Could we be entering a belated Age of Enlightenment when it comes to the way media companies treat independent bloggers? After years of deep-linking legal debates and arguments about whether bloggers are journalists, some mainstream media outlets are starting to realize a link from a prominent blogger can bring traffic and buzz.
Take the example of the Wall Street Journal Online. Just a few years ago, Patrick Phillips, who runs the IWantMedia Web site, got in trouble with the Journal's legal department for linking to stories behind the subscription wall by using the site's "Email This" function. Now, WSJ.com night editor David Patton sends out an e-mail each evening especially to bloggers to let them know about the site's "free feature," an article that is available for free. (And yes, these e-mails start with "Dear Bloggers" and end with a courteous "Thank you.")
What made the Journal trade in its legal threats for free content for bloggers? Bill Grueskin, managing editor of WSJ.com, is a fan of the blogosphere and "gets it," in the words of blogger Jeff Jarvis, president of Advance.net. When the Journal started opening up for bloggers in May, Jarvis wrote, "This is good for bloggers and good for business. And it's smart of the Journal to care about reaching out to this audience."
Grueskin starts with the assumption that bloggers have the privilege of linking to WSJ.com stories, whether it's to criticize or praise them. And he doesn't believe journalists must have an adversarial relationship with blogs.
"Many traditional journalists have come to see blogging as an either-or proposition -- you're either a blogger or you're a conventional reporter or columnist," Grueskin told me via e-mail. "I see blogging as a nascent phenomenon that is a threat to journalism only to editors who treat it as such. I think the key is finding ways in which we can each do what we're best at, and look for ways to cooperate. Truth is, bloggers depend a great deal on traditional media. But, I'm coming to find, we can depend on them."
If you think it's all about love and kindness, think again. Grueskin says traffic generated from blogs to the free features has been "substantial" for compelling stories. While he couldn't be specific about numbers, Grueskin said the links from blogs sometimes rivaled the traffic generated by links in Yahoo Finance.
So is this some sort of public relations push being made by the editorial department of the Journal? Grueskin doesn't really see his efforts as promotional, but more as a reader service. Other PR professionals concur that bloggers are not easily swayed by the usual pitches and require a softer touch.
Renee Blodgett, president of Blodgett Communications, has done PR campaigns for technology companies such as NewsGator and Xitel. She thinks blanket PR blasts to bloggers won't work in the long run.
"I haven't really pitched bloggers, its more of an FYI to bloggers about things going on in the industry," Blodgett told me via e-mail. "I think that journalists and PR people need to tread cautiously with bloggers and not abuse the relationship. It's the whole 'cry wolf' thing. If you approach them with valuable information, valuable stories, valuable links to interesting and compelling stuff, then the trust begins."
Blodgett says she has created an e-mail list of influential bloggers, but built it in an informal, grassroots way. She found contacts via other trusted friends, bloggers and journalists.
The informal, straightforward approach seems to work best for communicating with bloggers. IWantMedia's Phillips told me he gets e-mail pitches from reporters, editors and PR people every day -- some days in the dozens. As a former PR person for Hearst, Phillips has little tolerance for offbase or clueless pitches.
"Be brief and to the point," Phillips said. "Pitching to a blogger is no different than pitching to a reporter. It's just the next step. You've already got the article published, now you want the blogger to help bring attention to it. Also, link suggestions that include the URL would be very helpful. It would seem obvious to me to include the URL in pitches, but many of them don't. Why make me hunt it down?"
While Phillips can't give exact numbers on the traffic his site might generate, he did tell me about a recent note from an editor at a media trade publication, who told him, "Your site has proven to drive traffic for us. Thanks for posting our material. I think we're the best in the business at what we do, and lots of people clicking through your site would seem to agree."
Cory Bergman, who is editor of the Lost Remote Weblog covering the TV business, says he's seen a significant increase in pitches from PR people, including frequent missives from Microsoft, CNN and the broadcast networks. Plus, reporters are plugging their own stories as well. While Bergman isn't sure about the traffic he might drive to a site, he says the recognition might be just as important.
"I think they enjoy getting some recognition from a respected Weblog read by a concentrated audience in the TV industry," Bergman told me via e-mail. "The best PR folks 'get' Lost Remote and send customized story ideas that fit our audience. I receive a ton of e-mail every day, so I have little time to read through press releases. Personalized pitches get the most attention -- even if it's just a quick note written above a press release."
