Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What local newspapers should do #8

This is the eighth in a series of 10 posts on what local newspapers should do to survive and thrive in the face of the economic meltdown and societal shift to the Internet.

8. Stop pretending that if the newspaper’s staff didn’t do it, the work is not good enough. Other companies routinely hire contractors to produce content according to their exacting standards or collect content produced by others and repackage it in ways that benefit the consumer. So should newspapers. As newspapers examine their organizations and what their budgets can support, they need to be committed to maintaining a core team central to the newspaper’s mission and they need to be ruthless about finding the most efficient ways to do everything else. Newspaper should shift away from the “staff” and “salary” model to a model where a core team works with independent contractors and freelancers who are rewarded based on what they sell or on the amount of traffic they drive. Right now we see organizations cutting compensation across the board. Is that the right way to motivate someone to be part of a newspaper? I don’t think so. Newspapers need to be leaner but to make this switch successfully they also need to reward even better the staff they keep. Based, of course, on their performance and impact on the success of the organization.

Here are some concrete steps:
• Evaluate every job and activity of a newspaper to determine which continue to be necessary. Determine which of those jobs or activities must be carried out by a member of the staff.
• Establish a training program and compensation model for outsiders who contribute editorial content or sell products that bring in revenue.
• Establish an “experts desk” that actively recruits people from the community knowledgeable about a whole range of topics, from cooking to health to weather to biology. Make them part of the newspaper family.
• Establish a “business building desk” that actively recruits people who might be able to help grow the newspaper’s business.

Next: Stop incremental cutting.
Previous: Flip the model on its head.


  1. How about:
    1. Stop with the "special to the City Paper" under the writer's name. A dead giveaway that this person is being paid by the word instead of the hour.
    2. Create an email alias for every contract writer so they too have an email (instead of none) of the form joesmith@cityaper.com

    Not much, but a start.

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  2. John, can you expand on this? "Establish an 'experts desk' that actively recruits people from the community knowledgeable about a whole range of topics, from cooking to health to weather to biology. Make them part of the newspaper family." How do you plan to compensate these family members? Is it based on traffic generation similar to the Associated Content or Examiner models?

    Also, can you address how you balance coverage of city hall (a low traffic generator) compared to your coverage of the local NFL franchise? I bring up these points because of the comments I hear from reporters who say this model will lead to stories about sex, death and destruction, at the expense of the “clear and credible public service mission” you mention in your second point.

  3. In response to Mike's questions:
    I think you compensate people differently based on their contributions and what they bring to the site. Some people might receive freelance fees, others might get rewarded for traffic, others might get both, plus even a monthly retainer. I don't think one way will be enough. Some contributors will be just starting out and need to establish themselves. Others will be established experts. In this new model, people are paid for what they bring to the site, not because they've worked for a publication for a certain number of years. I hope that helps. I'd be happy to elaborate.

    As for balancing coverage, there will be some things a local newspaper has to do no matter the traffic it generates and one of those things will be watchdog coverage of local government. It goes back to my second recommendation that news organizations need a clear public service mission. I'm not talking about a model where the only measure of success is traffic. It's the quality of traffic that matters. While we know that sex, death and destruction does draw readers, they're not the kinds of things that have value for advertisers. So again, you cover them with your mission in mind. Public safety is a big issue for people. What journalists will have to remember in this new world is that news is just one of the products/services of the web site and that its role as a community resource/connection is even more important. Much of the effort would be to build those channels. I hope that helps. Happy to discuss further.

  4. Can we get this "sex, death and destruction" into a single story?

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