Web Publishist

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The news and online journalism industry through the eyes of a young Web publishist.

4 ways a paper’s Web site can use blogs without overstretching reporters

A lot of titles will say that their reporters simply do not have the time to pen a blog on top of their responsibilities as a reporter. I can sympathize with that. But that isn’t a good reason not to have a blog section at all.

Here are four opttions that editors have for maintaining a blog section without having to expend the time and energy of an already over-stretched reporting staff.

  • Guest blogs: Enlist the help of well-known local personalities, in any number of trades or positions, and commission them to write blog posts on specific topics. I visited The Daily Telegraph at its London headquarters last week, and this is exactly what they did. They took the news of the day, then phoned people and commissioned them to write a blog post about this subject. This way you stay relevant, pay only for what you need, and enable your staff to stay on track with their respective beats
  • Bloggers as staff: Hire part-time or freelance-based bloggers to write on specific subjects a few days a week. This gives you the freedom to tell someone when you need a blog post, or when you don’t, but you’re never without someone available to you to write a blog. An added perk over guest blogs is that this person would likely be a professional blogger, or at the very least someone who understands the basics of blogging. Therefore the final product will, likely, be better.
  • Bloggers as interns: Most interns flooding into newsrooms today are what are known as “digital natives” so they likely will already know what a blog is, how they’re supposed to look, and what the difference is between a good and bad blog. Through the interviewing process you’ll be able to find out about their specific talents, insights, and what they feel they would bring to the publication as an active blogger.
  • Bloggers as community members: This is similar to the first point, of bloggers as guests. But what I’m referring to here is the idea of having, say, a person on a city council, or a community’s fire chief/police chief/hospital director being brought in to write blog posts on the paper’s Web site. A sort of “from the source” blog. You do run the chance that these people won’t know how to properly blog, however that could be overcome with only some basic training. This would encourage futher engagement with the community and bolster the title’s image as being that community’s paper, not the paper that reports on that community.

A major pitfall that every editor should be sure to avoid is offering blog posting priveleges to corporate entities. The money would likely be tempting, but when you do that, you will be sacrificing the trust that your community has in the paper.

Filed under: community journalism, newspaper websites, , , ,

2009: The year of the community journalism boom?

I believe 2009 will mark a dramatic change in the way news organizations approach local news. There has to be a fundamental change in how it is approached. People still want news about their community. They still get excited reading about themselves in the paper, and when they send copies to all their friends relatives. That is still there. But what isn’t there is the relationship with the reader.

For community journalism to succeed, readers have to feel a tangible connection with the publication that represents their community. If they don’t, then why bother?

Where the mid-size titles have failed, smaller, online-only start-ups will take their place. Two examples of this come from the Boston area: Universal Hub and myDedham. These are online-only, hyperlocal news sites dedicated strictly to their communities. There are no AP wire stories or attempts to localize a large national story. The story is born in the city.

With tens of thousands of laid-off/semi-retired journalists now idling across the country, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that a handful of them will get their act together and put out an online, hyper-local product all their own.

A recent blog post by Seth Godin points out that it’s not terribly difficult to start a hyper-local publication on your own. In the post he says it’s all about reaching your local audience at a personal level. He’s right — that is critical to the survival of any community news organization.

Hopefully 2009 will be a watershed year in community journalism. The kind of change that affects the entire industry will come from these smaller titles: If it works for this title with their 20k readers, perhaps we can make it work for our regional title with 200k readers.

Filed under: community journalism, newspaper websites, , ,

J-school’s new media deficit

Last night I joined in the weekly Twitter chat #Collegejourn, the college media’s equivalent of the Monday night @Journchat. Most of the topics you’d think would come up in fact did. One point I brought up was the new media deficit in many j-schools.

Most of the lecturers I had in my undergraduate journalism courses were established journalists, with many accolades and well-regarded reputations. Those are the kinds of people you want to be learning journalism from.

The only problem is that most were established, well-regarded print journalists. Most were either clueless to the advancing new media storm, or were outright hostile towards it. As the industry changed at a rapid pace, those journalism lecturers so entrenched in the ways of print continued to teach the same way they had been for years.

This is a problem.

For j-schools this presents a potential crisis of self. They need established, well-regarded faculty to keep your program’s reputation afloat. Often these faculty have PhDs and have published many research papers in a specific area. They are the standard-bearer of what the program stands for.

But what happens when what your faculty is not teaching students everything they need to be successful journalists? What happens when those who have the skills and knowledge to teach them how to succeed in the new media environment may only have an MA, or in some cases less than that?

