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  • Toli Galanis
  • Alexis Krase
  • Akshay Jain
  • Andre Henry
  • Emily McFarlan
  • Kaitlin Jessing-Butz
  • Kat Ocampo
  • Lauren Dzura
  • Patrick Akhidenor
  • Trisha Chang
  • Sami Osman
  • Sara Williams
  • Vanessa Fica
  • Will McLean
  • Renee Alfuso
  • Briana Mowrey
  • Apostolia Pentogenis
  • K. Paul Mallasch
  • Michael W. Andersen
  • Jay Rosen


OK. I’m climbing on this rocket ship. Let’s see where it goes. — J.R., first post.

John Robinson, 53, with his thinning gray hair, and handsome, not just wholesome but Mr. Rogers-wholesome face, looks like the kind of guy who’d barely be able to work his e-mail.

But he’s a technology pioneer among newspaper editors. On August 24, 2004, Robinson began his double life as blogger-editor with this statement: “Welcome to my weblog. Its purpose is to engage you in public conversations about the newspaper. The key word is public.”

Robinson is the editor of the Greensboro News & Record and the boss of the newsroom. He’s the author of The Editor’s Log, which is one of 19 blogs the N & R has launched since 2004.

My assignment, as a contributor to Blue Plate Special No. 1, was to find out from Robinson and others in Greensboro what difference it makes if a man keeps a weblog and edits the local newspaper. In a town with a remarkably strong blogger corps people do have opinions about that. So did Robinson when I asked him.

When the person with power starts a weblog

He says he created The Editor’s Log primarily to talk to the public. But Robinson is the first to admit that sometimes they—the public—are the very reason that more editors aren’t blogging. There are a lot of people out there “eager to bring you down,” he says. Of course in any town with a monopoly newspaper the newspaper editor is not just a public figure, but a person with power, an authority figure. And so when the person with power starts a weblog, there’s a chance to topple an icon, or at least chip away.

The boss also gets extra scrutiny from readers. “There is an assumption that what you’re saying is ‘corporate speak’,” he says. “People really do dissect everything I say and then apply it to the newspaper.”

Just because he’s the editor doesn’t mean he won’t feel hurt, insulted, or disrespected. Robinson mentions the controversy over his recent post about his decision not to publish the cartoons from Denmark that Muslims in many countries have protested against, sometimes violently. “If you read some of the comments on the Danish cartoons… you say, ‘Why am I doing this again?’”

The topics that rile up his readers the most are, like elsewhere, politics and war coverage. Robinson (J.R. to people in town) adds that “issues of race, at least down South are still…” Long pause. “…out there.” In fact, Greensboro has its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission, inspired by the one in South Africa.

Always on your best behavior

To explain this week’s judgment call is one thing. To be consistent in your reasoning, and thus believable over time, is another. Because he has a blog and he uses it to explain himself, Robinson has to worry about the Ghost of Positions Past. He mentions the parallels readers drew between the Danish cartoons (not published) and the graphic Abu Ghraib prison photos, which the N & R did publish. He constantly worries, to echo the Walt Whitman phrase, “Do I contradict myself?” And with the archives to his blog available, readers can let him know when he does. In no other part of the newspaper are past statements so accessible.

Of course, right there is the reason Robinson started the blog: to make himself more accessible.

Robinson confirms the fears of your average stressed-out editor when he says the Log takes a significant commitment of time, not only to write thoughtful posts, but also to monitor and maintain the site. If you’re going to have open comments, you have to know what people are saying— and saying about you. He responds to many of the comments, but also has to be careful not to over-respond and take up all the air.

Because there are no editors as there would be for a newspaper column, you have to always be on your best behavior. That means discipline: thorough research, spell-checking, and curbing your temper when responding to things people say. “If you’re remotely thin-skinned, you can be provoked into saying things that are just…not the right things to say,” he laughs.

Six constituencies for The Editor’s Log

J.R. will admit to occasional feelings of inadequacy. “It’s intimidating to read the better blogs writing about newspapers,” he says, naming PressThink and BuzzMachine. “You kinda have to keep your head down. I’m not a fast writer, or a particularly articulate writer. I’ve gotten over it, but it’s a reason not to do it.” Putting all the reasons together, “if you want a peaceful Sunday afternoon, you think ‘Ahh, I’ll start the blog next month!’”

