The battle between network and cable news shows this year moved to a new front -- the blogosphere. From CBS' promise of a two-way continuing dialogue between Katie Couric and her fans to NBC's vow that through blogging Brian Williams would offer a window into the editorial process, these fledgling entities mark cable and network efforts to transform themselves into members of the new media. As with an evening newscast, news Web logs are team efforts, featuring postings by anchors, producers and correspondents. They're also uncharted territory, aimed at the coveted youth audience and ripe for innovation. We wondered, what makes a successful news blog? Do TV anchors, who serve as the faces of their networks' news divisions, necessarily make good bloggers?
The Sun asked a panel of experts to help define standards by which to judge news blogs -- and to review each anchor's blog. Its members include two online specialists, Dianne Lynch of Ithaca College in New York and Michael Socolow of the University of Maine, and a Goucher College journalism student, Matthew Simon (whose age puts him at the demographic center of the networks' target audience).
From Nov. 29 to Dec. 8, a period during which Couric, Williams, ABC's Charles Gibson and CNN's Anderson Cooper traveled from New York to Amman, Jordan, and Washington, panel members tracked four network news blogs: those of ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC. (Fox doesn't offer a comparable blog written by its lead news anchor.)
Among other things, the experts, whose responses have been edited for space and clarity, considered whether each blog delivered the kind of dialogue, transparency and interaction that is being promised by network executives.
How did each stack up? Read on.
RATING BRIAN WILLIAMS // THE DAILY NIGHTLY
Sun Television Critic
Here's the rub: The best bloggers use unfiltered comments and observations to form direct, personal connections to their readers -- earning their trust over time.
The best journalists aim to report timely news and features with objectivity and accuracy -- earning their viewers' (or readers') trust over time.
In his blog, The Daily Nightly, NBC's Brian Williams seems able to transcend that great divide.
Since May 2005, when he began blogging, Williams has developed a casual but authoritative style. Let's face it, the man can write; his strong visual images help readers see the world through his eyes.
The NBC Nightly News anchor has been blogging longer than any other network anchor and no doubt the experience has allowed him to hone his voice. He also posts more frequently than his counterparts -- and that pays dividends, too.
Here's a snippet from a Dec. 1 post filed en route from Jordan to the United States, headlined "Somewhere Over Syria":
"This flight, on a brand new Airbus A320, is mostly Jordanians. ... As is the case on board many airlines based in the Middle East, there is a man standing in the front galley hallway, facing the First Class cabin, wearing a leather jacket with his back to the cockpit door. He stood there during takeoff and will stay there for the rest of the flight. He is armed. An in-flight security guard. Very effective."
Williams received 42 responses to the posting -- more than typically received by the other networks' blogs.
"The only hint that we're on a non-U.S. carrier (aside from the guy in the leather jacket, the guy praying in the rear of the aircraft and the little 'moving Mecca' icon) is the smell of cigarette smoke."
DEC. 1, 2006
Dean of Communications, Ithaca College
It turns out that NBC anchorman Brian Williams is a storyteller as well as a news anchor -- and the two are not synonymous.
It takes a while to sort through the dreck on The Daily Nightly, but his Dec. 6 tale of cell-phone engagements and his observations of Condoleezza Rice are content you won't find anywhere else.
And here's a real gem -- Williams' Dec. 1 post under the headline "Somewhere Over Syria," which paints a perfect picture in our mind's eye.
"The only hint that we're on a non-U.S. carrier (aside from the guy in the leather jacket, the guy praying in the rear of the aircraft and the little 'moving Mecca' icon) is the smell of cigarette smoke," he writes.
"I asked about it, and was told that both pilots smoke. It's now wafting through the passenger compartment after the cockpit door was opened to serve meals to the pilot and first officer. You'd think they'd open the window a crack, but apparently not."
Deep insight into the nation's most critical foreign relations challenge?
Not even close. But a compelling snapshot of the daily experience of the guy telling the story. And that's what blogging is all about.
That doesn't mean Williams gets the whole blogging thing, though.
If he did, he'd have saved his keystrokes on Dec. 7 instead of preaching at a blogosphere riddled -- indeed defined -- by unconventional writing conventions.
"If you're going to e-mail us," Williams scolded, "please take as much care to write it as we try to, while writing hundreds of words on deadline, each day. ... Sloppy e-mailers: you can do better."
OMG, Williams. U can 2.
University of Maine
The Daily Nightly is an effective, engaging and nicely interactive Web log. Posts combine straight reporting with more personal and reflective commentary.