The solution is simple and, for some universities, hard to swallow: Hire younger people, PhD or not. If someone is coming out of graduate school with a master’s in new media, don’t dismiss them out of hand. Sit them down and listen to what they feel they could bring to your program to help it remain competitive.

Another option is to begin scouting the Web staff from local newspapers for potential adjunct positions. They’re working professionals in the field of online journalism. They’re exactly what you need.

It’s time to abandon the dogmas that so many j-schools have latched onto and begin to face facts — even if it means fewer PhDs walking the halls.

Filed under: student journalism, , , ,

For newsapers on the Web, using a corporate template is a step backwards

The worst newspaper sites on the Web today are designed by companies that own numerous titles and distribute a one-size-fits-all template to each of them.

They are failures from the moment they go online.

A recent example of how a terrible Web site design likely contributed to the parent company’s demise is The Journal Register Company, which is a newspaper company that operates largely in the Midwest, East Coast and parts of the south.

They have a strong presence in Michigan. They own at least three papers in Metro Detroit (including my hometown title) in addition to the paper in Mt. Pleasant, the city where Central Michigan University is located. The company had a little over half a billion dollars in debt in 2007 and in April 2008 the company began exploring selling the company’s titles piecemeal. In September the stock price fell to one half of one cent.

I recognize that the poor Web presence was not the sole reason the papers failed, however it did not help their cause.

This failed mentality does not recognize one simple fact: No two publications are the same. Each have different needs, different readers and present different opportunities in terms of design and layout.

Having a single template that can be adjusted is a bad strategy that does more harm than good. In fact, I’d argue that it does no good at all.

This failed strategy also exists at a college media level. There are companies that offer hosting services and give the papers that sign up with them a single, somewhat modifiable template to work with. But if you go down the list of colleges that utilize this company’s Web services, you’ll notice one recurring theme: They all look nearly identical.

I can understand why so many editors across the U.S. and even worldwide are sitting around, collectively scratching their heads over how to make the Web work for their publication. It has changed the way everyone does business — some to the point of no longer doing business. But when you aren’t even trying, I can only muster so much sympathy.

The argument is out there that Web development is expensive. That design is hard and putting together multimedia, at the moment, is outside the paper’s budget.

Newsflash: Paper is becoming more expensive. So is ink.And much fewer people are now buying this product that now costs more to produce than ever before.

It’s when papers are put in a corner that they find a way out. For some, it’s a Third Way uniquely their own. But for others, it’s a For Sale sign. Still, there will be some titles who figure out how to best utilize the Web for their needs and will make it work. But it won’t be without changing how they treate the Web.

It’s no longer the digital dumping ground for your print product, the design of which you’ve taken from a tempate and changed the color scheme of.

In your newsroom, the Web has got to be as important as — if not more important than — the print product. In an environment where your digital product mean as much as your print product, you’re more likely to devote necessary resources to it.

If that’s not your outlook as 2009 begins, you’re already behind.

Filed under: design, newspaper websites, ,

Need video? Short on cash? Go to the journalism department

Recently I was having a chat with a formet co-worker about the publication we worked togther at. They still work there, whereas I’ve moved on. They asked me what suggestions I had for helping increase the site’s visibility. I thought for a moment about it, then realized I’d approached the editors about this very issue a few months prior, when I was still working there.

This paper was lacking a lot, but the one point that stuck out was its extremely limited use of multimedia.

In 2008 many newspapers worldwide began experimenting with video on their Web sites. Some saw great success, while others made great efforts but returned mediocre products, and lost money in the process.

Then there’s the third category, of papers too scared to do anything with video because they’re afraid of the prospect of it not being instantly profitable. They were unwilling to take a chance on something that was “unproven.”

Fair enough.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Newspapers worldwide utilize freelancers. Recently their use has become increased due to reductions in full-time staffing. Often those freelancers are writers and photographers. What I’m suggesting is the freelance realm be expanded to videographers. Specifically, college videographers and those who’ve just graduated.

I noted in a previous post that interns and freelancers want to prove themselves to editors. They want their meddle tested. Photojournalism students are being taught the ways of videography in their degree programs, so why not use their skills? Pay them like a standard freelancer, and pay only for a product that you will run.

There’s the argument that the video won’t be good enough quality, them being still in college. If I were a college photojournalist, I’d be thoroughly insulted by that. Just because they’re in college, learning a craft, does not mean they’re not able to perform. As the editor you’re able to pick who you think would work best for you, and then offer those people the opportunity to prove you right or wrong.