But he has no second thoughts.

“Actually, these aren’t reasons [not to blog], they’re excuses not to…. Just because something’s hard doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.” (And there are others who do it. See Blue Plate Special’s Newsroom Bosses With Weblogs: A List by Dan Miller.)

In Greensboro, there’s a waiting list forming for staff members who want their own blogs. “It’s really a technology problem,” says Robinson. “We’ve had nothing but technology problems since we started this.” About six months ago, he says, the “tech people” asked the staff to stop adding more bloggers because of a move to a different software platform. But that’s not a pause, it’s a delay. “We’re really in a bit of a holding pattern,” says Robinson, somewhat apologetically.

The Editor’s Log is not. Starting with a vague mission, “to engage you in public conversations about the newspaper,” Robinson seems to have figured out the different groups he wants to engage. If the readers in Greensboro are the basic audience, he has other ways he can face. Different posts speak to:

Robinson is fond of his future-of-journalism posts, but he says he does them “just because it interests me. It’s really for myself and my staff.” In posts meant for the N & R’s core readership, the intention is transparency: to explain what the newspaper is doing or not doing, and why.

“He’s in the game. He’s not just waiting for his column to come out.”

News & Record staffer and “citizen-journalism coordinator”’ Lex Alexander sees real benefit in that kind of post. “Sometimes the newspaper is a part of the story, and when that happens, we need to make our motives and interests as clear as possible so that they can be judged on their merits, rather than on the basis of rumor and suspicion,” he says. “This approach doesn’t win over every last critic, but I think it has led some people to better understand why we do what we do, even when they don’t agree with it.”

More transparency is one thing. More transparency when you can post in minutes to The Editor’s Log is another. “When people question something, he writes about it in his blog,” said Greensboro journalist Ed Cone in American Journalism Review. “He’s in the game. He’s not just waiting for his column to come out next week to answer a challenge made yesterday.”

Robinson, Alexander, and most of the local bloggers will refuse to accept credit for the rise of “Blogsboro,” but they all point to the pioneering spirit of Cone, a former contributing editor at Wired and current senior writer at Ziff-Davis media who has a blog (Word Up) about politics, tech, basketball and living. Cone, who also writes a column for the News & Record but is not on staff, “has been a tireless advocate for the medium in general and Greensboro bloggers in particular,” Alexander said.

Cone describes the onset of Greensboro blogging as a sort of epidemic. “This is a viral medium. As someone who got into it fairly early, and who had a newspaper column from which to proselytize, I was able to spread the meme quickly.” He says he started blogging after writing a 2001 profile in Wired about Dave Winer, one of the founders of blogging. “So, the virus came to me from one of the source carriers.” In 2005 Winer came to Greensboro to meet with News & Record people, along with local bloggers at the newspaper’s offices. (See Dave Winer’s post and podcast about it; both are interesting.)

That Cone, a colleague, had gone first made it easier for Robinson. “I think my position as a professional journalist with a blog may have to some degree legitimized the medium for J.R. and others at the paper,” he said. As a close reader of Cone’s site, Robinson was surprised at how often people were “ripping on the newspaper” in the comments, often speculating incorrectly, and generally showing how little they really knew about the workings of a professional newsroom.

“I had the choice between commenting on their sites, or doing my own,” he says. The Editor’s Log was born from that. Which is what Ed Cone means by viral. (See Cone’s post for Blue Plate Special: Newspaper Blogging 2012: A Look Back at the Early Days.)

“Part of it’s a leadership thing…”

A good number of Robinson’s posts trickle down from national stories at sites like Romenesko; in them the News & Record either follows or bucks the rest of the profession. His apology for publishing the initially incorrect information about the survival of the West Virginia coal miners earlier this year is a heartfelt transparency post. But even in response to an apology, readers are not afraid to criticize the reporting that led to the error.

Sometimes Robinson will get an interesting e-mail or phone call from a reader, and respond to it on his blog, in the hope that it may answer questions other readers have as well. On Christmas Eve he wrote A Visit from the Klan, about a Greensboro woman who, that morning, found a flyer for the KKK folded into her copy of the News & Record. He explained that it was a familiar Klan tactic across the country. He gave some links. He did not apologize.

