Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Cuts nip traditional news-staff ratio

Upcoming cuts at a pair of Tribunes show how publishers are nibbling away at the long-held standard for the minimum number of journalists deemed necessary to staff a newsroom.

The unwritten but widely honored rule of thumb in the industry always has been that a newspaper should employ one journalist for every 1,000 in daily circulation.

But plans announced today to lighten the Chicago Tribune newsroom by some 14% to 498 journalists will drop the ratio there to 0.88 newsfolk for every 1,000 of the paper's 556.8k daily readers. The staff will be 25.7% smaller than it was in 2005, according to the newspaper.

The ratio will be 0.90 journalists per 1,000 readers at the Tampa Tribune, which last week announced plans to eliminate a fifth of its news jobs. Those cuts will leave the paper with 200 journalists to serve 220k readers.

In other recently announced staff reductions, the Los Angeles Times will have a ratio of 0.92, the Baltimore Sun will be 0.98, the Kansas City Star is going to 1.00 and the Palm Beach Post will be 1.11, according to the cutbacks logged by Erica Smith at GraphicDesignr.Net. Erica says 1,510+ positions were lost in June and 5,991+ were eliminated in the first half of the year.

One of the lowest metro staffing ratios is at the San Jose Mercury News, which today employs approximately a third of the 420 journalists who worked there in 2001. The latest round of cuts has reduced the Merc’s staff to 0.67 journalists for each 1,000 of its 229.5k subscribers.

If every newspaper went to 0.88 journalists per 1,000 readers, then theoretically 6,312 currently employed scribes would be superfluous, based on the national newsroom headcount of 52,600 reported earlier this year by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. (Though the ASNE counts noses in a decidedly confusing fashion, its census is the only data we have.)

If all publishers adopted the San Jose ratio of 0.67 journalists per 1,000 readers, then the industry would be overstaffed by 17,358 news people. And so it goes.


Blogger Howard Owens said...

Related question: Is the value of a subscriber falling.

Vin Crosbie did a famous post a few years ago about how a newspaper subscriber is worth X amount, an an online user was worth pennies on the dollar.

If the value of the print subscriber is falling, why?

It's one thing if revenues fall because circulation numbers drop; but it's another if the value of the print subscriber falls.

What's the implications of that? Where does it stop? Can it be reversed?

Or maybe there isn't a correlation here.

But I do go back to a question I raised in my own blog a week or two ago -- if publishers are now finding that they can operate with much smaller print staffs, why couldn't they have made that realization five or 10 years ago and shifted more resources to online ... when they could afford to do that and such a shift would have had a big impact in online audience growth?

I figure for every three people needed to put out a print edition, you need one for an online news site, so for 150 people let go by the times, five years ago they could have only taken 50 and made them online producers and been WAAAAY ahead of the game.

4:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This rule of thumb is news to me and, experience suggests, would have been news to the publishers of nearly every newspaper I ever worked for over the course of my newspaper career.

8:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

San Jose never had 420 journalists ---- more like the low 390s. The budget was around 405, and that included overtime, part-timers and unfilled positions. But your point is completely on target.

7:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This may sound like heresy to journalists on this blog, but there is NOT a correlation between the size of the newsroom and circulation.

In fact, some of the newspapers with leaner staffs are faring relatively well, whereas overstaffed behemoths are bleeding subscribers.

Take the San Jose Mercury News. It gained 1.7 percent in daily circulation for the six months ending March 31, making it one of the few metro gainers. This despite -- or maybe because of -- significant staffing cuts during that period.

In contrast, the bloated Los Angeles Times continued its circulation free-fall.

The lesson here is that readers appreciate a leaner, bolder newspaper and staff size has little to do with quality.

7:49 AM  
Blogger Davisull said...

That might have been more true five years ago when print and online staffs were more separated. Now, with more people directly feeding online, you're simply eliminating staff for online.

Certainly, because the workflow is different, an online news site would not need as many people doing production work as a print paper does. Wires post automatically, there aren't the issues with photo toning, you don't have as much of the belly-of-the-snake bump of deadline, you don't need to proofread a mass of pages at once.

