17,000 fewer reporters and editors

At GetReligion, Sarah Pulliam Bailey accurately observes one aspect of the reality of 21st-century newspapers, but seems bewildered by how to explain it. This is just staggeringly silly for a website that regards itself as performing media criticism:

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.

“Newspapers seem less eager to assign reporters to such specific beats”?

Let's discuss our eagerness to cover the philanthropy beat after the next round of layoffs. ...

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?

This isn’t a secret. Here’s Alan Mutter presenting the latest figures last month in a post titled “Newsroom staffing hits 34-year low“:

The number of journalists working at U.S. newspapers today is at the lowest point since the American Society of News Editors began its annual newsroom census in 1978.

Newspapers now employ 40,600 editors and reporters vs. a peak of 56,900 in the pre-Internet year of 1990, according to the census released today. Thus, newsroom headcount has fallen by 28.6 percent from its modern-day high.

That’s via Dr. Denny at Scholars & Rogues, who adds:

Perhaps we don’t need those nearly 57,000 reporters we had in 1990. Newspaper executives tell us the same thing each time they whack newsroom staffing through layoffs or “buyouts.” Don’t worry, they say: The news product won’t be compromised.

… Newsroom ranks are thinner. Reporters are less experienced.

People who care about the newspaper business have been screaming about this for years, but apparently the media critics at GetReligion haven’t been listening.

Nor can they apparently be bothered even to glance at the reality of the industry they exist to critique. Far easier just to assume that the lack of coverage for a particular beat somehow confirms GetReligion’s main thesis of media incomprehension of and bias against religion.

“More With Less” was the title of the first episode of Season 5 of The Wire. The name comes from the mantra of the corporate beancounters now busily running America’s newspapers into the ground. “We’ll get leaner and meaner,” the beancounters say. “We’ll do more with less.”

Everyone knows that’s a crock. 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.

  • Richard Hershberger

    “Everyone knows that’s a crock. Newsrooms are doing less with less. A lot less with a lot less.”

    Indeed, taking the specific example from The Wire of the Baltimore Sun, I moved to Maryland, a county to the left of Baltimore, about ten years ago.  I have the lifelong habit of subscribing to a newspaper, so I naturally took a look at it.  It was such an insubstantial empty shell that I couldn’t imagine paying good money to have it delivered every day.  I ended up taking the local paper, which is no better, but not a whole lot worse for national and world news (i.e. runs the AP feed, which might induce me to follow up via the internet) and reports, albeit poorly, on my local area.  It’s cheaper, too.

    I had always heard that the Sun was one of the nation’s great papers.  I looked up the microfilm once to confirm this.  Yes, it was once a terrific paper.

    On the plus side, I read the Philadelphia Inquirer from time to time, when I get there.  It is surprisingly good.  They seem to have decided that their niche is to do regional coverage very well, while running the AP feed for national and world news.  This compares favorably with the Sun’s decision to do nothing well and hope for the best.

  • LMM22

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

    To be cynical, maybe the newspapers don’t have enough people to cover the newspaper beat, either.

    (And a philanthropy column seems a bit self-serving … although maybe it might encourage more donors?)

  • Lampwick

    In that Wire episode, didn’t they go on to say, “You can’t do more with less.  That’s why they call it less.”

  • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

    When most newspapers just run the AP feed for Global and National, what’s the point? You can get all that stuff free and unfiltered straight from the internet.

    Local news and analysis is what newspapers should be focusing on. I don’t know if larger cities are the same, but I cannot find decent local news for my area — not the way I can get national stories. 

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    Damn it, disqus is eating my posts again.  It was an excessively long post (about my recent encounter with sloppy journalism), but still.

    The short version is this, there was recently a vote of no confidence in the president of my university.  The Faculty Senate, the one making the vote, does not have the power to do anything about the president so the vote was essentially a non binding recommendation to the Chancellor and/or the Board of Trustees.  There is an entire section (Article VIII) of the document governing how things like the Faculty Senate work (which called the Governance Document) devoted to how something like the Faculty Senate can go about sending non-binding recommendations to the to the Chancellor and/or the Board of Trustees when the University President disagrees with the recommendation.

    Which is to say that even though a vote of no confidence has never been attempted before, there are codified rules on how something like this works.  These rules state that what is necessary is “a two-thirds vote of those voting”.  68.8% of the vote was for no confidence (and that was 51.5% of the entire staff.)

    You’d think that the reporting on that would be simple:  The vote of no confidence was successful, but the vote is non-binding so it remains to be seen if anything will come of it.

    Something like that.  As near as I can tell every news organization who has reported on this has reported that the vote failed.  You’d think “a two-thirds vote of those voting” would be hard to get wrong but everyone is reporting that it was necessary to get a two thirds majority of those eligible to vote, and it only got a simple majority of those.

    They’re reporting this because the university president, Selma Botman, declared herself the winner and none of them bothered to check the rules before calling the game.  I know that a press release has been sent out pointing out that according to the actual rules the vote actually passed, I haven’t seen any corrections.

    To a certain extent none of this matters, even if the higher ups are never officially told they’ve already unofficially noticed that the faculty at the university thinks Botman is a problem.  The question remains of whether they’ll do anything about it, but that was always the question.

    The frustrating thing is that all of the news sources are reporting the news wrong, which means that everyone reading will be wrong.  I was wrong because I initially trusted it, why wouldn’t I?  It’s the newspaper.  Then someone indicated that maybe I should actually check the rules.

    Yeah, that’s the short version.

  • PurpleAardvaark

    The news product can’t be further compromised without becoming Fox News on paper.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    I remember when it happened, fwiw. 

    Back in 1996, I was editor of my high school news paper, and so I kept a general interest in the area newspapers. Some time in the middle of ’96, the Sun put out a big pull-out about all the exciting new changes the were going through in order to Better Serve The Public. They were switching up all their fonts to be less dense, and fill more space with less content. They were adding more colors, and low-information-density infographics. There would be more pictures and less news. Also, the were having their logo redrawn to look cleaner.

    At the time, I didn’t really have the analytical skills to figure out what was going wrong, but I could intuit that this was a change for the worse in some way I couldn’t explain at the time. (Also, I found the new fonts a lot *harder* to read, not easier.)

    Still better than the Wilmington paper though. My dad never forgave them for the time they edited an AP story so that it said unqualified that Robert Frost taught us that “good fences make good neighbors”.

  • The_L1985

    Oh, you mean the National Enquirer?

  • The Lodger

    Is that Wilmington, Del., Wilmington, NC or some other deviation from the One True Wilmington?

  • http://twitter.com/spulliam Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Hi Fred, thanks for engaging. I’ve posted a response here: 
    http://www.getreligion.org/2012/05/more-with-less-should-the-media-focus-on-niche-or-general/


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