Friday, December 30, 2011

NEPA Blogs year in review 2011

A year ago I was about ready to let NEPA Blogs die.

I had been letting the site drift into oblivion for a very long time. You can see that by looking at the number of posts each month on the "Blog Archive" on the sidebar. The site wasn't a priority for me.  It was difficult to locate blogs through brute-force searches alone.  The site showed no signs of approaching "critical mass" - the point where incoming links from linked sites would cause a sharp, sustained, and ever-rising increase in site traffic. I was disappointed with the site, and tired of putting effort into it. I wasn't planning to shut down NEPA Blogs, but I really didn't want to invest any more time into it.

Another "Blog Fest" was coming up in the Spring. I found about it by accident, while reading through some of the older posts on Dave Yonki's LuLac Political Letter. Dave's posts are titled more-or-less numerically, so the only way to have any clue as to what he's writing about is to go and read through each post.  So unless you're willing to put in the effort to pore over each post to see if there's anything that really interests you, it's very easy to miss something. Normally Gort would announce these get-togethers on his Gort42 site with much fanfare, but Gort was taking a break from blogging at the time. It turned out Joe Valenti had also announced it on his Pittston Politics site, but due to some coding bugs Joe's new posts were not appearing on the live updates sidebar on NEPA Blogs or anywhere else - so again, unless you were actively going to his site and checking it for updates, you weren't going to see anything.

That's when Michelle stepped in with some ideas for reviving and reestablishing NEPA Blogs. "Blog Fests" in the past had been less gatherings of bloggers and more opportunities for candidates for political office to get face-time with political bloggers, and vice-versa. Michelle wanted to try to bring in more non-political bloggers, many of whom might have been turned off in the past by the overwhelmingly political tone of the gatherings. She put considerable effort into publicizing the event, getting a notice published in The Weekender and a mention in Happenings magazine.  She contacted bloggers, posted notices, spread the word - and in the end the gathering was still mostly politicians trying to kiss up to political bloggers, and political bloggers letting them.  But the ball was rolling. Things were changing.

Michelle breathed new life into NEPA Blogs. Working together, she and I revised the look of the site for the first time in years. She worked out a way to replace the blog title with an image that incorporates the blog title. We started off with an image that had been gracing the site for several years, but then began rotating through different photos of various scenes throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania.  Then Michelle took things to the next level. I believe she had created the NEPA Bloggers group on Facebook some time before, but she shepherded the group through one of Mark Zuckerberg's periodic catastrophic revisions, saving the group from the doom of being "archived." She also created a Twitter account for the site, and then brought us into the second decade of the twenty-first century by establishing a presence on Google+ as well.  Thanks to Michelle's efforts, NEPA Blogs was now sending out tendrils into all of the inter-tubes.

But Michelle wasn't content with achieving domination of print and online media. While rapidly adding blogs she was locating by scanning through the followers of the NEPA Blogs Twitter account, as well as tracking down and adding blogs the old-fashioned way (resulting in more blogs being added in the month of April than in the previous twelve months combined), Michelle was also making arrangements for NEPA Blogs to make inroads into other local media.

While she was working on that, we continued to add more and more blogs to NEPA Blogs, and more members to the Facebook and Google+ groups, and more followers to Twitter. I also came up with some simple button designs that people could add to their blogs to announce that they were listed on NEPA Blogs - and with the addition of a little bit of code, they could then link back to NEPA Blogs!  (Michelle wrote up very thorough instructions for doing this here.) I also created a basic set of instructions for submitting images for use as the NEPA Blogs header.

I was doing a brute force blog search in May when I came across something disturbing: a "scraper" blog that was reposting blog entries by bloggers throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania and making it look like the blog entries had been written specifically for this other site. The newest entry was something I had just posted to my personal blog, but there were other entries by plenty of other people linked by NEPA Blogs - including, I think, NEPA Blogs itself. (Unfortunately, there were no blogs included on this scraper blog that weren't already listed on NEPA Blogs.) A few carefully-worded messages later and the problem (which is to say, the site) went away, but this got me thinking: if something is worth stealing, maybe it's worth having in the first place.

(UPDATE, 12/30/2011 10:40 PM: It was in the aftermath of this event that I mentioned to Michelle that someone else was effectively squatting on the domain name - a now-defunct "closed network" group of blogs that was started a few months after I created NEPA Blogs in 2006. Michelle immediately snatched up the domain and set it up as a redirect to While this was done as a precautionary move at the time, it turned out to be very useful later when we only had to give out the .org address rather than the full blogspot address.)

In June Michelle made the big announcement: NEPA Blogs would be featured in a half-hour segment of Blue Ridge Communication's ComputerWise TV. This was the biggest thing that had happened yet! We were very excited and did everything we could to prepare for the show. Despite nearly dying practically before we got on the road and then having a difficult time locating the well-hidden Blue Ridge Communication facility (even with a GPS!), the show went incredibly smoothly. George Roberts was an excellent host and made us feel extremely comfortable throughout the interview, which was broadcast live. Unfortunately, the show is considered a sort of premium for Blue Ridge Communications customers, so even online rebroadcasts are only available to subscribers. Maybe someday they'll change their policy...

The summer rolled by with plenty of blogs being added each month. Jessica Durkin of WFTE Community Radio contacted us and asked us to do a half-hour show with her! Despite the usual misadventures (I got us lost in the Hill Section of Scranton, and a scrambled address nearly led us to pound on someone's door and tell them we were there for the interview), the interview once again went very smoothly. We left with thoughts of turning this into a regular thing, if we could all coordinate our schedules. (Which meant, if my schedule could ever become stable enough to coordinate with everyone else's.)

