'Your Mission, If You Choose to Write It ...'

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By: Steve Outing What are you trying to accomplish with your interactive news site? Can you articulate it in a sentence or two? Can your staff explain what it is that your site is striving toward? (Earning a profit? Protecting a franchise? Building new businesses?) If you and/or your staff can't answer those questions, perhaps it's time to draft a "mission statement" for your online news venture.

Increasingly, online news operations within traditional news organizations like newspapers are drafting their own mission statements or written goals, which typically are written to integrate into the larger company's goals. But it's a challenging task to write corporate goals for an environment -- the Internet -- that is changing so rapidly.

I thought it would be a valuable exercise to seek out mission statements from online news sites, in order to learn from what others have done and to compare wording that various companies have devised. What I found first was that tracking them down wasn't easy. A fair number of news sites that I contacted did not have mission statements, and their managers felt no strong need to draft one. That was more so the case with smaller sites operating with small staffs, where oral communication can keep everyone focused on the same goals. Another good-sized group of site managers said they had drafted mission statements, but they were seldom referred to; several executives I contacted couldn't even find the statements in their files.

The need to rewrite

At Knight Ridder New Media in San Jose, Calif., vice president Chris Jennewein says that mission statements are a "contentious" issue. His group drafted one a year ago, but he admits that if he pulled it out today it would probably need rewriting to reflect changes in the online publishing environment in the last 12 months. He thinks that mission statements make more sense for companies that are stable and aren't in the start-up phase. Any wording that you can come up with that has any staying power probably "is not specific enough to help you," he says.

Some news Web site executives at large media companies shy away from the exercise of drafting an online mission statement. "I'd rather put countless hours into improving the Web site than put countless hours into meetings to devise a mission statement," says Howard Witt, associate managing editor/interactive news for the Chicago Tribune's Web site and a critic of mission statements in general. (His division does have one, however. It reads: "The Tribune should be the pre-eminent electronic/multimedia source of information in and about Chicago and the Midwest, with aggregated newspaper, radio, video, and online content that, although not all produced by the newspaper, will be packaged under its aegis -- and should produce revenue and profit.")

Other news companies do take the exercise very seriously. At the Seattle Times, a company-wide initiative is currently under way, in which each division is writing its mission statement, which also will be pieced together at the corporate level and probably be ready later this summer. "This is very important to us in helping us define our (new media) strategy," says Patricia Lee Smith, executive producer of the company's Web sites.

The statements

Let's take a look at a sampling of newspaper companies' online divisions to see what they've come up with for their mission statements:

At Community Newspaper Co. in Massachusetts, owner of a chain of community newspapers and an award-winning Web site that integrates content from all the papers, publisher of interactive services Charlene Li says her company's management team got together to draft five "goals" -- preferring that word to "mission statement." They are a little vague in terms of concrete goals, but represent what the company's executives believe in, she says. CNC's goals are:

Achieve excellence in: local online news; creating online communities; and developing interactive commercial products. Produce a profit. Integrate with existing print operations. Create a dynamic, creative workplace where employees can excel. Some mission statements are short and sweet. The Fresno (Calif.) Bee Web site has a succinct statement adapted from a directive from the publisher: "To be the best site on the Web -- and to be profitable. And not necessarily in that order." Quips David Owens of the Web staff, who sent me the statement, "I can argue about the best Web site, but that profitable part is hard to weasel!"

At the Tampa (Fla.) Tribune, manager of electronic publishing Patti Breckenridge says "we decided to go for clarity rather than brevity. ... We use it as the cornerstone of each succeeding strategic plan. And we regularly judge our success by analyzing in detail our progress" in each of the five areas cited in the statement. It reads:

Extend the brand of the Tampa Tribune. Guard the Tribune's classified franchise. Solidify the Tribune's position as the leading information provider in this market. Strengthen the Tribune's role in forging connections in our community. Build a Web operation that produces profit for the company. At Guy Gannett Communications in Maine, an overall mission statement for the company was drafted in 1996, which encompassed the company's newspapers, TV stations and new media operations. Because some of those operations are in other states, "we needed to communicate clearly with people across all these divisions on what we're about. It's held up well," says Joe Michaud, editor of the new media development group. The company now drafts a mission statement for every new Web site it launches -- now numbering eight. "That's an indispensible tool for guiding the design and development of the sites," he says.

At the Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minn.), the online division's mission statement is incorporated into a larger corporate statement. It reads in part, "To enhance the shared life of the community by being the area's leading provider of information and communications that people value." Star Tribune Online editor Steve Yelvington says his group also has a "tactical content prescription" that the staff is well aware of because he repeats it so frequently: "Timely, Useful, Interactive, Entertaining."