At bottom, all the posts are about one thing: humanizing Robinson (and his staff) before the big community of readers. “The J.R. you get in the blog is the same J.R. you get in person: competent, committed, but low-key and modest,” says Alexander.

“Everybody thinks we’re just this cold, unfeeling institution,” Robinson says about the facade of seamlessly mechanical fact-gathering. “I wanna be able to tell them what we’re trying to do, and the good things we do, too.” If you believe in your editorship then in an editor’s blog you express that. “It doesn’t really have to be me,” he says, “but part of it’s a leadership thing…”

“That, and because I knew it would make me famous.”

“Touch readers in the way that they need to be touched”

He jokes, of course, but the situation in Greensboro—blogging culture plus newspaper and editor wide open to it—made ripples in the blogosphere and in the national press about a year ago. (See PressThink making waves about it here and here and here.) Robinson downplays his role in that story, giving most of the credit to others, like Lex Alexander, who had his own personal blog for years before his N & R site (The Lex Files).

“I had blogged off and on since late ‘97, when my wife was pregnant with our first child.” His first blog was just to keep friends and relatives up to date on the event, said Alexander. “I know that J.R. read my blog, but I really don’t recall our ever discussing it,” he says. “I think he did mention to me once that he was thinking about blogging and I encouraged him to, but I also think that if he mentioned it to me then he probably already had made up his mind to try it.”

Robinson says he learned something valuable by writing his blog. “Blogging is just another way to deliver readers your journalism. Not everybody receives or uses newspapers the way that I do.”

“You need to touch readers in the way that they need to be touched,” he says, without sounding even a bit New Age-y. Touching readers, as Robinson sees it, can be done by the interactive platform of a blog, or audio interviews, or streaming video. “A lot of non-newspaper readers out there might go there and get civic value out of it.”

Robinson and his team didn’t learn about blogging from American Journalism Review— or PressThink. They could see the potential in Greensboro’s own community of bloggers, as found on the aggregator and forum site, Greensboro101. It was created by Roch Smith, Jr., a local entrepreneur who once ran for mayor.

Getting beat on local stories by bloggers

“Having a high profile person like J.R. blogging is good for local blogs,” said Smith. “There is no doubt that, on balance, his efforts and the blogging of other N & R reporters and editors have elevated the credibility of the medium locally.”

Another local blogger, Billy Jones (aka Billy The Blogging Poet), agrees. “In doing what John has done, he has allowed the local blogosphere to influence how the paper does the stories and made the N & R a better newspaper. That one fact has empowered our local bloggers to the point that local politicians seek our input, attend our monthly meet-ups, and on occasion ask certain bloggers to float ideas on their blogs to see how we will react before they go public with their ideas.”

Relations between the more organic community of bloggers and the professionals who blog for the newspaper are, for the most part, friendly. But there are tensions. Smith tried an analogy. “We [community bloggers] are like junior high school students at a homecoming dance: interested, tentative, intrigued, and cautious. Some local bloggers see the N & R as not to be trusted. Some of that is unjustified paranoia. Some is understandable, justified by past innacuracies in N & R reporting and editorials.”

Though there is interaction between the two groups, from Smith’s point of view it is lopsided. “Local bloggers frequently comment on N&R blogs, N&R staffers only very occasionally participate in discussion on non-N&R blogs.” To which Robinson says. “The staff definitely reads the local bloggers.”

Why? Because sometimes the bloggers are the first to local stories. (See this list Smith put together.) “When you get beat on stories that should be in the newspaper, you build a respect for them,” says Robinson. “We know that we don’t know everything- the old Dan Gillmor mantra, ‘My readers know more than I do’? We believe it.” (Some of his wisdom is more practical: “It’s not unique to me, but never drink and blog,” he says.)

Blogging’s a slice, Lex’s report is the pie

Robinson is unquestionably a believer in blogging, but he does not see it as transformative in itself. “It’s a really narrow slice of the pie,” he said. “Lex ’s report is the pie.”

