Perhaps The Real Problem With Newspapers Is All That Extra Overhead…

from the cut-the-fat dept

We keep hearing from newspaper execs about how important it is to keep newspapers alive to fund all that important “investigative reporting.” The problem, of course, is that most newspapers don’t really do all that much investigative reporting. Hell, they don’t really do that much reporting at all. A few months back, we noted that a quick look at a variety of local newspapers all showed a very small number of locally produced stories (usually under 10) each day. All the rest were wire stories and other stuff — not much actual local reporting at all. As a whole bunch of you are sending in, Clay Shirky recently did a similar experiment, taking apart his local hometown newspaper, slicing the paper up into “news” and “other” categories, and finding that news was a small fraction. And most of the news was wire service. Actual locally produced news involved only six reporter bylines. In investigating further, he discovered that the paper only had six reporters — despite a staff of 59 people. And, yes, obviously many of those other roles are important — the editors, the printers, etc. But, at some point you have to question the claim that the “reporting” is so expensive. It certainly looks like there’s an awful lot of overhead and inefficiency built into the system. And that’s why newer news startups are able to succeed — because they don’t have that extra legacy layer of fat to deal with.

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Comments on “Perhaps The Real Problem With Newspapers Is All That Extra Overhead…”

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Twitch_ says:

double standards

Normally I’m right with you, but why didn’t you do some actual reporting here before publishing a story thats nearly all conjecture. Did you investigate how papers are actually run? Do any math on what it takes to keep six local reporters employed? I’m sorry, but slicing up a newspaper as some sort of pie-chart experiment is a gross over-simplification of the issue and sensationalistic. Newspapers are definitely on their way out if they don’t adapt, but if you want to be a serious journalist, and take their please, then please report like one. Thanks for your (normally very good) writing.

ChurchHatesTucker (profile) says:

Re: double standards

Um, what?

He’s reporting on Clay Shirky’s take on his old hometown newspaper. It’s a bit unconventional in places (weighing the news content, e.g.) but ultimately not a lot different than the breakdowns we’ve seen before.

So, is your problem ultimately with Mike, or with Clay? If the latter, don’t blame the former.

Twitch_ says:

Re: Re: double standards

its story about the value of investigative reporting without any real investigation on it own part. most of it is inference based on conjecture…thats bad reporting. Just because you *can* whip out a story on the web without doing any reporting means you should. how about some real numbers about newspaper overhead, salaries, paper and ink costs, energy consumption etc. Take the time to make the case. This story is lazy.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: double standards

Normally I’m right with you, but why didn’t you do some actual reporting here before publishing a story thats nearly all conjecture.

Because I’m not a reporter? I write opinion and analysis based on what’s being written about elsewhere. This post is no different than any of the other 35,000 posts I’ve done on Techdirt.

Did you investigate how papers are actually run?

No, but again, I don’t see why that would be necessary. Did you investigate how Techdirt is run before posting your broadside against us?

Do any math on what it takes to keep six local reporters employed?

Hmm. I did point to my earlier posts about other local news ventures who have just as many, if not more, local reporters, and much lower overhead.

I’m sorry, but slicing up a newspaper as some sort of pie-chart experiment is a gross over-simplification of the issue and sensationalistic.

So why aren’t you complaining to Clay Shirky? I was just writing about his experiment.

Newspapers are definitely on their way out if they don’t adapt, but if you want to be a serious journalist, and take their please, then please report like one.

I’m not a journalist. I don’t want to be a journalist.

Not sure what your anger is about here.

Uncle Slam says:

Classifieds = Profit

Ignore the peanut gallery and just keep on posting away Mike. You have a talent for stating things clearly, concisely and to the point and I don’t think you’ve had a single opinion that I didn’t share. Keep up the great work!

One area besides the “blogs vs news” that rarely seems to get a mention is the classifieds. Services such as Ebay and Craigslist have done much to eat away at this highly profitable revenue stream. I know as someone wanting to advertise something, Craigslist makes a ton more sense as it probably reaches a lot more people. The classifieds in a newsrag are often too expensive as well, especially if all you want to do is give something away for free or offer a service, such as shoveling snow.

