24-hour Medium With 18-hour Staffing

By: Steve Outing

The Internet as a news medium is a 24-hour deal. Users from near and far are hitting news Web sites morning and night, weekdays, weekends and major holidays. So that means your news site is staffed accordingly, right?

While most Web news operations can’t afford to staff around the clock, an increasing number have expanded the hours that they have humans in the office and posting breaking news as it happens. It’s now common to find Web news sites that keep at least a minimal number of staffers at their desks till the wee hours of the night.

Jakob Nielsen, the well-known Web usability guru and principal of the Nielsen Norman Group, puts it this way: “The Web is world-wide, in operation 24 hours a day, and accessed by people from every country, culture, faith, etc. So Thanksgiving Day, for example, is a regular workday for about half of the users on the Internet. … Because the Web is open 24 hours, users form expectations that their needs will be served better than in the past, especially regarding 24/7 operation. Amazon.com (and other leading sites) sets the example for customer service: If you can shop at night, why can’t you get (fresh) news at night?”

Major sites stay up late

The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition realized this from its inception. Since the Web site launched in April 1996, it has been staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, according to managing editor Rich Jaroslovsky.

At The Associated Press, an Online Desk is staffed 24 hours a day; those editors put together the text report that feeds The Wire, AP’s prepackaged service for news Web sites. The Wire’s editor, Ruth Gersh, says her operation is staffed nights and weekends, and has been since the service was launched. The Web production team works till 1 a.m. on weekdays, and till midnight on weekends. “And we’ve automated the Online-to-Wire updates to take care of those hours when The Wire staff itself isn’t there,” she says.

But such 24-hour staffing for most Web news operations is a luxury that’s not likely to be attained anytime soon — especially considering the profitability concerns of most news sites. Nevertheless, news Web sites of regional newspapers are expanding their hours of coverage. In what is a fairly typical staffing pattern, at Mercury Center, the San Jose Mercury News’ site which features coverage of Silicon Valley and has a global audience, staff members work from 5:30 a.m. to 1 a.m., Monday through Friday; from 3:30 p.m. to midnight on Saturdays; and 3:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Sundays.

A weekend crew of three per day runs the Sun-Sentinel Internet Edition in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Their hours of 3-11 p.m. roughly mirror that of the print edition staff, and they primarily update the Web site with national and international breaking news and deal with local print stories, rather than do any original reporting on the weekends, reports the Sun-Sentinel’s Glenn McLaren.

At the Detroit Free Press Web operation, 2-3 people work daytime hours, and 4-5 typically work night hours from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. — leaving only about 6 hours in the middle of the night when the site is without staff. The “Freep” does not produce a print edition on Saturdays (it’s instead a joint edition with the Detroit News, but there is a Saturday Web edition that includes staff coverage of Michigan and Michigan State football games, plus local and national news picked from the wires. For a major weekend news event, a newspaper reporter typically will cover it and the story goes on the Web site, even though there’s no Saturday print edition to run it, reports Tiffany Trott of the Web staff.

At Philadelphia Online, the Web site of the Inquirer and Daily News, staff is in the office from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. “Sometimes that staffing is mighty thin,” says general manager Fred Mann, “but we are here. We get help from the newsrooms, but we depend on our own online staff to be the ones responsible.” And at the Augusta Chronicle in Georgia, a new media editor slot is filled till 2 a.m., seven days a week. New media editor Mike McLeod says the biggest holes in staffing are on Saturday from 2 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the same gap exists on Sundays. But that also coincides with the site’s lowest traffic levels of a typical week.

The Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colorado, staffs its InsideDenver.com site from 7 a.m. to past midnight, according to executive producer Robert Niles. On weekends, the site is staffed from 4 p.m. to midnight, and during off-hours the staff is considered to be “on call.” Niles points out that the site won’t miss breaking news that makes the wire services, thanks to a CGI script that refreshes the front page, news, business and sports pages with Associated Press headlines from The Wire every 30 minutes. So if The AP puts a breaking story on The Wire, there will be a link to it on the site even if no InsideDenver.com staff member can get to a computer to do a manual update.

