Extra! News feeds you can use

No news is bad news. Everyone likes to be in the loop, feel like they're in the know. Including small business owners and their employees. Here's three strategies to circulate internet news that will keep your employees up to date about the business.
Written by Gregg Keizer, Contributor
No news is bad news.

Everyone likes to be in the loop, feel like they're in the know. Including small business owners and their employees.

Use the Internet? Then you probably use it, at least part of the time, to dig up news about the industry you serve, small business issues in general, or just general business news. An Arthur Anderson survey done earlier this year, for instance, noted that four out of ten small businesses regularly use the Net for research and to gather information.

I'm no different. I hit the Web every morning and cruise a score or so of news sites, looking for bits and briefs that pertain to my work. On average, I burn up about an hour each work day doing this.

That's okay -- I'm a sole proprietor, so if I don't do it, nobody will. But you don't want each of your employees to blow their first hour of the day gathering news. Here's a better idea: collect news, then disseminate it among your workers.

I've come up with three different news circulation strategies, all of which rely on e-mail -- the most effective information publishing mechanism for small businesses -- that make simple to collect and share with your employees news that they can use. (And if you aren't getting the most from electronic messaging, check out last week's column on making your e-mail more efficient.)

Copy URLs

The simplest way to keep employees up to speed on news is with the e-equivalent of a memo: e-mail. Nearly everyone, even small business owners tied to the past or workers who still think computers belong in science fiction movies, knows how to handle e-mail.

The idea, essentially, is for someone -- perhaps you, as owner and boss -- to pick and choose news for your employees to use by cruising favorite Web sites, copying the URL from that page, then pasting it into an e-mail message. After they've received your news mail, recipients simply click on the links you've assembled to steer their own Web browser to the right page.

Ideally, you'll want to create a template for this regular e-mail to save some time. This template can be as simple as a headline reading "Today's News," or as complex as an HTML-formatted view with your company's logo in the corner. In both Outlook Express and Outlook, you build templates by using the Stationery feature. If you have the time, accompany each URL you paste into the message with a one-sentence teaser or summary.

To send the message, create a mass mailing list with your e-mail client's group or list feature. That way you can send mail to everyone in the business by entering just one address.

Straight-forwards lists of URLs get across the message, but putting some spark in the news doesn't take much more effort. If your biz uses an e-mail client with HTML capabilities, you can copy content from Web pages and paste it into e-mail. In the next section I'll tell you how.

Create sophisticated news briefs

If you're using an e-mail client like Outlook and Outlook Express that can generate messages in HTML format, consider copying and pasting chunks of the Web page, not just a URL. When the e-mail is delivered, the links will be live, and the formatting will be more or less intact -- a box with several links on the original Web page will show as a box with those links in the e-mail message. Use this tactic to copy and paste entire news stories, lists of links to other stories, and even images that accompany articles.

You can do a better job of formatting these copy-and-paste constructions if you use Microsoft Word as your e-mail editor (assuming, of course, that you're using Microsoft Office and have Outlook as well). The process is the same: copy chunks from Web pages, and paste them into Word. But Word provides far more formatting options than does the typical e-mail client; for instance, you can resize some of the pasted elements and generate bullet lists. To use Word as the message editor for Outlook, choose Tools/Options, click the Mail Format tab, and check the Use Microsoft Word to edit e-mail messages box. (You can also use Word on the fly for just one message by choosing Actions/New Mail Message Using, then selecting Microsoft Word Document from the menu.)

My first two tactics make you do most of the work. How about a news tool that does the work for you? Fortunately, there are several free services that gather customized news. My pick? Keep reading.

Subscribe to news

Rather than produce daily e-mail news briefs yourself -- a time-consuming task no matter how you handle it -- you can simply direct employees to a Web site that meets your needs. If your business is in a narrow niche -- hazardous waste disposal, say -- you can try trade associations organized for your industry. General news sites may also have some news you can use.

But I'd head instead to one of the online news sites sponsored by services which let you customize news to suit your business. I use several off and on, including NewsAlert and Excite's NewsTracker, but the one I'd recommend is Individual.com, yet another free service. Individual lets you select your own news topics, which include industry-specific subjects ranging from healthcare services and insurance to real estate and retail. You can add several topics to your personalized news page, then browse through each simply by clicking on a link in the left navigational bar.

You can deliver Individual's custom news to your employees in several ways. To centralize your employees' access to news, customize Individual with relevant news, then e-mail everyone the username and password you created (and Individual's URL, of course) so that they can access the service, too. This is the smart strategy when you want to force-feed your workers some news, but don't want them wasting time coming up with their own personal page, or you're aren't not confident enough in their online abilities to turn them loose.

Alternately, you can instruct Individual to e-mail you the headlines in your selected topics, then use your e-mail client to forward that message to all your employees each morning. You might want to review the news, and perhaps edit the message to focus on news you think is most important.

The opposite approach would be to decentralize the news by just pointing employees at the Individual URL, and suggest that they create their own page. I like this idea, too, since it lets workers with specialized areas of expertise follow news pertinent to their position. Your human resource manager could, for instance, customize her Individual page to concentrate on human resource issues like recruiting, equal opportunity, and training.

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