Michael Turro (profile) says:


This one is a no-brianer – the acceptable overhead of the industrial era is an albatross in the information age. I have no idea why this is not a more widely acknowledged in the debate swirling around the newspaper crisis. I wrote a post that pointed this out when the Rocky Mountain News went down – I’ll include it here so you don’t have to jump out:

This video is illuminating. If you want to know – to really know – why the newspaper is a failing medium then just watch this report from the Rocky Mountain News. If you can see through the haze of nostalgia and self pity the answer is right there – it’s there in the swank office space, the big iron presses, the multitude of plasma displays, the headcount, the ingrained reactions that harken back to a previous technological era – this is a video of an organization that simply could not or would not accept the idea that the operational nature of what they do has changed.

Simply put – the market for news cannot support newsrooms that look like that anymore – at least not in any significant number. Going forward – as news gathering organizations come to terms with the fact that putting ink on paper everyday is killing them – that having hundreds of full time staff reporters is killing them – that the modern news gathering does not need to run on fat expense accounts and comfortable chairs – we will start to see these newsrooms shrink. The newsroom of the future will be a much more spartan affair – a smaller room, with fewer people – fewer televisions – less stuff. The newsroom – hell the entire news organization of the future – will be 25 smart people in a studio.

kyle clements (profile) says:

big think

Overhead is part of it.
the other part is the reporters who don’t even report anymore.

On YouTube, there is an interesting piece by “Gay Talese” called “How the Tape Recorder Killed Journalism”.

He talks about reporting in the past, where reporters would spend day-even weeks on a subject, follow them, explore the environment, talk to their friends/associates, research, etc.
Then the tape recorder was invented, now ‘reporting’ consists of waiting for the subject to visit your town, turn on the recorder, ask a few questions, then make a transcript of the interview. That’s not reporting, that is interviewing.
This lets news orginizations save a considerable amount of time and money, and it allows them to get away with keeping fewer reporters on staff.

It also means that most of what the report on is topical fluff without much substance to it, and isn’t very interesting to the reader.

Bloggers seem to write about stuff they are very passionate about. Or, something they have experienced directly. They have almost gone back to what reporting used to be.

Fred McTaker (profile) says:

Re: Unions

The “Worker UNIONS” you blame are a direct and natural result of the main layer of fat in the traditional news industry: Industrial Mass News production, and the resulting treatment of workers as replaceable chattel. I generally consider myself fairly libertarian, but when Corporatist “Conservatives” and “Libertarians” rattle on about the bane of Unions, I just think it’s their own fault and they deserve every problem Unions create for them. Corporatists made the political will for Unions possible, via their extreme disregard for the labor that makes their business operations possible. I’m no Communist, in that I think a means for equitable reimbursement for value improvements in any given line of business are possible within the bounds of Secular Democratic Capitalism (yes there are many forms of non-Democratic capitalism, usually called Fascism, or China), with the help of government-enforced accounting transparency. But I also think any industry ‘plagued’ by Unions deserves everything Unions impose on them, because it was their own unethical behavior that provoked unionization. Treat your most valuable assets like loyal employees correctly, and you wont get the same problems. Any business under ‘threat’ of unionization should concentrate on the same problems the Unions are attempting to solve, rather than setting up the Unions as straw-men for baseless and counter-productive attacks on their own staff.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Unions

Nice diatribe… but your comments do nothing to suggest future corrective action. Many industries and organizations are NOW suffering some pretty extreme results of having the union control more than worker benefits (by extension the union’s demands have a direct effect on corporate policies and profit margins).

It is somewhat pointless for you to wax eloquently about what an industry ‘deserves’ when the actions that led to the unionization occurred in a different technological era and were caused by completely different corporate leaders. This is like suggesting France should be in constant political turmoil forever because of the French Revolution. Progress demands REEVALUATION and FORECASTING, not making decisions by pure hindsight.

zenasprime (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Unions

I believe he did provide future corrective action… If you are a business, treat your employees with respect and compensate them fairly and you will not have to deal with unions. Unions do not just spontaneously appear in the labor market. They are the result of labor attempting to balance out a market that does not reflect their best interests. Without the support of labor, unions fail.

