Rescuing The Reporters

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.

40 Responses to “Rescuing The Reporters”

  1. Web News and Practical websites » Matt Kelly: How Can Mainstream Media Compete Online? Says:

    [...] topical sections (which focus domain weight and authority against core keywords), a slow & bloated business structure, and them treating business as though it is deserved (rather than [...]

  2. Kommunikationswandel: Die vier Subsysteme des Medienapparats — CARTA Says:

    [...] und all jene, die mitarbeiten, aber keinen journalistischen Mehrwert erzeugen – weil sie Agenturmeldungen kopieren, Bilderklickstrecken erfinden oder Suchmaschinen [...]

  3. Links 12-01-09 | nice day Says:

    [...] Clay Shirky performs a “news biopsy” of the Columbia Daily Tribune to separate the “iron core of news” from the other stuff and discusses the importance of reporters in the newsroom (as opposed to columnists, horoscopes, ap wire and the rest of the “other stuff”). 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 [...]

  4. Yvonne’s Stuff » Blog Archive » Missing in the Digital Age Says:

    [...] Shirky, C., Rescuing The Reporters. [...]

  5. Breaking News » If you outsource print production, are you still a newspaper? Says:

    [...] Reading Clay Shirkey looks at what we’re asking reporters to work on these days Jeff Jarvis states what may seem obvious from the outside: the future of journalism is [...]

  6. The Pay Wall Revolutions — Tech Capital Partners Blog Says:

    [...] obvious) and trust. The problem is that only a fraction of most newspaper content is unique (read Clay Shirky’s post on created vs acquired content) which greatly diminishes the value they provide. The competitive advantage does lie with the [...]

  7. My Garage Door Experts » Blog Archive » Reinventing the Newspaper Says:

    [...] the Newspaper Newspapers are dying.  Their business model is burning to the ground.  They cannot fend off the Internet and other threats despite their virtual monopoly [...]

  8. A Month’s Worth of Links About Newspapers - Unlikely Words - A blog of Boston, Providence, and the world Says:

    [...] and in attempting to determine the value of local newspapers, Clay Shirky decides to do a “news biopsy” on his hometown newspaper, the Columbia Daily Tribune. From his biopsy, he finds that only [...]

  9. De anatomie van het nieuws at Alper.nl Says:

    [...] schreef pas zijn anatomie van het nieuws in: “Rescuing the Reporters” waarin hij een krant ontleed in nieuws en restmateriaal en dan ook nog dat nieuws splitst in [...]

  10. Mine seneste bookmarks (19.09.09 – 27.10.09) - Morten Gade Says:

    [...] Rescuing The Reporters « Clay Shirky: (aamm medier ) [...]

  11. Non profit per una nuova democrazia delle informazioni - Yurait Social Blog Says:

    [...] nell’ ultimo post sul suo blog “Rescuing The Reporters”, dove , sempre alla ricerca di un “business model” possibile per i giornali, narra   [...]

  12. Daniel Sinker: Old Enough to Know Better, Young Enough to Pretend: Can the Chicago News Cooperative Succeed? – MR PC EASY Says:

    [...] editorial staff of nine to 12, with content partnerships at quality news shops in the city — sounds right, and as long as they don’t chase the paywall dragon, a Web site that covers Chicago politics [...]

  13. Daniel Sinker: Old Enough to Know Better, Young Enough to Pretend: Can the Chicago News Cooperative succeed? | Yuvablog Says:

    [...] staff of nine to twelve, with content partnerships at quality news shops in the city–sounds right, and as long as they don’t chase the paywall dragon, a website that covers Chicago politics [...]

  14. toque blog » Blog Archive » Daniel Sinker: Old Enough to Know Better, Young Enough to Pretend: Can the Chicago News Cooperative succeed? Says:

    [...] editorial staff of nine to twelve, with content partnerships at quality news shops in the city–sounds right, and as long as they don’t chase the paywall dragon, a website that covers Chicago politics smartly [...]

  15. Watchdog blog roundup for 10-21-09 | John Tedesco Says:

    [...] Clay Shirky: Shirky performs a news biopsy of his local paper. How much was the “iron core” of real news, and how much was fluff? Share and Enjoy: [...]

  16. MISCmedia » Blog Archive » WHERE’S THE NEWS? Says:

    [...] Clay Shirky uses this concept to conclude his old hometown paper in Columbia, MO has, at most, a dozen employees providing the really essential reportage. Therefore, Shirky continues, any nonprofit news entity for a Columbia-sized metro area (in print and/or online) need only subsidize that dozen people’s work. The rest of a newspaper’s product (including local commentary, local arts, and local sports) could be left to live or die by the whim of the free market or the passion of unpaid bloggers. [...]

  17. Marc Cooper » Blog Archive » Shirky Does Newspaper Biopsy: Terminal Says:

    [...] great piece by Clay Shirky. I mean, if newspapers fail, who’s gonneabe left to write horoscope, get local high school football [...]

  18. Läsvärt – 07 October 2009 | Distribution och intäkter i nya medier Says:

    [...] Rescuing The Reporters « Clay ShirkyDet är mycket prat om undersökande reportage och nyhetsrapportering i demokratins namn som riskerar att försvinna om tidningarna inte överlever. Här river Clay Shirky isär en tidning och och noterar att bara 6 av 59 i personalen faktiskt arbetar med att producera nyheter. Fantastisk avslutning med tankeställaren: hur räddar vi dessa reportrar ur en brinnande affärsmodell? [...]

