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.)

  • I think you’re missing somebody to do databases and web development. Sure we can train everybody, but there should be some kind of web ninja on staff who dreams in SQL and sweats HTML.

  • That doesn’t allow, though, say for the technology writer who could be an experienced tennis columnist (ahem) or similar cross-expertise stuff. If you started factoring those in, and asked people what their expertise is and throw that into the mix, you could have something even bigger.

    Also not shown: much greater use of automatic formatting of stories (means less people) and data mashing (means more people, with different expertise).

  • oh – the other thing that just struck me: *consistency*. Sure, pulling in opinion from all over is nice. But you need the quality to be consistent; and if (outside, non-paper) people are consistently good, won’t they want to get paid in line with the fact that you’re using them every week/day?

    Keeping the elephant dancing and the shark fed is trickier than it looks from outside, after all. As the old Guardian ad goes, “isn’t it funny how there’s just enough news to fill the paper every day?”

  • Steve Strasser

    Jeff, this is good – a real start. It’s a little bit like Jay Rosen’s idea for using pros to supervise amateurs. But your idea of Keeping pro reporters in the mix to cover beats etc. is a real step toward a hybrid system that essentially maintains journalistic values (as opposed to Rosen’s way of using amateurs and hobbyists to come up with the occasional gotcha).

    My main question is how a responsible journalistic organization – one that tries to be accurate, fair and transparent and to verify its reporting – polices its citizen journalism. How do you make sure the citizens aren’t feeding you biased, self-serving crap disguised as news, or even purer forms of bullshit designed entirely to make you look bad – like reporting a traffic accident that didn’t happen, for example?

    I was recently taken by an Internet video showing people popping pop corn with transmissions from their cell phones. I thought it was amazing and passed it on, only to be told later in a TV report that the video was a fraud produced by a company that makes headphones. At this point, I have no idea what the truth is. Should I believe the TV report? Who knows, these days, and “the conversation” isn’t going to clear up anything.

    Is it the role of your collaboration editors to (a) select amateurs/hobbyists who are seriously interested in producing real journalism and (b) to verify citizen reports?

    “The conversation” is very dynamic and fun and all that. But when you really want to know what’s happening and you want a news organization to sort it out for you, will these hybrid organizations fill the bill?

  • Charles – The Web economy rewards links. Culling the best opinion from around the Web is beneficial to both parties; The aggregator and the source both gain value from the link.

    Sure, if one of those writers wishes you to not link to them, so what? There are thousands more people to choose from. The aggregator still wins out, while the source is left alone on their island.

    The object that Jeff and others are getting at here is very similar to the open source movements. Distribute the work load into others pet projects. Then act as a manager to cull the best into something useful. It flattens the work load and, I believe, produces a much better product.

    None of this applies to print, though, which has a different set of rules (perceived or real; they are there and they won’t go away). But who cares about print? I sure don’t. All I care about is journalism, the media is just a distribution tool.

  • @Zac: the problem isn’t finding people, it’s finding people who are consistently good; else you’re always hopping around trying to find someone new *today* with a really good blog post about *insert topic here*. Which is why you find that op-eds in dailies (online or offline) are written by people who are expert in writing op-eds; it’s really difficult to find, say, ballet dancers who can write (or even speak well) about the ballet dancing topic du jour. Name whatever subject and it’s the *consistency* that’s hard to do.

    Which is perhaps the thing that pro journalists have: consistency. Bit like pro anything: able to do it again and again, well.

    That said, Jeff’s ideas are certainly interesting.

  • Steve,

    Key to this is that local allows you to have a relationship with the people. The way I put it at the Guardian a few weeks ago is that we need to curate people, not just content. And we need to know who the smart people are. (And in some cases, we may help make them better with — here’s where we come in – education.) That’s one answer.

    Another is that the community will help keep us/them (whatever) honest and that will feed into a trust system for everyone involved.

