Too many journalists

The accepted wisdom in the news biz is that you can never have too many journalists and that the ad and circ crunch hitting papers will hurt papers by reducing newsroom staff. I’ve been questioning that wisdom here.

But sitting on another darned panel yesterday, Chrystia Freeland, ME of the FT in the US, said it better than I have. We were singing two-party harmony as I wondered why every newspaper needs a movie critic when the movies aren’t local and she questioned the need for the Miami Herald to have its own Moscow bureau — back in the heyday when she was reporting there herself — to get that apparently unique Miami view of the USSR.

Then she said that news is “an industry with a lot of oversupply that is now exposed.” I liked that hard economic talk about the business. It reminds us that we are an industry and need to reexamine our business assumptions like every other industry.

So maybe the problem with journalism today isn’t that there are too few reporters and and editors but too many. I’ve talked before about the foolishness of sending 15,000 reporters to the political conventions, about papers sending TV critics to junkets or golf writers to tournaments. Inside the newsroom, too, there are overwrought processes. Meanwhile, of course, revenue is sinking and staff will follow.

But rather than treating this as an endless retrenchment, the ballsy editor would take this bull by the horns and undertake an aggressive reinvestment strategy. Why not cut that staff today? Find your essence — hint: it’s local, local, local. Streamline now to put out a better focused and better print product.

Then make a deal with the owners to take the saved labor expenses and invest them immediately in digital interaction. I don’t mean moving old copy editors over to online and teaching them HTML to join the spare staffs there. I mean hiring new people with new specialties: people to get out into the communities and recruit and help support citizens to join in networked reporting at a local, local, local level.

And then shame the publisher into doing likewise with a sales staff that has spent a generation maintaining ever-dwindling lists of advertisers and not really selling n ew business, since there isn’t any. Trim there, too. And there, too, don’t take an old classified sales guy and try to train him in online. Invest in technology and marketing to create your local Googles: extremely efficient and thus inexpensive self-service advertising for new classes of advertisers who could not afford your marketwide print or online products. Maybe recruit citizens to help sell you on commission. And build distributed at networks across citizens’ sites. More on the biz guys later.

I come back to Freeland’s very clear statement: We are in oversupply. It’s time — past time — to face that and act on it.

  • One of the popular theories these days is that we live in a winner-take-all society. The rewards of being number one are so great that it is worth investing to try to reach this.

    So, for example, a star baseball player will get millions while a second stringer barely gets a living wage (in the farm teams). The star gets the endorsement contracts and the earnings snowball.

    Perhaps media are in a similar situation and each needs to keep skin in the game in the hopes of getting to the top. Perhaps some reporter in the mob will get that scoop which allow his employer to be the winner and get all the revenue. We see the effect in the bidding wars for the celebrity baby pictures.

    The problem isn’t too many reporters, it’s too many bodies at press events picking up the PR handouts. There isn’t enough reporting at all. As Stephen Colbert has been saying recently “we (the government) report and you (the media) copy it down”, or words to that effect.

    How many real reporters does the average small city daily actually have?

  • I happen to agree. And, I’d say that in the case of over staffing and slow business death, the Tribune, often beaten like a anti-press dog gets it right. These words from Crains Chicago Business on 7/7:

    “The Baltimore Sun will close its South Africa and Moscow bureaus within 18 months, Editor Tim Franklin said Thursday. He said dramatic industry changes – led by the availability of international news online – had sparked the restructuring of overseas coverage.”

    (But, uh, there has been international news online for 10 years and why does it take 18 months to colose an office)

    “The changes also affect the Los Angeles Times and Newsday. In a memo to staff Thursday, Newsday Editor John Mancini said the paper’s bureaus in Beirut, Lebanon and Islamabad, Pakistan will not be staffed after the scheduled terms of reporters Mohamad Bazzi and Jim Rupertend end over the next two years. ”

    (That said, The LA Times will have to scrifice all of that Islamabad ad revenue.)

  • During the Clinton Whitewater “scandal” I happened to pass by the Federal courthouse where Hillary was testifying. Crowded around the entrance, waiting to cover her exit from the courthouse was over half a dozen satellite TV trucks and over 100 reporters, photographers and other members of the media.

    I concluded that the press was incredibly inefficient, since a few wire service people could cover all the “news” generated by her exit.

  • I have been doing communications work for a nonprofit for the last two years, and in all my other years of doing media work for grassroots community organizing campaigns, it is really shocking how little my releases differed from the stories in the paper. It worked often to my benefit, because whatever was in my press packets, is exactly what they printed, even if they didn’t come to the event itself.