  19. Är tidningarnas kärnkompetens att göra papperstidningar? | Distribution och intäkter i nya medier Says:

    [...] Om kärnkompetensen är att skapa papperstidningar ligger man riktigt illa till (se t.ex. Clay Shirkys exempel där 6 av 59 personer på en tidning sysslade med nyhetsrapportering och resten arbetade på att [...]

  20. This week in media musings: Piling on the Post’s new social media guidelines | Mark Coddington Says:

    [...] In the wake of his talk last week at Harvard, Clay Shirky did a “news biopsy” on his hometown paper, the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune. The results were depressing: He found only [...]

  21. Interesting elsewhere – 1-4 October 2009 | Public Strategist Says:

    [...] Rescuing The Reporters « Clay Shirky [...]

  22. Michael Nielsen » Biweekly links for 10/05/2009 Says:

    [...] Rescuing The Reporters « Clay Shirky [...]

  23. Stumblers.net › Rescuing The Reporters Says:

    [...] Rescuing The Reporters « Clay Shirky. Share and [...]

  24. google » Google CEO Eric Schmidt On Newspapers & Journalism Says:

    [...] His comments are well worth reading for more on this topic. Shirky also has an interesting dissection of a local paper, looking at how few on a large payroll are actually involved in the [...]

  25. Slicing up the local newspaper : Core Economics Says:

    [...] Clay Shirky decided to measure (literally) the content of a local newspaper. 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: [...]

  26. You Get The . Info » Perhaps The Real Problem With Newspapers Is All That Extra Overhead… – 1708th Edition Says:

    [...] at all. As a whole bunch of you are sending in, Clay Shirky recently did a similar experiment, taking apart his local hometown newspaper, slicing the paper up into “news” and “other” categories, and finding that [...]

  27. Google CEO Eric Schmidt On Newspapers & Journalism Says:

    [...] His comments are well worth reading for more on this topic. Shirky also has an interesting dissection of a local paper, looking at how few on a large payroll are actually involved in the [...]

  28. Perhaps The Real Problem With Newspapers Is All That Extra Overhead… | dv8-designs Says:

    [...] at all. As a whole bunch of you are sending in, Clay Shirky recently did a similar experiment, taking apart his local hometown newspaper, slicing the paper up into “news” and “other” categories, and finding that [...]

  29. Rescuing The Reporters « Clay Shirky Says:

    [...] See the original post here: Rescuing The Reporters « Clay Shirky [...]

  30. Tweetlinks, 10-02-09 [A Blog Around The Clock] « Technology Blogs Says:

    [...] Rescuing The Reporters – Clay Shirky counts the number of news stories produced by his hometown paper with a staff of 59 – 9 stories by all 6 of their reporters. Similar to what Jay Rosen did recently. [...]

  31. Perhaps The Real Problem With Newspapers Is All That Extra Overhead… | Geek News and Musings Says:

    [...] at all. As a whole bunch of you are sending in, Clay Shirky recently did a similar experiment, taking apart his local hometown newspaper, slicing the paper up into “news” and “other” categories, and finding that [...]

  32. Daily Lifestream Digest for 2009-10-02 | Jonathan Coffman - Lifestream Says:

    [...] Shared a link on Google Reader. Rescuing The Reporters [...]

  33. Perhaps The Real Problem With Newspapers Is All That Extra Overhead… | PHP Hosts Says:

    [...] at all. As a whole bunch of you are sending in, Clay Shirky recently did a similar experiment, taking apart his local hometown newspaper, slicing the paper up into “news” and “other” categories, and finding that [...]

  34. aggregate, filter and connect « Business Models « Innovation Leadership Network Says:

    [...] Shirky just posted his latest thoughts on news business models. He did some analysis of the original content in his local newspaper, and [...]

  35. Peoria Pundit » Too many chiefs, not enough braves Says:

    [...] to know one reason why newspapers are dying? Conside4r what media commentator Clay Shirky found when he looked at how much real staff-written news could be found in his hometown paper, the [...]

  36. How Much Hard News Can A Market Support? | Matters of Varying Insignificance Says:

    [...] critic Clay Shirky recently conducted a study in which he literally weighed how much local hard news his hometown paper, the Columbia Daily [...]

  37. Rescue Me: Local News Reporters Trapped Inside a Burning Business Model « LocalNewser Says:

    [...] Shirky steps up today with an insightful experiment that clears the decks and gives us a new way of looking at just what we truly need to save in local [...]

  38. Berkman Center Events & Webcasts » Blog Archive » Clay Shirky on Internet Issues Facing Newspapers Says:

    [...] also blogged about the talk and did a ‘news biopsy’ at his blog: After the talk, I decided to do a “news biopsy,” as a way of thinking about [...]

  39. INDEX // mb - A Commando Raid on Book Talent Or The Surge Says:

    [...] Shirky did a biopsy on his local paper and found (among other things)… Only six reporters filed news stories that day because the [...]

  40. Journalism as capitalism | News Innovation Says:

    [...] should find ways to support them and their work in profitable enterprises. So, in a rare moment, I disagree with Clay Shirky that we must rescue reporters as charities. This call continues the notion that [...]

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