Attracting young talent to your online news staff

Step #1: Start with your newsroom’s corporate culture

This column appeared in the May 1999 issue of The American Journalism Review.

Web journalists today face a choice: work at the online division of an old media company, like Tampa Bay Online or Time Digital, or dive headlong into a new media company that exists only in cyberspace. More and more, they’re choosing the latter.

Consider Janelle Brown. When she graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1995, she knew she wanted to be a journalist, but the traditional route of ladder-climbing at a newsroom didn’t appeal to her. “The idea of working at some really dry or dull newspaper didn’t interest me,” she says. “Old media seemed so hierarchical, while new media seemed so exciting and vibrant and starving for talent.”

She took her first job as an editorial assistant at HotWired, quickly became a low-level editor, moved to Wired News as a reporter, and then joined Salon last year as a technology correspondent. “In old media, I could never have gone from an editorial assistant to a journalist writing nationally recognized stories in the space of three years. Here you have more room to grow as a writer and person.”

Most of her journalist friends have either joined or begun freelancing for Web sites like SonicNet, Suck, Wired or Citysearch. “It’s a chance to get in the door and build up your clips pretty quickly,” she says.

Brown is in the vanguard of a new phenomenon: journalists who forsake old media for new media. Young people, especially, are eager to head straight to a Web content business.

The numbers are still small, but the trend is unmistakable: New media is where the creative ferment is taking place. Before too long, online newspaper sites may face a Web brain drain unless they adopt these steps to recruit and retain Web-savvy talent:

• Honor your people. Your new media division should never be a dumping ground for the disaffected or unwanted. It’s the future of your business. Make sure your newsroom knows that talented, motivated staffers have the chance to grow into an online position.

• Integrate your new media staff into the newsroom. At new media companies, editorial is not shunted off into a far-flung corner of the operation. Often it’s central to the company’s core enterprise. Your new media operation should be central to yours.

• Reinvent your corporate culture. Give an extra measure of freedom and independence to your new media staff. Discourage ties, bureaucracy, memorandums and second-guessing print editors. Encourage creative, daring approaches to online story-telling. The biggest disadvantage newspapers face is their reputation for being hierarchical, top-down and resistant to new ideas. New media companies — such as, Feed, ZDNet — tend to be open, adaptive, flexible, peer-to-peer, inventive and fun if frenetic places to work, and that’s very attractive to employees.

• Pay your people what they’re worth. Newspapers often pay their online staffs markedly less than their print staff. That says something about the company’s values. New media companies may not pay higher salaries, but they usually offer stock options, which can be a terrific inducement to join a fledgling startup or an established player.

• Promote interactivity. Don’t just hit a button and send your stories into cyberspace. Encourage your staffers to engage in a dialogue with the community. That sort of instant feedback becomes addictive pretty quickly.

• Leverage your ethics. Newspapers adhere to a set of timeless standards and practices that makes us proud to be journalists. Many Internet companies are still stumbling around in the dark, willing to cut corners and fudge the line between advertising and editorial in their quest for profits. Trump them by setting a high ethical bar. Online journalists do not want to work for an employer that compromises its values — or theirs.

It’s worth remembering that the movement between old and new media is not all in one direction. Janet Kornblum, 37, was a reporter and editor at CNet’s for 2 1/2 years before leaving in January to become a technology reporter for USA Today, where her stories also appear in its online edition.

“I miss the direct interaction with my readers that I got online, and I miss the rush of seeing my stories instantly published,” she says. “But it’s nice to be able to develop your pieces a little more without the unceasing Web deadlines, where we counted our scoops in minutes and the pace never let up. I also wasn’t enamored of the emphasis on stock options and tracking how your company’s stock was doing each day. I didn’t go into journalism for the money. That can’t be your only incentive.”

She’s right about that. As the walls come down between old media and new media, one hopes that the ethos of Web journalism will absorb the best values of both cultures.

JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
JD Lasica is an entrepreneur, author, journalist, photographer and blogger. | CONTACT