Even some television news sites are similarly staffed. The Web site of WRAL-TV5 in Raleigh, North Carolina, is manned from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., says online services manager John Conway. Staffing is lightest (one online producer at any given time) at nights and on weekends, when the flow of stories is lighter and the site’s traffic is lowest. Conway says his peak Web usage hours are noon to 5 p.m. Peak staff time is between 4 and 7 p.m. weekdays, when there are three online producers working.

At-home weekend helpers

At the Houston Chronicle’s Web site, a day news desk is manned from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., says content director Jim Townsend. A night desk mostly handles stories written for the morning print edition, putting those online typically between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. The site is without staff between 2 a.m. and 7 a.m., “unless we know something is happening that warrants updates,” says Townsend. On weekends, the night desk handles incoming print stories while other editors rotate wire-watch duties from home. “They’re generally connected to the world with their CNN-fed pagers and to the Web site via their ISDN lines,” he says.

Having staff members “on call” on weekends and nights is, of course, an inexpensive way to handle the 24-hour news cycle. At the Christian Science Monitor, a “breaking news team” concept is being created. According to associate editor Tom Regan, over weekends a certain number of staff members are on “stand-by” in case significant news occurs. “If breaking news happens,” he says, “we can either assemble at the e-Monitor (office), or we do it from home and the team leader coordinates the coverage. … We’re not a ‘breaking news’ entity like CNN and others, but we are doing more of it, and will continue to do so.”

Regan says the print newspaper staff is more frequently creating original content for the Web site. Also, a common strategy is for the Web staff to call and interview Monitor correspondents about what’s happening, then put the interviews on the Web in RealAudio format. That’s a useful technique to get coverage online quickly outside of normal office hours.

Another option for filling the many hours of the day is to use interns to help out. At the Indianapolis Star/News in Indiana, the Web operation has 10 full-time equivalent employees, so “we’re hardly a 24/7/365 operation,” reports general manager Jay Small. “But we do keep late nights and weekends staffed with a combination of producers/site coordinators and, thankfully, interns. … We have one increasingly rare advantage: we still have a significant p.m. edition, meaning we’re closer to a 24-hour newsroom than most folks out there.”

Staffing challenges

The Las Vegas Sun (Nevada) Web site faces some interesting staffing challenges, because the Sun is an afternoon paper in a joint operating agreement with the morning paper in Las Vegas. Most Sun reporters don’t work on weekends, and few even work weekday evenings. “We’ve had to change the shifts of our online staff so that we have people in here into the evening and on Saturdays, since that’s when most breaking sports occurs,” says Vegas.com general manager Bryan Allison. Online editors also log in from home on weekends (rotating that duty) to update the site with wire stories and new local stories.

Allison says Sun reporters have been good about filing for the Web site on weekends. “Our capitol reporter even files on Friday afternoons, knowing the stories he writes will never see print.” Likewise, during the recent anthrax scare story in Las Vegas, print-side reporters continued to file for the Web site through the weekend, knowing that their copy would be outdated by the time the presses next rolled. Allison notes that for a big national story that happens in your back yard, like the anthrax scare, national media start linking to your site’s coverage. That’s a case when business-hours staffing won’t do.

Staffing smaller sites

For many smaller news organizations, non-business-hours staffing is a distant dream. At the Grand Island Independent in Nebraska, the newspaper’s Web site is staffed by one person, with print editors updating news on the site at around midnight on the weekends. During the week, the site is updated at 7 a.m. New media director Jonathan Berndt says that the exception is on Saturdays when a writer covering University of Nebraska football updates the site right after the games. He says the site hasn’t broken any stories outside of regular business hours, although it has been first to publish news like Nebraska’s football coach retiring and a school being evacuated by chemical fumes. Berndt says the exception to the no-late-night staffing is election night, when he’ll stay up all night to update the site as returns come in.

And Jon Morgan, who operates the Hometown Online Web site, which is affiliated with two small Michigan newspapers, points out, “An online news site can be ‘staffed’ without having anyone actually be inside the office. For example, I am able to update our hot news stories right from my home computer. I could make changes to any portion of our site late at night while I’m in my pajamas.”

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Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing for Editor & Publisher Interactive. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com

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