    As a person about to enter an MA Journalism program, I worry about all this to some extent. Even though I know how to get an easy story that way, I also know there a thousands more stories to tell that don’t get told. I often wonder if there is room in the current “news” paradigm to tell the stories I see everyday in Brooklyn.

  • Claude B.

    Take the NYT for example. Do you know how a page is designed ? An art director puts the page together with Quark or In design. Then he prints the page. Then he gives the printed page to a “paginator”. Not the digital file… too simple, the piece of paper. Then the paginator builds the page again based on the design. Then the art director seats next to the paginator to correct the page. So to make it simple, they build the page twice… and that for, if I remember well, the entire newspaper. Of course, NYT it is not the only one in this situation.

  • Read The Guardian’s 1% Rule article.

    It’s an emerging rule of thumb that suggests that if you get a group of 100 people online then one will create content, 10 will “interact” with it (commenting or offering improvements) and the other 89 will just view it.

    I think it applies to journalists as well. In sales they have the 80/20 rule, collaborative news sites have lower entry barriers so the percentage of contributers is smaller but the fact remains. I’d rather a news organization hire a few brilliant writers (maybe even former bloggers) than a bunch of mediocre Russian cinema experts.

  • Think of the kids…?

    Raises an interesting question:

    So the news industry is in a state of oversupply. And the smart publisher would do well to cut redundant newsroom jobs in favor of “citizens … join[ing] in networked reporting at a local, local, local level.” For the sake of argument, let’s say you’re right on those points, Jeff. I’m interested to hear about the possible implications that has for journalism education.

    In other words, if the smart publisher moves toward the distributed newsroom that relies on citizen journalists, does the smart j-school dean give up the pretense that his program is providing a “professional” degree?

    I believe you’re on faculty at CUNY’s new j-school. Are you preparing your students to be citizen journalists or professional journalists? An MA would seem unnecessary for the former and useless if the latter are going the way of the dinosaurs.

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  • Marcy Burstiner

    I disagree that there are too many professional journalists. The problem is that too many journalists cover the same stories — thousands descending on Michael Jackson’s trial, for example. I’ve questioned for a long time the accepted assumption that competition is always good; in my experience, whenever I’ve worked on a paper where I had competition, my editors had me chasing stories that I wouldn’t have chased had we not feared the competition would have it first. Without competition, I was free to follow the stories I felt needed to be reported. And whenever the pack went one way, I felt I should go in the opposite direction. Why cover something if someone else can do it as good or better? But that attitude penalized me — those who were not only willing to go with the pack, but push ahead to the front of it were more highly valued on the news team.
    The other problem is that there does seem to be an oversupply of mediocre journalists and a shortage of really good ones, but I blame a system that rewards speed and quantity over quality and intelligent discourse.

    Marcy Burstiner

  • I agree with Marcy. To say that journalists are used for the wrong purpose is very different from saying there are too many journalists. In fact, many great stories in every community go uncovered for lack of resources.

  • Bob Denmore

    I don’t know where this idea of over-staffing came from. But the major Australian newspaper I work for has already cut its journalistic staff to the bone. And those that are left are contantly required to up their workloads – producing stories for ever-increasing sections and specials.

    So from my perspective the problem isn’t too many journalists, the problem is spreading the existing staff too thinly. With news now commoditised, media companies are turning into word factories staffed by worker bees who never leave the office.

    Teams of McKinsey consultants have been parading through newsrooms for the past decade, producing reports which advocate productivity improvements, multi-skilling and telephone journalism.

    Jeff Jarvis is getting it all about face. Sure, the foreign bureaux and over-paid anchor people are an extravagance. But he needs to look beyond those ego-driven extras to what actually happens on the newsroom floor at the less glamourous end of the industry.

    Advertising managers need to fill space. And the most efficient way to do that is with lazy, press kit rewrites, opinion columnists and syndicated material. Copy editors and beat reporters and news editors are chained to the desk, spewing forth millions of words for all these supplements.

    In the meantime, the ‘truth’ is out there unreported.

    Don’t blame the poor working journos. Blame the capitalists!

  • greeneyeshade

    Jeff keeps asking why every newspaper has to have a movie critic when movies aren’t local. I’d have thought the answer was obvious: This isn’t 50 journalists covering a courthouse news conference that one pool reporter could handle, this is a case where the more points of view, the better. Why depend on the New York Times, Newsweek or Entertainment Weekly?

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  • We sure do we waste the energy of journalists (writers, camera men and photographers) covering “news”, like the royal baby. This coupled with the prospect of citizen (unpaid of course) journalists makes the whole situation woefully pathetic. I wonder what the author of this article thinks today exactly 7 years later?