Efficiency: The Final Cut

Most discussions of the state and fate of the business of news start with revenue and a search for the means to recover what has been lost to the internet so we can pay for and thus protect newsrooms as they were. Sorry, but I will begin on the other side of the ledger with the cost of journalism. It has plummeted, not just because we have less money to spend but because we can now spend less to get and disseminate the news. Thanks to technology, specialization, and collaboration, news can be much more efficient today.

Many technologies have saved news organizations a fortune. I enjoyed reading a 1901 piece in The New York Times recounting how photographers were displacing the illustrators who used to rush to the scenes of news to sketch what they saw and who, on deadline, would describe their drawings over the newfangled telegraph to other illustrators who’d render their images. A bit closer to our era, when I started in the business in the ’70s, computers replaced Linotypes with digital and photographic processes to set type. Next, computers allowed news organizations to “save keystrokes,” in the jargon of the day, meaning that typesetters — both people and machines — were no longer needed to retype text once it had been written on a reporter’s keyboard. Next, computers consolidated design and production functions, eliminating the need for large backshop operations to compose pages. All those savings, eliminating entire job descriptions, labor forces, and unions with them, came before the ’80s were out. Others followed: Facsimile reproduction of pages allowed printing presses to move out of expensive city real estate into remote printing plants. Facsimile reproduction tied to satellite transmission led to the birth of USA Today and the spread of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal as America’s first national newspapers. Digital photography eliminated the need for film processing. Microfilm and then digital storage killed newspaper libraries, aptly called morgues. Technology was very good to the news industry, until it wasn’t.

Even with all that disruption and downsizing, still greater efficiency and savings have been brought to news by the internet — particularly the web and its essential invention: the link, which rewards both specialization and collaboration. “Do what you do best and link to the rest” is my most quoted, retweeted, and PowerPointed utterance (it helps that it rhymes). Out of that dictum flows a series of new efficiencies and necessities for news. The first is to specialize. There’s little sense wasting your time writing the 25th-best account of a story when it will appear on the third page of a search request and in only a few tweets; mediocrity and repetition don’t pay anymore, at least not for long. But there is considerable value in creating the best, for others will end up linking to you.

Back in the day, any metro newspaper in the U.S. had to deliver the world to its audience, who were spread just as far as trucks or trains could take the paper’s early edition in a day without butting into the next city and its newspapers. (When I worked at the Chicago Tribune, our early edition, inexplicably called a “bulldog,” would travel as far as Canada. Because the paper was conservative, my Republican grandmother who lived 200 miles to the south was nonetheless a loyal subscriber.) Today, of course, the world is but a click away: A reader in Chicago can get to the coverage of the Guardian, The New York Times, the BBC, or native news reports in faraway lands. So the Chicago Tribune must specialize in Chicago. It must deliver the most useful, impactful, insightful reporting on Chicago that it can. It must build a stronger relationship with the people of the region than anyone else could hope to do. If it is not the best, then the door is open to new competitors. With dwindling resources, there’s no time anymore to worry about rewriting an AP story about doings in D.C. just so readers (and writers’ grandmothers) will be impressed with the reportorial reach of the paper. It must do only what it can do best.

The link forces us to reexamine the scoop culture of news — the belief that being first is always worthwhile. Today the half-life of a scoop is measured in the time it takes to click. It simply doesn’t pay anymore to be the first to report what will happen in a press conference when that will then be reported by hundreds of competitors, each a click away. Neither does it pay to “match” a competitor’s scoop, duplicating its reporting when linking to it will do — unless your reporting does take a story further. A true scoop, something that is worth our precious resources, is an investigation that breaks new ground or an insight from a reporter who knows her beat and her community better than anyone else. The rest is just the next minute’s fishwrap, digital dust.

In an age of specialization, a local newspaper — for example — will end up having to jettison most anything that doesn’t serve that local mission. I don’t regret the loss of local newspapers’ international and national bureaus. The New Yorker’s media writer, Ken Auletta, once challenged me on this point. Doesn’t it make sense, he asked, for the Los Angeles Times to have an Asian bureau? Listen to that notion, I replied: one person to cover all of Asia? Considering the cost of such a bureau and the fact that it produces only the occasional report from a correspondent who is helicoptered in, wouldn’t the paper’s money be better spent and wouldn’t it be a better service to international business executives and diasporal readers in Southern California to hire a few multilingual journalists in L.A. with specialties in business and politics to monitor, translate, summarize, contextualize, and link to original media from Asia? I would argue that — long before the ruination of Sam Zell’s ownership — the Los Angeles Times began to lose its way and its sense of mission when it decided to shift ambition from covering its gargantuan city — which was hard enough — to opening bureaus around the country and the world in hopes of competing with The New York Times as a national power. That was its ego speaking.

