Site gives readers their very own journalist

Posted: June 30th, 2009 | Author: Tyler Dukes | Filed under: journalism | Tags: , , , | View Comments

Hear what is all about (4:44)

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It's dangerous to go alone! Take this. | Photo by Rob Fisher

It's dangerous to go alone! Take this. Photo illustration by Rob Fisher

Vaughn Hagerty is not out to save newspapers.

As the Web development manager for the Star-News in Wilmington, Hagerty hasn’t spent his days proselytizing about the impending death of print or lamenting the vampirism of sites like Google.

What interests Hagerty are good ideas. And he thinks he’s got one.

In mid May, the staff at the Star-News launched, a site that solicits questions from regular readers and answers them using traditional reporting.

The underlying concept, Hagerty says, is a simple one.

“I think all newspapers are trying to find our place in this new world. ‘What are the jobs that we’re doing?’ is sort of a central theme,” Hagerty said. “One of the things that came up was this help desk concept, like how could we provide this sort of information.”

That initial concept, which stemmed from a formal conversation among the newsroom staff, led to a Q&A format facilitated not by experts, but by journalists whose task it is to answer the question as completely as they would in a traditional news story.

After about a month-and-a-half, Hagerty said the site ranks in the top 10 categories of StarNewsOnline (i.e. front page, entertainment, sports), which is how the staff measures and compares online metrics. The staff has already answered about 100 questions — a rate of more than two a day so far.

That figure, of course, doesn’t even include the questions they don’t answer — like medical advice or queries significantly outside the coverage area (one regarding a Spanish bullfighter, for instance).

Every question, no matter how ridiculous, gets a response. Sometimes it’s just a link to another story or Web site. But when the staff does answer a question, they try do so within 48 hours.

Hagerty said that speed is the key to keeping readers engaged.

“You have to do it fairly quickly. If somebody asks a question and two weeks later you get back to them, you’re not really helping them out,” Hagerty said.

Once a suitable question is received, it’s forwarded on to an assignment editor, who doles it out to the reporter with the most closely related beat. This affords the reader with a unique role.

“The person really assigning the story is the reader. The story originates with the reader. There are probably some stories in newspapers that originate with readers, but I bet you that the high 90 percentile originated with the reporter or an editor,” Hagerty said. “This is where MyReporter is different — it’s that it really puts that control in the hands of the readers. That’s why we think people are really enjoying it.”

But with that added control comes added work for reporters and editors. Hagerty said he understands that, given the fact that he used to be a metro editor for the paper. A project like this, he said, has to be sold to the newsroom — and they’re still working on that.

Hagerty said that understanding doesn’t stop with the newsroom though.

“Anybody who would be thinking about doing this, don’t take that lightly. This is not a blog, this is not a ‘Oh, we’ll assign the interns to it’ kind of thing. To make it work, you have to commit a decent amount of human resources to it, ” he said.

Hagerty is hoping will be worth the investment. Instead of traditional display advertising, the site will feature links to “expert” sponsors who essentially pay to have their RSS feeds embedded on the side rail of the site. A jeweler with a blog about how to buy gold and diamonds, for example, would see his posts featured prominently on the page.

“So the benefit for the advertiser is that they get to associate themselves with this expert site. And they get to establish this incentive to post regularly because [their newest post] will always pop up at the top,” Hagerty said.

Missing from most of these discussions, however, is how you convince an ad staff that brings in its pay from commission to aggressively sell a product that’s unprofitable (at least initially).

“Right now, every newspaper is looking at, ‘How can I get more revenue?’ You’ve got some pretty heavy investment in, one, your print product, and two, your online newspaper. And now you’re giving me one more thing that’s unproven?” Hagerty said. “I think it’s incumbent upon us to show only the things that are working and prove that they’re working to get their attention that way.”

One way to combat that is with results. Although Hagerty admits the bar was set low, the staff based its conservative estimates for the site’s performance on other product launches. has so far achieved five times that traffic.

“At that point, I think you can then go to your advertising staff and say, ‘Hey look, this is what you’re missing out on. This is an opportunity for you,’” Hagerty said. “It can’t just be a good idea. It has to be a good idea that works, that people are using. It’s not always up to the advertising department to sell it or figure out how to sell it. I think you have to be able to help them.”

Listen to the full interview here (27:23)

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Special thanks to photographer Rob Fisher for the photo illustration. Check out his word of the day photo blog here.

  • It's a good idea, but there is one major flaw: It basically turns reporters and editors a question answering service, where they have to take time out to call someone or look something up and answer inane questions that the reading public could do for themselves just by logging onto the Internet or picking up the phone.

    If reporters have the ability to call the DMV to ask about car inspections, for example, why can't readers do the same thing?

    Instead of digging for stories and keeping government honest, this turns journalists into secretaries doing busy work instead of actually, I don't know, practicing journalism.

    It would also work better if he had assembled the experts first instead of putting it on the newsroom to carry to profitability.

    Instead of taking reader questions, refer readers to this Web site:

    I know, I sound like a cranky old fart, but, c'mon, when are newspapers going to stop trying gimmicky ideas to drive traffic and get back to doing what they do best -- practicing solid journalism?
  • Nice.

    I love ideas like this because they could so easily be snuffed by doubt - yet, he plowed ahead, and it's really cool.
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