Thursday, February 21, 2008

When Do You Know You're Hitting Stride?

Question: What's the coolest thing that happens when you're a web content editor of an Internet startup company?

Answer: When uses your stuff as one of the three main featured items on its home page -- after only a few months up and running. And when you click on the link, there's a list of more stories inside.

You gotta love days like these!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Going Daily, Hiccups and Change

Working for an Internet startup is sometimes like having a case of the hiccups. They come from out of nowhere, and you never know when they'll stop. The last few weeks have been like that at my new gig. It's been more than six months since I jumped out of the traditional print media and into a company that provides online content only.

Since we launched our first Web site two months ago, my weeks took on a certain rhythm. Monday and Tuesday were a steady flow of stories coming in from writers who turned them in and wanted my undivided editing attention -- NOW. It felt like the beginning of the day in at a newspaper, when even even put your briefcase down in the moring, there was a line of people who needed something.

We had been publishing every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. So if I planned my days right, Wednesday I could breathe again -- sort of. That's when I woke up from my copy-induced stupor to notice people worked in the office with me. Who knew? And I would think, "It's too quiet in here," and ask if anyone brought their iPod today so we can listen to something other than my stomach growl.

Thursday I dealt with the endless mound of paperwork that had collected on my desk -- invoices, contracts and a few phone messages from people who -- ohmygawd -- want to actually talk (not over e-mail like almost everyone in Internetland) about something having to do with content on the site.

On Friday, the pace picked up again as I prepared for the new week.

But about a month ago, the rhythm changed. One Friday, my boss walked in and said we needed to stop publishing three times a week. Then he went on to explain he wanted to switch out stories every day. And without fanfare, three days later, we went daily --minus the weekends, which are likely to be next. There have been a few hiccups along the way, to be sure. But in the end, it wasn't much different than adding a section to a daily newspaper or a day of publication to a weekly.

A lesson learned: whether in print or online, there's one constant -- change, change, change.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

About Paul Simon, Divorce and Cinderella

I am divorced, and I don't talk about it often. Going through it was difficult enough, so why rehash? The closest I have come to describing what I felt are the words of a Paul Simon song on "Graceland." It goes something like, "Losing love is like a window in your heart. Everybody sees you're torn apart. Everybody feels the wind blow." While it's been almost 10 years since my own experience, I'm always amazed that I still occasionally feel "the wind blow."

Sometimes I think about the decisions I have made and wonder if they were the right ones, even though my gut tells me they were. The circuitousness of those decisions seem incredibly random today. I left Florida in the middle of a divorce to take a job at a newspaper so I could avoid hearing the sound of that wind. I returned to Florida to work for an Internet startup whose first site was focused on, you guessed it, divorce. Funny the way the world works. I'd call it serendipidy, except that implies a mood that's lighter than the circumstances.

I've been reading a book called, "Eat, Pray, Love," by Elizabeth Gilbert, which is, for some odd reason, connected to the other thoughts rambling through my brain. The book begins with her, weeping on the floor of a bathroom as she realizes her marriage isn't working anymore. So she gets divorced and gives up everything familiar to spend the next year searching for some meaning to it all -- through Italy, India and Indonesia, all places that seem like fine destinations to find some meaning.

Over the weekend, while I was preparing for the wedding of a friend who -- for years -- swore she'd never find the right partner, I came across this passage in the book. It was toward the end and it struck me as a pearl... "I have fallen in love more times than I care to count with the highest potential of a man, rather than with the man himself, and then I have hung on to the relationship for a long time (sometimes far too long) waiting for the man to ascend to his own greatness. Many times in romance I have been a victim of my own optimism."

Given the number of conversations I've had with the site's sources and writers, media covering it and even the folks running it, the quote stuck with me. It made me wonder if this isn't the problem we all have. We want to believe the best about the people we love. But the truth is, they're human -- just like us. And sometimes that humanity isn't pretty or even fun. In fact, sometimes it's just dark and sad and incredibly exhausting.

But in the middle of that pain, we look for something meaningful, picking up and continuing down the road with no guarentee that we'll ever find it. Because the simple truth is that we want to be like Ms. Gilbert, whose book has a Cinderella-type ending, or like my friend, who despite what she said for so many years, got married this weekend to a man who adores her -- and vice versa.

I guess the meaning is as simple or as complicated as we make it. We all want the glass to be half full -- half full of joy, of peace, of love -- for the short time we're here, because it really never is as long as we think it will be.

And isn't that really the meaning after all?

Friday, February 8, 2008

When is it plagiarism, really?

