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Features Posted February 11, 1999
What Do You Tell the Boss?
By Matt Welch, OJR Staff Writer and Columnist

Print version
When gainfully employed print or broadcast journalists start tinkering around with HTML, it's usually to create an accessible resume with clips, or to post cute pictures of their four-year-old daughters. No one gets hurt, and, usually, no one reads their sites.
 
A small but growing number of newsroom stiffs, however, have been toiling away on their home PCs during their free time, creating original (and occasionally interesting) Web sites with updated content.
 
This moonlighting has created a new set of procedural questions for newspapers and their ambitious staffers: Are standard freelance guidelines adequate to cover Web sites? What, exactly, should be considered "competing" (and therefore taboo) content? What if the site includes criticism of the newspaper or its parent company? And, before any of this, how and when should the Internet publisher bring it up with the boss?
 
"I followed the old adage: Act first and apologize later," explained Tom Mangan, copy editor and features page designer for the Peoria (IL) Journal Star. In his spare time, Mangan maintains Newsies 2.0, which profiles other journalists' Web efforts
 
"Management learned of my site... probably due to my incessant bragging to co-workers," said Ken Stone, sports copy editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune by day, editor and publisher by night of Masters Track and Field, a site dedicated to the exploits of middle-aged athletes.

Some, like Plattsburgh, NY, Press-Republican Design/Systems Editor Jack Downs, go the full-disclosure route.
 
"As soon as I decided I really wanted a Web sideline -- but before I actually began the work -- I discussed the job with my editor in chief," said Downs, who moonlights as a "guide" to the U.S. Newspapers page on the Mining Co. site. "I tried to be as open and honest as possible."
 
Others, like Internet beat reporter James Romenesko of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, don't see the need to mention it. Romenesko has been posting The Obscure Store and Reading Room, a useful page of summaries of the day's more interesting national stories plus scores of links, since 1995.
 
"I have always kept my Obscure work separate from my day jobs," said Romenesko, who spends around four hours a day working on the site at home. "Because I don't do anything Obscure-related in the workplace, I don't see it as an issue and I don't bring it up."
 
When they found out, Mangan's bosses politely pointed out that by posting his clips he was reprinting the Journal Star's exclusively copyrighted material without permission.
Mangan launched Newsies in October 1996, in part as a response to not getting a job he applied for at a major online newspaper. The idea came to him after his research into how to build a good resume/clips site turned up dozens of interesting personal pages posted by journalists.

By April 1997 Mangan's hobby had expanded into a regular "Newsies on the Net" column for Editor & Publisher (which he no longer writes). Now his site has links to more than 360 journalists' Web pages, in addition to a series of interviews called the "Seven Questions" project. Mangan works two to 10 hours a week on the site, and averages 100 to 200 readers a day, he estimated.
 
"I never consulted any of my editors and none of them said a word to me about the site until it got a bit of publicity in the trade press," he said in an e-mail interview.
 
When they found out, Mangan's bosses politely pointed out that by posting his clips he was reprinting the Journal Star's exclusively copyrighted material without permission.
 
"Tom and I had a nice talk," said Journal Star Managing Editor Jack Brimeyer via e-mail. "We established ground rules only over the reproduction of our copyrighted pages. We didn't talk about his building/maintaining the Web site on his own time. Actually, I am proud of his ingenuity and gumption."
 
Brimeyer sees Newsies 2.0 as a way for a talented employee to fulfill some ambitions and gain new skills while continuing to work for his hometown paper.
 
"Very few outside pursuits are without benefits to working journalists, whether helping at a food bank, coaching a soccer team or reading Churchill's 'History of the English-Speaking World,'" he said. "In this case, Tom's site keeps him plugged into the cutting edge of journalism. Obviously there are benefits for him and [for] all of journalism. I suppose I'd feel differently if Tom's site featured nothing but porn."
 
The Mining Co.'s Downs also had good luck with his boss.
 
Brimeyer sees Newsies 2.0 as a way for a talented employee to fulfill some ambitions and gain new skills while continuing to work for his hometown paper.
"My editor had a few questions, but he seemed to quickly see that working for the Mining Co. would not put me in competition with my paper, and in fact, it could make me a more valuable employee," he said via e-mail.
 
Like Mangan, Downs has no formal agreement with his employer on how to juggle the two jobs, though he studiously avoids calling up his site at work.
 
"I thoroughly understand that, if my main employer raises real objections, I will have to stop my Mining Co. work. But I don't see that happening," said Downs, who spends 10 hours a week on his collection of links, interviews and feature stories.
 
The sideline gives him a little pocket money and keeps him on the cutting-edge from his perch in Plattsburgh, where he has worked the past 15 years.
 
