Blogs are easy to start, but can be hard to keep going

ON BLOGS

Ideas

November 11, 2007|By ANDREW RATNER

Blogs are easy to conceive, difficult to nurture.

Or to paraphrase a popular TV commercial from years ago: It's 10 a.m. Do you know where your blog is?

Just ask Alan Jacobson. A newspaper design consultant from Norfolk, Va., Jacobson launched a blog last year to critique the design of the front pages of American newspapers. "BFD," he called the blog - for "best front design." Like many blogs, it wouldn't interest a mass audience, but was quite entertaining to people who make their living designing newspapers.

Jacobson would spend an hour each weekday morning examining front pages from around the country online, copying a few onto his blog, praising some for being inventive, criticizing others for being predictable or old-fashioned. He didn't mince words in his daily missive and neither did his readers, who'd often argue more feverishly than one might think possible over how to arrange the cover of a newspaper.

But the blog has been in suspended animation since mid-September, when Jacobson stopped updating it.

The demands of running his full-time business, a consulting firm called Brass Tacks Design, forced him to abandon its daily feeding, he said, even though he enjoyed doing it. He's also been busy launching a Web-based business he believes is the next generation of classified advertising online - a combination of YouTube and craigslist where people post videos of stuff to sell. After The Wall Street Journal and other publications mentioned his site, RealPeopleRealStuff.com, it began gaining interest, and he decided he couldn't attend to the blog, which was more for passion than profit.

"It's just that blogging isn't giving me the return yet, while we're actually building a Web-based business," said Jacobson, who was both amused and startled by the reaction to his blog's going on hiatus. "I was getting complaints from readers, even though they were getting it for free, `How dare you start something and not finish it. ... Where the heck is this thing?' "

It was a reminder that a blog must be as dependable as any paid publication.

Jacobson was astonished at how the blog transformed an exercise once reserved for an industry workshop once or twice a year to something so instantaneous that his musings about front pages were online moments after the newspapers themselves were tossed onto doorsteps and driveways around the country.

"You were getting critiques in newspapers barely off the press," he said. He marveled at the dialogue the blog inspired - and recoiled at the tenor of some of it.

"The lack of civility, how incredibly vicious some of the comments were," Jacobson said. "Somehow, people thought they could say anything online, sexual references, comments about how someone must be spending their Saturday evenings. The last thing I got was so offensive, I disabled the comment. People would never say this stuff in person or in print and, in some cases, these are people who know each other."

Jacobson is turning the blog over next week to Nick Masuda, a frequent commenter on BFD who recently took a design job at the Orlando Sentinel.

Jacobson said he never feared that the pointed exchanges on the blog would hurt his consulting business. He figured that anyone who was interested in hiring him would be compelled, and not surprised, by his strong views about visual design in the first place. He's also not shy about expressing his frustration over the struggles of the long-profitable ink-on-paper industry to recast itself for a digital world.

"It's not about page views. One million page views and $5 still only buys you a cup of coffee at Starbucks," Jacobson says. "The New York Times sells roughly a million papers a day and gets 1.4 million hits on its Web site, roughly equivalent, but the ratio of its print to online revenue is still enormous. And if The New York Times can't figure it out, heaven help the paper in Podunk."

andrew.ratner@baltsun.com

Andrew Ratner, a former technology reporter, is Today editor of The Sun.

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