    Third answer, inspired by Jay: Some of the journalistic tasks will be limited in scope and easier to monitor, verify, etc. Example 1: I am one of 10 people who take pictures of a fire and so there’s plenty of verification that there is a fire and my picture looks like the others so we can bet mine’s OK. Example 2: WNYC had people report on the price of milk, lettuce, and beer from hundreds of NY stores. The outliers in that data — the $10 quart of milk — is either wrong or a damned good story; the bell curve helps.

    Oh, what the heck, one more: I have argued that the Washington Post should have offered all its departing journalists blogs with ad sales, hosting, etc. They cross the rubicon into citizenship but they are known commodities — hell, the Post helped establish their brands and train them — and they create an example for others. My point is that the lines between pro and amateur are already blurred and will only blur more. There may be a distinction between independent and employee but I’m not sure how that will survive.

    In the end, it’s not about the who, it’s about the what.

  • Hassan Hodges says: “some kind of web ninja on staff who dreams in SQL and sweats HTML.” WRONG!

    Your IT infrastructure is a COST of doing business. It is not a thing of value…

    Today’s newspaper invest in their web sites out of vanity and from an inability to get their heads out of the geographically defined markets of the past. They have a “local paper” so they assume they need a “local site.” Bull. Developing and maintaining a web site is expensive and reduces the funds available to support the journalism and community building. All but the largest papers should be sharing their websites, computer technology, etc. If you think you need SQL and HTML people on full-time staff, then you’re probably not understanding what it will take it succeed in the future.

    bob wyman

  • Bob,

    Keep going with that. Can Google host a paper’s web thing? Should papers band together? What are you thinking?

  • I forgot business sections. Freudian slip. Most of them suck already. See the discussion a few days earlier about papers getting rid of them.

    Also up for discussion is ending the taxonomy of newspapers and their staffs. To Charles’ point: who’s to say that a tech writer should write tennis? No one except an org chart.

  • Very stimulating, Jeff. But I still believe news wires will remain reliable providers of national and international news.

  • Eric,
    I agree. The question is the business model. I think AFP and the AP need to be freed up to take advantage of the link economy and make money via advertising. That means a consumer model v. a syndication model. But I think that when wires get out of the local business they won’t be competitive with their member papers. And then they become complementary, making the papers et al more efficient and even paying them for traffic sent (as Reuters is doing). I also think wires can aggregate and link to the best of original content — journalism at its source — without having to rewrite it, also becoming more efficient.

  • Great post, great ideas and I hope someone who makes decisions about this stuff is listening to you. Now – substitute the word ‘niche’ for the word ‘local’ and it starts all sorts of ideas for other media like magazines or televsion networks. I’d love to see this expanded and your Wiki idea is great.

  • Jeff: You asked: “Can Google host a paper’s web thing? ”

    Frankly, I think that would make a great deal of sense. Heck, an online paper isn’t much more than a complicated If Google can provide free hosting to the “citizen journalists” who are making life difficult for the newspapers, Google should be able to host the newspapers for free as well. The newspapers would certainly generate more revenue than cat pictures! The idea would be to have each “newsroom” focus on whatever it does best and then link them all together into a larger whole which is greater than the sum of the parts. Google has search engines, alert systems, video serving, annotations, database services, AppEngine, more scalability than you can imagine, etc…. Ideally, every newsroom would be able to think of Google, and all its capabilities, as their own. It just doesn’t make sense for hundreds or thousands of newspapers to try to craft their own versions of all this stuff.

    But, if Google doesn’t do this or, because of political issues can’t do it, then Yahoo! or Daylife or even the AP should do it instead. The point is that someone should provide a technology platform that serves as the “paper” for the new journalism and takes the “web site” expense line out of journalism’s budget. The web should be where a newsroom makes money — not where it spends it!

