Archive for October, 2009

Rescuing The Reporters

October 2, 2009

Last week I gave a talk on newspapers at the Shorenstein center. (They did an amazing job with the transcript, including annotating the talk with a remarkable amount of linking.) During the talk, I ran through various strategies for funding local reporting, including an idea I first saw articulated by Steve Coll that reporters should become employees of non-profit entities.

After the talk, I decided to do a “news biopsy,” as a way of thinking about Coll’s idea. I wanted to see how much newspaper content was what Alex Jones calls the iron core of news — reporters going after facts — and how much was “other stuff” — opinion columns, sports, astrology, weather, comics, everything that was neither a hard news story or an ad.

The paper I used was my old hometown paper, the Columbia Daily Tribune. It’s is a classic metro daily and pretty good paper for a town of 100,000, because The Missourian, the rival paper produced by the local journalism school, provides an unusual degree of competition for a town that size. I had several copies of the Trib lying around, having used it in a media class I teach at ITP; I took two copies of the August 27 edition, slit them down the spine, and made two piles, one with odd-numbered pages facing up, and the other with even-numbered pages facing up. (There was an insert about the upcoming football season, clearly a one-off, which I ignored.)

I then cut up each page, labeling every piece in two separate ways. The first label was about content: News, Ads, and Other (opinion columns, sports, crosswords, and the rest.) The only judgement call was an article in the sports section about a judge’s ruling in the Major League Baseball steroids case; I put that in the News pile; the rest of sports went in Other.

The second pair of labels was about source: Created or Acquired. Created content was whatever was written (or taken, in the case of photos) by Tribune staff, while acquired content was material from a wire service or database — news from the Associated Press, but also weather, comics, and so on.

Then I weighed the piles (in grams.) Once I had the weights, I ignored the ads — they are about half the paper, but not the half I care about — and did comparisons of the remaining content:

  • Created vs. Acquired: The content created by Tribune staff made up less than a third of the total; over two-thirds was acquired from other sources, including especially the AP.
  • News vs. Other: The paper was about one-third news and about two-thirds “Other” (and this is after ignoring the all-sports insert, tipping the balance in favor of news.)
  • Created News vs. everything else: News reported by the paper’s staff was less than a sixth of the total content of the paper (again, ignoring the insert, which tips the balance in favor of news.)

In other words, most of the substantive part of that day’s Trib wasn’t locally created, and most of it wasn’t news.

I don’t want to make specific claims for these numbers; I wouldn’t be surprised to see variations in the 2:1 ratios of Created to Acquired content, or of News to Other, either from day to day or paper to paper. However, I would be astonished if those ratios were to reverse — for a medium-sized metro daily to publish twice as much News as Other, or to create twice as much as it acquired — because the economics are tilted so strongly towards material other than news, and towards buying content vs. making it. (The AP provided most of that days news, and the cost of running a wire story is tiny compared to employing a beat reporter.)

More surprising to me, though, was the number of local reporters who had a byline for hard news in that day’s paper: Six. (Given that number, we can name them: Janese Heavin, T.J. Greaney, Brennan David, Terry Ganey, Jonathan Braden, and Jodie Jackson Jr.)

Now one can imagine all kinds of reasons why only six of the Tribune’s reporters filed news stories that day — August vacations, slow news day, all the other reporters were working on bigger stories. I guessed at all those reasons and more, and as it turns out, all those reasons were wrong — the most parsimonious explanation is the correct one. Only six reporters filed news stories that day because the Tribune only has six news reporters, out of a staff list of 59. Every one of them appeared in that day’s paper, with three (Ganey, Braden, and Jackson) filing two stories each

The Trib seems to realize the importance of local reporting to their readers. The outside of the paper (front and back page of section A) was all local bylines and no wire service news, while the inside had not one local news byline. (Local opinion, yes. Local sports, doubly yes. Locally reported news? No.) The local reporters were (expensive) lures, put on the outside of a product that included none of their work, and lots of the AP’s, on the inside pages.

And the other 53 masthead staff? There’s the publisher, of course, and the managing editor, as well as the copy chief, the librarian, a pair of city editors, and so on. Then there are columnists, lots and lots of columnists, writing columns like Granny’s Notes and Smile Awhile, Let’s Talk Antiques and Cookin’ with Hoss (Chicken wings end dinner plan bickering.) There are also eleven people covering sports, including one assigned just to cover the area high schools.

Now the half-dozen reporters covering the City Council and local crime instead of antiques and sports don’t do their work in a vacuum. The city desk editors and the copy chief make the work of Janese Heavin et al. more valuable than it would otherwise be. But you can pick any multiplier you like for necessary editorial and support staff and that number, times six reporters, won’t be a big number. In particular, it won’t be 59, or anywhere near it.

This is, I want to emphasize, the staff for a pretty good paper, in a competitive market. (Ann Arbor, another midwestern college town and just a bit larger than Columbia, doesn’t have a newspaper metro daily at all. [UPDATE: changed “newspaper” to “metro daily” because AnnArbor.com publishes in print on Thursdays and Sundays.) And there’s nothing wrong with reading your horoscope or being reminded by Granny that May really is one of the nicest months of the year. Anyone who wants to read that stuff should be able to.

But it’s not news, and it’s not hard to do, and it’s not hard to replace. No one surveying the changes the internet is bringing to the newspaper business is saying “My God, who will tell me about Big 12 football! Where will I find a recipe for spicy chicken wings!” What matters in the Tribune, and what’s at risk, is Terry Ganey’s work on a state coverup of elevated levels of E. Coli in Ozark lakes, Jonathan Braden on anti-gay protesters from Kansas picketing in Columbia, Jodie Jackson’s reporting of on a child molestation case against a local politician.

For people who see newspapers as whole institutions that need to be saved, their size (and not the just the dozens and dozens of people on the masthead, but everyone in business and operations as well) makes ideas like Coll’s seems like non-starters — we’re talking about a total workforce in the hundreds, so non-profit conversion seems crazy.

All that changes, though, if you start not from total head count but from a list of the people necessary for the production of Jones’ “iron core of news,” a list that, in the Columbia Daily Tribune’s case, would be something like a dozen. (To put this in perspective, KBIA, Columbia’s NPR affiliate, lists a staff of 20.)

Seen in that light, what’s needed for a non-profit news plan to work isn’t an institutional conversion, it’s a rescue operation. There are dozen or so reporters and editors in Columbia, Missouri, whose daily and public work is critical to the orderly functioning of that town, and those people are trapped inside a burning business model. With that framing of the problem, the question is how to get them out safely, and if that’s the question, Coll’s idea starts to look awfully good.