Online Writers' FAQ: 'Is This Going To Run In The Paper?'

By: Steve Outing If you are a writer for the New York Times, it's no longer a given that your work will show up in the printed pages of the venerable newspaper. For a small group of Times journalists, their writing is done primarily for the online medium.

Three Times writers -- one a full-time staff member and the others contract writers whose work for the Times makes up the bulk of their income -- write for the CyberTimes section of New York Times on the Web, the only portion of the Web site that generates regular original writing. (The site typically has five to eight regular freelancers writing for it, though only those three make their livings primarily from CyberTimes work.) They represent the vanguard of a new type of journalist -- those making their livings writing for traditional news organizations' online divisions.

'Will the story be in the newspaper?'

There is one common experience shared by all three full-time CyberTimes writers. When doing interviews for their stories, each is commonly asked, "Will this article be in the newspaper, too?" While CyberTimes is becoming a well-known journalistic entity in its own right -- at least, in technology and Internet circles -- it's still viewed by some as a "stepchild" of the newspaper.

Matt Richtel, a contract writer for CyberTimes who does two articles a week for the Web site, says his grandmother is proud that he's writing for the New York Times, but she doesn't understand why his articles don't show up in the print edition more often. Such is the lot in life for practitioners in a new medium.

Last week, I spoke with Richtel and his CyberTimes writing colleagues, Lisa Napoli, who covers Internet and culture, and Jeri Clausing, who covers Washington, D.C., for CyberTimes, about their experience as online writers.

Saved from law school

Richtel, who works out of his home in the Bay Area of California, is a former newspaper journalist (Oakland Tribune and Peninsula Times-Tribune in California) and freelance writer who was close to leaving journalism completely. After five years in newspapers and a year of freelancing, Richtel was debating whether to go to law school or pursue a cartooning career. (He continues to produce a comic strip as a sideline.) Continuing newspaper work wasn't particularly appealing in part because of the low pay, and freelancers don't fare much better, typically.

But Richtel is an outstanding writer and he picked up the CyberTimes job in time to short-circuit that decision. The CyberTimes writing is practically a full-time job, but he also writes periodically for the "Circuits" technology section of the New York Times that appears weekly, and fits in some other freelance writing.

This online writing career has proven to be not only professionally pleasing, but the money is a far cry better than his old newspaper jobs. Most newspapers pay their writers modest salaries, Richtel says, and with new online writing opportunities opening up for talented journalists, newspapers are going to suffer a talent drain as writers gravitate toward better paying work in the new medium. He cites the example of a Bay Area colleague who left a newspaper salary of over $50,000 a year and now makes upward of $100,000 in a new media job.

That kind of work isn't easy to get, of course; what it takes is solid journalistic talent as well as some technology savvy and an understanding of the Internet. But Richtel thinks that online journalism has changed in the last year or so, and that solid journalistic experience is now being rewarded with online news jobs that provide better opportunities than newspaper work.

Richtel's, and the other CyberTimes writers', work does periodically show up in the newspaper. In recent months, the print-side editors have taken more of an interest in what their cyber colleagues are producing and will pick up an online story for the print side on occasion. When conducting an interview, Richtel tells his sources that his article is for the Web edition but might turn up in print as well.

He admits that for many of his interviewees, being quoted on the Web site doesn't carry quite the cachet that does a mention in the printed New York Times. The Times brand name mostly gets Richtel access to sources and return phone calls without problem. "I haven't been denied a level of access that I've asked for," he says. Nevertheless, it probably would be harder for him to get an interview with Bill Gates than it would for a print-side Times writer. But he says he had no trouble getting an interview with design maven Martha Stewart, and on a trip to Roswell, New Mexico, for the "UFO landing" anniversary, he was treated royally by organizers who were happy to get the online coverage.

More hoops to jump through

Access means everything for a journalist covering Washington, D.C., and for the most part Jeri Clausing gets it because of the clout of the New York Times brand name. Yet working for the online edition of the Times does have its challenges, such as when sources offer up an exclusive story to Clausing only if she can assure them that her story will also be in the print edition.

Because she's only one of many Times correspondents covering goings-on in the U.S. capital, Clausing also sometimes runs up against other Times reporters covering the same story but from a different angle. On a major story like the Microsoft-Department of Justice battle, a source who's already spoken with a Times print-side reporter may not return Clausing's phone call, figuring they've already talked to the Times.

Getting credentials to cover Congress was a bit more of a challenge for Clausing than it is for her print colleagues. She had to jump through more hoops, she says, and got help from the Times' Washington bureau chief to get temporary credentials while the full credentialing process proceeded slowly.

Clausing, whose background is as a newspaper and wire service reporter, is a contract writer for CyberTimes, though that amounts to pretty much a full-time job. She's been doing the online job for about a year. Her area of coverage is government and Internet policy issues affecting cyberspace, and unlike some of her CyberTimes colleagues she writes more often about breaking news. What she covers tends to be more specialized than what runs in the newspaper. A committee vote on an encryption bill might turn up in CyberTimes, or a story about anti-spam legislation, but neither would make the paper, for example.

For the most part, Clausing determines what she writes about, not her editors -- an aspect of the job that all three CyberTimes writers acknowledge is a benefit of working for the online medium. Clausing, Richtel and Napoli all get lots of reader e-mail, often from credible sources offering themselves up as expert interviewees or offering story ideas and tips.

Clausing works out of her house near Baltimore, taking the commuter train in to D.C. and filing stories via laptop computer and cell phone.

'Dream job'

Lisa Napoli is CyberTimes' only full-time staff writer, working out of Manhattan. Her varied background is mostly in broadcast journalism (CNN, Fox News), and in addition to her CyberTimes gig she also does commentaries for a BBC radio program. She's been writing for CyberTimes for about two years.

Napoli writes about the Internet from a cultural perspective, and thus what she writes "does not compete with what's in the newspaper," she says. Print reporters tend to cover cyberspace from the business or technology angles, and that's not her charge. "This is a topic that's so large, it's hard get your arms around it," she says. "The ideas (for story topics) are endless."

One of the nice things about the job is getting to write mostly what she wants, except on those days when there's relevant breaking news; there's more latitude because this is a new medium and less of editors saying, "Write about this." CyberTimes reporters are trusted to know what's happening in their area of coverage. Many of the ideas come via reader e-mail, including loads of leads and tips. People who are experts on various Internet topics offer themselves up as experts ready to be interviewed. "I love that part of it -- the interactivity," she says.

Napoli says she writes "a little more loosely" for CyberTimes than she would for the newspaper, assuming a technology-literate and Internet-savvy audience. She doesn't have to explain as much and can write less formally. CyberTimes readers know what an URL is, and you don't have to write out "World Wide Web" for them, where you would for the newspaper. Story topics can be more narrowly focused than would be appropriate for the newspaper. And Napoli sometimes incorporates e-mail feedback about her writing into follow-up pieces -- something that wouldn't be possible in the print edition of the Times.

"This is like a dream job," she says.

Earning respect

All three CyberTimes writers say that as the online edition has matured, the relationship with the print side has improved, although Richtel feels like there remains "some stepchild mentality (toward the online operation) within the organization." That the newspaper is now interested in printing some CyberTimes articles is a step in the right direction.

CyberTimes deputy editor Susan Stellin, who came to the Times from CNET, says coordination between online and print departments is improving steadily. Napoli says that over the two years she's been with CyberTimes, "things are opening up" and newspaper-side staffers are taking them more seriously.


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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