Some Publishers Believe in Big Newsrooms

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

While newspaper-industry think tanks and academics struggle to discover a magical metric that establishes a link between a happy newsroom and a healthy bottom line, some publishers and editors are content to go with their guts. And big-newsroom boosters can be found within the publicly held chains that feel the hot breath of Wall Street every quarter, as well as at family-owned papers.

Every day, the Daily Herald in Arlington Heights, Ill., publishes the famous motto of its founder H.C. Paddock: “Our aim: To fear God, tell the truth, and make money.” Yet, as sweeping as that philosophy is, it doesn’t fully explain why the family-owned paper with an average daily circulation of 149,882 maintains a newsroom that is nearly twice the industry average — and disputed rule of thumb — of one full-time equivalent (FTE) for each thousand in circulation.

“In the short term, we could be much more profitable than we are today,” says Douglas K. Ray, CEO and president of Paddock Publications Inc. “But this is not about staffing up against media challenges … or anything else — it’s an essential part of how we do business here.”

Ray makes the argument echoed by many of his peers with big newsrooms: Newspapers need the journalistic manpower to serve readers who increasingly live in sprawling suburbs, each with its own municipal council, board of education, high-school sports, and local concerns.

So-called “overstaffing” ensures that when the Daily Herald grows into a new town, it will keep the market: “If you have a long-term stake in a market,” Ray says, “you have to cover the communities intensely. You can’t do that with smoke and mirrors — it takes people to do that.”

The Daily Herald‘s circulation success is attributable to above-average staffing, Ray says. “The paper has had 21 years of circulation growth without missing an ABC [Audit Bureau of Circulations] reporting period. It takes a number of people to do that.”

Staffing levels are always an uncomfortable subject. “Yeah, we’re ‘overstaffed’ according to that rule of thumb, but I’m not going to talk about it,” one executive says. “If I talk with E&P about being ‘overstaffed,’ it would just lead to problems, internal problems.”

Some executives, too, believe that a plus-size-fits-all formula is misleading. Says Douglas C. Clifton, editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland: “I’ve always been suspicious of any metric based on per-thousand of circulation. I just don’t think it has any relevance. For [newsrooms in] some markets, fewer than one FTE per thousand may be perfectly adequate.”

One publisher who has become a kind of reluctant spokesman for “maxistaffed” newsrooms is Wesley R. Turner — whose Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram was outed last summer as, proportionately, “The Best-Staffed Newspaper in America,” with 370 FTEs and 336 full-time professional staff at the start of last year, according to an analysis by Rick Edmonds for the Poynter Institute and the Project for Excellence in Journalism. In the latest ABC FAS-FAX, the paper reported a 2.43% gain in Monday-to-Thursday circulation, to 218,975 from 213,781. The news about the Star-Telegram‘s staffing was all the more notable because it is published by Knight Ridder, which found itself in 2001 thrust into the middle of the profits-versus-quality-journalism debate.

Turner says the Star-Telegram‘s big staff allows it to deliver increased circulation and margins, as well as quality journalism: “We have been able to grow profit margin consistently in the last five years. And this newspaper is among the highest in the industry in revenue per thousand subscribers.”

The Poynter analysis attributed the bulked-up newsroom to The Dallas Morning News‘ incursion into Star-Telegram territory in the mid-1990s. But Star-Telegram President and Publisher Turner says competition is not the newspaper’s most important motivation. Rather, the newspaper is following its readers to the suburbs — and catering to their demands.

In a region where people are “rabid” about high-school football, for instance, the Star-Telegram cannot get away with just listing a score, Turner says. And don’t tell him that readers these days don’t care about local government and other civic affairs. “They care about their town council and school board and high school,” he says. “They might not care about the Fort Worth City Council.”

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