Tampa News Site Gets by With Fewer Editorial Employees

By: Steve Outing

The Tampa Tribune was one of the newspaper industry’s pioneers in the online space; its foray into interactive media dates back to 1994, when the Media General-owned Florida newspaper hooked up with Prodigy, providing an “online newspaper” service on that proprietary consumer online network.

Like most online news operations, the Tribune’s has evolved and improved over time. (And, of course, it long ago shed its relationship with Prodigy and now publishes exclusively on the Web.) But the evolution of its staffing over the years is surprising. Tampa Bay Online’s staff size has remained constant for some time, but the number of employees devoted to editorial roles has actually shrunk. Where during the Prodigy days the service was staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week — with the majority of the staff performing editorial duties — now an editorial staff of only five works weekdays from 8 a.m. to after midnight, and no one works during the day on weekends.

It’s not that the online staff has shrunk. Online editor Rich Scheuerman explains that over time, as some employees moved elsewhere in their careers, some of the editorial positions were replaced with advertising and marketing jobs. Today’s staff includes five editorial people (two interactive editors, two news editors, and the online editor) and nine advertising/marketing staffers (an ad manager, five ad sales representatives, two ad producers, and an artist). The staff is rounded out by a manager for electronic publishing (Patti Breckenridge), two technical employees, a multimedia designer, and support staff.

The Tribune went through a down-sizing in 1996, and during that period the online staff was reduced from its peak of 19 employees down to 15. Over time, the staff grew back to its peak size again, but the company has limited further growth. The staffing issue has become whether to put more resources into editorial, or into positions that will strengthen the financial prospects for the online operation. Recently, it’s mostly been the latter.

Automation helps

The main reason for that large editorial staff in the old days of Prodigy, says Scheuerman, is that the old proprietary system for getting news onto the Prodigy service required a lot of manual coding work. A dozen editorial workers supported the service initially, and only over time were some of the processes for getting content from the newspaper onto the online service automated to get rid of some of the drudgery faced by the staff.

It may surprise you to learn that the online staff continues to use Prodigy technology to run the site. The “AutoMaker” online publishing system, which is no longer suppported by Prodigy, is difficult to learn, Scheuerman admits, but four current employees date back to the Prodigy days, so “we’ve got some institutional memory” that keeps the software functioning as a Web publishing system. And the system has been honed over the years to support more and more automation. Parent Media General is close to having a new Web database publishing system chosen, however, which will be integrated into the Tribune’s Web site and those of its sister newspapers — and the aging Prodigy software will go to the scrap heap.

Today’s online staff remains a separate department, not integrated into the newsroom. Most of the process of getting newspaper and wire service content onto the Web site is automated, so the online editorial staff is able to concentrate much of its time on adding new content and information packages to the site. And cutting back staff hours from around the clock to more limited coverage likewise was an attempt to allow more original content packages to be created for the site.

Breaking news tends to come from Tampa Bay Online’s relationship with a local radio station and the local NBC television affiliate (which is owned by Media General). Scheuerman complains that much of the newspaper staff remain wedded to the idea of a once-a-day deadline, and most reporters and editors aren’t tuned in to the idea of rushing their content online ahead of print deadlines. When Hurricane Georges skidded by Tampa Bay (but missed the city), he says most reporters went home at their customary times after meeting their 6 p.m. deadline for the newspaper. Meanwhile, the online staff stayed on to provide continual coverage as the storm moved through the region. During major stories like a hurricane — and even for national stories like the Starr report and Clinton impeachment proceedings — Scheuerman says 40-hour weeks can turn into 80 hours with an online editorial staff that’s as thin as Tampa Bay Online’s.

During the non-staffed hours — in the middle of the night and weekend days — the site relies on automated Associated Press top 50 recent stories to provide news coverage. Scheuerman points out that the AP headline news page is the busiest on the site.

One way to add functionality and content to the site despite a modest editorial staff has been through Tampa Bay Online’s relationship with Zip2. An online entertainment guide site powered by Zip2 is in the works, and a community publishing initiative will probably follow. Scheuerman says that one tactic for adding functionality on the site is to add search functions of the Zip2 databases within the site’s content components. For example, from a page on the Web site about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a search function might help fans find sports bars near the stadium.

The bottom line

Having so many advertising and marketing staffers does improve the financial picture, of course. Scheuerman says the online operation from the outset was not expected to make a profit till the end of the century, but in the next budget profitability is built into the plan for no later than the end of next year — and the site’s managers are confident that that goal will be met.

Web ad sales are primarily done by the online advertising staff, which also sells local merchants enhanced listings in the Zip2-powered directory services on Tampa Bay Online. Print-side advertising representatives typically mention the online service on their sales call, but Scheuerman says he’d like to see greater integration over time — with ad reps selling the Tribune brand irrespective of what medium (print or digital) it turns up in. The newsroom still needs to go through the same process, though that might take half a year to get print-trained journalists used to the idea that there’s not just one 6 p.m. deadline — that deadlines occur around the clock.

Scheuerman was one of the first two employees hired for the original Tampa Bay Online project back in the Prodigy days. Back then, he recalls, he thought that a staff for the online service of close to 50 would be appropriate and eventually would be hired. Four years later, what is now a successful Web site (averaging 5 million page views a month in recent months) is managing with about the same size staff as was required to run an online newspaper on Prodigy.

Contact: Rick Scheuerman, rscheuerman@tboweb.com

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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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