Lex’s report, as Public Square, was commissioned by Robinson and appeared at Alexander’s blog in January of 2005. (With several follow-up posts.) It’s full of chilling statistics about fading newspaper readership (the majority of it is “over 55”) and says journalism at the N & R must become two-way. (See PressThink’s summary.) Alexander wrote:

Journalism, as traditionally practiced, has been a lecture, almost completely one-way, from journalists to readers. But it’s changing now to a conversation between and among journalists and readers, one that breaks down artificial barriers between us and readers and involves unprecedented levels of transparency in how we do our work. Our online form and content, and our internal culture as a news-gathering and -disseminating operation, must reflect, facilitate, even lead that change.

That’s scary to a lot of people in the business. For one thing, it means giving up a privileged role we cherish: mediator of the news. More significantly, it means giving up a significant amount of control over our own product, which runs right up against our industry’s (rightly) cherished tradition of independence.

But, I would argue, we have very little choice. For one thing, not to move, in this direction or any other, is to exhaust our current readership, thus killing us, within a generation. For another, moving in this direction is what our audience wants us to do.

To Robinson’s credit, he doesn’t seem to be threatened by the leap into the unknown that Alexander recommended. He still wants to see where the rocketship takes him. In the more immediate future, Robinson wants another 20 staff and non-staff bloggers. “Right now,” he says, “the blogs are based around newspaper ‘beats’. Our desire is to go off in two other directions.” One is what he describes as “lifestyle” blogging by people with expertise in non-newspaper departments, like perhaps, stamp collecting, or pets.

Cone agrees, and thinks the concept could be pushed even further: “Narrow-focus blogs that attract readers and engage writers make a lot of sense. And I know he’d like to get specialized, but large audiences attract as well, like NASCAR and college basketball fans. Those are huge and passionate constituencies, but his sports writers have not yet bought into blogging in a way that will engage them.”

The other direction is building online “communities of geography.” Robinson wants the smaller towns and suburban neighborhoods that orbit Greensboro to have their own forums to discuss things like local government.

Cooperating with local bloggers: harder than it sounds

These ideas sound a bit like the terrain that Greensboro101 already covers. Robinson clarifies: “We’re all supporting the same thing— a robust, growing, healthy community of bloggers. He’d [Roch Smith Jr.] like to make money from it, we’d like to make money from it, but I don’t see us as competing.” Robinson says that Greensboro101 and the News & Record will “probably get to a point where we partner on journalism stories,” and that Lex “is making inroads” to that end.

Are the local bloggers even interested, or willing to work with the newspaper?

“I can’t speak for other local bloggers, but from my experience, you are asking the wrong question; it should be, is the N & R willing to cooperate with local bloggers? J.R. and Lex seem to be, but they apparently are facing obstacles within their enterprise,” said Roch Smith.

Smith said he recently offered three story ideas to the paper, two of which were ignored. One was about airport construction affecting local water quality. Indeed the New York Times reported in July 2005, “Mr. Robinson is considering joining forces with Greensboro101 to pursue an investigation on local water quality that the Web site has begun.” Smith said “no article yet and no cooperative investigation.”

The second story was about city inspectors entering occupied apartments without tenant approval. Smith left a comment on J.R.’s blog: “More partnering with citizen journalists, eh? Any intention of reporting on this story?”

Robinson replied with: “Roch, that’s the sort of story we’ll partner on, although I doubt we’ll join with you on that one. Hats off to you.”

Smith: “My question wasn’t about whether or not we might partner on it, but rather if you have any intention of reporting it to your readers.”

Robinson: “Yes, we’ll follow up on your reporting.” That was in mid-December. “To date, the N & R has yet to report this story,” Smith told Blue Plate Special.

A third story he said the paper agreed to investigate, but declined to involve him, instead assigning it to its own reporters. “I mention these examples not to embarrass Lex or J.R., but to hopefully, in some small way, help them break the logjam that seems to exist when it comes to actually undertaking cooperative projects. I’d like to see their ideas implemented,” he said.

“Distinctly different sets of understandings”

Robinson said the difficulty lies not in a resistance or resentment, but in a kind of fundamental clash of expectations that still needs to work itself out.

“In this case, if my memory serves me correctly, Roch did reporting on the first two stories and posted them on his site. To me, that seems to put cooperation between the paper and him in a secondary position. Perhaps this is old-time thinking, but he’s done the reporting and given it his shot. He can continue pursuing it, but he doesn’t need the newspaper to do that.”