I always thought I had a handle on plagiarism or anything that came close to it. A few months ago, I received a story from a freelancer that took word-for-word a chunk of the story from a Web site. The freelancer, who had impeccable newspaper credentials, had not even spoken with the source of the Web site to get permission to use the rather lengthy piece of copy. Nor did the freelancer understand my concern, since the site was credited -- with or without the source's permission.

Afterward, I called several friends, still in the newspaper industry, and asked, "Have I been out of the business so long that something has changed?" I mean, really, it has only been six months, but maybe I've missed something? I felt like the main character played by Holly Hunter in the movie, "Broadcast News." Toward the end of the movie, she discovers her beau, a handsome anchorman played by actor William Hurt, has "faked" tears for a on-air segment on date rape. He tries to justify his lapse of journalistic ethics by explaining that line between wrong and right in the industry just keeps moving -- so you never really know, do you?

But after my gut check with colleagues, I felt better. Nope, they agreed, this wasn't something that would happen at their newspapers -- and I most certainly was right not to want it anywhere near my web site. So I dropped the freelancer from my list of writers and moved on. Until a few days ago, when I wondered again if that line was "moving." That's when the press release from our Web site began to hit other media. We'd done some work we wanted to showcase, so our marketing person sent the information out to her contacts. A few days later, my boss sent me an e-mail with a link to story. "Is this your old stomping grounds?" he asked.

I was tickled. When you're at an Internet startup, having another media outlet pick up your story and use it is exactly what you want. The more the merrier, as long as you get your site name mentioned, it's a win-win proposition. And if the mention drives traffic to the site, then the process worked exactly as it should. But as I read through the lead and into the story, I found myself in a strange place -- other than a few intro graphs and a fresh quote from a local person, the entire rest of the story was word-for-word written by one of my freelancers. While there was a credit for the site, the newspaper reporter also had a byline.

Given what I know about newspapers, I'm betting the reporter had umpteen stories for umpteen sections that needed to get done, and this was a quick hit to move down the list. And given the editor is probably just as pressed, no one noticed that some cutting and pasting had been done. I am not making excuses. I am dealing in reality. And the reality of newsrooms today is simple: advertising is down, newspaper stock prices are taking a beating on Wall Street and newsrooms of -- to quote a former employer -- "non-revenue generating journalists" are expensive to maintain. Because of this, the industry is cutting jobs around the country, and there are fewer people in newsrooms to do the work, which hasn't been cut to reflect the number of workers.

The incident made me wonder, will this kind of thing happen more often? The newspaper editors I talked with (the same ones from the earlier incident) were shocked when I shared my new story. But given the climate of the industry, none seemed entirely surprised. The surprise came when I spoke with my workers at the startup. Two of them -- who have worked in online content for years -- looked at me like I had 10 heads and said, "Oh, this happens all the time with print journalists." Then they went on to give examples from their previous company. They explained why they didn't care and why I, now a web editor, should focus on the quality of our content, not theirs. After all, it was great press, no?

I didn't even know what to say. But the words "great press" weren't exactly what I had in mind.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Who Reads What? Numbers Can Help

I was never very good at numbers. Not so surprising really for someone who, as a child, would spend hours in the local library, sitting cross-legged on the floor reading as many books as she could before she had to go home.

It wasn't until I was a newspaper editor that I began to actually care about numbers. That's because you're bombarded by them every day -- numbers for the budget, circulation, deadlines, you name it. You learn to live by them. Increasing them, decreasing them, balancing them -- at least as much as you can given newsroom numbers never really seemed exact. No matter. In an industry that's struggling, exact or not those numbers could make the difference between a fully-staffed newsroom or reporting jobs that remained opened for months or longer or simply were cut out of the budget altogether.

When I left newspapers about six months ago to take a job as editor at an Internet startup company, I thought I'd left those numbers behind. Silly woman. The truth is, at this job, the numbers are even more important. Why? Because they can tell you where readers are going, what they're reading and how often they're coming back.

Every day, I get a report from Google that tells me everything I need to know as the editor of a new Internet site. I can tell you, for instance, which story has gotten the most hits on our two-month old site. And I'm able to pass that along to the reporter, who has been able to write more stories on that particular topic so that readers can get their fill. I can tell you which words get attention from readers, who will automatically click on stories with that particular word in the headline. And I can even tell you which region readers are coming from and how long they spend on the site, so if I wanted to I can target them with geographical content.

I'm amazed by the amount of information I can get, what it tells me and how I've used it to shape our online content to drive more traffic to the Web site. Whenever I talk to traditional print reporters and editors about this, they're always fascinated by this part of my job. And they always want to know more about how it works, what I do with the information, how can they learn more. And our conversations always end the same way....with a little wishful thinking.

If newspapers had has this kind of information years ago, would that have made a difference today?