Can the New York Times kill its blogs without losing the soul of blogging in the process?

The New York Times has been gradually shutting down some of its blogs over the past year or so, including its environmentally-focused Green blog, and this week the newspaper company confirmed that it plans to shut down or absorb at least half of its existing blogs, including its highly-regarded breaking news blog, The Lede. As the Times describes it, the plan is not to get rid of blogging altogether but rather to absorb and even expand blogging-related skills and approaches within the paper as a whole. But will something important be lost in the process?

Assistant managing editor Ian Fisher told Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon that the newspaper is going to continue to provide what he called “bloggy content with a more conversational tone,” but that it will appear throughout the paper’s website, rather than in specific locations called blogs. While high-profile brands like Bits and DealBook will remain, other smaller blogs will be shut down or absorbed into the sections of the paper that fit their topic — although Fisher wouldn’t say which specific blogs were destined for the boneyard.

A blog is just an “artificial container”

As far as the reasoning behind the move is concerned, Fisher mentioned a number of things in his Poynter interview, including one technical reason: namely, the fact that the Times‘ blog software doesn’t work well with the paper’s redesigned article pages — and Times staffer Derek Willis suggested there were other technical benefits in a discussion on Twitter. But Fisher also said that many of the blogs didn’t get a lot of traffic, and that not having to fill a specific “container” with content would free up writers to spend their time doing other things:

“[Some blogs] got very, very little traffic, and they required an enormous amount of resources, because a blog is an animal that is always famished… [and the] quality of our items will go up now, now that readers don’t expect us to be filling the artificial container of a blog.”

As Willis pointed out during our Twitter conversation, blogs are — from a technical perspective at least — just one specific kind of publishing format, with posts that appear in reverse chronological order. But for me at least, this is a little like saying that a sonnet is just a specific way of ordering text, featuring iambic pentameter and an offset rhyming scheme. Obviously not every blog post is a poem, but there is something inherent in the practice of blogging (if it is done well) that makes it different from a story or news article.

New York Times building logo, photo by Rani Molla

New York Times building logo, photo by Rani Molla

Blogging pioneer Dave Winer once said that the essence of a blog is “the unedited voice of a person,” and I still subscribe to that view. Blogging has grown up to the point where even something like The Huffington Post is described by some as “a blog,” which effectively stretches the meaning of the term beyond all comprehension. But it’s more than just a reverse-chronological method of publishing, or the fact that you include embedded tweets or a Storify, or even that you link to other sites — although it includes all of those things.

Absorbing can also mean weakening

When it’s done properly, as Lede writer Robert Mackey often did, it’s a combination of original reporting, curation and aggregation, synthesis and analysis, and an individual voice or tone — and all of that done quickly, and in most cases briefly. As Brian Ries of Mashable argued during a discussion of the Times‘ decision, the problem with trying to absorb the blogging ethos into the paper as a whole is that not all of those skills are going to be present in every writer.

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This reminds me of when newspapers started to absorb their web units into the larger editorial structure. In the early days, the web was a separate operation — in some cases even in a different building, as it was with the Washington Post. The best part about this arrangement was that it allowed those who worked online to develop their own practices and to some extent their own ethos. When those units were absorbed, some of that was watered down or even lost completely, as editors and writers more focused on print took precedence. That arguably retarded the progress of those papers towards a more digital-first future.

In the end, I think that while the motivation behind killing off blogs might be the correct one — that is, a desire to get away from the format as a specific destination and find a way to get everyone to experiment with blog-style writing and reporting, regardless of where they work — the risk is that the latter simply won’t happen. In other words, some of the momentum that having a blog gives to the skills I mentioned above will be lost, and along with it some of the innovation that blogging has brought to the Times.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Shutterstock / Alex Kopje and Rani Molla