And then the next big break: Local television station WBRE was creating PA Live!, a new hour-long lifestyles program focusing on Northeastern Pennsylvania. Once again, through Michelle's efforts we were going to be a part of it! They brought us in to "audition" at the studio. By then, of course, we were veterans of television and radio. Having just done two half-hour programs, one live and one recorded and rebroadcast without edits, doing a ninety-second spot would be no problem. Since my schedule allowed me the flexibility to appear in the afternoon every week, it was decided that I would be the NEPA Blogs spokesmodel. If everything went according to plan, the show would start the second Monday in  September. The NEPA Blogs Blog of the Week segment would run every Tuesday, starting with the second show. If everything went according to plan.

It nearly didn't.

Nature had other plans.  In late August an earthquake hit, one of the strongest east coast earthquakes known. Shortly afterwards Tropical Storm Irene scraped up along the east coast, saturating the ground with water and punishing the region with high winds. Trees fell everywhere, resulting in massive and sustained power outages. (Michelle was without electricity for many days.) Then, just a few weeks later, the ragged remnants of Tropical Storm Lee cut across Northeastern Pennsylvania by another path,  further soaking already saturated grounds. Then the storm parked itself in upstate New York and poured rain into the headwaters of the Susquehanna, much like Agnes did thirty-nine years earlier. And the flooding from this storm resembled that brought on by Agnes - except this time, things were even worse. And this time, parts of the Wyoming Valley were protected by an enhanced levee system.

But not everywhere. And suddenly, the once-in-a-lifetime flooding of Agnes in 1972 became a twice-in-a-lifetime event for anyone who had lived so long. And in the midst of it, Michelle took the initiative to use the networking power of NEPA Blogs and all of the social media associated with it to focus on giving help to those affected by the flood.  Immediately this became our most popular post ever, as people scanned through the extensive list of links to look for ways they could give (or even get) help.  This single post received thousands of hits.  Since that time NEPA Blogs has seen an increase in overall readership that continues to this day.

WBRE survived the flood unscathed, and PA Live went on as planned.  One thing changed - the first Blog of the Week was hastily revised to be the Susquehanna River Sentinel.  Fifteen more shows have come and gone since then as of this writing, and in just four weeks PA Live will be airing its 100th episode!

At almost the same time that PA Live! made its debut, I was also scheduled to participate in a Bloggers' Roundtable discussion at the Vintage Theater in Scranton, representing both my own personal blog and NEPA Blogs. I appeared alongside bloggers Rich Howells, Justin Vacula, and Tom Borthwick.  Together we did an excellent job of communicating a broad view of blogging to the gathered audience. On a personal level this was an excellent networking opportunity that opened up new vistas of possibility for me.

Meanwhile, Gort resumed his blogging activities, taking a more active role in the Fall Edition of Blog Fest and organizing a smaller, more intimate bloggers' get-together in early November. He also got in on the TV thing in December, appearing as a featured guest on WYLN's Storm Politics show.

In October I realized that while posting our past header images to the NEPA Blogs Facebook page was nice, it didn't really make these images available to anyone who wasn't part of the Facebook group - and subjected them to the whims of Mark Zuckerberg. So I created a single post to which we would append each old header as the new header was activated. And as the weeks rolled by it became clear that the NEPA Blogs header image collection was gradually providing a complete photographic record of Northeastern Pennsylvania, in all its beauty and ugliness, in its mundane and sublime aspects, as seen by many different individuals from throughout the area. Scrolling through the images could really give you a sense of what Northeastern Pennsylvania is.

Thanks mainly to Michelle's efforts, we've added an enormous number of blogs to NEPA Blogs in 2011. And, as always, some of the blogs that we've linked to have soared, some have faltered, and some have drifted off into oblivion or simply shut down altogether. That's just the way of things in the blogosphere, and there's no reason NEPA's corner of the blogosphere should be any different. We still haven't reached critical mass, still haven't achieved a sustained chain reaction in which the traffic from linked blogs to NEPA Blogs and back out again to the linked blogs goes into an ever-increasing upward spiral. Maybe we never will. I don't let it get me down anymore. We've got a great team of co-administrators here, with Michelle keeping us on the cutting edge of all media, both old and new, and providing the necessary shots of adrenaline to the heart of NEPA Blogs, and Gort thinking about the politics so we don't have to. And me...well, I just do whatever it is that I do. Write pretty and talk pretty and look pretty on TV - all with varying degrees of success, I suppose.

So. Onward to 2012. I leave you with this video, created by Michelle, inspired by Mark Cour's always popular video flapdoodles. Enjoy!


David Yonki said...

Thanks for the recap. LuLac is published every day. The first edition was #1 on May 6th, 2006, we are closing in on 1900 editions. The reason why we number them every day is because we present a small newscast/editorial page every day. I don't regard them as posts, because (a) you'll see way better writing than people who just "post" and (b) a more creative approach to presenting political news. LuLac has become a part of Pennsylvania politics for better or worse. If people are looking for something on our site, they can hit the google search with a word and it will most likely come up. All that said, thank you for all you do.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for being dedicated! The NEPA Blogs site is a great access point to NEPA culture, news, and opinion. Keep up the great work!!!

jessdrkn said...

Hey, when your schedule permits, let's get you back on the radio. Thank you for the WFTE mention!

Jessica Durkin
Board of Directors, WFTE-FM 105.7
Community radio