“The fact is that Lex is going to look for opportunities to work with citizens on stories as part of his new job, which starts next month. The fact is also that many citizen journalists and newspaper reporters operate under distinctly different sets of understandings and guidelines … We don’t yet know how these differences will affect a working relationship. We know, though, that our guidelines for newspaper journalism are well-founded. We also know that many citizen journalists disagree with them. So, we have some exploring to do. And it is exploring that we’ll do mutually, from the beginning of a story, not after it has been reported.”

Robinson also points to the mythology of reporter-as-lone-gunslinger. “[Reporters] like pursuing their own stories, figuring out the order of interviews and the pacing of questions. They want to write the stories themselves, measuring the words and phrases in their minds. Sharing all that, well, think Woodward and Bernstein in the early days of their reporting,” said Robinson. “So, asking a reporter to work with a citizen and leap over the hurdles of working with a person you don’t know and who doesn’t necessarily share similar journalistic values and experience poses some obstacles. They aren’t insurmountable, but they’re challenging.”

There are material challenges as well. “ We have a lot of initiatives on our plate and a lot of obstacles in getting them done,” said Robinson. “We still put out a newspaper every day. Doing blogs, video, audio, multimedia and citizen journalism are also part of our workday. I appreciate the impatience of people who want us to move faster. But it doesn’t help us move any faster.”

“The issue is resources, not will,” said Alexander.

“If you don’t enable comments, it’s really a one-way discussion.”

Though Robinson had been contacted by some online editors, and some ombudsmen, few of his counterparts at other newspapers have sought his counsel. “Bill Keller? No, he hasn’t called,” he deadpans.

But one who did is Dwight Silverman, interactive journalism editor at the Houston Chronicle, who paid a visit to Greensboro. On March 1, a Blue Plate Special study called the Chronicle the top blogging newspaper in America, for papers over 100,000 circulation. Clearly Silverman learned something. The problem with most newspapers is that “they all think that they need to invent everything themselves,” Robinson said.

What advice would Robinson give editors interested in blogging, should they ever want it? He’s already written a long and eloquent post about it. More succinctly, he gives these three maxims:

  • “Don’t be afraid of this, take some chances.”
  • “You’ve gotta be totally honest, and blunt, and straightforward.”
  • “If you don’t enable comments, it’s really a one-way discussion.”

About the future: “I have to say that blogging is not it— it’s a piece of what we’re going to get. It’s one piece of the whole revolution.” That revolution is already happening with other real-time and multimedia advances like streaming video, and podcasting, and Robinson is quick to give credit to other “innovative newspapers” out there that are using these tools.

He thinks newspaper editors will figure the blogging thing out. “The only reasons I can think of why they don’t have blogs are: a) they don’t understand the medium, b) they don’t have the time, or c) they aren’t technologically able.”

What’s there to be afraid of? he says. “If you like communicating with readers about stuff, the fact is, it’s just fun.” He ends on a note of consolation. “You’re not really falling behind in cyberspace. You can start a blog tomorrow, and you’ll have caught up with me.”

Notes and Links

Briana Mowrey is a graduate student in magazine journalism at NYU. Originally planning to stay in New York after graduation to pursue her career, she is seriously considering a relocation to Greensboro. "A movable type," she says.

Over at We Want Media, other talented NYU J-students show they know what a weblog is for. It's edited by Patrick Phillips of I Want Media, a must-read site for followers of the industry.

Comments (5)

Actually, it’s 19 blogs, although in fairness, I see that we don’t have any one place on our site listing all 19 of them. (Ouch.)

In addition to the 18 listed here, we also maintain a blog for reader-submitted photos here.

Thanks, Lex. We fixed that — BPS

The GNR deserves all the credit in the world for taking these initiatives and inspiring others to look to the future. One such site, which I run, can be found here.

A very fine piece of work, Briana. I think you painted a very accurate and thorough picture. It looks like you are well on your way to being a skilled journalist. We’d love to have you in Greensboro. Come visit and check us out.

Briana, I am impressed with the quality and the depth of your work. I’m sure Professor Rosen is beaming.

Ditto Roch’s comment, we’d love to have you come visit us in Blogsboro.

Thanks, Briana, for a fair and nuanced look at what we’re up to. I didn’t want you thinking my mentioning only the number of blogs indicated that I was unhappy with the article. Quite the contrary!