Monday, January 11, 2010

The experiment is failing

Part one of an occasional series taking a look at how ChronBlog's reader-generated content model is panning out.

Tech should be the leader

Were I going to craft an expansion plan for The Almanac, the first thing that I would look to add would be an additional blogger to handle tech. Why? Because, for one, I find tech terribly interesting and, two, because tech folks typically love to talk about tech, and talk, and type and talk etc. etc.

When ChronBlog rolled out their Chron.commons reader-generated content concept the three sections I figured would thrive were politics, sports and technology. It seems I was right on politics; Chron.commons is teeming with political blogs. Mostly from the left, or "the center" (which are typically Democrats or Republicans in disguise) but with a few Right-leaning blogs scattered in for good measure. I was also correct in my assumption that sports related reader blogs would blow-up. What I didn't figure was that the content created by the sports bloggers would be consistently superior to that generated by the paid staff. When it comes to sport news over at ChronBlog, skip the hired help and read the volunteers.

Which leads us to technology whom I thought would be a huge content driver given the unique proclivities of the tech community. Whether one is an Apple fanboy or a Microsoft Fanboy (yes, they are out there) or just a lover of all things tech there's typically a different take to be had on almost every new release or issue. Given the fact that, ChronBlog Tech Writer and Grand poobah Dwight Silverman is an unabashed Apple Fanboy, the newspaper was in desperate need of some counterbalance, and non-negative reporting on something other than the latest minor software tweak for a program that allows Microsoft products to run on one's Apple. (ChronBlog's tech strategy being to appeal to 1/10,000th of the subscriber base I'm guessing)

The verdict?

Wrong. Dead wrong. As a matter of fact, there are currently only three reader generated blogs currently active on ChronBlog, with several sitting idle for over a year. Given the constantly evolving state of technology, this has left a big hole in ChronBlog's technology coverage.

What has this meant?

Well, for me at least, it's meant that I don't spend much time worrying about what ChronBlog is reporting on tech any longer. I haven't visited the Chron's tech section link, near the top of this post, in a while, I rarely check the Techblog, hell, and I don't even follow Dwight Silverman on Twitter any longer.

The reason for all of this is disinterest, and it shows where ChronBlog is missing the boat on retaining current readers. My tech reading is now exclusively online, from websites such as Gizmodo and ARS Technica. When it comes to covering the big events and, more importantly, providing Houstonians with information regarding all things tech, ChronBlog just isn't providing compelling content. Take the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) as an example. There were a host of products with real, practical applications that generated a lot of buzz, also Lenovo dazzled with their new IdeaPad U1 hybrid notebook. Also scoring high reviews were the boxee box and a host of other products some with practical applications and some that were totally impractical, but fun. (Who needs a clear plasma TV screen after all?)

ChronBlog's coverage? some linkpost mentions, a negatively-slanted article on 3D-TV (sourced from Digital Trends) and the annual Microsoft sucks post. Despite the fact that Ballmer introduced an HP tablet which should be at least as, if not more, exciting than the rumored Apple tablet. (More exciting because of the built-in software compatibility advantage that the HP is going to have.)

To be fair, I don't expect Mr. Silverman to provide good coverage of CES, an HP tablet, the Boxee box or any of the slew of smart phones that were introduced at the convention. Mr. Silverman is an Apple fanboy, he computes on a MacBook, an iPhone and is entertained by an iPod. His tech experience is 180 degrees removed from mine. (By means of comparison, I compute on a Dell XPS laptop (or a Lenovo ThinkPad at work), communicate on a Samsung Epix. I do have an iPod Nano, but for most mp3 work I use a SanDisk Sansa.) When he's writing, I'm NOT his target audience. That's the reason I don't find myself following him on Twitter, or paying much attention to his other work. For me, and I'm willing to guess several others, that's a HUGE departure from what it used to be. My hope was, at the time, that the reader blogs would supplement what was rapidly becoming a press-shop for Apple with some balanced coverage, sadly, due to either inattention or a deliberate attempt to craft content, that content hasn't appeared. During the most recent CES I moseyed over to ChronBlog to see what they were reporting, it was then that I realized the entire section is dying a slow death.

That's too bad. Because, for many Houstonians, their one link to new technology is whatever the MSM is currently writing about. What they're seeing from ChronBlog is a world of overpriced Apple products that many cannot afford, with little comprehensive coverage of the items most people are going to buy.

