December 23, 2004

Rethinking the News Factory (Again)

Doug Fisher, who teaches journalism in South Carolina and blogs at Commonsense Journalism, responds to one of my plaints about the dearth of newsroom innovation with a strong argument that because newspapering remains a manufacturing industry there are "severe financial disincentives" for publishers to retool the news factory into a more flexible model.

Doug is spot on in noting that separating a publisher from his or her money can be harder than finding fresh news at a presidential press conference, and he is equally correct in pointing out that newspapers have millions invested in legacy printing and distribution systems that are more inflexible than a copy desk chief on deadline, but I think he overlooks a couple of points.

First, it may be wishful thinking to suggest, as Doug does, that innovation will arrive at newspapers when full depreciation is realized on hefty capital investments made in the '80s and '90s. There are many people more knowledgeable about this end of the business than I, but this story, from April 2003, suggests that newspaper companies continue to make large-scale investments in printing and distribution facilities. Here's a snip:

"Among capital projects completed or announced (in recent years): $72 million at The Indianapolis Star; $125 million at the Omaha World-Herald; $85 million for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky.; $199 million at The Kansas City Star; $90 million at the Dayton Daily News; $52 million at The Des Moines Register; $170 million at the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News; $115 million at the Chicago Sun-Times; $50 million for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago; $38 million at The Buffalo News; $82 million at The Honolulu Advertiser.

"All of which, despite the fears generated by the Internet in the late '90s, represents a vote of confidence in print and paper." (Emphasis added.)

And why wouldn't newspaper companies continue to pour hundreds of millions into these systems? The ROI has, and continues to be, substantial. In the same story, venerable (and ubiquitous) newspaper industry analyst John Morton points out that in 2002, a sorry year for advertising, newspaper companies still "managed to bring in average operating profits of 22%."

Newspaper publishers, and stockholders, remain expectant of such returns even though the long-term forecast for the print circulation base and advertising revenue is grim.

In the current issue of Columbia Journalism Review, Philip Meyer, a University of North Carolina journalism professor and longtime proponent of the theory that quality journalism can produce healthy - if not astronomic - financial returns, posits that the problem is mindset, both on the part of the journalists who think more money from the publisher will cure what ails them and on the part of the publisher who blindly pours millions into a business model that has been fatally undermined by economic, social and technological changes. Meyer writes in his article "Saving Journalism" (Emphasis added.):

"Newspaper old-timers like me tend to blame the business side. All that is required to restore journalism to its golden age, we are tempted to say, is for the greedy investors and their bean counters to retire from the scene and allow themselves to be replaced by people more like the philosopher-king publishers of yore. Great journalism would draw great audiences again.

"But those guys aren't coming back. Their business model has been irreversibly undermined by new technology. The only way to save journalism is to develop a new model that finds profit in truth, vigilance, and social responsibility.

"As monopolists or near-monopolists, the publishers of the last century enjoyed abnormally high profit margins: 20 percent to 40 percent. Newspaper companies might believe that those abnormal margins are their birthright, but they're not. High-quality journalism is still economically feasible, but it will never again be as profitable. The real problem is adjusting to profit levels that are normal for competitive markets."

The mechanical nature of newspapering, and the production demands it compels, also infects the priorities of the newsroom. In February 2003, in another piece about Meyer, I wrote:

"The technology transfer of the last two decades that brought the backshop into the newsroom created an assembly-line environment on news and production desks that emphasizes speed over quality, and the development of secondary news products such as zoned editions means these news-hole beasts must be fed, resulting in demand for breadth (quantity) over depth (quality)." [Read: Shutting Down the News Factory.]

In other words, news managers, sometimes driven by advertising initiatives, make staffing and budget allocation choices that result in poor quality journalism. More stories are usually seen as better than fewer, even if most of the stories are mediocre reports on institutional events. Fewer editors are often seen as better than more because it means more writers on the hoof, even if stories get less attention and reporters receive no feedback.

Journalists cannot make legacy publishing systems the culprit for these conditions. This system is of their own making.

Nor can journalists blame publishers for the continued adherence to this regimented newsroom system. Publisher don't really care who covers what as long as the end product makes money. Editors must ask themselves: If I were to configure this newsroom from scratch, would I put it together the same way? This is a hard question and requires serious choices, but if editors are not asking it of themselves then they are not leading the paper along an intentional path; they are, insteadc, merely presiding over its accidental direction. [Read: Intentional Journalism.]

The pressroom and the mailroom don't affect newsroom decisions about coverage priorities, story forms, reader involvement, transparency of editorial process, creation of platform-agnostic content and what type of person is hired. Those calls are made by the journalists. Yes, the news factory mindset colors those decisions, but freeing themselves - deliberately and with intended consequences in mind - is the very challenge that confounds most newspaper journalists. The battle must be fought - and won - in the minds of the journalists before it can be taken to the pocketbooks of the publishers.

To pull from Philip Meyer one more time, in this case from the Quality Project, he believes that "a newspaper's main product is neither news nor information but influence." This is absolutely correct. The value of a newspaper is its relevance to the community it covers and until the editors and reporters in the newsrooms examine their own work through the eyes of that community then all the publisher's millions spent on hardware will be good money tossed after poor journalism.

Posted by Tim Porter at December 23, 2004 10:33 AM

Hi Tim, did you get my email about water in San Pablo Etla?
Billy (and Roberta)

Posted by: Billy McDonald on December 23, 2004 05:24 PM

Very well done, Tim-- as usual. I think you are close to figuring this puzzle out. Another factor affecting things: just to stay where they are now newspapers have to improve quality. What was good enough in a previous era is not nearly good enough today, and this is very hard for people in newsrooms to accept-- that you could be doing the same job you've been always doing and fail.

Posted by: Jay Rosen on December 24, 2004 06:17 AM


By now you are used to Jozef's stalking (smile)

Looks like I am not alone - Dan Gillmor on Grassroots Journalism
[New Year, New Role ...]

Happy New Year, Tim!

Look forward to your thought provoking stories and link ...

Posted by: Jozef Imrich on January 1, 2005 11:12 PM
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