    In the old days, we needed lots of “local presses” since there was a limit to how far you could transport paper in a reasonable amount of time. But, the technology has changed. Today, we don’t need printing presses scattered around the country within a short distance of the readers. Web sites can be thousands of miles from their readers and are often, because of the way the Internet works, actually better sited at a distance from the writers. So, while we might have once needed one press for each newsroom, today, we can serve them all with one or a few web sites. On the other hand, we *still* need journalists scattered all over the place since the news is, and always will be, highly distributed.

    A rational industry would distribute the journalists and share the platform.

    bob wyman

  • Thanks for the vote of confidence Jeff.

    I wouldn’t call Spot Us bullshit, but it is “bullish.”

    Which is to say – I’m optimistic that, given the opportunity, the public will help fund investigations. Maybe even beats.

    But it is unexplored territory. While micro-donations are huge for Kiva or DonorsChoose (in the 10s of millions) we have yet to see if investigative journalism will be viewed as a social good worthy of donation.

    Still: If the Sandler Family has a right to donate 30 million – then the Smith family has a right to donate $30 towards journalism – all we need is an organizing platform.

  • Dave,
    I, too, am bullish. (All that’s bullshit above is my own calculations).

  • Bob Wyman. I still say keep web people, just make sure they are doing the right things.

    Databases from the state in archaic formats delivered only on CDs aren’t going to get themselves on the web. Making that information available to the public and the staff is adding value by creating unique content that a paper can run ads against.

    Reporting a large investigative piece with thousands of detailed locations and statistics is going to be a waste of time if all you produce at the end is a story and an agate list. Somebody needs to turn that into something engaging and interactive.

    I guess I’m arguing for more of a C.A.R. person.

    Agreed on treating website construction more as a utility than something you do in house. CIty water vs. backyard wells makes sense.

    Not agreed on the lack of a unique website though. That’s the soul of the brand and gives advertising something to sell against. Papers shouldn’t be reinventing the technological wheel* but they do need to make compelling websites. Without people to make those sites, papers are going to fall behind citizens who can.

    *unless they can make a better wheel: e.g.

  • Hassan Hodges writes: “a unique website… That’s the soul of the brand and gives advertising something to sell against.” But, that ain’t right…

    Brand is completely irrelevant when selling ads in newspapers.

    Advertisers buy audience — not brands. The only thing a newspaper’s “brand” tells you is what geography it covers and thus the brand gives you a hint about demographics of the audience. But, modern web sites can give you precisely the same information and more with greater accuracy. A shared site can build a larger aggregate audience than a local site can and a shared site can, by sharing links and content between its sections, even build a larger audience for local content than a local site can. Additionally, a shared site is much easier to do business with. Today, advertisers have to work hard to advertise on the plethora of local sites since they all have different ad serving software, style guides, rate cards, etc. A shared site presents more audience to the advertiser and does so in a way that it is easier to work with. Brand is irrelevant. Only the cost of reaching audience matters.

    The “Brand” of the local paper only existed as a result of the then dominant technology: i.e. ink on paper that had limited geographic scope. Because the expense of newspaper technology was high, virtually all papers become local monopolies. The reality is that very few newspapers have a brand that really means much other than what area they try to serve. The small number of newspapers that have actual brands (e.g. “New York Times”, “Wall Street Journal,” “USA Today”) are irrelevant when considering the needs of the 2,000 other newspapers in this country.

    bob wyman

  • I agree with Hodges – data is dirty. Someone is needed to clean it up, make it usable, make it findable. We need people whp know what databases our communities offer. How can we get for every community?

    I disagree with eliminating all lifestyles – there’s a place for local information, trendspotting, etc. The key is keeping it focused on local. The national trends start in someone’s backyard.
    I’d like to see some of the editing positions turned into community-building people. Or perhaps you see reporters doing some of that.

    I agree that many news organizations miss the boat when they don’t have the bought-out or retired journalists blogging. Look how many have started blogging on their own.

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  • Jeff, this is great, particularly the emphasis on beat reporting and the new community roles.

