ASNE Says Good Journalism Is Good Business

By: Joe Strupp

Stressing that investment in newsrooms is not only good journalism, but good business, the American Society of Newspaper Editors sought to push the point home on Wednesday with several sessions aimed at convincing newspaper owners and publishers that the continued trend toward cutbacks and downsizing is bad for the long term.

First, four researchers presented evidence claiming that newspapers which maintain or increase investment will ultimately keep revenues up. Each cited different studies — both recent and several years old — that contend newspapers do better in circulation, marketing, and overall revenue when the quality of the product improves or is maintained. “Having adequate resources are minimal preconditions to achieving quality,” said Esther Thorson, journalism professor at the University of Missouri, who cited five studies dating back to 1978 that indicated higher quality increases circulation and penetration.

Rick Edmonds, a consultant at the Poynter Institute, pointed to findings that state newsrooms with higher ratios of staff to circulation produced better quality, and eventually higher profits. He cited the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram, which has the highest staff-circulation ratio of any large daily. “They added more than 100 full-time employees,” he said. “However, financial performance did not suffer. Profits actually increased 45% in five years.”

However, Edmonds added that smaller newsrooms can still maintain quality with proper leadership in lieu of staff increases.

Philip Meyer, a longtime journalist and professor at the University of North Carolina, reiterated those claims, but also added that newspapers can reach a point of diminishing returns with staff additions if they are not done wisely. “It is vital to know when you are on that curve,” he said. “You might plug 20 more reporters into the city hall beat, and it wouldn’t matter.”

He also pointed out that other elements of quality — such as accuracy and readability — affect circulation, and ultimately profit, as much as staffing. Those can be improved without major cost increases if leadership and management are strengthened.

Finally, Thomas Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, looked at a 2001 analysis of 318 newspapers that showed small and medium-sized newspapers that invested in newsrooms improved revenue. But, he said larger papers saw a smaller revenue increase.

Following this research presentation, a panel of editors, publishers, and other newspaper observers took on the issue of profits versus quality, generally agreeing that investment in the newsroom was good business, but differing on some elements of the best way to achieve success. Initially, each panelist was asked how the economy has affected quality and what the long-term impact will be.

MediaNews Group CEO and Vice Chairman William Dean Singleton, long known for cutting newsroom budgets, but who recently stated that newspapers needed to keep resources at good levels, said the growing number of publicly owned newspaper companies means more newspapers have to answer to investors, calling it a “pact with the devil.”

“Those companies that are public can never get away from that promise,” he told the audience. “But they have to balance the promise they made to Wall Street with the promise they made to newspapers. I think they have done a good job.” He also pointed to the $10 million investment by publishers in the Readership Initiative, which he says indicates a willingness to invest in quality. “The leadership of our industry gets it,” he added.

Orage Quarles, publisher of The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., supported the investment theory, but said the resources cannot go just to the newsroom. “We have to make the same investment in circulation, marketing, and customer service,” he said. “They all have to have the same commitment.”

Ann Marie Lipinski, vice president and editor of the Chicago Tribune, also stressed the need to carefully choose where resources go. “Adding zones or staff does not always improve quality,” she said. “It may just be doing more with the same.”

Several panelists said editors and publishers needed to understand each other’s needs, as do readers. But Karla Garrett Harshaw, editor of the Springfield (Ohio) News-Sun, said readers will not accept limited resources as an excuse for poor quality. “Readers don’t care what your internal problems are,” she said. “They want to see news that is meaningful and on top of things in their market.”

Laura Rich Fine, vice president and managing director of corporate strategy and research at Merrill Lynch, agreed that newsroom leaders must understand the needs of investors and executives, but be willing to teach them about the editorial needs, as well. “They realize you can still make investments,” she said about financial analysts.

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