In the period under observation, Williams posted thoughts about flying in the Middle East and offered a surprisingly candid characterization of the secretary of state. After interviewing her on Nov. 30, Williams tells us that "Condoleezza Rice ... has the most disciplined command of 'message' of anyone I've encountered in public life."
This type of opinion would most likely not appear on the NBC Nightly News, but is a welcome insight for readers of The Daily Nightly.
Perhaps the most interesting posts are those that reveal the work involved in reporting. Peter Alexander's feature on the Iditarod (Dec. 2) is particularly strong. His broadcast package (linked to the post) is professional, informative and visually impressive. His blog post offers a far more personal and detailed report that focuses more on the process of reporting than the final product.
Mark Potter's post about reporting from Cuba (Dec. 6), where Ernest Hemingway's house is being restored, also candidly reveals the person existing within the objective reporter.
"Playing awestruck silly tourist for a moment, I had my picture taken next to [Hemingway's] typewriter, hoping a little magic might rub off," he writes.
The Daily Nightly "aims to provide a narrative of the broadcast day and a window into the editorial process at NBC Nightly News," according to a mission statement at the top of the blog, and it largely succeeds.
Goucher College A-
NBC's Brian Williams posts more entries on his blog than any of the other network anchors, which gives the reader an inside look at how he and his team bring stories together. This transparency is one of the blog's greatest attractions.
After an interview with members of the Iraq Study Group last week, Williams went online to offer the kind of subjective data one did not hear in his newscast: "I found their answers ... very candid and quite emotional," he wrote (Dec. 6). I want that kind of insight into his thinking. His voice is given fuller range with the blog, and it makes him seem more human.
Blogging from Amman, he focused on the backstage situation; he also promoted his own network's broadcast.
That mix worked well in all but one entry: On Dec.1, Williams indicated that he wasn't sure what would be coming up on the Nightly News because he had been flying back from Jordan all afternoon. Surely someone else could have given readers the information. Maybe the idea was to make Williams look like the hardest-working man in show -- oops, I mean, the news -- business.
The blog is not all Williams. Correspondent Peter Alexander's Dec. 2 entry, for example, offered an insightful look at Iditarod sled dogs -- and it clearly struck a nerve. More than 100 critical comments flooded in from those who oppose dog sledding -- the kind of interactivity and reader engagement that you don't see at ABC or CBS. (There were 142 total comments -- the most for any post on any blog).
RATING ANDERSON COOPER // 360
What network and cable producers really want these days is interactivity (read: viewers responding) and Anderson Cooper and his colleagues are adept at getting it - even if they often are heavy-handed in seeking feedback.
"Do you remember any famous or mysterious poisoning cases you want to share?" correspondent Randi Kaye asks at the end of a Dec. 5 post on the poisoning in London of former Soviet spy Alexander Litvinenko.
Not sophisticated, but it works. She received 26 responses to a nine-paragraph trifle on famous poisoning cases.
Cooper himself, though not an exceptionally skilled writer, is a strong presence. "It's been a day of startling imagery, and not-so-startling diplomacy," he blogs at the start of a post from the Middle East (Nov. 30).
But his account includes not one example of such imagery. And his blog gets a big boost from contributions made by producers and correspondents.
"Sipping coffee at his home in the quiet suburbs of London, Oleg Gordievsky speaks of his friendship with Alexander Litvinenko," a Dec. 5 post by London correspondent David Mattingly begins. The report quickly draws the reader into the intrigue of a British murder.
One of the blog's most compelling voices is that of David Doss, executive producer of 360, who posts as often as Anderson and always seems to generate reader response.
"I'm now at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington waiting for a press conference. Details of the Iraq Study Group's report have been leaking for the past week, and now the main points are well known."
DEC. 6, 2006
Anderson Cooper's 360 blog is a rehash of CNN's news coverage, typically concluding in a self-conscious "audience response" question, with a smattering of self-promotion thrown in for good measure.
Take, for example, the lead entry on Dec. 7: a startling exploitation of the James Kim horror story that ABC handled so well.
In classic bloggers' "let's talk about me," style, correspondent Rick Sanchez positions himself front and center: "I've discussed it with my colleagues. I've discussed it with my wife. So now I'm heading into the Rocky Mountains to find out what it is really like to be in the kinds of unbelievable conditions James and his family faced - the freezing cold, the snow, the wilderness."
Ummm, right. Except for that one thing about being lost in that freezing cold, snow and wilderness.
Gimme a break.
Anderson Cooper's 360 blog is a group blog, despite the anchor's name and face being prominently displayed. In the period I reviewed, Cooper made only two posts.
