The Best-Staffed Newspaper in America
This report is part of an effort by The Poynter Institute and the Project for Excellence in Journalism to develop standards for measuring news capacity.
Back in the mid-1990s, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram was an average newspaper with an average staffing level, 280 full-time equivalencies (FTEs) for a circulation of about 230,000. Then its neighbor 30 miles to the east, the mighty Dallas Morning News, decided to crank up news coverage and circulation efforts in suburban Arlington and the fast-growing area near Dallas-Fort Worth airport.
To Fort Worth eyes, the initiative looked like an invasion -– Texas-style, big-time. And even under essentially temporary ownership by the Walt Disney Company, the Star-Telegram mobilized quickly to expand two zoned editions in East Tarrant County and grow its news staff to 405 FTEs. The Morning News never crawled back home but has effectively been held at bay.
A Knight Ridder paper since 1997, the Star-Telegram took a staffing hit of 30 positions in 2001. But with 370 FTEs and 336 full-time professional staff as of the beginning of this year, it is still, proportionate to circulation size, the best-staffed 200,000-plus paper in the nation. And by a lot, not a little.
How that came to be is straightforward -- there was a competitive imperative and the Star-Telegram did what it needed to do. But the results have proved more complicated and the benefits to both news and business sides more significant than anticipated. (Knight Ridder, like most companies, does not typically disclose staffing levels at individual newspapers but agreed to make an exception in this instance.)
In a confidential survey of reader satisfaction Knight Ridder conducts at its 30 newspapers, the Star-Telegram has finished first three consecutive times. At the peak of the competition with the Morning News it was running 50 pages a week of prep sports and still does that coverage on a jumbo scale. For the last two years, its sports section has joined the Morning News as being rated in the top ten nationally.
A big newshole, wholesale local-section zoning, deploying experienced editors and reporters to the two suburban bureaus and making a mini-religion of useful, reader friendly presentation are all embedded practices. Lately the focus and ambition of investigative projects have increased –- including an unflinching series in October on Jim Crow days, tracking down black and white protagonists and even a couple of lynching trees.
You might suppose all this comes at the cost, to a famously profit-focused parent company, of reluctantly forgoing a few points of margin. Not so. Always a good earner, the Star-Telegram has increased profits 45 percent over the last five years. In September publisher Wes Turner won Knight Ridder’s highest internal award with effusive praise for running an enterprise "that continues to excel by every measure that’s important to a newspaper."
Turns out Turner’s approach, that of Executive Editor Jim Witt (a 17-year Star-Telegram veteran appointed to the top job in 1996) and the hand dealt by the Morning News challenge are a near-perfect fit. When Knight Ridder first arrived, Witt recalled, the corporate reaction was "Jesus, you have a lot of people here." But credit the corporation with trusting the locals that the numbers were part of doing it right, and that efficiencies could wait.
The big local report and extensive zoning are still "an expensive proposition," Turner said. "But offsetting that is an opportunity to sell local advertising to premium positions. It makes a big difference that we have live, seven-day-a-week zoning as opposed to advance-run sections."
"Knight Ridder does not tell us what to charge," he continued, "and we are not afraid to offer a lower rate in the interest of volume." That reflects the notion that a high ad count creates what Turner called "a marketplace for readers," itself attractive newspaper content. (That is among the findings of a current series of industry-sponsored studies by the Readership Institute at Northwestern University, but some papers have preferred to be aggressive with rates, accepting a smaller number of ads as a result).
So is this winning formula particular to Fort Worth, a robust retail market with a modest wage scale? "No, we think it is the way to go," said Turner, "though it doesn’t happen without a major commitment to the product." He pursued a similar strategy in an earlier posting as general manager at the Kansas City Star, another of the Cap Cities papers sold to Disney and then Knight Ridder. Accustomed to an ample news presentation at home, Turner, when he travels, has the familiar complaint that some papers these days seem not to have much in them.
Witt voiced a parallel thought about business-side basics: "I don’t understand a model that says we’re giving you less but want you to pay more."
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The Star-Telegram has all three of the characteristics that typically go with a high staffing ratio –- a growth market, strong competition in at least part of the circulation area, and intensive zoning. (In Fort Worth, that is a thorough remake of the three zones daily and some more finely-targeted local supplements on Sunday).
As reported here yesterday, there is great variation in how papers of comparable circulation are staffed, and the differences appear to be more influenced by circumstances than by type of ownership.