"I love the topic, and it gives me the experience and visibility that I could use in the future if I'm ever in a job hunt," he said.
 
Besides preparing for the next job, journalists should also be showing their bosses how the sites are contributing to their current one, Downs said.
 
"Your newspaper management will be concerned about competition, about ways you could embarrass them," Downs said. "Address these concerns. Make a case for ways this sideline will make you a more valuable employee."
 
The San Diego Union-Tribune learned about that kind of collateral value firsthand. After letting Ken Stone do his thing since February 1996, the paper is now on the verge of being rewarded with an in-house Web page Stone designed for tech-fearing copy editors to instantaneously check the sites of major San Diego organizations, such as the U.S. Navy.
 
"Hobbies are healthy. More copy editors should have hobbies," said Kelly Murphy, the Union-Tribune's news copy desk chief and Stone's boss for several years, via e-mail. "This particular hobby has allowed Ken to develop skills that make him a better copy editor, and may result in a valuable tool for all our copy editors."
 
[Orange County] Register management argued that the lawsuit was the only way to shut down a man who was threatening the paper with virus bombs and sending employees e-mail about their co-workers' sexual habits.
"Bosses see me as facilitator, not a threat," Stone explained over e-mail. "I guess my advice would be: Pick a subject for a Web site that your grandmother wouldn't mind visiting, even if your grandmother owned the paper."
 
One former employee at the Orange County Register probably wishes he had taken that advice. After a brief stint in the distribution department last spring, the employee (whose name was not made public) launched a vitriolic site of anti-Register dish at SLAVE4OCR.com, e-mailing more than 100 newspaper employees to solicit gossip.
 
The paper's staunchly libertarian parent company promptly sued for trademark infringement, arguing that "THE ORANGE COUNTY unREGISTERed PRESS" could be confused as being officially sanctioned. America Online reacted by shutting down the site, and coughing up the ex-employee's name.
 
Civil libertarians and free-press advocates cried bloody murder, but Register management argued that the lawsuit was the only way to shut down a man who was threatening the paper with virus bombs and sending employees e-mail about their co-workers' sexual habits.
 
More murky was the case of Maurice Tamman, a reporter for Florida Today who published the controversial NewsMait newspaper job intelligence site until late last year. Tamman attracted attention and loyal readers, in part by posting journalists' anonymous comments about their newsrooms from across America. Some of the comments were not flattering, and a few were directed at newspaper chains like Gannett, which just happens to publish Florida Today.
 
When asked last fall how his moonlighting was viewed at work, Tamman said simply, "I'd rather not even touch that."
 
Publishing comments critical of your boss is a no-brainer, Mangan said.
 
"Don't even think of trying any kind of 'local journalism review,' unless you've lost your taste for regular paychecks," he said.
 
"I'd approach a Web site the same way I'd approach freelance work: Most employers have no qualms about their reporters and editors freelancing so long as they aren't writing for competing media in the same market."
 
But "competing media" are defined more broadly in employment contracts than most people think, argues David Morrock, editor and publisher of the daily general news site The Morrock News Digest and full-time city hall reporter for a Central California newspaper.
 
One way to avoid negative repercussions is by developing a Web page for the newspaper.
Morrock's union agreement "forbids me from engaging in work for any competing medium without permission. A competing medium is one that reaches readers in the newspaper's circulation area -- as the Web certainly does," he said by e-mail. "I'd almost bet that a reporter who doesn't think there's such a restriction in place just hasn't read the contract."
 
In fact, Morrock said, "the contract also says I can't mention my connection with my employers without permission. That's why I don't give the name of the paper."
 
One way to avoid negative repercussions is by developing a Web page for the newspaper. Such was the case of Detroit Free Press Recruitment Editor Joe Grimm, who launched a handy journalism employment site called JobsPage in June 1997.
 
Though the site was his idea, forged largely in his spare time and featuring extensive information about jobs outside the Free Press, JobsPage is owned by the Free Press and published on its server.
 
"We hear constantly from journalists and journalism students who've made use of it in job searches," said Free Press Managing Editor Carole Leigh Hutton. "That's part of the Free Press philosophy. The more well-trained, well-placed journalists out there, the better."
 
Grimm counsels would-be Web publishers to inform their bosses every step of the way.
 
"They're gonna find out anyway," he said by e-mail. "Don't forget that your job is Job One. Unless they tell you that this is part of your real job, or give you some time to start it, this will be on your own time."
 
What do you think? Tell us on the OJR Forums.
 



Matt Welch Matt Welch is an OJR Staff Writer and Columnist. His work is archived at mattwelch.com.


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