February 16, 2005

Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 9: Capacity Measures

All editors and reporters want to believe that putting more bodies in the newsroom means doing better journalism for the readers.

Sadly, that's not the case.

In this chapter of the "Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age," Philip Meyer looks for connections between the capacity of newspapers - the "tools" they have to do their jobs - and their success in the marketplace. As other researchers have before him, Meyer finds very little that is heartening to journalists who feel they might be able to reverse the decline in the circulation and influence in their newspapers by simply adding more troops to the trenches.

Meyer does unearth some good news:

 Newspapers that staff heavily more heavily than the norm - 1.18 journalists per 1,000 circulation - don't lose readers as quickly as other newspapers. And newspapers that spend the most on staff - about 1.7 journalists/1,000 circulation - manage to stay even with circulation.

 Newspapers "that maintained or reduced staff" between 1995 and 2000 "lost significantly more circulation" than papers that increased spending on staff. Although, as Meyer points out, "we have no way of knowing which came first: the staff loss or the circulation decline.

Of course, outside of this slim silver lining looms a dark gray cloud. Notice that neither of these findings points to increases in circulation but rather to conditions that may slow circulation loss.

Also worth reading if you haven't already is Rick Edmonds' work for the Poynter Institute, which searched for connections between staff size and quality, and for differences between the newsroom funding of private and public companies. The studies cited by Meyer are "Lifting the Veil on Newsroom Staffing" and "Public Companies No Worse Than Private." Meyer summarizes:

 Lifting the Veil: "The results were ambiguous. When he looked at nineteen of the twenty-one highest-ranking papers in the Columbia poll, thirteen were above average in staffing and six were below."

 Public Companies: "The conventional wisdom was supported: independent papers had the best staffing, and private chains were better than publicly held chains. But the differences were small. When he looked for evidence of large-scale staff reductions, the results were equally ambiguous. the publicly owned newspapers among the twenty-two that Edmonds looked at actually cut less than those that were privately held."

The number of journalists in a newsroom is one measure of capacity. What types of journalists are hired is another, suggests Meyer.

For example, newspapers that employ training editors, database specialists or ombudsmen have "a different kind of capacity" than those that do not, and signal a commitment to a higher level of journalism or engagement with the community.

In closing the chapter, Meyer attempts "to detect the effect of having an ombudsman on a newspaper's ability to hold on to its audience." He finds a connection:

"The twenty-nine newspapers with ombudsmen in 1996 had retained, on the average, 89.3 percent of their home county penetration between 1995 and 2000. The papers of comparable size without ombudsmen retained only 86.3 percent."

But, which came first: The success of the paper (if you can call losing only 10.7 percent of core market penetration in five years a success)? Or the ombudsmen?

Can't really say, says Meyer, although he does offer an explanation I like:

"An ombudsman is just one visible sign of a newspaper that cares about its reputation - and its influence - in the community. A newspaper that has one is probably doing lots of things right, and they all add up to an effect on maintaining circulation."

In the end, after two chapters [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 8: The Last Line of Defense], Meyer there are too few data to use the processes and capacity of newspapers as an analytical tool. Until news companies are more forthcoming with financial information, says Meyer, "content, because it is manifest and measurable, must remain the viable indicator of quality."

I agree, but that brings us back to the problematic question that is not addressed in the Vanishing Newspaper: What should a newspaper's content be? Is the current menu of institutional stories, crime coverage, professional sports and celebrity good enough to entice new readers? Falling circulation numbers suggest not.

What should replace these stories? And what type of newsroom structure is needed to make that change? The current beat system can only produce more of the same stories.

Finally, and perhaps this is a question Meyer will ask and answer in his final three chapters, does content even matter? He has already asserted that some the readership decline is "not the fault of the editors" [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 7: Do Editors Matter?] and that some journalistic sacred cows like spelling [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 8: The Last Line of Defense] have little impact on readership because of the structural forces in the news business "that made a newspaper lose circulation were largely independent of its content."

If, as some suggest, that year by year a smaller and smaller percentage of the population maintains interest in the workings of government and other public components of society, how should journalists respond?

Should we accept the proposition that traditional journalism might be a dying form of communication, shoulder that fate and trudge onward with our shrinking, aging audience into our professional sunset?

Should we give in (further) to the cult of celebrity, evict from our pages the tedious coverage of government and the under-classes, and fill the space with more news about people we already know way too much about?

Or should we take up the challenge of change and reinvent ourselves, keeping the principles that motivate us but creating new tools - new capacity - to put them into practice?

That's not a difficult choice to make.

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Posted by Tim Porter at February 16, 2005 10:20 AM