By: Joe Strupp
With thousands of job cuts in recent years, costly news coverage that includes two foreign wars, and ever-escalating demands for Web content, newspapers these days are being forced to do more with less. For some editors, that means cutting back coverage of some lower-tier stories. For reporters, it often means taking time that was once spent digging for stories or networking with sources and instead using it to crank out or update the latest Web scoop. Newsrooms are facing larger workloads, increased stress, and more hours spent in the office for the same old pay, all the while hoping that the increased demand, amid decreased help, does not result in a huge editing gaffe ? or major missed story.
So with newsrooms shrinking and corporate demands growing, the question inevitably must be asked, “What Gives?” E&P interviewed several dozen reporters and editors who described in often painful detail how the current pressures ? both economic and journalistic ? are affecting them. Some editors claim the reduced workforce and increased needs are not hurting newsrooms, just requiring better organization and planning. Others admit they have had to abandon some beats entirely, and in a few cases, eliminate whole sections ? not to mention foreign bureaus ? to allow for the smaller staff and online push.
Newsroom staffers, meanwhile, are almost unanimous in saying they have increased their own productivity and reduced focus on some areas of reporting in order to better navigate the evolving print/digital landscape.
The growing Web culture and heavier work demands are visible at nearly every paper as editors come to embrace the online model. For many newspapers, such as USA Today and the Chicago Tribune, combining print and Web staffs in recent years and increasing online productivity was a no-brainer. But figuring out how to do that without severely diminishing the quality of print reports or cutting reporting time is still a work in progress.
“There’s no question that some staff members are working harder than ever, and that many have additional or new responsibilities,” says Editor Ken Paulson at USA Today, which merged its print and online newsrooms more than a year ago. In a memo to staff last fall, Paulson admitted that efforts to increase enterprise reporting, online work, and other innovations ? such as podcasting and videography ? cannot be done without “also deciding not to do some other things.
“For most of you, the changes will be a matter of fine-tuning what you already do well,” the editor’s memo added.
Paulson tells E&P the paper was no longer covering many stories reported first by others: “There was a time not long ago when The New York Times and The Washington Post broke a story, USA Today would chase it. That does not occur anymore. We now applaud it, and work on producing content they don’t have. We have to make judgment calls on what our priorities are.”
San Francisco Chronicle Editor Phil Bronstein admits certain things that might have gotten covered in the past no longer get the same attention. “Something has to give,” he says about the paper that lost more than 100 staffers two years ago. “If you have 15 priorities, sometimes the bottom three or four don’t get done. You may have to do fewer stories, and you can do that.” The Chronicle also cut back several zoned editions in recent years, now consolidating all local news, for instance, into one metro section.
But such cutbacks in coverage are not true everywhere, contends Linda Foley, president of The Newspaper Guild. She says most newsrooms are simply piling on extra work, adding stress to staffers, as well as chances for mistakes and a reduction in “extra time” for sourcing and reporting.
“The biggest complaint is that people don’t have enough time to devote to reporting that they need,” says Foley, whose union represents 34,000 staffers at 161 newspapers. “They have to jump back and forth. You used to shoot for one deadline and you would work for that. Now it is constant updating, the deadline is continuous ? and it causes stress.”
The view from the top
It was about a year and a half ago that The Philadelphia Inquirer cut 75 newsroom staffers under former owner Knight Ridder. Then, just a few months ago, it lost another 70 through layoffs by new owner Philadelphia Media Holdings. When William Marimow took over as editor in late 2006, he knew that some things, such as foreign and broader national issues, would no longer be covered by staff. But he contends better planning and focus can make up for it.
“You sacrifice some discretionary leisure time, plan better, and be more efficient,” says the former editor of The Sun in Baltimore, who recently returned to the Inquirer where he worked as a reporter. He says today’s Web/print requirements are no different from the demands that wire service reporters have faced for years, adding that today’s journalists have more access to quick information via the Web and other sources.
That sentiment is echoed by several newsroom bosses, although they often argue that reporters can handle increased demands these days and only reluctantly admit some areas, from general assignment to regional beats, can no longer be covered.
Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post ? which also lost about 70 people through a 2006 buyout ? is among those editors who downplay the impact of today’s smaller staffs and higher demand. “There are some lower-priority things, such as general assignment reporting, that we don’t give as much time to,” he says. But he maintains that much of the greater workload can be handled through better planning, and is often offset by better research technology. “You can go to an Internet archive or Google something, and e-mail makes it easier to reach sources, he contends.
“Newsrooms are notoriously inefficient, and ours is no exception,” adds Downie, a former Post reporter. “We have moved some people from general assignment to beats.”
Downie reveals that the Post has made some structural changes that move more toward Web and away from print. The paper’s 2 p.m. news meeting, for example, in January was moved up to noon to get a better jump on coverage. He also says that at least five or six staffers who likely would be otherwise out gathering news are now exclusively dedicated to the continuous news desk, where they work to update and file online stories. Some start as early as 4:30 a.m.
The Seattle Times, which has lost 25% of its newsroom personnel since 1999, has had to increase its efficiencies, says Executive Editor David Boardman. He adds that he now sees fewer “two- and three-day stories” and a decreased newshole. “We have a smaller business section and less features and sports space,” he says. “Not dramatically, but it is tighter in some places.”
For The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, a 25% staff decrease in the past four years has meant similar changes. Says Editor Chris Peck, “We have reduced our outlying bureaus.” The paper’s newsrooms in Little Rock, Ark., and Jackson, Miss., have shut down, while the capital bureau in Nashville went from three people to one person. “We went through a whole beat reassessment,” Peck adds, “focusing on what makes us unique ? local reporting.”
Time management at the paper has changed, too, including the amount of editing for each story. “There was a standard in many newsrooms where you gave each thing three reads,” Peck says. “For some things, that is now two, and if it is syndicated, maybe one.”
At The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Editor Doug Clifton concedes that there’s a loss of extra time for some staffers, but contends it does not always mean lost news coverage. “Extra time spent doesn’t always equate to better quality,” he says. “People have to be more productive, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We’ve got plenty of reporters who, in the course of a week, do one story.”
He also points out that the Plain Dealer, with about 320 people, actually has more newsroom personnel on the job than it did in the 1970s, despite a January buyout that ended with the departure of 59 staffers. “We realigned some beats,” he says about how the paper changed. “You need to be more imaginative in what you do.”
The editor then adds, bluntly, “You go to work, you get paid, you do it. If you don’t, you go somewhere else.”
Quality standards at risk?
When Don Ruane of The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla., first covered the town of Cape Coral back in 1979, he didn’t start writing his first stories of the day until close to 4 p.m. That left him plenty of time for fact-checking, quote-fixing, and being out and about to schmooze with sources and run down some story tips.
Today, the 56-year-old reporter, who has served in various reporting and editing roles over more than two decades, is back on his old beat. But this time around, he says any extra time he once had is gone, and the likelihood of mistakes has blossomed. Not only must stories be done as quickly as possible for the Web, but covering government meetings means more updating online and less time working sources and developing leads.
“You wonder about the quality sometimes when you rush stuff out,” says Ruane. “We probably have more misspellings online because we are rushing to get things up, we are trying to beat the noon news.”
Others in the news trenches agree.
“If we are going to do Web stuff with the same number of people, how are we going to do it without hurting the print product?” says Bill Salganik, president of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild and a 30-year reporter at the Sun in Baltimore. “How do we maintain ethical and journalistic standards?”
And with fewer people? Salganik says the Sun, which has faced some labor battles in recent years, has lost about 25% of its newsroom staff since 2002 due to buyouts and other cuts. “We have several reporters who cover two beats, where two reporters had covered them,” he says, noting that the increased demands “are adding workload and pressure.” Salganik admits that Sun editors have backed off on requests for Web work when told he is working on something for print or needs time to finish a story: “But I can’t say how long that will last.”
He adds that “a lot of the best enterprise and investigative stories come from beat reporters gossiping with sources ? you can’t do as much of that.”
