A way of thinking so old that it's new

July 06, 2008|By Dave Rosenthal | Dave Rosenthal,Sun reporter

I began my career in journalism in Roanoke, Va., writing a consumer column called Quickline (Or was it the catchier Quikline? It's been too many years to remember). It may not have qualified as Watergate-type sleuthing, but it was a paying job and did introduce me to a basic form of what is now, decades later, called User Generated Content. Questions, complaints, recommendations, out-and-out rants - all were fodder for the column.

Today, newspapers speak of UGC in reverential tones, as though it is part of a magic formula to recapture media dominance. But in reality, it's a return to simpler times when we shared a tighter bond with readers who shared the recipe for Aunt Mary's Six-Minute Buttermilk Biscuits, howled in letters to the editor or trusted us to solve problems with a mail-order company.

So maybe it wasn't such a great personal leap when I decided to add a new wrinkle to my job as an assistant managing editor for The Sun by creating a book blog.

It certainly wasn't a novel idea. There were already more blogs in existence than stars in the sky. And The Sun had a few dozen, on topics from food to football.

Still, I wanted to experience this new medium firsthand, and to experiment with it. I canvassed friends and neighbors about potential topics: best seller lists, book club profiles, reviews. After more planning, and some false starts, I was joined by Nancy Johnston, a copy editor and avid reader. Our blog, Read Street, made its debut at 1 a.m. on May 12, 2008, with a promise to explore "the social-ness of reading."

I soon found that a blog is governed by certain immutable - and very humbling - forces.

It requires journalists to think in new ways - more as a marketer than a reporter. How do you get readers and how do you keep them? Should you seek out niche topics or those that promise big audiences, such as a post about a Britney Spears biography?

Google provides a deep numerical analysis for blogs every day - even hour-by-hour for true masochists. You can find out how many people visited the blog, where they're from, what they read, and much more. I approach these stats gingerly each day - just as I did the morning newspaper's baseball scores in a pre-ESPN era, when I would silently rejoice or cringe at the result of my favorite team.

After less than two months of blogging, I have developed a twitch whenever I look at Google's stats. If the chart shows a downturn, I worry about finding a way to end it; if there's an upturn, I worry about finding a way to continue it. (I also have random worries: Why has no one from South Dakota visited the blog yet?)

The Internet is wonderful because it has no horizon. But that limitless potential also is scary, for it portends a limitless appetite. No matter how many posts Nancy and I write, it doesn't seem enough. And even the most insightful post, if ill-timed, will be lost amid the Internet's ruthless competition for readers and the premium on immediacy. There's no "off" switch.

Yet there's a serendipity to the Internet, as you try to anticipate reader interests. One slow day, I noted the New York Times obituary of Tasha Tudor, a 92-year-old illustrator of children's books. Read Street had its highest daily count of page views, as Tudor fans from around the world searched for news about her death. Who knew?

Another day we asked readers to submit their favorite bookstores in vacation spots, and they responded with more than 100 recommendations. So we plotted them on a U.S. map, and were gratified to see thousands of viewers in a few weeks.

This endless sense of experimentation, and wonder, even, seems like the early days of television. When I edited the recent obituary for Jim McKay, who spoke the first words ever heard on Baltimore television, I was struck by the laughable simplicity of the first shows. Before McKay became a famous sportscaster, he sang, told jokes and even hosted a show called Traffic Court. I have a feeling that even the bests of today's blogs will someday seem laughable; I already shudder at some of my early posts - written all of seven weeks ago.

Yet like early TV (and my old consumer column), blogs offer the real hope for connecting with readers. You never know who will stop by, but after a while, you get to know some of them - at least those who comment. Recently, Nancy asked for book- or robot-themed haiku, and got many responses, including this one:

searing summer sand

footprints brimmed with salty tide

escape to Read Street



To get a look at Read Street's book club profiles, calendar and map of favorite bookstores, go to www.baltimore sun.com/readstreet

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.