What people tend to recognizes in their distrust of unions are scenarios where there is deeply entrenched corruption. This corruption tends to stem from the collusion of forces (both union and corporate) to give the appearance of balance but is in really a carefully orchestrated scam set up by those forces to profit from the labor versus employer tensions and in fact perpetuate them intentionally such that it remains profitable for those directly involved in their mediation.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Unions

“Unions do not just spontaneously appear in the labor market.”

Maybe you missed it, but there are unions already in existence in labor markets. Doing things that prevent them from appearing does not count as a ‘corrective action’ for the future…

At least you address the collusion issue which is (I feel) at the heart of the continued existence of all unions today. Removing the union’s strangle-hold on the corporation requires fixing both the corruption AND the market and legislative pressure to keep the union in place. Simply treating the workers fairly is not a viable (i.e. going to be effective) corrective action by itself.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

The Newspaper Staff is Much Smaller Than Its Masthead Would Suggest.

One of the things I notice, looking through the Columbia Tribune masthead, and reading some of the stories, is that a lot of the people listed are part-timers. In many cases, they are very part-time part-timers. In many cases, their real jobs are listed. They have a story or a column filed every week, or every other week, or every month, and if they get paid at all, which they probably don’t, it is probably on the order of a couple of hundred dollars a month or so. As for the sports reporters, when there are no particulars whatsoever provided about someone, and he only publishes sporadically, that is apt to be a tip-off that he is a high-school or college student, an adjunct to the sports team in about the same sense as the cheerleaders. The staff list of fifty-nine people includes people who have not published anything in months. There are about four sports reporters who file something every day, the other seven being part-timers. There are twenty-three columnists, mostly part-timers, so the actual full-time strength is probably only about thirty people.

So let’s count the actual staff. There are one to four photographers (actual number unclear), and there seem to be about eight people who attend to the business of pasting the paper together, pulling down wire service content, syndicated material, etc., in short, blogging by other means, not to mention inserting advertisements. If anything, the single employee with the highest productivity seems to be the “wire editor,” the man who pastes in the AP content, who is effectively doing the same thing a blogger does, only with rather less competition. There are about four nonwriting editors. Thus the effective local journalist strength is something like fifteen, including four sportswriters, and the food, lifestyle, and business editors (writing). These last three will be doing a job shading off into selling advertising or doing PR, producing the kinds of features that local businesses would like to advertise in. They are also the effective supervisors of most of the columnists. One could easily imagine a local advertising agency taking all that work over, and placing a complete package consisting of advertising and food/lifestyle content, either releasing it to newspapers or just distributing it by direct mail. Now, of course, there will be additional employees in the advertising and circulation departments.

That gets us down to ten reporters who are really paid a full salary on a net basis, six hard news reporters and four sports reporters. The paper is _much_ smaller than it appears at first sight. What with one thing and another, the number of news reporters seems roughly commensurate with the proportion of local news versus other kinds of local content. There are also four nonwriting editors, and one can assume that they spend most of their time looking over the shoulders of the news reporters. It is probably a point of pride for them not to understand the advertising/lifestyle/foodie side of the paper. Granted, the nonwriting editors are probably paid more than the reporters, and it is doubtful whether so many are required. The paper notion of a “newshole” probably contributes to editorial infighting, and the operation of Parkinson’s law (“officials make work for each other”). That is, there is a definite space for people to fight over, whereas, in a web publication, everyone has his own indefinitely expansible directory, and it is an act of obvious malice to interfere with someone else’s story. Taken as a whole, it sounds as though the Columbia Tribune is fairly efficient, an advantage of being small. At a larger paper, there would probably be more tendency to rewrite national news from wire service reports without having any firsthand information, more editorial infighting, etc. The Tribune seems to have everything blog-enabled, and to have a fairly active blogger community. In short, it is hard to see what they are doing wrong, given that they have a daily paper edition.

Delivering a daily paper at all implies a certain minimum thickness, which means that, given the size of the town, the paper has to be heavily padded out with wire service material, syndicated material, etc. There might be a case for going to weekly publication, and downsizing to local content. There might be a case for going to a local glossy magazine, something which could be sold for a ten or twenty dollar annual subscription. The idea would be to print only so much material as one expects the reader to keep on an extended basis.

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