But this is not a problem, as all the posts clearly note the name and title of the person writing.
The blog places much more importance on interactivity than any of the others except NBC's The Daily Nightly, and it does a fine job in soliciting comments.
Typical posts combine straightforward reporting with an appeal for engagement by the reader. A good example of the success of this approach can be found on Dec. 1 when 360 Executive Producer David Doss posted unanswered questions about Polonium-210, the radioactive poison used to murder a Russian spy in London.
"Our teams are working through the weekend on this," wrote Doss, adding, "if you have thoughts or advice on these questions, please 'blog' us. We'd love your help."
While there were few behind-the-scenes blog posts by Cooper, readers still got a glimpse or two of how TV news is made. Charlie Moore, a CNN producer, provides particularly engaging commentary (Dec. 1) about the pack journalism involved in covering the president's trip to Amman, Jordan. Moore tells readers that although Amman is a big city, all the anchors were staying in the same hotel and using the same production shots.
"Watch all the newscasts tonight and you'll notice the newly anointed 'most popular mosque in the world' over everyone's shoulder," Moore writes. "To the right of Anderson's anchor position, there's Katie Couric, Brian Williams and Charlie Gibson broadcasting from room balconies right next to each other."
Anderson Cooper sets the standard for anchor blogs. The blog is so good that it would likely still be a success even without the TV program.
While the networks appear nervous about giving up too much information online before the broadcast, Cooper's blog seems to put the best of what it has online as soon as it can.
For example, just two hours after Cooper finished an interview with Iraq Study Group co-chairmen James Baker and Lee Hamilton, senior producer Barclay Palmer had posted excerpts from the interview on the blog (Dec. 6).
Furthermore, Cooper's blog is highly interactive; one of his entries (Dec. 6) received more than 90 comments . Maybe readers participate because they feel their opinions matter: One night, during a live TV interview with correspondent John King, Cooper asked a question about Iraq based on reader e-mails he had received (Dec. 5).
Some of the blogs' best entries are not from correspondents, but from CNN producers. Senior Medical Producer Chris Gajilan released remarkable research on the blog, in which he explained the medical angle behind the poison that killed Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko (Dec. 4).
The only bad thing: no posts over the weekend (Dec. 2 and 3).
RATING KATIE COURIC // COURIC & CO.
"Cholesterol" was the word of the day Dec. 4, according to CBS's Couric & Co. blog.
On other days, the blog sought to teach readers the meaning of "algid" and "polonium."
Surely the future of broadcast news holds out more for its consumers. (Weren't children's television shows in the 1950s offering vocabulary lessons?)
Unfortunately, this daily feature represents the level of discussion typically found on this blog. While the blog carries her name, Couric writes far less frequently than editor Greg Kandra, and her postings often are lightweight or preachy. Still her trademark warmth and interview style easily lend themselves to blogging, and when she puts her mind to it, her posts are effective. In her Dec. 4 entry on school-bus safety, for example, she argues convincingly for seat belts.
But between blog editor Kandra telling viewers how he "cries at basketball games" and how much he likes fruitcake, it is hard to imagine him ever being confused with Edward R. Murrow.
At least the fruitcake discourse generated one reader response, which is more than some of the postings by Kandra. Couric rarely rated more than five responses to her work.
Couric & Co. is lively, colorful and easy to navigate, unlike some of the other network blogs, but based on reader response, it is almost as dead in the water when it comes to interactivity.
"Hi, everyone. Most of us don't worry about our kids when they're on a school bus. But after the recent tragedy in Alabama, in which four teenagers died, maybe we should."
CBS anchor Katie Couric, Couric & Co., Dec. 4, 2006
At its core, blogging is supposed to be about a direct connection between the writer and the reader. No filters, no intermediaries. I talk, you listen. And over time, there's nowhere to hide: Self emerges.
If we buy that premise, there's much to be learned about the media personalities who are blogging for the networks.
Katie Couric cares about ... well, you already know: Her hair. Her apple pie. Her own sentimentality. And vocabulary quizzes. Pretty much in that order.
We don't have time to deconstruct Dec. 8's leading story about Couric's hair, and the invitation on Dec. 6 to check out her apple-pie recipe.
Let's instead review her blog's standing feature, "Word of the Day," which recently featured such gems as pertinacious, lethality and --- you guessed it - solipsism:
"For today, a word that describes what most of the world strives to overcome during the holidays: solipsism (sol-ip-SIZ-uhm) noun 1. the theory that only the self exists, or can be proved to exist. 2. extreme preoccupation with and indulgence of one's feelings, desires, etc.; egoistic self-absorption. ... After eating too much the C&C; staff teeters groggily toward solipsism."
