Blogs: What works and why

There’s no accounting for taste. My dad loves primitive, crackling old recordings of bluegrass singers that bore most people (my mom, for one) to death. My uncle loves the kind of jazz where anything goes, all improvisation and squealing saxophones and pounding piano keys. Some 80-year-olds can’t get enough of P. Diddy. Some 20-year-olds are hooked on the sounds of the 17th century.

(OK, so “some 20-year-olds” is actually code for “me.”)

Luckily, there’s a blog out there for every taste. For my dad, there’s www.bluegrassblog.com, a place where he can hook up with his vinyl-loving brethren. For my uncle, there’s Free Jazz, where a girl named Stef regularly reviews new jazz CDs and groups; he can even filter the blog to only display entries that discuss modern jazz. For me, there’s a whole myriad of blogs, and I visit them regularly. Author Alex Ross, who wrote a book on 20th century classical music called The Rest is Noise, keeps a blog of the same name where he discusses classical goings-on and muses about the future of the genre. I can filter The New York Times’ ArtsBeat blog to only show entries about classical music. Best of all, I can see what’s going on musically in my own backyard with David Stabler’s almost daily updated classical music blog on The Oregonian’s web site.

Why do all these blogs work? For one, because they’re all regularly updated. People who keep a blog with the intention of gathering a steady readership must give their following something to read about at least every few days. For another, all these blogs–with the possible exception of Free Jazz–are kept by professional writers who are diligent fact-checkers and grammar Nazis. The better you write and the more authoritative you are on the subject you’re writing about, it seems, the more readers trust you as a news source and appreciate what you have to say on subjects they care about.

But in blogging, what’s even more important than writing skill and frequent updates is niche appeal. All the blogs above have those in spades. It almost seems that the more specific the subject of a blog, the more zealous the followers. I once interviewed a Palo Alto couple who started a blog about the accordion, and they told me that when they changed the title of the blog from “Let’s Polka” to “Let’s Banjo” for April Fool’s Day, one outraged follower left the most negative comment the couple has ever seen on their blog thus far.

In an article printed in the December 2006/January 2007 American Journalism Review, Dana Hull describes how “the Fourth Estate has fallen fast and furiously in love with blogs, from news-driven ones about professional sports teams, real estate, crime, Hurricane Katrina, immigration and local and national politics to zanier ones that dive deep into niche subcultures.” Newspaper staffers have found that blogs are a nice place to put pieces of information that are interesting but don’t fit into the print edition and may not appeal to a wide public audience.

Since the Internet took over the world of news, increasingly more online newspaper subscrubers have demanded the world of their hometown newspapers and have even customized the main page so that they see articles about subjects they prefer to read up on at the top of the page. Because the possbilities the Internet offers know no bounds, people have come to expect a myriad of information on their specific interests in their newspapers as well as their Google search engines. I, for one, am glad newspapers have wholeheartedly accepted the challenge set by their readers; ten years ago, I couldn’t find a classical music article in the news to save my life. Now, thanks to cyberspace, classical news is all over the place.

On the dark side, Hull mentions in her article that newspaper-affiliated blogging has raised questions about how true to news style blogs must stay while maintaining their casual, breezy and sometimes snarky style popular with readers. Just how honest and opinionated can reporters be in their blogs without losing credibility as a neutral source in their regular news stories?

I say, don’t touch the sensitive issues–religion, politics, going bald–and utilize the blog as a way to divulge information that either wasn’t important enough to make it into the paper or wasn’t interesting enough to the general masses. People will appreciate a more casual, behind-the-scenes personal touch to news they didn’t get in print.

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