Newspapers should be in constant contact with their local journalism departments, learning about who’s talented in their programs, and who they should be reaching out to for freelance videography jobs. You’ll have to pay them, sure, but it won’t be a lot. And in return the paper has a lot of multimedia content to choose from.

Whether it’s audio, video or soundslides you’re looking for, the best place to go for it is your local journalism department. You’ve got the best and the brightest there, and they all want the chance to show you what they know.

Filed under: newspaper websites, student journalism, , , ,

Writing for your college paper is not enough

Before I started writing for my alma mater’s student newspaper, Central Michigan Life, I started a newsletter in my dorm called The Kessler Chronicle, which borrowed its name from the hall’s name, Kesseler Hall. It wasn’t all that successful, but I did have a writing staff and we did put out a consistent product.

I also did the occasional piece for a publication that one of my professors ran, a monthly news-magazine based in Canada that dealt primarily with the goings-on of the African communities in North America.

Eventually I made my way into the newspaper’s office. I’m glad I did because I had some fantastic experiences there. I’m really proud of a lot of the work I did, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t help me get some of the jobs I’ve had.

But after two years I reached a point where either I needed to make a greater commitment to the paper or forge ahead on my own and see what opportunities I could find on a freelance level. I decided to go it alone.

It was a difficult decision because I had a lot of friends at the paper. Not being around meant I was no longer part of “the club.” But I quickly found that my decision was the right one.

Not long after I quit the paper, I started my first magazine. And while I was developing the magazine, I took a job as a beat reporter covering Mount Pleasant Public Schools for the city paper,  The Morning Sun. Also I was filing occasional stories for Reuters’ Detroit bureau, which I had started working for during the previous summer.

As the semesters passed, I found myself writing for more and more professional publications. By the time I graduated my by-line had appeared in nine different newspapers and magazines across Michigan, in addition to work I’d done for news wires and radio. I’d also completed four internships.

Many of my classmates had a very lackadaisical approach to their journalism degree. They treated it as though they were getting a degree in a heavily-academic field: go to class, do well, get job.

And that’s so incredibly wrongheaded.

The time when you’re a student is when you should do as much freelancing as you can. Get your name in as many publications as possible. Don’t worry about not getting paid for it — if journalism is your passion, you need clips more than you need money. I’ve gotten paid writing jobs by cold-e-mailing publications offering to write for them for free. And don’t be afraid of being told no — it happens. Come back to them in a month or two and see if anything has changed.

It’s important to appear that you’re passionate about journalism and that you want to prove yourself. In those four (ok, or five) years of college, you’ve got a chance to network and build up a great portfolio — outside of the classroom.

Filed under: student journalism, , , ,

Newspapers need interns now more than ever

By Ben LaMothe

When I was working on my undergrad in journalism, I became aware of this special window of time each year known as Internship Season. It begins in October with application deadlines and ends in March and April, when papers made their decisions about who they’d like to take on as an intern.

During this time all of my fellow classmates were operating at maximum stress levels because they were, in effect, planning for their summer. It’s a precarious situation because often newspaper internships were unpaid. However there were paid ones out there and if you were fortunate enough to get one, it meant you had steady income during the summer months.

So you send in your CV, do an interview or two, and find out that, despite your obvious talents, they couldn’t take you on as an intern.

Been there, done that.

This was a few years ago, back when the industry was shaken, but not as badly as it is now. Thinking about it again, it makes me wonder why the papers couldn’t take on a greater number of the talented people they came across. Even if the internship was paid, it was usually a few hundred dollars a week for essentially 40 hours of work. You’re getting the output of a professional journalist at a fraction of the price — but, no, only take a handful.

Things have changed. The industry has changed. Newspapers, if they want to survive, need to take more interns. There’s a sea of talented students in j-schools across the country who bend over backwards for the opporutnity to show what they’re made up and to get some experience. There’s no reason not to hire more.

And I hear the argument that no one is spending money right now, etc. If your paper can’t afford to hire an intern and pay them a few hundred dollars a week to work full time, then you probably shouldn’t be in business.

Interns will come into your newsroom — the good ones — and want to prove what they’re made of. They will want to leave an impression. Sure, there’s a learning curve — but with the better interns, it’s not very big. And before you know it, they’re teaching you. Especially now, when the industry is trying to figure out how the Web works. Hire some young people who grew up in the Internet age, but who also happen to be journalists.

In newsrooms across the U.S., 2009 should be known as The Year of the Intern. Because they’re young, Web-savvy, inexpensive, dedicated, and hungry for a chance to prove themselves.

How can any editor turn that down?

Filed under: student journalism, , , ,

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