Thursday, January 04, 2007

Size does matter

“Managed correctly, staff cuts can be good for a newsroom,” wrote the editorial director of a national newspaper chain in response to the widespread dismay over the cutbacks in Philadelphia.

Although you have to worry that the industry may be experiencing a bit too much of a good thing, my friend is right in observing that staff size alone is not as important as, well, how you use it.

“The percentage of actual feet on the street at metros averages about 30%,” he says. “Some of the remainder do necessary work, but many of them run around with clipboards, attending meetings at which they exercise their superior ‘news judgment.’”

My friend asserts that newspapers become livelier, more pertinent and more beloved by readers when newsroom bureaucracies are pared to the point that 60% of the staffers are producing content instead of yakking in meetings.

This certainly comports with my experience as city editor of the Chicago Sun-Times in the early 1980s, where, if I do say so myself, we consistently out-hustled the more generously endowed staff of the newspaper across the street.

But that was then and this is now.

Today, we are approaching a point when many staffs may be so diminished that they lack the people and time to develop the original, enterprising and compelling stories that historically have distinguished newspapers from all other competitors.

If newspapers lose this, their most powerful differentiating strength, they will pass the point of no return.