Arkansas doesn’t exactly spring to mind when you think of national media hot spots. But judging by the success of the blogs attached to the Arkansas Times‘ website, it seems clear that its residents aren’t lacking when it comes to getting a faced-paced stream of edgy and informative news and cultural content.
The Times made the jump to blogging in 2004 at a time when many AAN papers had yet to do so with the simply-named Arkansas Blog. Since then, its website, which started as a niche resource for its print readers, has evolved into a daily must-read for just about everyone in the state, from politicians to daily newspaper editors and, with the additional in-house blogs Rock Candy and Eat Arkansas, music and food junkies.
AAN News recently spoke with Max Brantley, the Times‘ editor of 19 years and its resident full-time blogger, to find out how blogging has transformed the paper and its relationship with readers.
The Arkansas Times was fairly early with implementing blogging on its website compared to a number of AAN papers.
We were an early adopter. We’re not an early blogger by any means, but what we were really early at was being a local niche blog, one that combined aggregation, analysis and pure news reporting on one site.
Was it sort of a leap into the unknown?
Absolutely. I think the thing that drove us the most is that I was an old daily newspaper guy, so I saw it as a way to get back into daily journalism. We didn’t really know where it would go. But it didn’t take a genius to see that the future of publishing was going to be heavily digital before long. We had begun improving our website because of that and we began thinking of things that could add value over what was just a repeat of the print edition. A blog was the first thing that came up.
Is it true your blog was one-of-a-kind in Arkansas when it launched?
Nobody in Arkansas was doing anything like it. And Arkansas, I think it’s fair to say, is still under-blogged compared to the rest of the country.
How did the paper go about generating interest in the blog among readers?
I wish I could say we had a plan, but we didn’t. As soon as we had the software attached to our website, I began. We didn’t even promote it in the print edition. But within the first few days of our blogging, there was a hugely sensational suicide in Little Rock. A children’s heart surgeon who had been featured on national television for his work with children with heart defects committed suicide. It was an enormous news story here. I learned from my sources he had left a long note that shed a little light on some of his personal demons. The daily paper didn’t run anything about it. But I made use of a public records request to the county coroner and got the details, including the note, and published it in full on the blog. We got traffic fast by word of mouth. So that established us pretty quickly.
How successful has it been since then?
There’s been a steady increase in page views. I think in an average month, we get well over 100,000 unique visitors. It seems to me that on the busiest days, which are Wednesday through Friday, our site is getting 8,000 to 10,000 unique visitors a day. So that makes us probably the fourth or fifth most read daily news [source] in Arkansas. It has enjoyed a tremendous amount of buzz, especially in the political community. The people who come back to us regularly know that on a reasonably reliable schedule, we’re going to break news they’ll learn first from us.
Have the Times‘ blogs been widely imitated in Arkansas?
There is still nobody [in Arkansas] doing what we’re doing. A number of other newspapers have blogs attached to their websites, but they tend to be community bloggers — mommy blogs, fisherman blogs, sports blogs, that sort of thing. To my knowledge there is nobody doing what we’re doing at a TV, newspaper or radio station. On any given day, the biggest headlines in the daily paper were on our blog the day before.
A press release from 2004 stated that through an enhanced web presence, the Arkansas Times could more effectively serve as a “necessary alternative news source in Arkansas.” Has the blog been instrumental in achieving this?
We get talked about and we get referred to, and I long ago lost count of the number of times things we reported have been referenced in regular daily news coverage. So that’s exposed us to people who didn’t know us to start with. Our editorial outlook is liberal and generally sympathetic to Democrats, but we have become such a popular source of political stuff, I get tons of material supplied from Republicans just because they want to be in play.
So you’d say the Times is competing with and even beating the daily newspapers?
We compete with them a lot, although it’s a very different style. We only have eight people on the staff and I do most of the blogging. We occasionally do go out and fully report stories for the blog, but more often than not we do shorter summaries of bigger stories.
Can you talk about some big scoops that the Times was able to break through the blog?
We beat everyone in the state by about a week that the legendary athletic director of the University of Arkansas was about to be forced to retire. That got us a tremendous amount of traffic nationwide. We were the first people to report when and where Mike Huckabee was going to announce he would run for president. We had a great story about the Huckabees setting up a wedding gift registry. It was an instantly huge story and everyone followed and picked up on it. Then there’s just the kind of meat and potatoes stuff on everything from city council news to who’s running for office, who’s not running for office, that sort of thing.
Has the paper added any staff since getting into blogging?
Add staff? [laughs] Perish the thought! But the staff that is here does contribute. I frequently have people on staff go out, report something and write something up [for the blog]. I use the paper’s staff to contribute and they do quite a bit. But it’s hard. In theory, we had full time jobs putting out a paper before the blog existed, and now we’re doing this too, and I think a lot of people in other media are feeling the same pressure.
Has the blog been a source of revenue for the paper?
I think when we say blog, we’re talking website, but the blog is the big traffic generator for the website, and web ad sales are up significantly. The beauty of the web is it’s very low cost. Apart from the [sales staff’s] commission there’s almost no production cost. I’m doing all the work so there’s no new editorial costs. It’s using the existing overhead that we’ve added a revenue stream to. So the yield is very high.
How has the blog transformed the paper’s relationship with its readers, and have you gained new readers since launching it?
I think we have probably gained paper readers because of the blog. An awful lot of people were not familiar with us, but they read the blog because word travels fast electronically. I get so many more tips and so many more phones calls, so much more email saying, “Why don’t you do this or that?” People want to use you, let’s be honest. You’ve got to be careful not to be abused, but I’m happy to be a conduit for valuable information. And the immediacy of the blog really encourages contributions. The incredible power of not just being able to report news, but to instantly comment on it … I can’t tell you how sensitive politicians are to it, or how quickly I get phone calls when someone takes exception to the way I’ve phrased something.
What are the Times‘ next plans for enhancing its overall web presence?
More podcasts and better use of video. We’re not even scratching the surface on video yet, so that’s my challenge, to do more of that.
What have you learned from your blogging experience so far?
It’s a great thing, but you can’t just order it up. It just so happens that this is something that fits what I like to do and the way I live my life, but you can’t necessarily expect someone to do it just because they love where they work. People have to understand that nothing’s easy.
Joe Pompeo is a contributing writer for New York Press and a student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.