More with less: should MSM focus on niche or general?

The other day, my husband and I began the fifth season of The Wire. So four years ago, right? We watched this episode called “More with Less,” showing how reporters and editors at the Baltimore Sun have to do “more with less,” more stories, more tweeting, more multimedia with less reporters, less pay, less resources.

Since I work for a print publication, I think I know a little bit about the state of the publishing industry and this concept of “more with less.” But Fred Clark at Patheos isn’t convinced, based on a post he wrote in response to a brief comment I posted earlier this week. Let me explain.

Last week we discussed the state of the philanthropy beat where I lamented that the New York Times no longer has someone focused specifically on that beat, instead moving the reporter over to the business desk. In promoting the podcast discussion, I wrote the following comment:

We’re also noticing a possible disappearance of the philanthropy beat where a reporter focuses specifically in that area.

… One thing is becoming clearer: newspapers seem less eager to assign reporters to such specific beats.

In response, Clark wrote:

How can anyone claim to be performing media criticism without being aware that newspapers don’t have enough reporters anymore.

A beat reporter for philanthropy? What universe are you living in if you imagine that’s anything more than a pipe-dream luxury for a 21st-century American newsroom?

The key here, though, is that the reporter wasn’t laid off, so the newspaper could obviously still afford to employ the staffer. The question is, should she be devoted to a niche like philanthropy or something more broad like business? What I see is newspapers following each other in droves to capitalize on the latest trending topic instead of developing niche, original stories. How many reporters do we need covering Jessica Simpson’s baby or even Instagram’s sale to Facebook?

Clark quotes a study that newspapers now employ 40,600 editors and reporters, compared to a peak of 56,900 in the pre-Internet year of 1990. Yes, that’s tough, but we also all have access to more news than ever before. Keeping people in niche beats isn’t necessarily about the state of the industry, but if we’re talking in economic terms, it seems like you would want your reporters to offer something unique to the news hole, not become more generic in coverage.

Back to Clark, who says:

Newsrooms are doing less with less. A lot less with a lot less.

The editors and reporters all know it. Their readers certainly know it. Even the beancounters themselves know it.

But the news seems not yet to have reached the media critics at GetReligion.

Believe me, I know about “more with less.” Just today I worked on a feature piece, edited stories and blog posts, brainstormed and assigned others, formatted some photos, tweeted and Facebooked a bunch, responded to several emails, jumped on a Google video chat, made a few phone calls, toyed with Google+ and Pinterest, read part of a book for an upcoming interview and clicked through most of my Google reader. I don’t even know what it’s like to write one story per day anymore, and I work for a monthly publication. Watch Kate Shellnutt, Dan Gilgoff/Eric Marrapodi, Elizabeth Tenety, Cathy Grossman, Bob Smietana, Kevin Eckstrom, and many more at daily (or hourly) publications. Many reporters and editors will likely resonate with this new Tumblr.

Yes, there were 28% more reporters and editors before, but journalists also didn’t have equipment like smartphones, laptops, iPads, equipment that allows every outlet to post all day every day. And all of a sudden, we’re in competition for eyeballs with the rest of the internet, Justin Bieber’s twitter feed and all. If publications want to be smart about “more with less,” they would ask reporters to find more unique stories instead of chasing the same story. Sure, you might tip your blog or twitter hat to the Time magazine boob cover, but you don’t need to have eight reporters producing a predictable, bland story about President Obama and gay marriage.

What I meant in my very quick/passing comment was that as more and more niche sites are popping up (Golf for women! Vegan for the foodie! Mormons who love Pinterest!), newspapers seem to be getting even more and more generic, putting someone from the philanthropy beat into the generic business category. The business model is complex, but perhaps newspapers would do a bit better if they assigned people to really niche categories so they could generate fascinating stories about a particular area, not try to make everyone so generically bland in their beats.

Yes, it’s more with less, but that doesn’t mean you have to stoop to the lowest common beat. If your newsroom staff gets cut by 50%, do you hone in on what you do best or stop trying to offer something unique in the absence of others on the beat? From a business model, I would think you want to do the latter. It’s why more newspapers are trying to go local, local, local. If they extended that idea, they would go beat, beat, beat.

Just look at the Washington Post‘s recent Elizabeth Flock-gate where the newspaper had one reporter capitalizing on the most popular stories through aggregating. “The goal is to surf the trend waves on the Internet, hoping to catch a few thousand page views as a story crests,” Patrick B. Pexton wrote. “It’s cashing in on the passing popularity of a story even if you don’t have a reporter covering it.” The problem was, Flock made some mistakes under pressure to write a lot under little deadline. The question many outlets will have to face is, should they invest in very nimble content through experts who can really exploit coverage areas, or should they go generic to try to save money but possibly degrade the brand?

This all goes back to the religion beat for us, where we strongly advocate media outlets employ at least one person with an expertise in religion to spot stories, prevent holes and explain nuances to an audience. It’s about prioritizing more what you do have with less resources.

Image “do less be more” via Shutterstock.

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  • carl jacobs

    How does a news organization stay a news organization if it becomes a niche market publication? It must be sufficiently generic to cover a wide variety of news stories or it becomes a feature publication. Besides, this idea runs headlong into the vision that journalists have of themselves. They see themselves as the gatekeepers of public truth, and not as occupiers of public niches.

