You can't pay the bills with your reputation. Yet, concerns about newsrooms staffers doing "something" that might hurt the paper's, or the station's, reputation are killing the news industry's ability to innovate at a critical moment in its history.
Richard R. Klick of the Daily Herald in Arlington, Ill. reminded me of this issue when he posted this query to the Online News Association 's e-mail list earlier this month:
"Our organization is looking into setting up guidelines for staff members who also have non-business-related blogs outside the newsroom. There is a lot of discussion in our organization whether we need such guides for our staffers, who represent and, by association, are linked to the newspaper whether they are on or off duty."
I've heard the same question from several other newsroom editors. It's a fair question, and one that would deserve greater weight if newsrooms were not losing so many readers to blogs, discussion forums and other online information destinations.
Few newsroom managers today have worked in a newspaper war. (I consider myself fortunate to have spent four years competing in Denver's, in the late 1990s.) But that's what we all face today, except that the competition isn't another daily. It's everyone else on the Web.
As I wrote in response to the ONA list, "newspapers need to be creating a culture of blogging and online entrepreneurship in their newsrooms, not choking it to death." Too many guidelines about outside Web projects send a clear message to staffers: "Don't go there."
Here is my opposite approach: A five-step plan for dealing with reporters and editors in your newsroom who want to blog, or try anything else online outside their traditional job description:
Step One: The answer is 'yes'
Analysis paralysis has been killing newsrooms' response to new online competition for the past decade.
All very valid "mights." But here is what is certain: A newsroom that doesn't do something fresh which connects its employees with more readers and advertisers, right now, is going to find itself on the auction block very soon.
Jack Lail, Managing Editor/Multimedia at Scripps' Knoxville News-Sentinel (one of the few chains that hasn't been bought, folded or targeted in the Internet era), offers a better approach: "We had a food writer who said, 'I'd like to do a regular cooking video.' We didn't say, we'd think about it or discuss the potential with advertising and marketing. Nope. We paired her with an online producer and we shoot two segments a month in the writer's kitchen. The videos go into a vblog, onto our local channel in the AP Video Network and into YouTube."
As I wrote on the ONA list: "If the topic of the outside blog is of interest to more than a handful of offline acquaintances, why not have the reporter publish the blog 'in house?'"
Step Two: If your tech can't support it, go outside
But what happens if your writer wants to do something that your newsroom's online content management system cannot support?
No sweat. Find one of the thousands of Web hosts out there, running any one of hundreds of content management or scripting systems, that can do what your writer wants. You should be able to find a secure shared hosting plan for under $50. That's a miscellaneous expense in most newsrooms. And don't worry about using a free service such as Blogger or WordPress.com. Plenty of great sites have started on those services.
Step Three: Forget the branding, but not the ads
Every publisher or station manager I've met obsessed over brand. And that's kept many of their managers from approving individual projects that would live on outside servers without the employer's name and logo.
But let's not forget that publishers and station managers are not in the business of building brands. That's simply a means to the more important end of attracting readers and viewers... and connecting them with advertisers. Let staffers do what they want on the Web, wherever they want to do it. And don't worry about whether they carry the newsroom's brand (though staffers should ID themselves in the "About Me" section of their blog or website).
If your organization's ad staff can't support this, then, at the very least, create a Google AdSense or Yahoo! Publisher Network account for outside projects until your ad sales and tech folks get up to speed.
Step Four: Give 'em a taste of the action
Here's where you encourage staffers to try something new: Reward 'em if they deliver. And not just with a "good going!" in their job reviews. Track ad impressions by project (using your internal ad tracking or Google/Yahoo solution, above), and pay staffers a cut of the revenue that their online projects generate. (At least 50 percent, in my opinion.)
Publish those numbers in the newsroom, too, so others can see what their colleagues are making by launching and maintaining new products online.
Step Five: Help your innovators communicate
Even staffers publishing solo projects shouldn't have to work alone. When I spoke at the Orlando Sentinel last month, I urged managers there to create an e-mail list for their staff bloggers, so that they could share successes, monitor failures and brainstorm together even as they worked on separate blogs.
Don't think for a moment that all those solo bloggers and Web publishers you compete with each day are working alone in their basements or rec rooms. The best bloggers and publishers keep in touch through sites such as Webmaster World, A List Apart and TechCrunch. A newspaper's, or a station's, strength is its experienced staff. Why shouldn't your emerging newsroom entrepreneurs use that advantage? Encourage them to monitor the sites I've listed (as well as, ahem, OJR) but set up ways to allow them to communicate easily with one another, as well.
This solution not only will speed development, but it can help minimize, or at least swiftly correct, the errors and embarrassments that managers feared in the first place. Having newsroom staffers read and react to each others' projects put extra trained eyeballs on them, eyeballs that can catch typos, bugs and bad netiquette before they blow up in the paper's face.
Robust internal criticism, coupled with widely available readership stats and income data, will make clear which projects have a long-term future, either under or apart from the newsroom's brand, and which ones do not. If a project fails to catch on, allow the staffer the option to continue it on their own time and own dime. But newsrooms need to change their cultures from one where writers are afraid of blogging and Web publishing to one where writers are more afraid not to try them.