Judy Wolf, a copy editor and guild treasurer at The Indianapolis Star, says it’s just a matter of time before some major mistake gets through at her paper, with the increased demand on front-line editors who are dwindling in number. “They are trying to make everyone think about filing for the Web first, trying to increase the number of new filings each day,” she says. “We have to cut back on time to read things in the way they should be read. It is only for the grace of God that we haven’t been snake-bitten.”
Star Editor Dennis Ryerson admits that the increased Web approach means some things are not covered anymore, or at least not as heavily. “There are some sectors we are not covering as well as we’d like to,” he says. “Accountability reporting, city and county government. Right now, our editors are so busy feeding the daily elephant, they do not have the time to think of those deeper stories that we would like.”
At the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, a similar concern has arisen, according to Pam Miller, an 18-year reporter and secretary of the Twin Cities Newspaper Guild: “We are all willing to enter the multimedia world, but it is difficult and it adds tasks. Certainly something has to give. For me, it is some extra calls I might make, having coffee with sources, things that don’t lead directly to a story.”
The staffers’ concerns come as the Star Tribune is sold by McClatchy to Avista Capital Partners, a move that triggered a union contract provision requiring a buyout offer to be put forth to some members. Miller believes that buyout will result in the loss of at least 20 people, reducing the news staff. “And we don’t know if the new owner is going to want to cut further,” she says. “I don’t know how much harder each person can work.”
Reprioritizing for the Web
Some editors remain mixed on the Web impact. While some admit they have not found the right balance to maintain quality and competitive coverage, others brush off complaints of time problems and point to multiple editions that reporters had to contend with in the past, saying many had to write for four or five editions during their reporting days and still managed to get scoops. “When I worked in Chicago, we had editions around the clock,” says Martin Kaiser, editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and a Chicago Sun-Times scribe from 1977 to 1984. “We had an edition every three or four hours.”
In Raleigh, N.C., at The News & Observer, Editor Melanie Sill and Managing Editor John Drescher recently enacted a newsroom reorganization that included more Web assignments and some staffing shuffles. In a four-page memo to staff in January, the editors made clear more work would be required, and there likely would be less time for reporting some stories than in the past. “Most reporters will write more than they do now,” the memo stated, adding, “our staff is smaller than it was two years ago. That forces us to focus on what’s most important and let go of some things.” It went on to note that the paper had eliminated its Faith section, Food section, stock listings, and six pages of sports each week.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution, meanwhile, has Editor Julia Wallace implementing a major shift to online and will soon increase Web staffing, but without seeking cutbacks in print. She says, “Working on both print and online at the same time isn’t easy, but it’s our competitive advantage in this new-information world.” At The Orlando Sentinel, which has lost about 20 positions since 2005, Editor Charlotte Hall says space in zoned sections has been cut, while stock listings and the TV Book are no more. “We are sharing more content with other Tribune papers,” she adds. “Things that aren’t unique content.”
Then there’s The Buffalo (N.Y.) News, where Editor Margaret Sullivan recently launched a redesigned and more aggressive Web site, just months after losing seven staffers in a 2006 buyout. The change even required a new provision in the paper’s contract with the Buffalo Newspaper Guild that allows non-Guild members to write for the News’ Web site. As the paper dives head-first into the online world, Sullivan admits it is essentially throwing people into the deep end of the pool without being entirely sure they know how to swim. “It will all be done with smoke and mirrors,” she jokes, then turns serious, admitting many are losing discretionary time. “There is no magic answer to it. Breaking news will have to be done out of regular reporting time. That is where the real challenge will be.”
Guild Chief Negotiator Jim Heaney is concerned about how much the Web expansion affects staffers’ time. He says the union has always had a good relationship with management, but adds that the growing demands need to be carefully monitored.
“Something’s got to give when you are assigning additional work,” he says. “There have already been examples where people have been filing from home beyond their work day, but those are exceptions. The recurring theme at other [guild] locals we have seen has been, ‘Watch it!'”
Age of higher expectations
Among those “watching it” is John Haile, former editor of the Orlando Sentinel and now a newspaper consultant who has advised daily papers on how best to handle the emerging demands of smaller staffs and more news. He says the answer is often better planning, but agrees there is now less extra time for sourcing, investigating, and even just taking a head-clearing break from staring at the same copy.
