In my Rocky column Saturday, I discussed recent changes at Westword, Denver’s alternative weekly owned by Village Voice Media. Staff writer Mike Roberts is now the lead blogger for Westword’s news blog, The Latest Word. For nine years, he’d been writing, among other things, a weekly media column called “The Message.” He’s now writing the print column about once a month, and posting lots of short media items on the blog–as well as items about lots of other topics. (The media posts are archived on the blog in the “More Messages” category on the right side of The Latest Word home page.) Here are excerpts from my discussion with Roberts on Tuesday, Nov. 18.
Jason: Was the change printed in the paper?
Roberts: No, there hasn’t been a change announced because, as I mentioned to you in my note yesterday, the column continues to exist. It’s just that it will be appearing less frequently as a result me overseeing our online news blog, The Latest Word-.
The model for this is one of the papers in our Village-Voice chain, the Dallas Observer. They have a blog called Unfair Park. It’s been really successful. And the powers-that-be here have been trying to figure out why it’s been successful, with an interest towards replicating it at the other Village Voice Media papers.
Jason: Successful by what measure?
Roberts: By simply the measure of page views and unique visits.
Jason: Is it profitable?
Roberts: When you talk about online and profit, you have to use air quotes. Someday it might be profitable. Fortunately all that dollars and cents stuff is way above my pay grade. The idea is to increase the number of folks visiting our website and other Village Voice Media websites. And they’ve done really well. And one of the theories about why is that they have assigned someone to oversee that blog. His name is Robert Wilonsky-. He is overseeing that on a daily basis, and he is making sure there is a lot of content on that site, over at least 10 items every day.
And the idea is simply by creating content they will come, to use a Field of Dreams paraphrase. The more content you put up there, the more people seem to be coming to the site.
So the idea was, and we were the first paper to try to replicate the success that the Observer has had, let’s assign somebody on very close to a full-time basis and make sure we have 10 posts a day on our news blog, and I was chosen for this mission.
So since we started it [June 23] every day that I have been here, we have had a minimum of 10 blogs, and our numbers are indeed way up.
So it seems like the theory has at least some credence to it…-that the more content we put out there, the more blogs, the more items, the more people are finding them and coming to our site. So that’s the idea-.
The corporate folks have been very happy with the numbers [at Westword]. I don’t know if this is a formal term used corporately or just a term we use jokingly around here, but the term we’ve been using is uber blogger. I’m the uber blogger. They have uber bloggers now assigned at other Village Voice Media papers-. I think the idea is that all the Village Voice papers will end up with someone in a role like mine-.
My column is about media, and I have a big interest in media and so a lot of the items I write are media-related.
Seven or eight years ago, my column was much longer in print than it became after the downturn started. I was getting 2,500 words per column, which is unbelievable. And because I has do much space I was able to write a really big hefty main item, and then I was able to write often three of four smaller items after that. As the page-count began to shrink, those other items often went away-.It went down to 1400 words, still very generous-.
Now online I essentially get to write those smaller items that I had to forgo a number of years ago. That’s one of the nice things, and I get to write a whole variety of different things, not only for the news blogs. I also used to be the music editor here and I continue to write a lot about music-.
The music stuff is probably easier to fit into my schedule than the full media column.
The way I did the media column it was very very time intensive with lots of interviews and lots of research. The music stuff is usually one interview or a review where I can write my opinion. That just fits in easier now-.
We also have a food blog called “Café Society.” One of my sad obsessions is cold cereal. I’m allergic to eggs, and as a result I grew up fetishizing Quisp and Quake and Count Chocula. I am getting to write a weekly cold cereal review…-a beautiful thing….
On The Latest Word blog, I have an interest in film as well. I actually have a Master’s Degree in screen writing from UCLA and love movies…-and this week being film festival week I’ve gotten to write film reviews and you-were-there kinds of things. I write about a wide variety of news beyond media, the stuff that’s in the headlines. So that’s the good stuff-.
There are cons as well as pros. And one of the cons for me was I loved writing my column, and I loved doing long-form media writing.
I’ve gotten a chance to do several columns over the last few months. Certainly not every week. And I never missed a week unless I was on vacation, generally.
I do miss that weekly opportunity to flex my muscles in a long-form kind of way. There is the possibility that as this evolves that I will be able to get back to that.
Jason: When you say it’s not gone, what does that mean for now?
Roberts: If I have a story that comes up that I want to be able to do in a column form, I have been assured and it has been proven to be the case quite a few times that they will find space for me. That has been shown to be the case.
The problem is squeezing it all in.
I am supposed to do no more than six blogs a day, with the other four blogs being contributed by staff writers and editors, as well as the occasional freelancers. Sometimes those other four blogs have been easier to come by than others. Last week, for example, there were two days when I wrote 10 blogs and one day when I wrote nine.
And so, as a result of that output, there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do the column the way I would like to. If we end up having more contributions from other staff writers, and I’m able to cut back on the sheer number of the ones I’m writing myself and I’m more in the mode of processing other people’s…-I read over, post the art, edit, embed videos, all of that stuff, for everybody else’s blog. I’m sort of the producer of it, in a sense. I hope to be able to get the column into the paper more often than I have in recent months. With luck this is a transitional stage and I will be able get back to that kind of long-form writing in addition to the shorter-form blog writing-.
There could be some story that comes up, that’s so good that we can make arrangements to shift my workload long enough for me to be able to write the column. That option is always there.
At this point, I’m literally writing on average 2,000 words per day and 10,000 per week. So it’s a lot to squeeze in more.
Jason: That’s amazing. It really is-.
Roberts: What I was lucky enough to do on a weekly basis for nine years was valuable, and I hope to get back to it.
In the meantime, I’m able to write about media matters in shorter form and in a more timely way. And that’s one thing that we, throughout our history at Westword, always sort of rued, was that we got only one time a week to get our point of view out there, essentially one bullet in the chamber, whereas the dailies had one every day. Now we have as many as we want ever day. We can be as timely and beat them on stories-.
Everything is so fluid right now. Not just for this concept but for the industry in general. Every day, I walk into the office, and I’m happy when the lights got on-.
I have complete freedom on what I’m writing for The Latest Word, so if there is a day where there are 10 media items that I want to write, and it gets us to ten, great. So I will continue to be writing about it just as much as I can.
Frankly, when this first started, I had unrealistic ideas about how much I could do on a daily basis. It became clear after a while that if I were to try to write as many blogs per day as I need to and write the column that my head would look like David Cronenberg scanners. It would explode.