Newsroom economics

Where would you put your money in a newsroom?

We hear a lot of dread about the death of investigative journalism as newspapers shrink and perhaps die and losing journalism’s watchdog, birddog function would be something to fear. Here is the Washington Post’s list of top probes of 2007. If you listen to this talk, you’d think that half the budget of a news organization — and half our time reading their products — is devoted to investigations.

But think about it: How much is actually spend on investigative reporting in America? What proportion of the industry’s budget? Be honest: It’s tiny. One percent of a newspaper budget? In a room of 500 people, that’d be five reporters and in many cases that would be extremely generous. I’m not talking about the national papers or 60 Minutes, which depend more on unique reporting. I’m saying that a metro paper likely spends less, a small paper spends less to nothing, and TV news spends nothing.

So is it insane to think that investigative reporting — just investigative — could be supported by foundations and public contributions? No. Those who hope that white-knight foundations can buy and support whole papers are using dollars bills as rolling papers; they’re dreaming. But could donations support investigative projects in towns? Yes, and possibly more investigation than we see now. That is the promise of Pro Publica, by the way, and that is why it’s in warm water now for supporting probes not with struggling local newsrooms but with 60 Minutes.

To me, though, the real heart of value in a newsroom is beat reporting. That’s where the watchdogging comes in; that’s where stories worth investigating often emerge. That is the ongoing investment that a news organization makes in tracking government and the powerful, an investment that, it’s true, few unfunded and disorganized citizens could afford (though citizens can help beat reporters). So to me, beat reporting has high value and should get more investment in reorganized newsrooms.

At the same time, of course, newsrooms have to shrink and so they will take less investment. As most newsrooms shrink today, however, I often don’t see strategic planning that goes into the structure. Buyouts are offered; talented people leave (and I still say they should be offered a blog network); the rest move desks on the deck, and things keep going.

So I have been thinking about trying to ascribe value to various kinds of journalism to inform how newsrooms are reorganized. This has been on my mind as we get ready for a conference we’re holding at CUNY this October on new business models for news — (thank you, MacArthur Foundation) — which will end up with many models, I am sure. So I started sketching a strawman for a reconfigured news organization budget.

What follows us utter bullshit. Got that? I’m not saying this is accurate as to the current structure of newsrooms or what should follow. And I’m bad at spreadsheets. I just wanted to put something into little boxes to spark discussion. So I started with a fictional staffing of 100 people in a newsroom (or 100 percent of a current organization) and then cut 30 percent and moved things around.

(Here is a link to the spreadsheet on its own.)

The point of this exercise is only prioritization. Where you put your dollars is where you put your value. Money = mouth.
* So note that I increase spending on beat reporting.
* I increase investigative by 50 percent — but that still adds up to only 1.5 people or percent (and that’s probably generous, but I’m hoping for contributions just for some of that and I figure David Cohn will make that work at
* I devote 10 full-time-equivalents to payments to a distributed blog network of citizen and former professional reporters (though note that with different accounting, the bloggers would get a share of ad revenue sold on their pages and so the cost would actually be nil).
* I add seven collaboration editors to build, manage, and support this network.
* I didn’t quite get rid of copy/sub editors as Roy Greenslade predicts their demise (and I agree). But I figured they’d be needed to teach copyediting to staff and citizens for awhile.
* National and international are handled via links. Do what you do best and link to the rest.
* Photographers are still important so I didn’t cut their ranks much. But note that I did not create separate job lines for various media. That’s because everyone in the newsroom will be trained to and will make all media. And folks outside can contribute all media. Need a picture of that office building? Ask the community for it and pay for the best.
* Entertainment, lifestyle, and the fluffy stuff can be handled by community and links.
* Local sports is local so I invested in that. National sports is a link away and handled better there than at any local paper.
* Opinion writers? Hah. No shortage of them.

Let me say it again. It’s bullshit; many holes here. But it’s my stake in the ground to prioritize and ascribe a value to the functions of journalism. Yours?

Finally, note that this does not account for the total investment and value in journalism, which I believe is increasing as more and more people practice it. We can run a separate calculation looking at the declining proportion of journalistic value that will come from large journalistic organizations. Now those organizations might dread that number, too. But we shouldn’t, for the more sources we have providing more journalistic value, the better. Right?

: COLLABORATE: I now have a separate, collaborative version of the spreadsheet up that any of you can edit here. Sign into Google and make changes and then we can see who did what under the “revisions” tab. Let’s try to stick to the ground rules of taking 100 headcount (or 100 percent in a larger newsroom) and cutting that by 30. Leave comments, please, to explain your notions. (Thanks for Twitter pals for helping me see I could do this in the Amazing google Docs.)