A biz reporter with a financial incentive in his work

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TALKING BIZ NEWS EXCLUSIVE

Bill Freehling, a business reporter at the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star in Virginia, is part of a business journalism experiment.

Last month, Freehling began producing a daily business news e-mail that goes out to people who sign up.  Such e-mails are common among business news operations, but what makes Freehling’s situation different is that he is getting a percentage of the revenue produced by the advertising in the e-mail.

If successful, the arrangement could become common on other business news desks as traditional media organizations seek ways to compensate employees for additional work that competes with new media such as blogs and other forms of alternative delivery.

Freehling has been with the paper since 2004 and became a business reporter in 2007.  Previously, he had stints at The Outer Banks Sentinel in Nags Head, N.C., and The News & Advance in Lynchburg, Va.

Freehling, who received an undergraduate degree from Wake Forest University and a master’s from UNC-Chapel Hill, talked with Talking Biz News via e-mail on Tuesday morning about his job and his financial arrangement with his newspaper. What follows is an edited transcript. The picture below shows him on Wall Street in New York.

How did you get interested in business reporting?

My father taught me about investing and gave me a little money to play with in the stock market. I’ve been interested ever since. I started reading voraciously about investing and business in 2004ish when I decided I wanted to handle my own finances. I started writing a column on personal finance and investing for The Free Lance-Star sometime around 2007, and when a full-time opening came up on the business team later that year I jumped in.

How big is the Fredericksburg business desk?

Not big. We have an editor and two full-time reporters, myself being one of them. We also get occasional contributions from other writers.

What types of stories are you covering on a daily basis?

I do most of the local data-tracking stories — taxable sales, vehicle registrations, unemployment rates, housing, building permits, vacancy rates, etc. I write a good bit about real estate both on the commercial and residential sides. I cover new businesses coming to the region. I track bankruptcies, civil court cases, patents won and a host of other minutiae that serves the die-hard readers. I also cover a lot of trend stories and have a column on investing. In other words, it pretty well runs the gamut.

How do you decide what goes in the paper and what you blog?

It’s always a challenge. I typically use the blog for breaking news that will later be developed into a newspaper article. I also use the blog for posting data, documents, photos, video and others things that lend themselves to that medium. Just about any story of consequence that is mentioned on my blog will also go in the paper in a longer, more-developed form.

You’re also producing a daily e-mail. What goes into that?

I just started that — Fredericksburg Business Insider — in late January. It involves four sections — local business news, Virginia and DC, national and international, and entrepreneurship and personal finance. Every day (early in the morning, I send it by 7 a.m.), I load relevant stories, descriptions and URLs into the e-mail. So I am always mindful of what content I have for the next day, and it motivates me to produce more items myself that I can link to.

Tell me about the financial arrangement you have with the paper regarding the e-mail.

I don’t want to get into the details, but I will say I have an incentive arrangement whereby I make a percentage of the revenue from the product on top of my base salary. It is akin to a commission structure.

How did you get them to agree to that?

I basically proposed it as a low-risk way for them to add revenue to the bottom line. I didn’t ask for or want any salary increase for the additional workload. I just wanted to benefit off any new revenue that my hard work was bringing the company. If it prospered, we both benefited. If it didn’t prosper, nobody was out anything. The executive committee agreed to it.

Are there other ways you can make additional income in partnership with the paper?

Not right now, but perhaps in the future.

It seems like you’re doing a lot every day. How do you prioritize?

It seems like that to me also. I basically try to do as much as I can, but I always make producing content the focus. That is my primary job, and if I don’t do it well the newspaper, blog and e-mail are worse for it. From about 5 a.m. until 7 a.m. each weekday, I focus on producing the e-mail.

Do you think such arrangements are the future for newspapers?

I think they play a role, definitely. I think such a structure attracts people with an entrepreneurial spirit who want to be rewarded based on performance. I think incentives drive excellence in all work environments, and there is no reason reporters can’t be in that same boat. I don’t think all reporters need to enter into these type of arrangements. There are many fantastic reporters who aren’t interested in this sort of thing. But I do think it should be part of newspapers’ arsenals.

I think newspapers have a tremendous opportunity to spin off these types of niche products to targeted audiences. Judging from our experience in the first month, they are very well received both by advertisers and subscribers. If newspapers don’t do these sorts of products, their competitors likely will. But papers have huge advantages over start-ups — including trusted brand names, institutional knowledge, marketing heft and large staffs that know how to do everything needed to get these digital products up and running.

Anything else?

I think the fact that my company is independent and family-owned contributed to its willingness to give this a shot. In a bigger, publicly traded company there would have been more red tape standing in the way.