    Perhaps the problem is found in the implicit demand for full-time journalists to cover all beats. Could news organizations move to a model of part-time journalism or free-lance journalism to cover those smaller beats that don’t warrant full-time employment? Maybe I could even commit the heresy of suggesting that ‘civilians’ be used to cover specific stories. Certain individuals are committed to certain topics and will cover them with diligence.

    But wait, you might say. They wouldn’t be objective, you might say. Heh. And that differs from the current organization … how exactly?


  • Julia

    Example of MSNBC just lifting info about an old religion news story from two liberal news sources and supposedly neutral Religious News Service with nothing balancing the Leftist Catholic viewpoint:

  • Jettboy

    I don’t care one way or the other, nitch or general, as I don’t read the news anyway. All I care about is that they start telling the truth by getting rid of the liberal slants.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    I used to love it when people who “never read the newspaper anymore” would call and complain about specific articles. LOL.

  • Jerry

    Bobby, yes, and attack news for a slant when they don’t read the news.

    But to the main point: when I already have read and heard the news, what value is a newspaper? I can think of a couple of areas. Our local paper, what’s left of it, specializes now in local stories that would not be covered elsewhere. Another area is to cover things that would not be found on a broadcast news report or in something like a Google news screen.

    So the “niche” would be local stories but to cover them well you need reporters who understand all the issues such as, ahem, religion.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Hey, speaking of the philanthropy beat, the Chronicle of Higher Education wants to hire a writer:

  • Kevin Eckstrom

    “supposedly neutral Religion News Service”, Julia? Is there something I should know about?

  • Mike Hickerson

    Nonprofits make up something like 16% of the economy. As with so many other things, NYC is at the center of the nonprofit world. If the NY Times can’t afford to assign a reporter to the philanthropy beat, I’m not sure what to make of the state of the media. Considering that “philanthropy” covers, let’s see, the 1%, abortion politics, celebrity gawking, feel-good human interest features, con artists, cuddly zoo animals and so many other pageview-grabbing topics, I’m really not sure about this topic being a “luxury” for papers.

  • Mike O.

    Mike Hickerson, just being something is a nonprofit doesn’t make it involved in philanthropy. Nonprofits can be hospitals or institutions of higher learning. Even groups like those that can help you consolidate and eliminate debt are often nonprofits. While some nonprofits do jobs that can be seen as doing the public good, many are often not philanthropic.

  • sari

    Mike O.,
    They may not be philanthropic, but most non-profits, including hospitals, require the support of philanthropists to survive. The philanthropist beat covers the social events which generate income for non-profits by massaging donors, many of whom delight in advertising their generosity, and putting donors in the company of other donors, which sparks competition.

    It’s a society page kind of thing.

  • Mike O.

    Fair point, sari. I would like to see where Mike K.’s 16% figure comes from as well as what percentage of those non-profits do rely on philanthropy.

    It brings me back to my post from the previous philanthropy GR article. It asked if a lot of news generated by philanthopic organizations originate from press releases from those same organizations. As you say, many of them delight in advertising in their generosity. With the idea of doing less with more, I would think that covering such events doesn’t require a dedicated philanthropy reporter, just a general reporter. Doing so would allow them to do some news triage. If there are too many hard news stories, the philanthropy story will have to wait.

  • sari

    Mike O.,
    General reporters will not build up the same contact list as those dedicated to a particular field. Non-profits, in particular, rely heavily on gala events and other fundraisers to generate income from proven and potential philanthropists. Many of these affairs are invite-only, so being on the list, either as a donor or as a reporter, is paramount. And knowing who’s who in the community is even bigger.

    I can see papers doing as my local has done, using the social events (what used to be called the society) reporter to cover the gala/who’s who aspect, while another covers charities (more correctly non-profits) and advertises volunteer activities. Both reporters are also responsible for other beats, but they’ve been here long enough to be knowledgeable in their subject areas.

  • Mike O.

    Both reporters are also responsible for other beats, but they’ve been here long enough to be knowledgeable in their subject areas.

    Now I get you. I was focusing on standard reporters who can cover the philanthropy beat as opposed to having a dedicated philanthropy reporter. You weren’t talking about reporters exclusive to the philanthropy, but reports whose primary goal is philanthropy but who can fall back to secondary beats as needed. (Much like a third baseman who can play second in a pinch.) I think we agree with the decreased workforce and tightening of budgets a lot more reporters will be wearing multiple hats. Thanks for setting me straight!

  • Mark C.

    I wonder if the philanthropy angle was a poor choice to make your more general point. I would indeed wonder why any general news organization would ever have a “philanthropy beat.” Philanthropy usually falls around certain issues or institutions. Philanthropy effecting health and medicine could, and probably should, be covered by the health and medical reporters. Philanthropy around cultural organizations, institutions, the arts, etc. should be covered by people who report on those things. Philanthropy related to education and educational institutions covered by education reporters. You get the idea. Business reporters may specifically cover more general issues of giving by businesses and their foundations, and economics reporters may look at economic trends effecting giving overall. Some niches may be better thought of as not on their own, but in other contexts. And if the idea of philanthropy reporting is who is showing up and hob-nobbing at one or another fundraiser in tuxes and evening gowns, then that’s really just gossip for the society reporter’s column.