Duties of the Online Journalist: ‘Writers’ and ‘Trainers’

As a group, online journalists in North Carolina spend more time writing original stories for the Web than doing anything else. But that’s because a few journalists spend most of their time on that one duty, while most online journalists spend their time on an average of nine different duties.

Many of them are spending time on duties that don’t have an immediate, direct effect on their Web site’s content. The task of training and teaching their colleagues is the duty that an online journalist is most likely to have performed at least once during the last three months.

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Skills of Online Journalists Skew Traditional

In my survey of online journalists at North Carolina newspapers, I asked respondents to describe their proficiency in each of 17 different skills. What I found was that although online journalists are relatively young, their strength as a group remains in traditional skills of news judgment, grammar and AP style.

Here’s a table of the results.

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The Pimping Journalist: A Story of Money and Sincerity

Here’s an update to an earlier report about Chi-Town Daily News Editor Geoff Dougherty. He reports on the Media Shift blog that posting a story by an amateur “citizen journalism” on his site will likely cost him “between $90 and $125” in recruiting, training and other overhead costs. The amateur reporter doesn’t get anything.

Dougherty says a freelance story costs him “between $160 and $200” to get up on the site. Of that cost, the reporter gets “$125 or more per story.” That’s probably consistent with the per-story pay of an entry-level salaried reporter at a traditional paper who has a five-story-per-week quota (and let’s not even get in to the damaging impact of story quotas.)

But here’s the most important part of Dougherty’s post — he says that he doesn’t just spend less on amateur reporting; he argues that he gets MORE for less.

“Each one of the 60 or so citizen journalists working for us is an advocate for our site. They tell their friends and family about what we do, which helps drive traffic and recruit other volunteers.”

And this reminded me of a conversation I had last week with the staff of The Star-News in Wilmington, N.C.. One staffer who had a lot of experience engaging with her readers online said that sometimes she felt “like a pimp” when telling folks that she has just posted a new story in which they might be interested.

Rather than go in to my whole shpiel about how journalists need to learn from political campaigns, I tried to follow her analogy and explain that there was a difference between pimping and paying for dinner, and that the difference is sincerity.

Sharing thoughts and information with people for the purpose of building a long-term relationship with them is not pimping. Pimping is hawking services purely for transactional purposes, with no relationship implied or encouraged. Most folks can inherently tell when a human relationship is sincere and when it’s fabricated.

Which leaves me wondering this: Why are journalists not better public advocates for their own work? Why does Dougherty think that his freelancers don’t do the kind of advocacy work that his amateurs do?

After all, most journalists I know are rabid advocates for their own work when it comes to pitching stories to editors. Why, then, do they become such shrinking violets after the story is published?

Experience Levels of Online Journalists

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly reported the median age. (July 8, 1:16 p.m.)

In my survey of online journalists in North Carolina, I found that most have fewer than 10 years of experience in journalism.

The average years of experience was nearly 14, and the median was 10. But that’s because the years of experience ranged from one to 49.

The most frequent experience level was six years. Eleven percent of respondents reported they had done that much time in a newsroom.

Education Levels

  • At least an undergraduate degree: 82 percent:
  • Post-Graduate work: 19 percent

When Counting News Staffs, Count Fast

In my survey of online news staffs at N.C. newspapers, we did notice that at least one person switched companies while the survey was in the field, perhaps adding some inaccuracy to our count. We didn’t detect any reduction in online staffs, but as noted in a story about the possibility of impending cuts at the News & Observer, it’s something of which newsroom census takers need to be aware, especially when using online mastheads as a guide.

According to a contact list published on the N&O’s Web site, the news operation numbers 224 people. However, due to attrition, a hiring freeze and recent departures, the number is now around 190.

