A Gut Punch Leads to a Newsroom Policy Manual – And Some Soul-Searching, Too

Steal this to prevent drinking.

A Gut Punch Leads to a Newsroom Policy Manual – And Some Soul-Searching, Too
Image by Adobe Stock Photography

By Emily Sachar

I couldn’t believe what my crackerjack cub reporter was telling me. As we sat at our staff lunch, a Friday ritual at our tiny Hudson Valley newspaper, the reporter’s phone rang. It was a source upon whom we both rely. And she was ready to assist my staffer with the feature assignment the staffer had accepted weeks earlier.

An assignment for a competitor.

On the very beat the staffer covers for The Daily Catch.

“You’re writing a story for whom on what?” the words, both incredulous and angry, tumbled out of my mouth. “On company time, no less?”

The staffer looked mystified. I was miffed.

I walked through an explanation of the meaning of “conflict of interest.” Then I instructed this kid, a true talent and not, I had ever thought, one of the naive or greedy ones, to:





The reporter said they would. I presumed they had.

But they had not.

Last Monday, this competitor – admittedly a monthly magazine, not a daily newspaper as we are – published its June issue. With the story by my staffer. With their byline. On their beat. Staring back at me in gut-punch fashion.

Hurried phone calls ensued. What didn’t the staffer understand about my admonition to “shut it down”? Did they mean to be insubordinate?

And then, I opened the newsroom policy manual I’d drafted months earlier. It included instructions on all sorts of practical matters. We introduced instructions for when a reporter should reach out to me during government meetings. We reminded staffers to wear their press badge at all times. The manual detailed the format for weekly beat notes, a ritual with which I’d grown up at Newsday on Long Island in the 1980s to alert my bosses to the stories I’d cover in the week ahead.

But nothing about conflicts of interest. Not one word about insubordination.

The blame for my staffer’s behavior rested with me, I had to concede, as much as with them.

I decided to drop everything, even as power lines were crashing to the ground during thunderous weather mayhem. Manuals turn out to be important, I realized. The news would have to wait.

“You want to make a little extra money on the side?” I will now query the cubs. Fine: Be a dog walker on your own time. Or be a Walmart greeter. But journalistic work without my permission? Verboten. And I’ll explain precisely why.

So, here I present, after legal review, our first employee handbook. It’s modest. But it will do the trick for now. AI played no role in its creation. And I will review it, line by line, in person, with each staffer who joins The Daily Catch in the years ahead.

Perhaps it will be helpful to you or to others you know. Feel free to use the content, in whole or in part, and adapt for your uses. 

Emily Sachar, an award-winning journalist several times over, is the Founder, Editor-in-Chief, and CEO of The Daily Catch, a nonprofit, nonpartisan online newspaper serving the Hudson Valley towns of Red Hook and Rhinebeck, New York. Read more at the Local News Blues contributors page.

You can find all of Local News Blues' hacks here.