Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Spoletoblog: Howzitdoing?

Editor's note: I've been on something of a hiatus from this blog since the start of the Spoleto festival on May 27. Also, I'm in the middle of an e-mail blackout: I haven't received an e-mail at my home account since May 23, so if you're wondering why I haven't written back, that's why. Here's a field report from "our little experiment," working towards the memo I will eventually write on what I've learned ...

I'm dragging some serious ass this morning (hint: it's now noon), a natural side-effect of a weird daily schedule that's based around the demands of running a blog for a newspaper.

First thing each morning, I check the blog to make sure that nobody has posted a comment with, say, the word "shit" in it... then check to see if the newspaper website has posted the electronic copies of our reviews and stories... then read those reviews, looking for a passage of critical thought or flourish to paste into the daily Spoletoblog coverage summary... then check every link to make sure none of them take you to a porn site... then check the stats... study the referers and pings .... then run a couple of Technorati watchlists in Sage to check for diffusion... then read the competition's Spoleto blog... then edit the other posts and make my morning posts.

And then I usually go to work.

I try to keep up with the stats during the day, because I want to develop as good a mental picture as I can of our audience. And this week, since I've finished all the assigned stories I wrote for the paper, I've had nothing to do but blog stuff. That's a good thing, because some days the only original material that goes up comes from me and one other writer on the staff.

I write longer posts in the afternoon/evening, typically after attending some events or riding around town on my bike, checking things out from street level, taking pictures with my digital. Yesterday I wrote a 1,500-word post on criticism (typepad makes it easy to do extended comments without junking up your blog) before a 5 p.m. event, then came back and wrote a 900-word report on the event, which wound up being about criticism.

Before I leave for the day (or, while working from home) I put together an 8 to 10 inch (375-word) "Buzz From the Blog" column for the paper, just excerpting comments and posts. Last night, I didn't get home until almost 9.

Back home, I check the stats and comments around midnight, then pull the plug on the day.

Weekends are more hectic: I try to get scene and color, and I attend multiple performances. In most cases, I'll post several times a day, including photos.

So here's one thing I'm learning: Blogging doesn't HAVE to be a full-time job, but it sure can be.

Other lessons are more ambiguous. For starters, the typepad stats are less than reliable. The "hits today" is a gauge, not an actual count since midnight, and it's not always a stat based on the previous 24 hours. The typepad people won't really come out and say what it counts, saying instead that it's something they're working to improve.

The way I figure it (and I'm being conservative here), an average of about 500 to 600 people a day have been coming to our blog. Our peak day was last Wednesday (more than 1,700), but since Saturday we've been recording between 1,000 and 1,100 on the daily count. I don't trust those figures, and base my averages on the total hits count, subtracting the hits we had before we started promoting it and the festival began.

Now, is a readership of 500 worth the effort and expense? My answer is yes. This is no ordinary readership -- this is a wealthy, educated, arts-saavy readership that particular businesses and interests would find quite valuable. The overhead is negligible ($150 for an entire year of blog hosting), and so your only expense is my time for 17 days (and, in fairness, I was working on other stories for the paper throughout the first week of the festival), and a little bit of writing time for people who are already working on newspaper coverage.

The concept for Spoletoblog, by the way, was that we'd invite ALL our arts writers and editors to participate, and we did. Few of them have, with the majority pointedly shunning Spoletoblog. Of the more than 40 people who were invited to participate, only 16 have actually activated their author profiles. Of those 16, only six have actually contributed posts (plus one additional reviewer who simply could not get himself logged in, and so he sent me a post by e-mail).

Now, imagine if you had a team blog in which everyone who covered the festival for the paper also blogged on it. With that kind of coverage, nobody would have to do much, but the result would be tremendous. Imagine if you had 10 people blogging from different perspectives on the same festival. It wouldn't be hard to do, and the extra expense would be trivial.

Perhaps what news organizations should be thinking about is how to reward blogging. If a critic writes a review for the paper and then turns around and provides additional insight to the blog, what's that worth? Without that incentive, I don't know that you'll ever get people who are willing to participate.

Now, for me, the incentive is clear: It's my laboratory. The paper gets a blog, but it also gets the benefit of whatever I learn. What it does with that knowledge is up to managers (because i have no interest in becoming a "web editor," having just gotten free of editing for print), but thanks to this experiment we now have some institutional experience on which to draw for future web projects. That's a good thing.

But for other writers? I think some of the writers and critics just resent the blog. Some may resent me personally. I think some are just intimidated by the technology, and I think some simply don't want to do anything they aren't paid to do, and who can blame them?

But I was wrong at the beginning: I believed that no writer could stay away from an opportunity to write for an interested audience in a new medium. I believed that once the buzz got going, they would come over. There's plenty of buzz, but that hasn't happened, and I don't think it will. Some people just love a blank canvas. Others don't.

I said early on that the success of this blog would in capturing the audience that already exists for hard-core, inside-the-festival coverage. But what's the metric for that?

I don't know yet, but I'm starting to really look for it. The festival's largest venue seats just 2,734. Another seats about 750, a couple seat around 500. Sold-out shows are a rarity.

If I had to guess (and I've not been able to get any marketing figures from the festival yet to confirm this), I'd say that the core audience for Spoleto and Spoletoblog, including the artists themselves, is probably less than 2,000 people. To that I would add a small number of arts enthusiasts and arts management professionals who do not attend the festival, but might want to monitor it.

But how many of those 2,000 people are computer users? One of the striking lessons for me has been the difficulty people have had navigating the Typepad interface, even with my instructions. Not only that, but even people my own age have reported confusion when it comes to leaving comments. If you're used to blogging, these things are childish, but wake up: This is the experience of the people we're trying to reach and involve. And I don't know how you can make things easier without making them stupid.

Another good indicator of my audience's difficulty with the medium: It's not uncommon for me to have a "thousand-hit day" and collect only one or two outside comments... often left on the "wrong" post. It seems like they'll read one thing, want to comment on it, and then leave it on another post as if one is as good as another.

I attribute this to the average age of my audience, which is, basically, just about the average age of the newspaper reader... maybe a little bit older. My average readers are going to be retired, wealthier than average, educated and generally tentative when it comes to technology. Blogs and websites are not second-nature to this generation.

But that doesn't mean they aren't a great audience. This is an audience you want to find, attract, encourage and nourish. I don't give up on this generation as blog readers because I think they're interested in topics that work well on blogs. The trick will be in helping them negotiate the move to a new medium. And maybe that's a change that newspaper publishers aren't interested in encouraging.

Janet also pointed out that many of the people who are the audience for Spoleto are out-of-towners, people staying in hotels. How many of them brought laptops? How many will pay of highspeed access? How many have built-in wifi and know where the hotspots are?

In the future, I think the way we deal with the out-of-town audience is to market the blog as essential reading before they come to Charleston. For instance, if you live in Greenville and don't read the Charleston paper, you don't know to check Spoletoblog for coverage before you drive down, and while you're here, you don't have a computer.

Once I've factored all of this in, our traffic starts to look pretty healthy.