I’ve not seen many of these massive newspaper job cuts reducing online staffs, although I have seen online newsrooms be used as safe landing zones for print staff looking to avoid layoffs (potentially reducing the number of “new” skills being infused in to traditional news organizations.) Although, I’ve also seen hiring freezes be used to update skill sets in online newsrooms as well. Typically, when that happens I see online news organizations slowing the hiring of people with traditional copyediting/production skills (the kind of which we see prevalent among North Carolina online newsrooms) and instead hiring people with more programming skills such as  SQL, PHP or ActionScript.

Do you see similar trends?

Online Titles at N.C. Papers Skew Toward Editing

In the survey of people who work online at N.C. newspapers, respondents were asked to categorize themselves by a general job field and then by a more specific job title. They could chose from 10 job fields and 84 titles. We selected these fields and titles from a list of 237 job titles and detailed descriptions that The Croner Company used in its 2007 Online Content and Service Compensation Survey. All 84 job titles and their detailed descriptions can be seen here.

I previously discussed the responses to the job field question. And, it’s no surprise that the high rate and sheer number of responses from the Asheville Citizen-Times also skews the job title findings toward the “writing” field. As we dig deeper in to the findings, it will be interesting to see what duties and skills those writers have — whether they tend toward the “traditional” or the “new”.

Overall, we had 56 people answer the question about their job titles. Those 56 people chose 24 different job titles for themselves. That comes out to 2.3 people per title, which doesn’t really help us in our quest to standardize titles. Bummer.

Including Asheville, the most popular job titles were:

  • Writer – 14%
  • Manager, Content – 11%
  • Editor – 11%
  • None of the Above – 9%

The remaining 55% of responses were scattered across 20 categories.

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Online Job Titles All Over the Map

One of the reasons we’re doing this study is because its nearly impossible to tell from someone’s job title what they actually do in an online newsroom. If we don’t know what people do, we don’t know how to train them, hire them or judge their performance.

I definitely found some evidence of that in my survey. Of the 70 respondents, there were 55 different job titles that appeared on the paper’s masthead. Only four job titles appeared at more than one organization: content producer, general manager, online editor and online producer.

I’ll report later on some efforts to standardize these job descriptions and answer that burning question (OK, maybe not burning. Maybe smoldering.): What exactly IS a “producer,” anyway?

More Evidence of the ‘Gannett Effect’

In my last post, I wondered whether the way that Gannet newspapers had changed job titles throughout its chain may have caused my survey of North Carolina online newspaper staffs to skew more “traditional” in their self-perception of the work they do. For your consideration and discussion, here’s some more proof of the “Gannett effect.”

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Online Journalists See Themselves in Traditional Fields; Could It Be the ‘Gannett Effect’?

In a survey of journalists who work online at newspapers in North Carolina, most described themselves as working in traditional fields of writing and editing rather than “new media” fields such as multimedia production.

The first thing I want to do today is to thank all of the respondents to my recent survey of people who work online at North Carolina newspapers. We had 70 people at 29 daily newspapers respond to the survey. This 64 percent response rate is very high, and I think the state’s journalists deserve credit. But I also need to give credit to Phil Meyer, who helped design the survey method and to Teresa Edwards in UNC’s Odum Institute for Research in Social Science. It also didn’t hurt that there is such widespread support in this state for the University of North Carolina and for the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. It’s been an honor to be affiliated with these institutions. And it’s an honor to have the chance to talk a little bit now about some of the hard working journalists in this state.

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Announcing: Online Newsroom Study

With the kind help of Phil Meyer, Ying Du and Sara Peach, I’ve just completed a survey of every person we could identify that works in online news production at newspapers in North Carolina. The results of the survey are in and I will be using this blog to share my notes and thoughts as I begin to cull through the numbers. I hope that by doing so, I’ll provoke some questions from you, dear reader, and some good ideas for further research.

The survey asked respondents specific questions about their own skills and duties of their daily work. It also asked them about their titles and the reporting structures of their organizations. I’ve been amazed at how little we really know — other than the hallway anecdotes at trade conferences — about how online newsrooms are organized. What, exactly, does a “producer” do? How do different skills and structures affect the product?

So, first, let me tell you a bit more about how we conducted the survey.

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