Discussion Not Always Frank On Industry Forums

By: Steve Outing

Since 1994, I’ve operated online media Internet discussion lists Online-News and Online-Newspapers. Over the years, the conversations on those

lists often have been insightful and useful to participants. The

discussion, taking place between executives, managers, and employees of

various news companies, often has been frank – as industry pioneers

used the collective intelligence of their assembled colleagues to

problem solve and help figure out how to do business in a new medium.



From my seat in the middle of these discussions – I have served as

list “owner” and “administrator” – I’ve noticed recently that the

conversation has quieted considerably, as senior members of the online

news profession have been less willing and able to speak openly with

their colleagues in the profession. That’s too bad for the industry

– though it may be an inevitable result of an industry maturing.



Reluctance to speak out



I noticed this especially in the last few months, when discussion on

Online-Newspapers (which has about 600 subscribers, all members of the

newspaper industry) dropped to almost zero. Even activity on

Online-News, a larger and more active forum that has a broader audience

of online news publishers, has lessened significantly this year.



Why the reticence to share information and opinion publicly? I asked

list members.



The most obvious reason is that many online news industry pioneers from

the mid 1990s have moved into executive and management positions, and

their schedules make participating in industry discussion forums

difficult. Many do report that they continue to “lurk” in the forums,

but seldom find time to contribute.



But a new trend has emerged with other members of the online news

profession. Many report that they are more careful than they used to be

in what they say publicly, and are less willing to talk openly in public

with colleagues outside of their companies. Increasingly, members of the

profession communicate via internal corporate or private association

discussion lists, moreso than public lists where they can interact with

people outside their parent company. (Not surprisingly, many who shared

their experiences with me for this column asked that they not be

identified.)



One former online newspaper worker says she had some of her comments

posted to a discussion forum published in an industry column. “I got

called on it and told in no uncertain terms that it would not happen

again,” she says. “That created a no-talk policy within the Web team. We

wouldn’t respond to anyone [on discussion lists]. That was a really bad

thing since [my paper] was trying to do a bunch of new things that no

one ever knew about. Had we been able to garner some outside support or

talk with others about our ideas, some of those ideas might have come to

light.”



Harsh consequences



A typical policy these days is for a newspaper to prevent its employees

from appearing to speak for the company – and assigning only

certain individuals (typically managers) to post to discussion forums on

behalf of the company. Other workers are told to not contribute comments

to industry forums that have any reference to company activities.



At a News Limited newspaper, employees must abide by an Internet usage

policy that threatens “immediate dismissal” for serious violation of the

rules. E-mail is not to be used to “access newsgroups” or participate in

discussion forums, and can only be used for “basic communication between

News Limited and its customers.”



Employees who do contribute to discussion forums (presumably on their

own time and private e-mail accounts) must include a disclaimer that

states that they are not speaking for the company.



Common sense prevails



Most members of the online news profession who do participate in public

forums say they use common sense and caution to keep from getting in

trouble with their employers, yet still benefit from the collective mind

of a discussion group. Mark Loundy, a producer at Yahoo! and a

long-time Online-News participant, says he has no overt restrictions

placed on him, but “my contributions are limited by my available time. I

also limit myself from talking about projects that are sensitive for

competitive reasons.”



An online editor at a small Florida newspaper says his employer likewise

places no restrictions on him, but “I wouldn’t speak for any portions of

the company other than my own small domain.”



Even for those whose employers don’t restrict discussion group activity,

sometimes participation can affect their jobs. Kevin Featherly,

who writes for the Newsbytes tech-news wire service, says his recent

comments in an Online-News thread about Contentville.com and its dispute

with freelancers over royalties ended up in articles on Inside.com and

MSNBC.com.



“The one thing that I did as a consequence was to avoid writing about

that topic for Newsbytes,” he says, “in order to avoid the appearance

that I was using my position to get any sort of come-uppance. But that

was a self-imposed restriction.”



Where silence hurts



Not talking publicly on forums about certain company activities

sometimes serves the company. But there can be a big downside.



One online newspaper editor says he wished he could have taken part in a

recent Online-News discussion about bar-code scanners that some

publishers are starting to distribute free to their print subscribers.

Many list members were harshly critical of this new technology. (The

scanners, such as Digital Convergence Inc.’s :CueCat, are used to read bar-codes on

printed ads, which take the reader to specific Web pages for more

information online.) His paper has been working on a project to use

:CueCat.



“From day one, I was aware of serious problems (with this technology and

its business model). ? I had a lot to say on this issue. Some good,

quite a bit bad, but I could have contributed a great deal to this

discussion,” he says. “However, as much as I would love to talk about

this technology with my peers on [the Online-News] list, I would not

feel comfortable in a public forum pointing out the holes in both the

technology and the business plan.



“It’s a pity, really. This is exactly the kind of reality check that may

have helped prevent some of the problems [Digital Convergence] has

experienced in its very young launch.”



Balancing act



To be sure, having employees participating in public industry discussion

forums can be awkward – leaving a company open to the potential for

tipping off competitors about new initiatives. Unfortunately, policies

that restrict employees from communicating with industry colleagues

means that a significant resource is being under-utilized.



One online news editor who bemoans the restrictions placed on her calls

this “dead tree mentality” by news companies. They’re stuck in an old

way of doing business, hording information that might help the rest of

the industry figure out how to prosper on the Internet, and preventing

their own employees from gaining perspectives and ideas (and useful

criticism) from those outside of their own organizations.



Those online news professionals who do participate in public industry

discussion forums do need to tread carefully, however. Featherly

cautions, “As I well know, stuff posted to lists can easily wind up

being published without anyone seeking permission to use it. Anyone

writing to those lists should never be naive enough to assume that won’t

happen.”



Online forums require a balancing act to get the most out of them,

without damaging the company that employs you.



(Disclaimer: As I wrote this column, I was mindful of the appearance

of it being self-serving by promoting participation in Online-News and

Online-Newspapers. Frankly, I don’t care one way or the other if those

lists – which are not profitable enterprises but rather serve as

industry resources – are busy or not. My intent in writing this

column is to raise the issue of whether corporate restrictions on

employee participation in industry forums is a smart thing.)



Other recent columns



In case you missed recent Stop The Presses!, here are links to

the last few columns: Make New Money, Don’t Just Replace Old, Wednesday, September

20 Low-Cost Credit Card Content Sales, Wednesday, September 13

What’s Wrong With Newspaper Discussion Boards, Wednesday,

September 6 Archive of columns



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Steve





Got a tip? Let me know about it If you have a newsworthy item

about the online news/interactive news media business, please send me a

note.







This column is written by Steve

Outing for Editor & Publisher Online. Tips, letters and feedback

can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com





Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher.

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