April 7, 2003

By Rick Edmonds (more by author)
The Poynter Institute

Even before Esther Thorson began her comprehensive review of academic research on journalism and business, we at Poynter had become intrigued by a related question. For the last couple of years, we have been wondering if it is possible to define something we’re calling news capacity in a comprehensive, contemporary way. What would be the components? And could we measure them?

We recognize that for editors, applying metrics to the newsroom may be viewed with some suspicion.

Let me say at the outset that this isn’t another efficiency/productivity study in sheep’s clothing. It isn’t a byline quota. And it isn’t like one of those calls from corporate saying, “They seem to do fine with six business reporters in Middletown. Why do you need seven?”

Rather, our goal is to help editors have businesslike discussions of resources with corporate management, based more on hard facts and less on protective rhetoric than those of the recent past.

We plan to continue research on such categories as staffing, news spending, news hole, diversity, training, enterprise, community ties, and newsroom culture. In this article, I will explain some of what we have learned about one element of capacity: news staffing.

My research was based on the annual newsroom census that ASNE compiles in pursuit of diversity goals. That included more than four-fifths of the papers with circulation over 50,000. For purposes of analysis, I knew the identities of individual papers, but I treated them confidentially unless management agreed to put their staffing numbers on the record.

Some of what we found was what you would suppose, some not. Add it up and it strongly suggests that putting more into news need not be a drain on the bottom line. In fact, it could enhance profits.

Here are some highlights:

OWNERSHIP. Public companies turned out to be not much different at all from others, either in their average staffing levels or how deeply they cut news staff in 2001.

RULE OF THUMB. It’s not 1 FTE per 1,000 circulation any more. Pagination and other changes have driven the average to 1.2 to 1.3 — higher for smaller papers and lower for larger ones because of economies of scale.

BUSINESS LOGIC. Ratios at individual papers vary a lot from that moving average. I was told that competition, a complicated zoning, or a fast-growth market can justify additional news staff, and many of the best-staffed papers have all three of those special circumstances. Three companies had a paper both among the top 10 and bottom 10 in staffing ratio. So, my conclusion is that business logic — not just Wall Street pressure or a company’s degree of editorial enlightenment — seem to have a big role in how much staff an individual paper gets.

UNEQUAL RESOURCES. All that said, the gap between highest and lowest staffing ratios is startlingly wide. Some papers are putting nearly twice the number of professional reporters and editors to work for their readers as others.

QUALITY. Does that translate into higher quality? Yes and no. I found that a large majority of the top 21 papers — as rated by a 1999 Columbia Journalism Review survey — had a generous complement of news staff, as you would expect. But looking from the reverse direction, the results were more mixed. The papers with the highest staffing ratios didn’t look to me and my Poynter colleagues like any list we had seen of the nation’s best. Also, some outstanding papers seem to succeed with a fairly average number of staff. That suggests what editors already know — that leadership matters. Two hundred people, well led, will accomplish more than 225 coming to work each morning and trying to figure out what they ought to be doing. That’s 225, not 375. To be clear on that last point, the numbers matter, too, as does the skill level of the staff.

AN ENCOURAGING EXAMPLE. To supplement these numbers, I profiled the paper with the highest staff-circulation ratio among those with more than 200,000 circulation — the Fort Worth Star Telegram. That newspaper added more than 100 FTEs, mainly because of a competitive threat in their home county from the Dallas Morning News. However, financial performance did not suffer as one might suppose. Profits actually increased 45 percent in five years. Why? The bigger staff allowed creation of two strong, 7-day-a-week, live-news, zoned editions. That, in turn, created a good opportunity to sell additional advertising. It is a single example — though I think a powerful one — of how an investment in news capacity can pay off.

The Fort Worth dynamic matches Esther Thorson’s model. More news investment over time bolsters circulation and ad sales. Cuts could easily hurt both. But I am aware that editors’ discussions with the business side about a right-sized news staff also take part in a here-and-now context. How many people can we afford? So I’ll close with two business points.

A QUESTION OF SCALE. You could add 10 experienced reporters and editors at a paper of 225,000 circulation at a cost of 0.5 percent of earnings, by my calculation. And with very rare exceptions, newspapers are highly profitable — “cash cows,” if you will.

In fact, at the industry’s investors’ and analysts’ conferences each December, company presentations often include a slide entitled, “What to Do With the Cash Flow?” Typical answers include things like paying down debt or share-repurchase plans.

My wish is that sometime soon our industry chieftains will start that section of their presentation by saying, “Of course, we are re-investing every year in keeping the news core of our newspapers strong.” Until then, I hope that the news and business sides are at least on the way to having, as one newspaper company CEO put it in a speech at Stanford last December, a “more modulated conversation about journalism,” and its value.

Rick Edmonds is an independent researcher, analyst, and writer, specializing in journalism and business issues. Since 1998, he has been doing extensive research and writing for The Poynter Institute. In his previous life, Rick worked as an assistant to Scotty Reston, as a writer and reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and as editor of Florida Trend magazine.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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