Pitching the pitchers
If you want to really get your brain knotted up, consider this new conundrum: PR people themselves have started to write blogs about their profession, and are now getting PR pitches from outlets they might also be pitching. Steve Rubel, vice president of PR firm CooperKatz who also pens the Micropersuasion blog, will not write about clients on his blog, but he does receive pitches regularly from journalists.
"There are some PR people who pitch me stories," Rubel said. "But it's still mainly the journalists themselves who are pitching me. And that's a tough situation, because as a PR professional, you don't want to upset a journalist who you also want to pitch your own clients to. You never want to burn your bridges with a journalist."
If you imagine a world with analysts and PR people running their own blogs, then the source/journalist relationship could well be transformed into something else. Perhaps journalists could be left pointing to comments of analyst bloggers rather than just interviewing them for quotes. And journalists pitching their own stories to bloggers is a way for them to see life from the "dark side," public relations.
Another PR blogger, Tom Biro, who is a marketing communications manager in the telecom industry, says he has seen some journalists pitching to his Media Drop Weblog. And that's contrasted sharply with his experience as a PR person, and the times he's been blown off by mainstream journalists in the past.
"I can't tell if journalists are really 'warming up' to bloggers, but they seem to have a realization that bloggers are super helpful in bringing readers to their work," Biro said. "Twice in a week I had authors submit their own articles through my 'Got a story idea?' link at the top of the pages. This, of course, leads to interesting e-mail discussions back and forth about the article, leading finally to a post in some cases. I have one that I'm working on right now, from an author at PRWeek."
Of course, not every major media outlet has blogs on the brain when it comes to promoting their sites. LATimes.com editor Richard Core said his staff hasn't been e-mailing bloggers, though he suspects bloggers have helped drive traffic to the site's Electoral Vote Tracker. Forbes.com Director of Communications Debbie Weathers says she doesn't have time to pitch stories to bloggers, and concentrates on pitching print, TV, radio and other online media.
Thinking outside the blog
Beyond links from blogs, there are other ways to drive more traffic to stories online, including the use of RSS (really simple syndication) feeds and search engine optimization. The Wall Street Journal Online recently started offering feeds, at the behest of readers who liked using RSS services. (If you don't have a paid subscription to WSJ.com, you can't get more than just the headlines.)
New York Times Digital also beefed up its RSS feeds recently in a nod to their power for driving traffic. NYTimes.com now has 27 categories of feeds, while sister site Boston.com has 13 feeds available. Catherine Levene, vice president of business development and strategy at NYTD told me via e-mail that RSS feeds bring in between 1 million and 1.5 million page views per month for the site. And now there's a link for readers to add RSS feeds within the navigation bar that runs on the bottom of every page on the NYTimes.com site.
Many bloggers rely on RSS to get their news, so a site that offers rich RSS feeds also has a greater chance of getting links from bloggers.
"The variety of topic areas accessed via our RSS feeds in July was very interesting to us, and illustrates the range of interests of bloggers and others who use RSS," Levene said. "Top sections in July included Circuits (Technology), Fashion, National, Campaign 2004, Op-Ed and the Times Sunday Magazine. We receive more traffic from our search engine and distribution partnerships, but blogs remain an important and growing channel for us."
Many news sites are starting to harness the power of search engine optimization (SEO), which has been used in the past mainly by e-commerce sites to get traffic via search engine results. With Google, sites try to come up higher in search results by having more incoming links, and having better PageRank. Jupitermedia, which runs a stable of technology news sites including InternetNews.com, has one person, Patricia Fusco, who has the title of SEO Manager. Even LATimes.com is starting to think about SEO.
"We took a look at how our pages are set up and found that we were missing opportunities for higher rankings on Google and other search engines," LATimes.com editor Richard Core said. "We're now reformatting various sections of the site to be more search-engine friendly. Based on the results we get, we'll continue to adapt. Getting high visibility on search engines is important to us."
When it comes to Google News, many news sites aren't sure how to get featured on search results and on the site's front page. Vin Crosbie recently found that out of 4,500 sources spidered by Google News, about a dozen account for the vast majority of stories. CNET News.com editor-in-chief Jai Singh told me he had a major problem with the way Google News lists stories.
"If we're the one who breaks the story, we show up last instead of first," Singh said. "And the people who get the story last come up first."
Getting traffic via search engines turns out to be just as tricky a proposition as getting traffic from Weblogs. But these efforts are important for content sites to consider as competition heats up and the fight for attention online gets ever more difficult.