My daughter's third-grade teacher could do it better. But she doesn't have time for blogging.
And she, too, would have given Katie a D.
Couric & Co. is an engaging Web log offering several interesting regular features. But it is important to note at the start that it is a group blog, and most of the heavy lifting seems to be done by CBS News Editor Greg Kandra - not Couric.
This causes some confusion. An occasional post will refer to "me" or "I," suggesting that the subject is Couric, but the italic tag line will state that the comment was posted by Kandra. Yet, Couric's name appears in a tag when she posts, demonstrating her presence on the blog.
An example of this confusion can be found in a Dec. 1 post. A letter posted that day, from the father of a U.S. Army officer serving in Iraq, included the soldier's pointed criticism of the media: "I never realized to what extent [the media] really ignore the good things that are going on over here," wrote the soldier.
The letter is addressed to "Katie." It is introduced to readers of the blog with a sentence saying, "It strikes me as serious, thoughtful, and concerned. I imagine there are a lot of parents who share his concerns - about their children, and about this war and the news they are hearing about it."
The question: Does the letter strike Couric or Kandra as "serious, thoughtful, and concerned?"
The query is more than academic. A Web log can either be a community of people who post or an individual's commentary. Couric & Co. blurs the lines.
Couric & Co. can be applauded for its regular inclusion of criticism. A viewer from Reno, Nev., is offered ample space to blast CBS News for showing video of former President Bush crying while introducing his son, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
"Stay on newsworthy topics," the viewer implores.
In terms of interactivity, I noticed very few comments from readers on the blog. While Couric & Co. offers space to its critics, it appears that the blog simply does not generate the kind of interest to be found at NBC's The Daily Nightly.
The only good thing about Couric's blog is its design; everything else is seriously lacking.
From the "Word of the Day" entries to posting letters taken from viewer mail, it appears that CBS has decided to take the easy way out by not posting much original content.
The "Word of the Day" entries appear to be merely copied from a dictionary - with blog editor Greg Kandra trying to add a sense of fun at the end of each.
After an entry defining the word "cholesterol," Kandra writes, "This time of year, the 'C&C;' staff tends to overdo it on egg nog and fruitcake, which is terrible for our cholesterol" (Dec. 4). Thank you, Mr. Rogers.
On Dec. 1, Kandra used the blog to praise one of his favorite authors, E.B. White. He wrote about a letter White sent him that is "framed and hanging on my wall at home." It is hard to see the significance of this post on a supposed news blog - beyond the name-dropping
Couric's posts are not much better. In the wake of Michael Richards' racist rant in a California comedy club, she scolds us about why "words matter" (Dec. 1). Thanks, Mom.
Couric & Co. posts also include a recommendation of the best fruitcake (Dec. 5), an irrelevant quote from Walt Disney (Dec. 5), and an explanation of why Senior Producer Bill Owens looks a little older -- "today is his birthday" (Nov. 29).
You get the idea - the majority of the blog is an embarrassment.
CHARLES GIBSON // THE WORLD NEWSER
Transparency is a big blog buzzword. Every blog promises it, but few deliver. And none fails quite as miserably as ABC's The World Newser.
Its mission statement promises that: "Here, you'll find our thoughts on the day's news and the way we build our broadcast. Hear from Charles Gibson and our team of correspondents in the field, as well as producers behind-the-scenes."
But there were no postings by Gibson for the period under review. And there was certainly no "behind-the-scenes" report to rival CNN producer Charlie Moore's Dec. 1 explanation on Anderson Cooper 360 as to why the same mosque was showing up behind every anchor broadcasting from Amman, Jordan, that night.
The saving grace of The World Newser is the strength of the reports filed by correspondents and producers - they are journalistically sound and well-written. On the other hand, that adherence to old school standards might also be a problem with younger viewers, in that the ABC posts tend to resemble traditional newspaper articles.
Indeed for the period under review, The World Newser had generated only three reader responses. Imagine that: The blog for a newscast that reaches some 8.5 million viewers every weeknight generated only three responses in 10 days.
In December, 2005, ABC News President David Westin promised that his network would lead the way in using "digital platforms" to attract young viewers to its news programs. So far, not so good for The World Newser.
"I filed a report for ABC News radio within minutes and nearly lost it. Yes, we cover plenty of tragedies in this business - but that doesn't make it any easier."