As Andrew Pettegree chronicles in his painstaking history, The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself, the first reporters were foreign correspondents who sent their private dispatches from distant ports to their business and political patrons. The first private manuscript newsletters — made possible with the building of the first postal networks — and then the first newspapers continued to deliver foreign news in part because local news was too hot to handle with monarchs warily breathing down the necks of the earliest publishers. The invention and spread of the telegraph led to the growth of the job description of foreign correspondent, as Robert H. Patton describes in his book, Hell Before Breakfast: America’s First War Correspondents Making History and Headlines, from the Battlefields of the Civil War to the Far Reaches of the Ottoman Empire. But those correspondents often covered events not out of relevance to the audience back home but instead for the exoticism of describing a world beyond sight and imagination. The telegraph also led to the creation of the first wire services and thus the first commodity news that many outlets could distribute at once. Yes, international and national reporting are a time-honored tradition in our business. I still hear the moans that without these bureaus newspapers will never be the same. But we mustn’t limit our definition of quality to what we used to do. And where there is a vacuum, there is opportunity. I attended a meeting at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society in 2004 at which Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon founded Global Voices Online, a platform that allowed so-called bridge-bloggers to read, translate, and link to bloggers reporting news all around the world. Nearby, Charlie Sennott, a decommissioned foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe, founded Global Post to install reporters in cities around the world so that it could provide news to a network of publications that could, in turn, assign and thus help support these correspondents. Foreign reporting does not go away just because some newspapers can’t afford to do it. If we are still lucky enough to have a few great outlets — The New York Times, The Guardian, the BBC — reporting from abroad, then we should reward them and our readers with our links to them.

Many job descriptions have already been eliminated or should be eliminated in a hard-nosed analysis of what is necessary to fulfill the targeted mission of a local publication. There’s little need for the old national editor or wire editor. I will raise much dander with this statement: We can’t afford copy editors any longer. Oh, I wish we could; I used to be one myself and many a copy editor saved me from many a humiliating mistake. They unquestionably assured better quality and accuracy in the work of any news organization. But if you were an editor faced with the need to cut back while still producing as much value as possible for the public, would you lay off a reporter or a copy editor? If you have the rare opportunity to hire someone new, will you hire a community engagement editor or a copy editor? The prudent editor-in-chief must think twice before retaining other luxuries once considered necessities — production editors, page designers, news editors, rewritemen, movie and TV critics, business columnists, golf writers, assistant managing editors, or the expense accounts that have sent 4,000 reporters to Rome to cover the choice of a new Pope (no scoops there) or 15,000 journalists to the American political conventions (no real news there, either) — instead of keeping, or better yet adding, to the ranks of local reporters who cover and serve the community. It is unfortunate that so many people — from typesetters to arts reporters, from mailers to movie writers — have lost their jobs. But our economic reality demands harsh prioritization.

We need to reexamine whether entire sections of newspapers and magazines that were created to build audience or revenue are still worth the resources that go into them. Take — just for the sake of illustration — sports. Unless you are a paper known for sports like the New York Daily News, or you work in a sports-mad market like Alabama, odds are that your sports section attracts a minority of readers — about 20 percent in my outdated experience. When mass-media economics were in force (namely: that all readers see all ads so we charge all advertisers for all readers, a myth whose implications I will explore) then that 20 percent of incremental readership was quite valuable. But today, online, we get paid only for the ads readers actually see. And sports sections, historically, drew few ads — mostly for tires (under the sexist logic that men read sports and men buy tires). Further, there are now plenty of sites that specialize in sports — from ESPN to SB Nation, from fan blogs to the teams and leagues themselves — and most times they can do a better job of game coverage than stretched newspapers can. If pro sports coverage no longer draws audience to the rest of our reporting, if it draws fewer advertisers than other specialties, and if our coverage is inferior to what readers can find a click away, why do it? If coverage of high-school sports brings in many readers who look at that and nothing else, if there isn’t advertising revenue to support it, and if the effort does not fulfill our journalistic mission, then is it better to devote reportorial resources to the topic or to build platforms that allow schools and fans to share their own scores and reports? Would those resources be better spent elsewhere, in an area of coverage in which the paper specializes?