    I am banging on (and probably people are bored of me right now!) about the opportunities and responsibilities of reporting on climate change. I see the big structural changes needed in journalism as an opportunity to reinvent media to coordinate with the bigger structural change of moving to low-carbon living. We’re going to be spending more time locally, which is no bad thing. And there’s certain things you can only do locally, so why not do it as part of a community? Local/regional media can reinvent themselves with low-carbon living at the core of community media franchises.

    I’ve written about this a couple of times, the last one being a response to Cristine Russell’s great piece (also about how climate change has gotten under the skin of every beat) on the CJR.

    some of these thoughts are works in progress (or ‘bullshit’, to use your term), so all feedback welcome.

    — Alex Lockwood

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  • Damn, I hate to think about going down 30 percent.

    But if I started with your list in my market (Knoxville, TN), I think I’d shave a couple beat writers off and plug them in college sports. College sports in Knoxville, and in many SEC markets, is sports, business and community all rolled into one. I’d shift a couple or three collaboration editors to Web specialists, people that are doing great Web only content not easily done by beat writers.

    I think I could get by with maybe 1.5 to 2 less breaking news people (hey, beat writers can write breaking, too) and add them into copy editors/design.

    It would be a different world.

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  • Jeff’s analysis assumes consumers will continue to insist on heavily subsidized or free news. Our culture has grown up assuming that news is cheap and, now, even free. But the truth is, it’s expensive to produce well, no matter how thinly you try and slice the meat.

    A corollary idea is that anyone can be a journalist, as long as they have distribution. But if that were true, newspapers would be a lot cheaper to produce and would have no need to cut editorial staff. Good journalists demand good pay because they know their talents are rare. It’s a simple fact of business life, not a conspiracy of “elites.”

    We’re now seeing a long, thorough shakeout in the print news business. At some point, survivors will distinguish themselves and at that point, just as with all businesses that have real shakeouts, prices will rise significantly. Instead of getting stuff free on the Web, you’ll be paying for it. If you’re happy with low-quality journalism, you may not have to pay much, perhaps the fees will be low and the ads thick. The good stuff is going to cost you, though.

    A lot of people pay north of $50 a month for cable TV, and I have to think there’s enough people who, given a choice, would rather have a well-edited and written daily newspaper than 200 channels of TV, so would be willing to pay $50 a month.
    But those kinds of rates can only be charged once the dominant players like the NY Times etc. can no longer afford to give away their news for free. That may take a decade, but it is how this thing is going to shake out.

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  • I like zero-based exercises. We need to start talking about the ratio of ams to pros in the new economy of news and the “give/get” proposition that describes what the ams get for working with the pros and what they are expected to give.

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  • Jason

    Sports columns are one of my favorite parts of any newspaper — they’re good for link-attraction, as well.

  • National news – Rare local angle? Jeff, please. Love ya man but really. The local of national news, the react, the MOS, is the heartbeat of good national coverage. How is it playing in Des Moines? Shame on you, you know way better.

  • Guy Love

    News organizations have merged with entertainment. The National Enquirer coverage is the norm and very little substantial investigative reporting makes it to the public. At some point if no one is actually getting off their butt and beating the bushes for raw news from real sources, then even the blogosphere will suffer from a vacuum of new information. News organizations simply do not like doing the job they need to be doing. It isn’t sexy, it is hard work, and no one gives you kudos at the parties for airing the skeletons in the closet to the public.

    In the next 5 years, most of the newspapers will probably merge or go out of business. Who will do the real reporting? Who will actually take pride in grinding out the news in the trenches? One thing is for sure, the time is running out for them to figure it out.

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  • Beat reporting rocks. Opportunities abound to uncover wrongdoing, if the reporter has the support of his/her editors. Unfortunately, beat reporters often get the shaft, discouraging them from stepping out of the box and delivering news content that will make a difference for their papers. I say the time has come to send the Bob Woodwards to Pro Publica, and give the the local beat reporter a chance to shine. Their time has come.

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