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How NOT to Cope With Bloggers

October 9, 2008 

My passion for journalism keeps me in close touch with the newspaper industry, a business whose perilous decline I’ve documented through my Newspaper Death Watch blog. A trend has been playing out there recently that is relevant to anyone who is trying to cope with the new influence of citizen publishers on their market.

Nearly every major newspaper company has recently seen blogs spring up that speak to their problems and future. Among them are TellZell (Tribune Co.), McClatchy Watch (The McClatchy Co.) and The Gannett Blog (Gannett Co., Inc.) It’s the Gannett example that intrigues me most.

The independent Gannett Blog is written by Jim Hopkins, a former Gannett editor and reporter. It covers all kinds of topics related to Gannett’s business and its future. These days, that content includes a lot of speculation about layoffs and cutbacks at a company that recently announced it will cut 1,000 jobs, or about 3% of its workforce.

The Gannett Blog has gone viral in its quest to become a sounding board and information source for employees. Jim Hopkins recently revealed some traffic statistics: 91,000 visits and 189,000 page views in the last 30 days. That’s serious blog traffic, and much of it comes from Gannett employees who feel they can’t get a straight story from their employer. Gannett Blog has become the virtual watercooler for a company of 46,000 people.

The conundrum for Gannett is what to do about Hopkins. So far, it’s chosen a strategy of benign neglect. Tara Connell, Gannett’s chief spokesman (and interestingly, a former managing editor at USA Today) has gone almost silent recently as rumors have swirled about layoffs and cutbacks, Hopkins says. Meanwhile, traffic has grown. This post from two days ago has drawn more than 160 comments, many of them from people who identify themselves as Gannett employees. People are now actively trading rumors about layoffs at their individual newspapers, with Gannett blog functioning as the gathering point.

Gannett’s strategy is worse than “No comment.” Not only has the company not contributed its perspective to the flood of comments, it now barely even responds to Hopkins’ requests for information, he says. As the chorus of pleas for guidance from the company grows in volume, Gannett becomes more closed and insular. Gannett didn’t respond to my own requests for comment.

Gannett is approaching this problem in the worst way possible. Regardless of its opinion of bloggers and citizen journalists, the fact is that The Gannett Blog is drawing huge attention among the company’s own employees, who are the most valuable spokespeople it has. Gannett’s failure to respond to the speculation and allegations of this critical constituency has become almost as big a story as the company’s business problems.

In the new world of citizen-powered publishing, institutions have fewer places to hide than ever. Silence is an invitation to speculation, and individuals now have the means to state their opinions in a very public way. A better course of action for Gannett would be to respond to the comments posted by Jim Hopkins and his readers. Even if that response is a “no comment,” it’s at least an acknowledgement that their concerns are being noted.

You might argue that an engagement strategy is risky for a publicly traded company. That’s just wrong. Public companies live under all kinds of regulations, but there is nothing to prevent them from acknowledging that they care about and listen to the concerns of their stakeholders. Any comment is better than silence.

One of the great ironies of watching the newspaper industry collapse has been to see the same media icons that have long scolded institutions for their insularity become reclusive and inwardly focused when the spotlight is turned on them. Gannett Blog is exhibit A in how not to handle new influencers.

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