When I’ve had such discussions on Twitter, I get in trouble with fans of sports coverage who point to some great writing done in its service or to investigative journalism uncovering dangers or corruption. Stipulated. But I respond by asking them what percentage of the total cost, space, and time devoted to sports qualifies as such critical journalism. How much amounts instead to game reports that could be produced by Narrative Science, the service whose algorithms take structured data like sports scores, financial results, and government information and turns them into narrative? Can we still afford to be all things to all people? We can perform similar tough-minded analyses of business, entertainment, and various lifestyle categories of coverage. Some of them certainly do bring value to readers — for example, I still want news and reviews of local restaurants, though Yelp, Foursquare, TripAdvisor, OpenTable’s menus, and other platforms do a better job of giving me more information about restaurants than a lone newspaper critic ever could. It’s tragic that newspapers lost out on the opportunity to build such services; if only they had thought like platform-builders instead of storytellers. Legacy news organizations need to examine everything they do and ask whether they can specialize and endeavor to be the best in each category. Then they need to ask whether the resources spent in each category will still earn sufficient revenue and audience to justify the effort. Am I suggesting that every newspaper oust its sports department? No. I am suggesting instead that every news organization perform a starkly honest audit of both the journalistic and economic value that all its activities bring under its current, unbundled business models. I use sports as a provocative example.

Just as specialization allows large enterprises to become more efficient, it also opens up opportunities for newcomers to start businesses at a small scale. Baristanet started covering just Montclair, New Jersey, then Barista Moms started serving just the mothers in town. Rather than thinking he had to start the next Wall Street Journal to cover business, journalistic entrepreneur Rafat Ali started the site PaidContent.org to cover only digital media and later Skift.com only for the travel industry. PinkNews.com covers news for gays, and before going to work for them, our entrepreneurial student Sara Sugar proposed a business to serve only lesbians — New York lesbians at that. Because you can now find your public and they you — thanks to the link — it’s possible for journalistic entrepreneurs to find the sweet spot where efficiency and critical mass of audience meet at a much smaller scale than before.

Entrepreneurial journalists can now specialize not just in the subject but also in the form of news. Wikipedia happened upon its role providing backgrounders for most any topic in the news, then Vox.com saw the opportunity to create a slickly packaged commercial competitor. Cir.ca and BreakingNews.com specialize in updates and alerts. There are more business opportunities to be had in unbundling the inverted pyramid.

The other great force of efficiency brought about by the web and the emergence of news ecosystems is collaboration. Its benefits are far from fully realized. A metropolitan paper cannot afford to have reporters in every town and every town council in its circulation area — of course, it never could. But now a local news ecosystem can support many independent, hyperlocal bloggers covering suburban towns or city neighborhoods. Thus the big, old paper can link to or even embed the work of the upstarts. And the little guys can do likewise with the big paper. They complement each other, and in New Jersey we are beginning to see them collaborate with each other on reporting.

News enterprises large and small should also collaborate with the publics they serve. That volunteerism — the desire to share what neighbors know with each other, the willingness to chip in on a project of mutual benefit — is a source of nonmonetary value creation in news that is all but untapped and unmeasured, but we see the beginnings of it. In the early days of blogging, I remember many a disapproving or disbelieving editor asking how I or any journalist could have the time to devote to my site. I said that done well, blogging — and later tweeting — saved me time, for it allowed me to get help from my readers, my small but generous public. My readers give me tips and answer my questions and all too often correct me. Collaboration is not just a nice and neighborly thing to do. Collaboration is an economic necessity for the survival of journalism. But we shouldn’t think of collaboration as just asking the public to do our work, crowdsourcing it. True collaborators help each other. We should help the public share and work with each other, providing platforms that allow people to connect and gather their knowledge with journalists adding value where we can. There is another layer of efficiency: The more the public can share its own information without effort and expense from us, the more information exists in a community, the less we have to do to get it, and the more we can specialize in our highest value activity: reporting. I will argue that in such an ecosystem, we can end up with more reporting than we used to have.

The news organization of the future should be specialized, expert, collaborative, efficient — and as small as it can be so it is sustainable. The bottom line: News enterprises that become profitable on their digital revenue are bound to be much smaller than their print forebears because, for all the reasons explored above, there’s simply less digital revenue to be had. This hard fact forces us to redefine the core of our value and to rebuild from there rather than trying to hold onto the functions we used to perform because we’ve always performed them. We must cut the waste. Go to Google News, search for any current news subject of note, and see how much redundancy that exposes. On the day that I write this in 2014, I find 7,301 articles on Germany’s World Cup victory, 477 on the floating of the shipwrecked Costa Concordia, 7,959 on LeBron James’ return to Cleveland. As an industry, we are wasting a sinful proportion of our shrinking resources on such repetition when a link to the two or three best specialists would give users better service and save money to devote to coverage worth linking to — and to building a business based on quality, engagement, and attention rather than just volume.

