a few annotated examples of how the Times has taken blogs out of the siderail ghetto and integrated them throughout the main content of the news site:

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What I find very cool about this last example, which shows the Technology section front, is that Times has integrated the blog content among content from their primary CMS, with both types of stories appearing in chronological order. While I also think the method used on the Health and World section fronts — i.e. breaking out the feed of most recent stories for a section-specific blog — is good, the integration of the two CMS systems is what really knocked my socks off. It’s tough to tell is this is, indeed, true integration or just some workaround (like we sometimes use at The Journal News), but I suspect it’s the former.

What I think is also noteworthy here is that most of these blog entries aren’t actually referred to as blogs. They’re not called “Real Time Reporting” — Cuban’s suggestion — either. But I think that’s smart. Since they’re written by reporters, why make any distinction? Other than, as the Times has done, calling out the name of the blog — Bits, Dealbook, etc. — I think this is the best remedy to what Cuban termed the Times’ blog “marketing problem.”

Not All Blogs Are Created Equal

Perhaps nothing has done more harm to the credibility of blogs — and fed into the backlash against them — than the word “blogosphere.” The problem with it is that it implies that all blogs inherently treat content the same way, sort of the way the phrase “the media” implies that all news outlets cover stories in the same way. That when you talk about how Britney is treated in the media, that there’s no real distinction between her appearances in Us Weekly or The Atlantic Monthly or the NewHour with Jim Lehrer.

So when I hear Cokie Roberts say, “I don’t even want to know what the blogosphere is saying about this” — as she did this morning on “This Week” — it makes me cringe. Sure, there are plenty of vitriolic blogs out there, but there are also dozens of Talking Point Memos and Daily Koses and Huffington Posts (ok, so I don’t read ’em much anymore, but I hear they’re swell). And at newspapers, in particular, there are blogs of all different shapes and sizes. At my paper, for example, we have breaking news blogs, food blogs, sports blog, and politics blogs. We have ones that give long-form commentary from columnists, and others that offer nothing more than the lastest fleeting celebrity gossip (yes, that would be the one I author). Every blogger finds their own rhythm, length, and style; some use the blog to link to interesting stories they’ve found, others use it for overflow for their print stories (all the stuff that got cut by editors), and other still use it to break legitimate news.

I’d put our Yankees blog in that last category. On the surface, it’s basically a reporter’s notebook, with 10+ posts a day and thousands of comments per post. But it’s also the preferred medium for our Yankees beat reporter, Pete Abraham, to break news. If Torre is leaving or Girardi is getting hired or A-Rod is getting a new contract, it’s simply the easiest way for him to get the story up ASAP. He can post audio in a snap, add and resize photos on the fly, and even post from his cell or Blackberry. And his blog routinely draws more traffic than our newspaper’s homepage. Let me repeat that: One blog outperforms the newspaper homepage.

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Yes, not all blog reporting is as poetic or well thought out or honest as — to use an example from the Bissinger rant — the writing of W.C. Heinz. But then, as we’ve seen from the likes of Jason Blair and Stephen Glass (who Bissinger knows all too well), sometimes newspaper and magazine writing isn’t either. I’ll be the first to say that Suburbarazzi, my work blog, isn’t writing I’m particularly proud of. But I do enjoy using the blog medium to experiment with language and test out new reporting methods. (See my liveblog of a George Clooney event last week, which may not have been terribly informative, but was, to the best of my knowledge, the first I’ve heard of anyone liveblogging via iPhone).

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Let me put it simply: For Cuban to say “a blog is a blog is a blog” — to lump them all together — is no different than saying “a magazine is a magazine is a magazine” or “a newspaper is a newspaper is a newspaper.” We all know that there’s a world of difference beteween “The Weekly World News” and “The Wall Street Journal,” or “Star” and “The New Yorker.” Blogs are simply a new publishing medium. No more, no less.

Which brings me to my last point …

Blogs are the best way for cash-strapped newspapers (and magazines) to turbo charge their websites

If there was one area where I wholeheartedly agreed with Cuban, it was this point:

“If you feel that you must offer this product or service as a means of “keeping up” or as a checklist item that you must have for competitive reasons, then do everything possible to brand the product or service in a manner that segregates it from the masses.”

The problem that most newspapers have is that they see blogs as a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses necessity, not a way to truly enhance their online publishing. Instead of regarding it like a secondary CMS and integrating it like the Times has, it gets lumped in with a half-dozen other perfunctory site add-ons — that ever-expanding grab-bag of social networking, forums, photos, video, user-generated articles, text-message alerts, and so on. In practice, this often results in papers adopting either (a) some half-baked blog workaround within their exisiting CMS, which doesn’t really work, or (b) a third party blog system that ties into one of the other add-ons, but wasn’t designed primarily for blogging (see: Pluck’s SiteLife).

Take either of those two paths and I guarantee you the blogs will generate little traffic, will frustrate reporters and turn them off to blogging in the future, and will put a massive strain on IT, which is forced to try to fit the square-peg workaround into an uncooperative round-hole CMS. Show me a successful newspaper blog built using a paper’s primary CMS and I’ll do your dishes for a week.

The good news is that many papers have already figured out the right way to do it. Quite simply: download an open-source blog software (WordPress, TypePad, Movable Type), install it on your own server, and customize the templates to match the look of your existing site. The Wall Street Journal now uses WordPress, USA Today uses TypePad, and countless other papers have begun using these off-the-shelf options. (Personally, I’m a former Movable Type user turned WordPress enthusiast.)

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What I’ve noticed recently that may be even more momentous is that some magazines have even begun to treat blogs as the primary content management systems for their websites. Which makes total sense! Since magazines usually have next to no online staff, and make practically nothing off their sites, it’s one of the cheapest ways to build out a robust CMS that anybody — even a troglodyte magazine editor — can use. Editing in a blog isn’t a whole lot different form editing in MS Word, and posting audio and video is bracing easy.

I first noticed this trend on NYMag.com, which isn’t entirely fueled by blogs (I think), but is driven by them more and more. Philly Mag’s site, however, leans very heavily on its three blogs — Daily Examiner, Taste Daily, Good Life Daily — to feed in fresh content. And other mags — Make, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, even The New Yorker! — now use blogs to varying degrees to keep their homepages current.

Indeed, even if mavericks like Cuban and legends like Bissinger don’t see it, the blog platform is one of the cheapest, most innovative tools to hit the publising world in decades. Just as with traditional media, you might not always like or appreciate what reporters put on their blogs. But simply ignoring blogs means cutting yourself off from the newest venue for breaking news and public debate. And, for publishers, adopting blogs half-heartedly (or ghettoizing them on some far corner of your website) means sacrifing one of the best — and cheapest! — resources at your disposal.

And in the newspaper industry — which, I don’t have to tell you, is hanging on by a very thin thread — that’s something we just can’t afford.

Phew. Ok, I’ve said my peace. Thanks for reading.

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