Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Blogger Q&A No.7 John Robinson

In our continuing series of interviews with language/journalism bloggers, we talked with John Robinson, editor of the Greensboro, N.C., News-Record, an innovator in online journalism and community involvement. Read him; he has important things to say. No, he's not a relative.

Q.When did you start blogging?

A. When I realized that there was a conversation about civic affairs going on in my community that the newspaper wasn’t a part of and should be. Or, to be more precise, August 2004.

Q. What's your purpose or motivation to blogging? What do you hope to accomplish?

A. Big questions. The core purpose is to engage with the public in another way outside of the print paper. The blog extends the journalism we do. I can talk with readers, listen to them, ask their advice, learn from them. In addition to the robust interactivity, I can provide – actually, the readers demand -- greater transparency. The blog helps open the doors to our business, and it’s a place where I can explain why we do what we do, acknowledge screw ups when we screw up and ask for help. And it’s part of a community I want to be a member of. (And they accepted me with pretty much open arms, which they didn’t need to do so I’m grateful for that.) Generally, bloggers and commenters are a sharp bunch, involved in the community and working for the betterment of the community in their own ways. I like being around smart people, and most of the bloggers around here are smart, smarter than I am.

Q. Where do you get your topics?

A. Everywhere. Most topics emerge from within the newsroom – issues we’re discussing and/or struggling with – or from the community as it relates to the newspaper. One day I may write about a story we’re kicking around, trying to find the best way to approach it. The next, I may respond to a local blogger who is questioning or criticizing something in the paper. A third day I may explain (or complain about) something on our Web site. A fourth day, I may write about someone who is leaving the paper, or someone who is joining the paper, or someone who used to work at the paper and who has done something notable elsewhere. And on a fifth day, I may give my take on some national journalism issue. So they come from everywhere. I try to write about what I know. Pretty much I stick with journalism topics, specifically newspaper and online topics, except of course when I write about rocket science and brain surgery.

Q. What has provoked the most response from readers?

A. Race or the war, both polarizing issues in this community, at least. They also tend to attract the most shouters and trolls as well. For awhile, during election seasons, issues pertaining to whether the newspaper was liberal or not also attracted a lot of comments.

The hottest posts have probably involved discussions of race. One day last summer, for instance, we published a photo package of kids sitting on their front porch eating watermelon. Really, it was a group of compelling photos capturing a rite of summer. Except the kids were African American. We knew it was a touchy subject, but we thought people had gotten past the old stereotypes. When I explained the choice, it was hotly debated. Another time, I announced our efforts to recruit and hire more minority journalists in the newsroom. You might have thought I was trying to suggest that Texas barbecue is better than North Carolina barbecue. Hot topic all around.

Q.Do you know who your readers are and if so, do you have much interaction with them? Anything interesting to say about them?

A. Those bozos? Hell no. Oh, did I say that outloud? Just kidding! I know who some of them are in the flesh, but most of them I know only in cyberspace, which is fine. Some I like, some not so much, which is fine, too. It’s like life. Seems as if I have a great deal of interaction with them, although I am often surprised by what sets them off and what doesn’t. Some posts that I think will get them stirred up, get nothing. Other posts that I think are innocent cause a great rumpus. I have my share of trolls and my share of commenters who oppose everything I say. I think these people overestimate how much I care about what they have to say because some of their comments are so predictably negative and destructive that they’ve lost any credibility in my eyes. Mostly, though, the great majority of my readers tend to be smart, engaged, supportive and constructive in their criticism.

Q. If you know, are your readers language or journalism experts or just regular folks?

A. I don’t really know, or, honestly, care. I’d just as soon they were people ‘round here. I know that “regular folks” are good enough language experts because they correct my grammar and spelling often enough – our blogs aren’t edited so typos and dumb mistakes creep in. I know some journalists read it because I know some of them who comment on it. Many journalists will e-mail me with comments on a particular post, but they won’t comment on the blog itself. I’ve never understood that.

Q. Do you try to post on a regular schedule or as topics arise?

A. I try to post when I have something to say. Ed Cone, a writer and blogger who happens to live in Greensboro and who bears a great deal of credit or blame for my blogging, quoted Jim Rome once when he talked about content and frequency of posts: Have a take and don’t suck. That’s pretty much what I try to do.

I would be dishonest, though, if I didn’t say that I try to post eight days out of 10. It’s not difficult to find something to write about. What’s difficult is deciding whether I have something to say that will advance the discussion.

Q. Do you consider yourself web savvy or up to date on technology? Will we still be blogging in five years or will technology completely replace this method of communication?

A. There are too many people around here who would laugh out loud if I lied about this one. I’m web savvy but not a techie by any stretch of the imagination. I know that technological advances are occurring faster than anyone has anticipated. So who knows what’s around the corner. Still, blogging is a powerful tool. The ease of use, utility and interactivity are too valuable.

Q. How much time do you spend each week on your blog?
A. A couple hours, probably. But that’s just the post themselves. I used to write editorials and found that you’re always thinking about issues, whether you’re in a meeting or in the shower or mowing the grass. It’s the same way with blog topics. Always thinking about this issue or that. Some come quickly and are easy to write. Others are tougher and take some time to grasp intellectually and articulate cogently. Too often I don’t take the time I should to think things through. Oh well.

Q. Is there anything else you'd like to add?
A. Don’t drink and blog. Develop a thick skin. Be human. Ignore the trolls. Have a take and don’t suck. Have fun.

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