But your people who are writing stories, and their assigning editors, and at least most of your photographers, are still writing stories and taking photos regardless of medium, if you're talking about people who "originate" content. (Good design, editing and the like also originate value for the reader, but it's a harder sell to quantify that it should be.)

When I would visit other Knight Ridder papers, and in research we did on one previous downsizing, the number of newsroom people involved in "production" was always between 1/5 and 1/6 of the newsroom. So let's take the high number, 20 percent, so if you were to simply eliminate print production (which at most newspapers includes the wire operation) you would eliminate, oh, 13 percent of the newsroom as redundant.

If you took the numbers of pages being dropped -- Hartford was dropping what, 1/4 of its newshole -- you could tie your production staff to that and say, OK, we're dropping 1/4 of the designers, copy editors, etc., because that space has gone away. But five years ago, that space wasn't going away.

But one-third of the newsroom? Clearly, the cuts have gone beyond that, and no one's actually eliminated print production. So you're cutting in to your reporters, assigning editors, photographers, informational graphics people, editorial writers, people who answer the phone and do the "running the office" things (posting schedules, making sure you have adequate staffing of major jobs with vacations, etc.) in a major way to say that 66 percent of jobs were tied to their being a printed product that you are still publishing in some form.

Publishers aren't "finding" that they can operate with much smaller print staffs, they're simply operating with smaller news-gathering staffs for print and online, which is a different thing. You can probably always wring a 10 to 15 percent reduction in staff out with an initial cut, and certainly at the size of the Tribune back then it would have been a lot of people; but how many people did Tribune Co. have on its separate Web operations back then? I visited them then and it was a large number.

So it's apples and oranges to some extent. But back to the 1-per-thousand rule, which goes back to a study of medium-size Midwest newspapers by the Inland Daily Newspaper Association in the 1940s if I remember correctly, which I may not. If you have a combined copy desk with another paper, how does the 1-per-thousand rule apply? I would think San Jose has moved some of its functions to the BANG-EB operations center. The 1-per-thousand rule assumed every paper was freestanding. In any event, the carnage is worse; I think it was E&P did a story years ago in which they found out the average was somewhere like 1.18 per thousand in newsroom staffing. And that was when circulations were much higher.

7:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And how many papers across the country still are inflating their circulation numbers? Quite a few, if the anecdotal evidence from friends in the industry is any indication. Many papers seem to keep throwing the printed product on subscribers' lawns long after they have stopped payment and in some cases they have called repeatedly asking the deliveries to stop. Makes that ratio even a less valid method of determining newsroom size.

8:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You seem to use the term "journalist" and "scribe" interchangeably. But when you are talking about these staffing ratios, are you talking about the entire newsroom staff including designers, copy editors, news clerks, photographers, etc. Or are you just talking about writers?

Please clarify. Thank you.

- Joe

9:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see Dean Singleton left an anonymous comment at 7:49. Thanks for sharing, Dean.

9:08 AM  
Blogger rknil said...

Good to see Howie Owens is still singing the useless song of: "Why didn't this happen before?"

Keep playing that tune, Howie. That way, you and the rest of the Hats In Reverse bunch won't ever have to offer any solutions, and then you won't reveal your true lack of knowledge.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Newsosaur said...

In answer to the above queries:

To the best of my knowledge, the figures for newsroom staffing include all people involved in the editorial department - from secretaries to reporters to copy editors.

Many, if not most, newspapers have combined their online and print teams into a single total.

It is not possible for me to parse the figures in great detail, because newspapers count noses in different ways - and also change their methodologies from time to time.

9:53 AM  
Blogger rknil said...

One other point that needs to be made: A job title in today's unfocused newsroom can be deceiving.

Copy editors are also forced to design, chase cutlines, track down stories the city editor failed to send, proof pages, color-correct and tone photos, fix printers, etc. The list goes on and on.

Cutting one person who does these tasks adds a good deal of workload to the rest of the staff.

11:59 AM  
Blogger Al Cross said...

The rule of thumb was actually 1.1 or more, but has been eroding lately in the Inland surveys.

7:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Surely if a newspaper went online it could cut out much more then 20%. You do not need printers, shipping, most of the circulation department etc.

I doubt you would make much money. Few online will pay anything.

12:37 AM  

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