Digging deeper on Newsweek.com’s Ruckus

By Steve Outing

The Media Bloggers Association and Newsweek have debuted The Ruckus, which is a group blog about politics on Newsweek.com. It’s a laudable project, because it has a very traditional news organization opening up to outsiders and publishing their content under the Newsweek brand. The political bloggers get prominent play, their photos featured, and potentially significant traffic to their blogs.

I asked MBA president Robert Cox for some details. Frankly, his answers (pleasantly) surprised me. We’re getting to a place in the evolution of news media where even a very traditional news company can open itself up to outside content, unedited, in meaningful ways.

Me: Is there any editing involved (before or after blog publication)? Does Newsweek exert any editorial control or influence over the blogs posts that appear as part of The Ruckus?

Cox: Absolutely not! This was perhaps the single most important part of the agreement between the MBA and Newsweek. It would be irresponsible for a world-class news organization like Newsweek to be anything other than very protective of their reputation and therefore very concerned about what is going out under their name. At the same time, to their credit, they realized that what attracted them to the idea of integrating blogger content into Newsweek.com was the unedited voice of genuine bloggers. I’ve been over this ground many times with different news organizations interested in working with bloggers and quite often what the news organization ends up with is a citizen media initiative that is so watered down that they’ve drained the very essence of what attracted them to blogging in the first place. From the perspective of those who care about citizen journalism, Newsweek has taken the high road and let the bloggers be bloggers.

I will let them speak for themselves but I believe a key part of what gave them comfort in proceeding with raw, unedited blog posts is the Media Bloggers Association and our growing track record of balancing the freewheeling nature of blogging with the need to abide by certain professional standards such as transparency and accountability. MBA members are required to be abide by MBA policies and under the terms of the agreement with Newsweek they are required to abide by Newsweeks editorial standards and policies. Most important of all, the MBA is going to attract a more serious-minded person as a member and so we’re able to offer a partner like Newsweek the best brand and legal protection of all — good people who care about their own reputation and the reputation of others.

Contractually, Newsweek is specifically prohibited from editing blogger content under the terms of our deal. And that’s the way it has to be because all involved were agreed from the beginning that for this to work The Ruckus had to be made up of authentic voices — real bloggers blogging on real blogs.

At the same time they are more than free to make requests of the bloggers. That happened during the beta period before we went live when Newsweek asked the bloggers who watched either of the two recent Des Moines Register debates to weigh in on them. No blogger was obligated to do that but bloggers did post on the debates. I’d chalk that up to all involved being excited about The Ruckus and wanting to work together on a positive basis rather than Newsweek exerting editorial control — and something I believe is entirely appropriate given that at the end of the day it’s their site.

Me: Are the bloggers compensated?

Cox: Yes but no one is getting rich — yet.

This is our fourth such deal. Our first was with the Associated Press for our members’ coverage of the Scooter Libby Trial. We then did two deals with Tavis Smiley Productions and PBS for the Democratic Presidential debate in June and the GOP debate in September. In the AP deal neither the MBA not the bloggers were compensated. We did that because it was more important for us to invest in getting that first deal done with a blue chip partner like the Associated Press. In the PBS deal the MBA was compensated but the bloggers were not. The Newsweek deal represent the model we had in mind when we began developing this concept of aggregating our members content and distributing via partnerships with established media companies — the MBA is being compensated and the bloggers are being compensated.

In sitting down with the folks at Newsweek, we felt that the MBA and its members had demonstrated through three high-profile partnerships we and they could be relied upon to provide authentic, high-quality blog content while respecting the editorial, legal and branding considerations of our media partners, and both the MBA and the bloggers ought to be appropriately compensated. As these deals continue to build a track record of delivering value to our partners we will, of course, always be looking to expand revenue opportunities for the Media Bloggers Association and our members. …

The model is to select a focus such as an event, a geographic region or a particular subject, find MBA members who have that area of focus in their blogs, pool them together into a feed and distribute the content through a media parter such as Newsweek or AP. A key part of the technical set up is that we use tags to pull the posts from the blogs of the contributing bloggers so that other than adding one additional tag to posts they wish to submit to the feed they do not have to do any extra work such as cross-post their content into another site or email posts to an editor or things like that. This keeps it very simple for the blogger so they can afford to take the time to participate (done right, almost zero time once we’ve set up the feed) and are not going to get tired of doing extra work, lose interest and stop contributing. Further, the partners display headlines and excerpts from each post with a link back to the originating blog.

Done right these deals are win-win-win. The bloggers get their content out to a far wider audience, they get traffic back to their site which they can monetize, and what amounts to a monthly stipend plus the branding benefit of being associated with a high-profile media partner. The partner gets exciting, dynamic content that is ideally suited for developing additional user-generated content which, in turn, means more traffic and longer dwell time on their sites which they can monetize. Perhaps more importantly, by offering authentic bloggers they can enhance the integration of their blog initiatives into the wider blogosphere. For the MBA, we get co-branding opportunities that enhance our image which allows us to take in revenue and attract new members, all of which helps us better fulfill our core mission — to protect blogger speech.

Me: How were the Ruckus bloggers chosen? Did Newsweek just pick them, or was there an application process for the bloggers?

Cox: I gave Newsweek a short list and they made it shorter.

All MBA members were eligible and I personally considered every political blogger among our members. There were a variety of factors that came into play but striving to achieve political balance was foremost on our mind. To a certain extent the bloggers selected for the launch are intended to be ambassadors from their corner of the political blogosphere. The hope being that we include them and they will include other deserving blogs through cross-linking into the feed going up to Newsweek so that Newsweek readers are being exposed to a wide range of voices.

I personally developed a list of about 100 bloggers then whittled that down to about 40 before beginning to make recommendations to Newsweek editors. We went back and forth for about two months in getting down to nine blogs. At the end of the day, they had the final say on which blogs were in the launch group. My hope is that Newsweek will be happy with this project and as the campaign continues to heat up there will be opportunities to add more bloggers and I am sure as we do we will continue to look for opportunities to bring fresh points of view to the discussion taking place on The Ruckus.

Me: Thanks, Robert!

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!