“Some of the ‘down time’ goes away,” he says. “You lose some of that source cultivation, exploring some things because you are tied up.” But he adds that papers can still produce breaking news and in-depth work if their time is better managed: “There is no reason to lose quality. There is nothing magical about a 5 or 6 o’clock deadline. Some stories are ready at 10 a.m., some at 2 p.m., some at 8 p.m. It is a different mindset.”
Haile supports those editors who implement the combined newsroom, but stresses that it must include a clear directive about choosing priorities so that workers are not overwhelmed. “A lot of papers are cutting back on what their scope is,” he says, claiming that many focus only on news that others will not have, often local news.
Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, has also studied the monetary and journalistic toll that increased Web coverage has taken on modern newsrooms. He says newspapers have cut back some of the print demand in favor of online, noting that most major metros have lost 10% to 20% of their print newshole in the past five years. Many papers have decided to do away with stock listings and TV pages. But he says at least half of that loss has come at the expense of the main news sections: “It’s coming chunk by chunk, here and there.”
The impact is felt in coverage as well. “You have to drop a few things off of the bottom of your to-do list,” he explains. “I suspect that writers and editors have not figured out which things they are going to let go of.”
Edmonds stresses that most papers have not actively reorganized to better handle the demands. Poynter staffers visited a dozen newsrooms in 2006 to study the impact of the Web increases, and judging by what he saw, “I don’t think too many news organizations have approached the question in a very structured way. More of it happens as it happens. It is a concerning trend.” Providing staffers clearer guidelines on coverage expectations, he adds, benefits everyone in the end.
“Reporters probably can do their jobs more efficiently than 20 years ago,” he says. “You have Google, cell phones, but at the end of the day, you have to have good people.”
He adds that, eventually, the print demand will lessen: “It will be transitional. Step by step, more Web and less print.”
Get your ‘MoJo’ working
Gannett is one of the leading chains pushing Web migration among its papers. Its groundbreaking “Information Center” approach has already been implemented in several shops, with plans for a complete rollout at all 90 dailies by May 1. The general approach is to reorganize print and online reporting into one overall news center, which feeds the Web, print, and even cell phone reports. Gannett spokeswoman Tara Connell contends that the refashioned newsroom is organized in a way that does not add workload or cut back on extra time. “It is a platform-agnostic approach,” she says. “It changes the workload so it is spread out for the entire day.”
But some Gannett editors admit the new approach is adding work and forcing a reduction in some coverage. “No question that some of our reporters are turning out more stories. But we have always had people who are able to do more and just ask,” says Alan English, executive editor of The Times in Shreveport, La. He adds that the core geographic area is shrinking because the paper is increasingly targeting local residents: “Readers who are an hour and a half away will probably not see as much coverage as they used to. We have given up something, because we can’t do everything.”
Times reporter Joel Anderson, who covers Shreveport City Hall, now has fewer chances to work sources or do longer, in-depth coverage. “I don’t have as much time to go over and spend time at City Hall as I used to,” he says. “Instead of thinking about a longer story, you are forced to think in snippets [for the Web].”
Gannett also has installed numerous Mobile Journalists, or “MoJos,” who work mostly from their cars and post online items throughout the day, often with little outside editing or extended reporting. The News-Press in Fort Myers has been a guinea pig of sorts for the approach, with 12 reporters using the mobile Web kits and laptops. There are plans for even more staffers to join them. “We are having to gather information in new ways,” says Executive Editor Kate Marymont. “They are out, immersed in the community to learn what the community cares about ? primarily, Web.”
News-Press reporter Mark Krzos, who roams Bonita Springs in his 2002 Volkswagen Jetta, gathers news ranging from new restaurants to car accidents. His items, which often include photos he shoots, are posted quickly via his laptop computer, usually with no outside editing. “It affects the quality, but not drastically,” he says. “Editors come in through the day and watch what is being posted. They will go in and say, ‘Mark, you dropped a period here.’ So I go in and fix it.”
Marymont admits that this approach takes time away from source-building or other networking for future stories. “We are feeling our way through this,” she explains. “Reporters need time to cultivate sources, and you can’t listen intelligently if your fingers are flying all the time.”