DC Metblogs and Hal Straus of the Washington Post

Recently, DC Metroblogs had the chance to sit down with Hal Straus, Editor, Newsroom Technology and Site Tools with washingtonpost.com, and grill him about weblogs, The Post, and the evolution of Journalism. Below, in italics, are Hal’s responses. Any code in Hal’s responses is his and has not been added at time of publication.

DCMB: Tell me about how blogs got started at the Post? Is this an “embrace-and-extend” move on the part of the Post to help gain credibility, or is this an experiment in the evolution of Journalism?

HS: We’re always looking for ways to deliver and extend Washington Post journalism, and hope blogs will let us tell stories in different ways and engage new audiences. But this is definitely experimental for us. We know we have a lot to learn about what works and what doesn’t, not to mention the technology — and would really appreciate advice from anyone who’d care to give it.

It’s hard to say exactly how blogs got started here, or even when — Howard Kurtz, Mark Maske, Jay Mathews and Dan Froomkin among others have been producing online only columns for us for years that read a lot like blogs. Joel Achenbach did a daily online column called Rough Draft a couple years ago that featured a lot of reader feedback and certainly got him thinking about what we recently launched as Achenblog.

In the past six months, we’ve been hearing from editors and reporters at the Post, and from online producers, that we should think about developing features that are updated more frequently, that offer more of a voice and more opportunity for user comments. The challenge is to do it in a way that’s in line with Post journalism — that’s useful and a good read, that’s genuinely informative, that doesn’t take cheap shots. And just to keep things interesting, we think we want a mix of blogs that are locally focused (like Going Out Gurus) and nationally or internationally focused (like Rebuilding Weligama).

More in the extended entry.

DCMB: The Post is certainly a leader in online only content, this much has been clear as long as I’ve lived in Washington (since 2000). What made you decide to migrate to a TypePad-based system?

In the spirit of “blogs as community”, many blogs provide the option to provide comments, either anonymously or through a TypeKey registration, why did The Post not allow comments? Trackbacks are another way of continuing the debate, same as a Technorati cosmos link, and both are fairly well supported by the TypePad system, why not do that?

What challenges have your staff had to adapt to, in order to make blogging a success for the Post?

HS: We’re making the decision on comments on a blog-by-blog basis. We’re allowing comments where we think users will want to both read and write them — for example, on Going Out Gurus, which has some nice threads going. We’re about to turn them on in Rebuilding Weligama, Michael Dobbs’ blog about how a small Sri Lankan fishing village is recovering from last year’s tsunami.

On the other hand, our thinking so far is that comments don’t really add much to some blogs and topics. Achenblog, for example, is going to succeed or fail based on what Joel Achenbach has to say and whether his humor and observations attract a community of readers. His voice is central, so we’re asking people to send him emails and leaving it to him to decide what to post.

I’d add that we’d probably turn comments on more often if could look at comments before publishing them to make sure they were reasonably on point. You can’t do that with Typepad.

Our biggest challenge has been time. There are a lot of talented people interested in writing blogs, and in making the ones we have better. It’s a challenge to get the editing, design and technical resources we need to support them.

DCMB: What lead you to choose TypePad as opposed to Movable Type or blogger, or blosjom or the other systems out there? What’s the iron behind your TypePad servers? Is Six Apart hosting for you, or are you providing your own server?

HS: We’re using TypePad, and Six Apart is hosting it. We went with TypePad because we thought the feature set was pretty good and it made it very easy for us to get started.

DCMB: How is editing a blog different from editing, say, the paper? Do your bloggers handle their own markup? Are you relying on the WYSIWYG features that TypePad offers instead?

HS: We maintain Post editing standards, but also recognize that blogs are on a different news cycle than the newspaper. Most blogs need to be updated frequently during the day. Blog authors have to respond quickly to relevant events, other bloggers, etc. That doesn’t leave us with as much time for copyediting as you’d have for editing the articles in a six month print project. When we make mistakes of any kind — facts, spelling, html coding — we correct them.

We’ve actually turned off the TypePad WYSIWYG/rich text editing interface — but our writers and editors insert basic tags (href, blockquote, mailto) using TypePad’s plain text interface. Editors generally handle images, where the code is a little more complicated.

DCMB: That is the wonderful thing about web content: correcting a typo takes a second and can happen after something has “gone to press” for the web.

Talk to me about a typical day for you. Your title at the Post is “Editor, Newsroom Technology and Site Tools”, but what does that mean for your day to day work life?

HS: I try to stay busy. I’m spending a lot of time these days working with blog authors and editors to provide them with the right platforms for their work, and trying figure out sites like yours.

I also help maintain some of our editorial search features, including Home Values, where you can look up details of recent Washington area home sales.

But, since we’re about to move to a new content management system to handle the all of our non-blog content, most of my hours for the next month or two will be occupied with launch planning, software testing and data conversion.

We’d like to thank Hal Straus of the Washington Post, as well as Eric Easter and Howard Parnell for allowing us to talk with Hal this week.

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