Indianapolis (Ind.) Newspapers has a longer statement drafted for its electronic news and information department way back in August 1996; "this thing was written years ago in Web years," says Jay Small, general manager of Star/News Online. Here are some highlights from the statement:

"The main mission .. is to provide customers -- both users and advertisers -- a convenient, compelling and comprehensive source of news and information using a range of electronic technologies. These technologies will become an increasingly important adjunct to the print product. ... To accomplish this mission, we will: ... Help the company make the most of new electronic opportunities to position itself, not just as an information provider, but as a community hub. ... Because technology changes constantly, long-term success in our mission requires aggressive and intelligent experimentation with new technologies. Through this experimentation, we will improve existing products while positioning ourselves to capitalize on new opportunities. ..."

At Sunline, the small Florida Web site that's twice won the Editor & Publisher best online newspaper service award for small-circulation newspapers, they've drafted a statement that's fairly specific to the digital projects the company has embarked on:

"We are securing the digital future of the newspaper by vigorously expanding Sunline in SW Florida and other areas of the Sunshine State through our ISP efforts, our advertising sales, the syndication projects, MLS efforts and creation of our community Web sites. During all of this, we want the customer to know that not only are they getting a quality product but that they also know they are getting the company's best effort."

While that sounds like it's partly for public consumption, Internet editor Ronald Dupont says he's not fond of the idea of trotting our a mission statement on the Web site itself; this is strictly an internal document that was drafted to help focus staff minds on the goals of the site. Dupont thinks it's a waste of effort to put a mission statement on your Web site, because so few people will ever read it.

At the Guardian (London), the mission statement does double duty as the "About the site" link on the Guardian Web site. It's a letter written by Internet editor Ian Katz that explains why the site is like it is, and what it intends to become. "We have a radically different approach to the Internet from most newspaper publishers," he writes. "Put simply, we think it is a unique and powerful medium with strengths and weaknesses of its own. To properly exploit it, we believe that publishers must develop content specifically for it, not simply try to repackage the content they already own. After all, if we decided to launch a radio station, no one would suggest that we send our correspondents into the studio to read out their stories from the paper." Katz's statement goes on to explain why readers won't find topics covered on the site that are covered in the print edition: "We need to cover any subject (online) in greater depth than we might in print. ... We currently cover a relatively small number of subjects; we'd rather be master of a few trades than a jack of all."

Executive file material

Sometimes, mission statements are primarily for the benefit of the board of directors or corporate executives, and don't filter down to the troops in the trenches. At E.W. Scripps, executives drafted a new media strategic plan for all of the company's media properties (print and broadcast). But its purpose was more to justify the new media division's existence than to direct new media operations scattered across the U.S.; they generally have great autonomy in developing their local business plans, according to Scripps director of online content development Bob Benz. Indeed, he admits, local site managers probably haven't seen the mission statement. New media vice president Neil Fondren adds that local managers "all understand that this is not a charity drive." The Scripps mission statement for new media reads:

"To utilize new media, to extend traditional products into new and changing markets, and to create new franchises that will be profitable and increase value to shareholders."

The tendency for mission statements not to filter down the staff line is not uncommon. When I called up the top editor of a very large newspaper's Web site and asked for his new media mission statement, this editor told me that he knew one had been drafted, but the president of the new media division was the one who might know where is was filed. Presumably, the board of directors has read it, but few others.

More 'less news' feedback

My column of a week ago about news sites needing to focus less on news continues to bring in some thoughtful responses. Bart Preecs of Sitewerks Inc. writes:

"I think the problem with online news is not that online publishers need to walk away from the 'news' category and expand wholesale into services, although adding services to an online news site is certainly a fine thing. I think the real challenge to online news managers is to broaden and expand the definition of news we've inherited from daily papers and broadcasts. Let me offer a specific example:

"The other day, I spoke to a reporter/researcher at my local weekly business journal. She confirmed for me something I knew to be true from my own experience a decade ago with a similar paper: The single most popular feature these business journals offer is 'The List.' The List is a collection of data about a particular segment of the local economy. 'The 10 biggest accounting firms' or '50 largest private employers' are typical list topics. These lists take a lot of time to pull together, but they are far and away the single most read pages in any business journal. People in a particular industry pore over the standings to see how they do vs. their competition. Customers check out where the companies they use stand in relation to the competition. Job seekers sift the data for clues. People try to find out how their neighbor's business is doing.

"Is this 'news'? I think this info would fail most newsworthiness tests taught in J-schools. But it doesn't take much imagination to see how expanding this concept outside of the business pages would add a lot of depth to general community coverage. 'The 10 Largest Hospitals' or 'Puget Sound School Districts.'

"I suspect this information would be highly interesting to online site readers, and I know it would have (pardon the expression) a longer shelf life (and much higher potential for return visitors) than most of the bulletins that now dominate most home/front pages.

"Anyway, that's the first thing I'd add to a news site ... and then I'd starting writing FAQ lists about topics in the news."

Steve

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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 steve@planetarynews.com

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

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