Can newspapers afford editors?
“How many people have to read a story before it goes in the paper?” asked a senior editor at a major metropolitan daily who is struggling to sustain the quality of his news report in an era of shrinking resources. “If we have to economize, the editing process is the place. Why do we have all these people processing stories after a reporter writes it? They are not producing anything that will get us traffic on the web.”
This question is bound to provoke spirited discussion in every newsroom where it is broached. You can add your two cents to the debate by taking the poll at left. Before you vote, consider this:
The issue of how many editors it takes to put a story in the paper not only strikes a raw journalistic nerve but also exposes a major and growing economic disadvantage faced by newspapers, which is this: Newspapers have awesomely higher operating costs than the online publishers who are siphoning away their audience and advertising revenues.
As you can see from the chart below, a half a dozen reasonably well compensated people – or more – are likely to lay hands on an ordinary story bound for the pages of the typical metropolitan daily.
In the event the article is uncommonly sensitive – involving a matter of taste, an investigative piece or the shenanigans of a major advertiser – then untold additional eyeballs could be brought to bear, ranging from assistant, deputy and managing editors to outside lawyers and even the publisher. Beyond those worrying about the words, most routine stories also are likely to pass through hands of gatekeepers on the photo, multimedia, graphics, Internet and design desks, too.
By contrast, Google, Yelp, Everyblock and myriad other major competitive online sources for news and information collectively employ exactly zero people to author content. The bitter irony for newspapers, of course, is that publishers pay the entire (and high) cost of creating the content that these and thousands of other websites freely scoop off newspaper sites to build their own traffic, sales and highly profitable businesses. (Bloggers like yours truly, of course, are one-man operations producing more poop than scoops and no profits whatsoever.)
With print sales falling far faster than newspapers can replace them with web revenues, publishers trying to sustain their operating profits in the face of the huge embedded costs of pressrooms, real estate and delivery fleets – not to mention satisfying their creditors – are under extreme pressure to do more with fewer people.
Headcount is one of the few major operating costs publishers can readily control. And newsroom headcount is the most elastic, because the paper theoretically can be filled with wires, press releases and user-generated photos of kittens.
With the fat (if ever there were) long since trimmed from most newsrooms, the choice for many metros now may be coming down to whether to rein in news coverage or relax their traditional standards by editing out some of the editors. In some ways, this already has begun.
While it would be heretical at most major news organizations to “railroad” stories from a reporter’s keyboard directly into print, several publications, including a few surprisingly large ones, are allowing reporters to point, click and post words and images directly to the newspaper's website. If the work is good enough to slap on the web without further human intervention, why isn’t it good enough to go directly on a web press?
On the other hand, a compelling case can be made that newspapers would debase themselves journalistically, commercially and, perhaps, even fatally by abandoning the disciplined reporting and professional editing that makes their content uniquely valuable in an age of frequently impulsive, often repulsive and usually unverified Twittering.
On yet another hand, the most elaborate editing process in the industry did not save the New York Times from the embarrassment of Jayson Blair's counterfeit dispatches and Judith Miller's off-base stories about Iraq's non-existent WMDs.
All things being equal, everyone would vote for giving newspapers sufficient resources for both gathering news and checking their work closely. But things aren’t equal. Newspapers are operating at an increasingly unequal disadvantage against their online competitors.
While there is no doubt about the value of the industry’s traditional values, the question is whether the industry can continue to afford them.
Now, you may vote.
Reactions to this post
:: "Dear writer, Lord knows I’m aware that you think that I’m a supercilious twit, but you could probably be pressed to concede that I am on your side," says John McIntyre, chief of the copy desk of the Baltimore Sun in his blog here and here.
:: "A typical print story should be read by two editors," says John Robinson, editor of the Greensboro (NC) News-Record in his blog. "Online stories are different."
:: "Old-line news outlets are full of career employees who've 'earned' an editor's chair," says Gawker. "Make those people start writing again!"
:: "The only way we can realistically continue to operate as newspaper journalists is to show how what we offer is better than what someone else offers," says David Sullivan in his blog. "That means operating behind a brand. That brand has to stand for something. Quality is a good thing to stand for."
:: Editors "are saving your ass from getting it sued off," says Nancy Nall in her blog. "Also, from becoming a laughingstock. Also, from having your bargain-basement, straight-out-of-college reporting staff embarrass you in print by misspelling the mayor’s name." She also points out, as did several other sharp-eyed readers, the typo in the chart below.
:: "Scrap the AP Stylebook...give reporters some responsibility" and "train them to write headlines," says Josh Korr in his blog. "If we’re asking journalists to become increasingly multifaceted technologically — giving reporters video cameras, making copy editors post to the Web — I think we can ask for some basic journalistic multitasking."
:: "I love to hear copy editors and their supporters talk about quality and all the battles fought, some won, some lost," says Doug Fisher in his blog. "Then, I walk away and mutter something like, 'Those poor souls; they'll never see it coming.' And they haven't, and now it is here."
:: "I didn't realize Web traffic was the only goal of a newspaper," says Bill Walsh, author of the blog called The Slot. "If that's the case, I have a one-word solution: Porn."
:: "The real question is: can newsrooms afford to continue to employ editors who operate within a traditional print-first box and have the we-know-what-are-readers-want mentality?" asks Jason Kristufek in his blog.
:: "Večernjakov ekran, Afera 'Sanaderov intervju', krah novinarstva i drugi jahači," says the headline in Zivot 2.0, a blog apparently originating from Hungary. If you know what it means, please let me know.