Trimming newspaper fat v. meat

After Howard Kurtz issued what I characterized as the common, kneejerk newsroom response to threats of cutbacks — oh, woe is journalism; ah, what will become of investigative reporting? — many of us piled on to say that newsrooms are bloated and need cutting — or more to the point, need to cut the crap so they can focus on what matters. Kurtz responds , quoting Jack Shafer and me and saying:

Not to spoil a good food fight, but I don’t disagree with any of that. Some newspapers are overstaffed. Not all budget cuts are bad. Not every newspaper in America needs to have a reporter covering the White House, or London, or attending political conventions and writing the same pap as everyone else. What’s more, lest they suffer the fate of General Motors by churning out gas-guzzlers, they need to move more boldly into the digital age, which probably requires smaller newsrooms than in the past as print circulations decline.

Here comes the ‘but’ . . .

But many of the corporate executives ordering these cuts don’t care about finding innovative ways to cover the news; they just want to please Wall Street by getting the payroll down.

But shouldn’t it be up to the editors of these newspapers to find those innovative ways to cover the news and to help the institution and its value survive the transition to the new world? Instead, we see editors stomping their feet, refusing to cut back as if there is no need to, as if it’s just some big, bad, greedy biz guys — instead of a post-monopoly market reality — forcing them to fire. Kurtz continues:

Investigative reporting doesn’t just mean maintaining separate SWAT teams. Beat reporters do important digging all the time, but that requires having a few extra days or weeks to pursue leads and pore over records. If, in depleted newsrooms, they have to churn out copy every other hour, the chances that they’ll look into the mayor’s land deal or the congressman’s favors for big contributors are greatly diminished.

But who says that kind of reporting is what should be depleted? If editors have the good sense and foresight to get rid of what’s not needed, they can put their resources where they matter: into reporting. And they can also find new ways to report. Kurtz:

Newspapers — good ones, at least — do two things that, if their staffs shrivel, no TV station, Web site or blogger will be able to match. One is to provide detailed local coverage of schools, hospitals, zoning battles and town councils. The other is holding public officials and business executives accountable with aggressive investigative work.

No one is saying that bloggers will replace journalists; let’s eliminate that red herring from the playbook. But bloggers can help. And the truth is that most metro papers and many local papers do a terrible job covering local schools and town councils; bloggers and other cooperative efforts in networked journalism could, indeed, increase a paper’s coverage as never before possible. And as for investigative efforts: Yes, we need more. Yes, we need reporters doing more. But here, again, when you open up to help, you may be able to report in new ways. Witness the Porkbusters, et al outing of Senators Byrd’s and Stevens’ secret hold on Congressional accountability legislation. I’m not saying that will replace investigative staffs but it can help, if you let it. Kurtz concludes:

They are also tradition-encrusted places that need to become less cautious, less stuffy and less arrogant. But if the critics think that a starvation diet will somehow produce healthier reporting, they are fantasizing.

The fantasizing we see in in newsrooms that believe newspapers can and should continue with business-as-usual, that newsrooms need to be as big as they are to get their real job done, and that they are doing a good job now.

I continue to believe that cutbacks will force newspapers to decide what they really are. The brave, wise, and strategic editors will get rid of the crap and invest more in the kind of reporting Kurtz properly celebrates. The wussy, job-protecting editors will do just what we see them doing: whining.

: At the end of Kurtz’ response, a bold headline said, “End of discussion.” That took me aback. Cheeky, I thought until I saw that it was the subhead over the next item. This discussion is far from over.

: See also the response of Jeff Crigler of Voxant.

  • http://www.innovationsinnewspapers.com Juan Giner

    Jeff,

    “End of discussion” means I am not interest in yor opinions, ideas or comments.

    Well, he works for The Washington Post and CNN, not the best examples of interactive media.

    And as a “columnist” and not a blogger, he does not takes comments or questions from readers.

    He is is God.

    But he is wrong.

  • http://www.howardowens.com/ Howard Owens

    It should be noted that it seems that the newspapers doing the most cutting are the least innovative.

  • http://www.innovationsinnewspapers.com Juan Giner

    Howard,

    You are right.

    Only investing in your core business, and there is no more core business than the newsrooms, you will survive.

    Investing in the newsrooms means:

    First, get in the bus the right people.

    Second, get out the bus the wrong people.

    Third, seat in the right seats the right people.

    And then let´s discuss where are we going and if we need more people.

    Instead, newspapers are just cutting, cutting, cutting for the sake of the numbers, and no proper review of the quality of our talent is done, starting from the top.

    If you want to save money in a newsroom just fire some of the editors: with one bad editor out you can hire five young talented reporters and still make savings…

    HR is crucial, but in our newspapers it is just the legal department for hiring and firing.

    No progresive and creative HR policies.

    Talent, talent, talent is what we need.

  • Uncle Fester

    Somebody’s probably thought of this, but:

    I think a fine business model for newspapers would be to have a reporting staff of comprised heavily of stringers/volunteers/experts who work on a per-article basis.

    The paper’s full-time editorial employees would be fact checkers and re-write people.

    I am sure the argument will be that these folks are all biased, etc, but how bad can it be relative to the existing crop?

  • peter

    Yeah, reporters are so busy due to stiff staff cuts that they’re no longer able to host weekly programs on CNN (or cheerily be a talking head guest). Oh, wait…

  • Grumpy

    I work at a newspaper in Flyover Land where the cuts have gone from trimming fat and meat to hacking at the bone. The quality of the work we produce is rapidly falling off due to reporters’ lack of time to do anything of substance, our inability to attract and retain good candidates once they see what’s going on, and the poor morale that comes from working under such conditions. Ownership is doing this to squeeze more profits out, not comprehending they’re strangling the cash cow in the process.

    And Uncle Fester, there are huge problems with using the system you suggest — I know, because I’m an editor who has to use that type of a network to cover our extended publication area. Finding folks without an agenda who want to do the job is hard enough — finding ones with some degree of training and ability is even harder. Most “volunteer journalists” we see want to start off as columnists or cover something “fun” — not city council meetings, and not at the pay rates offered. Print journalism — at least off the coasts — is a pretty low-paying field, and part-time journalism pays even worse.

    Using that type of coverage model would require experienced people in a newsroom to do rewriting, and most experienced j-folks don’t want to play that game. Fact checking, while necessary, delays getting the copy into print (these “volunteers” already have trouble meeting deadlines because they have other jobs and responsibilities) and leads to complaints from readers that we’re not covering their communities in a timely fashion.

    It also exposes newspapers to huge liability concerns, depending on how the states’ they are in view the business arrangement between paper and “volunteer journalist.” My state views them as independent contractors, which shields us a bit, but I’m living in mortal terror of being sued when something wrong slips by us. I don’t have the same dread involving my full-time reporters, because they know if they screw up that badly it’s the end of their careers.

  • Uncle Fester

    Grumpy:

    I hope we can continue civilly after this- here goes, regardless.

    There are boatloads of bloggers reporting and commenting for free. Some subset will take happily take money for reporting on the Dumpwater City Council meeting.

    Don’t overstate the need for training. Their job is to bring back information. Your job is to display it. Lots of people have jobs involving the collection of information, and Strunk and White don’t figure in to what they do. You should care only about accuracy and completeness.

    J-school types don’t want to do rewrite? Too bad. Here’s a solution- make rewrite the highest paying job in the reporting cycle.

    Liability may be a strawman- someone will set up an AP-like feeder company for this, I think.

    I guess the bottom line is that all your concerns don’t matter- the world is moving on.

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