ABC News correspondent Neal Karlinsky, The World Newser, Dec. 7, 2006
The Newser is evidence that network blogs are most relevant and valuable when they provide a platform for their reporters to do what they do best: Write.
And, despite the fact that there were no recent posts by Gibson, The Newser gets a B for quality writing. It's not perfect, but it's good enough to check out once in awhile.
Take, for example, ABC News correspondent John Cochran's memorial tribute to New York Times writer R.W. "Johnny" Apple, published Dec. 6. For readers who admired Apple's work, Cochran offered a compelling peek into the man's life and relationships - insights unavailable to us elsewhere.
And, then, there's correspondent Neal Karlinsky's thoughtful response on Dec. 7 to the tragedy of James Kim, the Oregon man who died of hypothermia as he sought help for his family lost in the wilderness.
True to the "added value" ideal of journalistic blogging, Karlinksy gives us the story behind the story, the emotional impact of such an event on an experienced and hard-nosed reporter.
"Even though we all knew the odds, when word finally came in that he'd been found lying on his back in a creek - it was simply devastating," Karlinsky writes.
"I filed a report for ABC News radio within minutes and nearly lost it. Yes, we cover plenty of tragedies in this business - but that doesn't make it any easier."
This group blog contains contributions from ABC News producers and correspondents - none from Gibson during the period under review. Its tone is institutional, and it hews closely to journalistic standards.
But there is little insight into the business of newsgathering, nor is there much transparency about the process.
In Jeffrey Kofman's Dec. 5 post, titled "A Fresh Squeeze," several words and phrases are lifted directly from Kofman's report that day for Good Morning America titled, "OJ Prices Skyrocket; Orange Shortage Growing."
Dr. Timothy Johnson's Dec. 4 post ("Pfizer's Cholesterol Study") is essentially a condensed version of the comments he made on World News Tonight.
Most troubling is a post titled, "iPhone Alert?" which appears to be little more than product placement concerning a new combination cell phone/iPod to be introduced by Apple. There is nothing newsworthy about the post.
The World Newser looks like an experiment in synergy, circa 1999. The posts are written for broadcast, not the blog reader. They lack the personal, conversational tone that makes a blog post effective. Reading The World Newser too often felt like reading yesterday's newspaper or watching last night's broadcast.
While there is little news in hearing about Brian Williams' flight on Royal Jordanian Airlines, or Anderson Cooper's flight to D.C., there is a personal connection at the NBC and CNN web sites that is lacking at The World Newser.
This blog is on the right track, but it is missing several essential components.
First, anchor Charles Gibson did not post during the period I studied. It is vital to have anchors post in their own blogs to build trust and a sense of attachment in this "age of the blogosphere."
The correspondents and producers who do post, however, do a wonderful job. Though they do not post enough - about twice a day, without weekend posts - the entries there are worthwhile reads.
One of the best entries came from Pentagon producer Luis Martinez - on the fascinating circumstances that lead to an off-the-record remark about the war in Iraq made by Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, being made public. (Dec. 5).
ABC is making a smart move by following the trend of using both producers and correspondents for entries. Nevertheless, the blog often fails to generate even a single comment for many of their postings - suggesting a desperate need to engage readers in a way that will get them involved.
World News Tonight's blog has tremendous room for growth, beginning with adding weekend posts. News doesn't stop happening at midnight Friday - and neither should a blog that calls itself The World Newser.
Anderson Cooper 360 - Visit: cnn.com and click on Anderson Cooper 360
The Daily Nightly - Visit: dailynightly.msnbc.com
Katie Couric & Co. - Visit: cbsnews.com and click on blogs
The World Newser - Visit abcnews.blogs.com/theworldnewser/
Which of the four news blogs reviewed here do you like the best? Which one is most effective? Best written? Please send us your thoughts and we'll post them online. Send your reviews to baltimoresun.com/blogreview.
Meet the network-blog reviewers
David Zurawik is The Sun's TV critic and the author of The Jews of Primetime (Brandeis University Press, 2003), which explores Jewish identity as portrayed on television over five decades.
Matthew Simon is a Goucher College communications and media studies major and the managing editor of the school's newspaper, The Quindecim. He is a daily news blog reader.
Dianne Lynch is dean of the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College, and from 2003-2004 was executive director of the national Online News Association. From 1999 to 2003, she wrote a biweekly column about women and technology, "Wired Women," for ABCNews.com.
Michael Socolow is a former CNN producer who now is an assistant professor of communication and journalism at the University of Maine. He also is founding collaborator of the New England News Forum, a Web site dedicated to inspire discussion of media issues.