What are we trying to save of journalism? I have heard many editors challenge me over the years: “How are you going to support my newsroom?” I respond that there’s nothing to say their newsrooms should stay as they were. I still hear concerned citizens worry that with shrinking newsrooms, we will lose investigative reporting and watchdogs over government and powerful institutions. I worry, too. But just because we are losing jobs in large, legacy organizations — a drop of 35.5 percent from a 1989 high of 56,900 newsroom employees to 36,700 in 2013, according to the American Society of News (née Newspaper) Editors — that doesn’t mean that we need to lose their most important work. Here we need to continue our audit of the resources spent in what we call journalism and the return on that investment in terms of impact and value for the public. How small is the proportion of news budgets — including TV and magazines — that goes to investigations and keeping watch on the powerful? What proportion of the loss in jobs came simply through the efficiencies that resulted from new technologies? How much do we still spend today on repetition, stenography, and fluff?

This calculation leads to the obvious but critical question: What is the journalism that matters? In this essay, I have accordioned my definition of journalism as it suits the discussion at hand. I started by defining journalism quite broadly: helping a community organize its knowledge so it can better organize itself. Then I narrowed the definition of the journalism sharply to focus on the journalism that matters, arguing that if it is not advocacy, it is not journalism — that is, if it does not strive to have a positive impact on the lives of citizens, then it is not journalism. If it does not hold power to account on behalf of citizens, it is not journalism. If it merely covers the baseball game or the county fair or the latest fire, that is not necessarily journalism. Journalism changes its world. I will readily concede that is too narrow a definition of journalism. I can and shortly will expand the accordion again and argue that news should include most any means of helping communities get whatever information they need or want and, yes, that can include entertainment, sports, food, lifestyle, service, and more. But for the purposes of the harsh audit I suggest at this moment, we must use the narrow definition, identifying the journalism we must not lose or else our informed society and thus our democracy are imperiled. This is an economic calculation, a zero-base analysis of what we must protect, what we must support and sustain financially.

What is included in such high journalism? Most people begin with investigative journalism. I agree. But I don’t think investigative journalism is economically imperiled for three reasons: First, it’s still attention-grabbing, so news organizations old and new (see: Vice and First Look Media) will continue to do it for the gratification, engagement, awards, and branding it brings. Second, there are lots of new nonprofits — ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, The Texas Tribune, the Center for Public Integrity, to name the most prominent — now contributing to the news ecosystem with their investigations. And third, given the limited absolute dollars actually spent on investigations, it is conceivable that the investigative reporting produced now could be covered by philanthropy and patronage. But maintaining the investigative status quo is a low standard indeed; I hope that by carefully allocating resources and collaborating with others, we can increase the effort put into investigations.

Note well that investigative journalism springs mostly from two sources: whistleblowers’ leaks and beat reporters’ expertise. I will argue then that the most critical brick needed to rebuild the temple of high journalism is the beat. The beat reporter gains expertise in a coverage area — a town, a city hall, a cop shop, a federal agency, a field of medicine, a slice of science, an angle of the economy, an underserved community. She knows what to ask — and today, after building the new relationship with the public as I described in the first part of this essay, she can be better equipped to know what her community needs to know. She can listen for the community’s questions. She knows where to find the answers — and today there are more places to look because many of the people with answers (for example, economists) have taken to blogging and speaking directly to the public. Thus it’s easier to find experts or witnesses. The beat reporter gets to know the norm so she can identify the anomalies where stories lurk: For example, the lanes closed for no reason at the George Washington Bridge, a story dug up by beat reporters at The Record of Bergen County and The Wall Street Journal who weren’t classified as investigative reporters but who investigated New Jersey’s governor and his staff tenaciously. The beat reporter is accountable to the community she serves and — as I will explore later — can be held to account on the basis of metrics more worthwhile than pageviews and likes; she is valued on the utility she delivers and the trust she earns.

Here at last is the start of good news for the business of journalism. Once the industry has been pared to its essence and its essentials, once we determine what matters most and needs protection, once we find the means to support that work, then journalism can grow again. And I think there is a good chance it will scale not from the top down with new giants replacing the old but instead from the bottom up with beats. The reason I say that’s good news: because a beat can be a business.

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