Speaking of CES, one of the more buzzed products at the show was Hearst's Skiff eReader. Hearst Corporation is putting a lot of hope in this little machine to revive the publishing industry. What they have failed to understand from the beginning is that you need quality content that people can apply to their everyday lives in order to be truly compelling. All of the glitzy, expensive, eReaders in the world are not going to change that fact.


  1. ** I rarely check the Techblog, hell, and I don't even follow Dwight Silverman on Twitter any longer. **

    It's been a long time in coming, but when Silverman decided last year not to cover the Palm Pre announcement at CES because he knew best (something he LOVES to do, in all sorts of subject areas, for reasons that have long been unclear) DESPITE several reader suggestions that he might want to do so (especially since his newspaper sent him there to cover the show, and that was the news of last year's show), I pretty much decided I will never see any real tech news broken on his blog or in his column, and can get around to reading the same if/when I feel like playing "spot the error" (since the Apple stuff never interests me).

    I don't think I've missed much following that strategy in the last year, to be honest. And my little blog still seems to be attracting a few readers despite the fact that we never added shopping news to it, as Silverman suggested once (seriously!). :D

  2. In all fairness to Dwight, there were a number of other people who ragged on the Microsoft keynote at CES, including some unabashed Windows fanboys (one of whom has been part of our desktop design team for years.)

    I will agree with you on this, though: I am very surprised (and not in a good way) about the lack of tech-related stuff on the Chronicle. And, about the lack of diversity in said area (although I remember the days when Silverman was criticized for being one of said Windows fanboys.) I wonder if maybe part of the reason for the lack of user-blogs is due to the G*d-Awful "Pluck" system they implemented (it may be great in the self-registration area, and OK for casual use, but for serious applications it sucks like a Hoover on steroids.)


  3. My contention isn't with the Microsoft story, but with the fact that's pretty much all of the CES news that was presented.

    There was a lot that went on there, from a tech perspective, that was interesting. The HP Tablet was only one (very) small piece.

    I'm sure the system has something to do with it, because techies are less forgiving of bad systems than are most.

  4. I think the problem with the MSFT keynote (other than the power outage that delayed its start) has to do with Steve Ballmer. He is, to use a well-worn cliche, "no Bill Gates". And, to be honest, the idea of him demoing a tablet PC (which MSFT has for years tried to get going, to no avail) is laughable (even more so given that the tablet came from HP, not exactly known as the poster-child for high quality in laptop/notebook style systems.)

    While I am sure there was a lot going on at CES, interestingly enough the folks I have been following (none of whom are tech journalists, most of whom are simply geeks I know) weren't all that excited. Maybe it is because there was no big super-announcement (certainly looked that way in the photography space), maybe our expectations were too high. Oh well...

  5. BTW Cory, your post got me to thinking... I haven't exactly been real active with my ChronBlog lately. Part of that is due to the awful Pluck software, part is due to the fact that computer security (beyond the daily recap of all the badness out there) has a fairly limited amount of stuff to say (most of it is very repetitious.)

    Soooo... I have been thinking of expanding the scope of my blogging, on the order of:

    Three posts per week. One day, the subject will be computer security (as it is now.) Another day, it will be photography (not posting photos necessarily ala Lens Houston, but more aimed at "what is going on in the photographic space".) Third day, the subject will be "communications". That could be online (e.g. Twitter, IM, other forms), or apps related to online comms, or radio (I am also a ham operator, and right now I still think that community is missing the boat on some of this stuff.)

    I don't know that I can kick-start the tech space at ChronBlog all on my own, but this seems to be better than just continuing to shuffle along. Does it seem reasonable to you, or am I full of little red ants? (Try not to snark on poor ChronBlog too much in your response :-)


  6. "Try not to snark on poor ChronBlog too much in your response"

    I think one of the great misconceptions out there is that I'm somehow anti-ChronBlog. While I'll admit to a healthy amount of criticism, it should be noted here that the opposite of love is apathy. So no, I don't dislike Chronblog, just the editorial choices they're making. Hell, I LIKE Dwight, just not his current tech coverage. (MOST of the time).

    While I think reader blogs as front-line content is a limited concept, any content can help. You'd be wise to expand what you are doing and build on it. Hell, my first live-journal was non-political in nature. My sports blog started out as a bodybuilding blog.

    Who knows? You might even pump out better content than the hired help, as is happening in the sports section on a consistent basis. (Although, unlike Justice, Solomon, McClain and Steffy, I do believe that Silverman has a base of knowledge from which to draw)


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