American Culture

Newspaper staffs at 34-year low. And news execs want us to pay for crappier 'content'?

Alan Mutter, writing at Reflections of a Newsosaur, put it succinctly:

The number of journalists working at U.S. newspapers today is at the lowest point since the American Society of News Editors began its annual newsroom census in 1978.

Newspapers now employ 40,600 editors and reporters vs. a peak of 56,900 in the pre-Internet year of 1990, according to the census released today. Thus, newsroom headcount has fallen by 28.6% from its modern-day high. [See the year-by-year table.]

When an industry charged with holding government accountable — government at all levels, from village council to the presidency — loses about 29 percent of the sheriffs on the beat, we have to wonder: Who’s minding the watchdog store? Fewer reporters with less experience are asking fewer questions about government and corporate decision making (and decision makers). That means the public has less credible information at its disposal to make wiser political and consumer decisions.

Yet all’s good, say newspaper execs. We’re leaner and meaner and still on the job. So, we should think, What, me worry?

But how can management claims of better reporting be true with such high losses in the newsroom?

Well, maybe we don’t need all those reporters. The internets have brought us more voices, more points of view, on many more issues. Right? And all credible. Right? Right?

After all, we do have “408 groups organized as Super PACs [that] have reported total receipts of $153,841,910 and total independent expenditures of $85,402,146 in the 2012 cycle” telling us how we ought to make political decisions. So we’re fine there, right?

And we have advertisers who spend upward of $240 billion a year telling us what to buy. So knowing what to buy is covered, too. Right?

And there’s a gazillion blogs of varied quality and ethical approaches to content ready to tell you anything — whether you want it or not. And those blogs are full of really competent people with great reporting and analytical experience, right? No need to sort through them all for credibility.

Perhaps we don’t need those nearly 57,000 reporters we had in 1990. Newspaper executives tell us the same thing each time they whack newsroom staffing through layoffs or “buyouts.” Don’t worry, they say: The news product won’t be compromised. Yep, a leaner, more efficient newsroom blending digital and print and broadcast and mobile doodads will be far more effective in telling readers what they want to know. After all, news execs have done plenty of readership surveys, so we can be assured that top management knows what we want to know. Hell, they could (and probably will) reduce newsroom ranks even further. Yep, technology makes content production more efficient.

But is that content always useful?

Newsrooms have lost a a significant base of talented and experienced journalists who used to tell us what we need to know. Newsroom ranks are thinner. Reporters are less experienced. And the salary structure in American newsrooms — the median salary reported is about $37,000 — isn’t likely to foster motivation for those who remain to enroll in the Jimmy Breslin School of Shoe Leather Reporting. A smartphone, apparently, is sufficient. Just text somebody.

Meanwhile, the industry that has literally thrown out the factory workers while pretending the factory’s running just fine, thank you, is busy trying to “monetize” what content it has left.

The industry, which has fought fiercely the notion of aggregation of its content by others, is climbing into bed with those sinners apparently turned saints. One is Zite:

Aiming to work more closely with top-tier publishers, the popular news reader Zite today unveiled a platform that will prominently highlight stories from its media partners.

Zite … is built around the concept of giving people personalized news in discrete subject sections like “technology,” “politics,” “sports,” and so on. People can choose as many sections as they like, and stories are algorithmically curated at least in part based on people’s feedback about whether they do or don’t like stories, publications, and even individual authors.

[U]sers will be able to add sections for the specific news outlets that have joined the program. The initial nine partners are The Huffington Post, VentureBeat, The Next Web, The Motley Fool, the Daily Beast, Bleacher Report, Fox Sports, HLNtv, and CNN, which purchased Zite last summer for a reported $20 million to $25 million.

The idea … was to come up with a new way to match up publishers’ content with readers. And the result of the platform is expected to be a lot of new eyeballs for those publishers.

Interesting that Zite rhymes with “lite.” Those algorithmical curations match readers’ desires — meaning what reader click-through rates say they want to know — with stories and other content. Lost in the curations is the editorial judgment that provides readers with what they need to know to operate successfully amid political, social, cultural, and economic chaos.

Newspaper managements are erecting more “paywalls” — that wonderfully inviting term surely chosen with care to charm readers into succumbing to the desire to subscribe. Pew estimates the number at 150 papers; the Associated Press says it’s nearer 300.

How can an intelligent reader who has followed news for years conclude she should pay for a product that has declined in quality and utility and has been given away for free for a decade and a half?

The newspaper industry, with rare exceptions like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, must rebuild its experienced reporting and editing workforce again before we’ll believe that what lies behind that paywall is worth the money. Too many errors of judgment and language-use lapses exist in the free product — especially in mobile apps. Those gaffes and outright inaccuracies won’t get many of us past the guilt of not subscribing to support good journalism. If good editing has fallen victim to cost cuts, some measure of “truth” lies in ruins as well.

Show us the good journalism first, the kind that once held governments and corporations accountable — but now too often merely mirrors the statements of flacks. Cover those corporations without fear or favor instead of kissing up to them to be “partners” in your monetizing efforts. Rebuild your newsrooms. Get reporters back into local school boards and town councils. Put a reporter back into the statehouse.

Show us the real goods. Then we’ll think about shelling out hard-earned money for your “product.”

6 replies »

  1. “Flat Earth News” by Nick Davies details how the British press declined in quality long before the internet, as the owners squeezed them for every penny of profit in the 80’s and 90’s. The newspapers got larger as journalists were worked harder and harder, with less time to investigate stories and ascertain facts. This led to increased reliance on wire stories (so every newspaper ran the same news) and press releases (So non-stories received more prominence than real stories).

    By now, about the only way you can get to be a journalist is by sucking up to the right people, or having parents rich and important enough to sponsor you whilst you work for free building up contacts and experience.

  2. I think you have the telescope backwards. The anomaly was professional, objective journalism. For most of history, journalism has been a slop bucket of a profession. It is now just returning to its ignoble, yellow journalism roots.

  3. As a person who spent a relatively small amount of time on deadline (7 years or so), I witnessed the very beginnings of the downfall of the newsroom. The internet held so much promise, but management squandered what I thought were some obvious opportunities. Instead of creating mirrored free content, they should have made a product that complemented the print edition. Space was increasingly becoming an issue. I can recall many times when I begged for two more inches (that’s what she said) for a story. I would have been perfectly happy with a web-only sidebar. The web should have been a place for the reader to go after they enjoyed their morning cup of coffee and paper to dig even deeper into the issue. Instead, web became a replacement. It wasn’t rocket science. Why should people pay for something they could easily get for free?

    Now, papers are throwing any shit at the wall to see what sticks. The industry has forced reporters to run around with cheap video cameras and no training trying to make web content, reporter-opined blogs that do nothing to further the story they wrote the day before, and other ill–conceived efforts to fix this problem. Reporters were always expected to be generalists, for the most part. Now, they must stretch themselves even thinner with fewer resources. So yes, content has suffered. The lack of content fueled public apathy, which fueled declining ad revenue, which fueled mass layoffs and closings.

    It’s not a pretty sight.

    Denny, you’re on the front line. I’m pulling for you and your students. You are in the awkward position of fighting to maintain the fundamentals while trying to check the pulse of an exceedingly erratic news industry heartbeat. I hope you find the cure.