Besides the Star-Telegram, two of the top five papers in staff ratio could be called "super-zoned" –- suburban dailies in large metropolitan areas that have assembled sizable circulation with a bunch of local editions and no core-city base. The other two are among the 14 papers (though not among the best known) in the 50,000-plus circulation range owned by Advance, the Newhouse family chain with a reputation for generous staffing.
Numbers six, seven, and eight all are owned by or associated with religions -– presumably managing in a business-like manner but with other purposes than maximizing the bottom line.
And being well-staffed is not entirely a badge of honor out in the rough-and-tumble of annual budget negotiations. Informed where his paper stood (ninth) in this analysis, one editor said, "Don’t tell a soul –- especially my boss."
A scan of the highest staff ratios found another paper that, like Fort Worth, is fighting off a bigger, aggressive competitor in its backyard, and, in this case, having a hard time of it. Private-chain CEOs also appear sometimes to give an extra portion of staff to their hometown paper or another with personal significance in the group.
At the other end of the list, the ten papers with the lowest staffing ratios include a different set of special cases. There are tabloid second papers in large cities, compact by design and thus needing relatively less staff (some, not all such papers). The list includes two big-city papers which have lots of circulation but more modest editorial ambition than others in their weight class. Also, there are two pairs of Joint Operating Agreement papers; those cities are now effectively getting a choice between two leanly-staffed daily reports.
This analysis, by design, did not seek to identify by name a representative poorly staffed paper and sketch its profile. That seemed outside the sprit of our confidentiality agreement with ASNE. Nor does the study try to assess whether, as a number of commentators contend, today’s "average" staffing levels and editorial performance –- especially on serious news and public service -- may have slid considerably from a peak sometime in the past.
Four corporations had newspapers in both the best- and worst-ratio groups (and there were independents in each group). That further confirms that the level varies greatly with circumstances. Some knowledgeable analysts like John Lavine at the Readership Institute or Ray Carlsen, executive director of the Inland Press Association, say the measure is so crude as not to mean much.
Also, while circulation provides a necessary adjustment of scale in comparing newspapers, it does so in a way that could sometimes be perverse. A paper that has been particularly successful in growth and household penetration might look relatively skimpy in a comparison of staff ratios with an underachiever in circulation.
In an earlier essay in May, I suggested that the ratio, by itself, could be a major building block of an index of an individual paper’s news capacity. That probably makes sense only if there is an adjustment for the presence or absence of relevant special circumstances. That said, staff complement remains central to any editor’s view of whether resources are adequate to do a good job. Editors (readers and citizens too) might still wish to know how they compare, in this and other measures of capacity like newshole, and whether their paper moves up, down, or sideways in coming years.
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So just what does the Star-Telegram do editorially with all those people?
They deploy 70 FTEs to each of the suburban bureaus, a mix that includes senior editors and reporters. It has taken a sustained push on traditional newsroom culture, Witt concedes, to get across that these are assignments of comparable value to any other, rather than time served to get downtown.
They field a 90-person sports department, 20 of those dedicated to preps.
Necessity probably put the Star-Telegram ahead of the curve in making suburbanizing a first principle rather than an add-on. "Metros have changed," said Lois Norder, editor of the Northeast Tarrant bureau. "Life doesn’t necessarily revolve around the big city anymore. People live, shop and even work out there." So what is needed is a news report that is "fairly sophisticated -- parochial geographically but [with] depth."
Said Witt, "In some ways, it is the mindset of a 5,000-circulation weekly -– what are people talking about? I probably spend more time in a week now talking to readers than I did all the years I was at the [now defunct] Miami News." The paper did a self-audit for usefulness last year, he said, and found that 60 percent of stories passed the test of making some what-it-means-to-a-reader connection, and half the rest could have been re-edited to add that.
A brief visit suggests that this relentless focus on reader-friendly content and presentation is staff intensive. Eighteen months ago the Star-Telegram launched a signature "News 2 Use" feature on page 2A. It is heavy on health and personal finance but detours to other topics like a guide to the confusing new parking pattern at DFW airport or the lyrics to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and other patriotic songs ("Everyone was singing them at Rotary after September 11," Witt said). Viewed as different and a little odd at first, he said, the page has grown popular and is even a candidate for broader use within Knight Ridder, or syndication. Hunting down and assembling the items is the job of a fairly senior editor.
Put the Star-Telegram down as dedicated, but not over the top, in this reader orientation –- much of it basically an application to a traditional news mix. The paper has a correspondent along the Mexican border and immediately deployed 10 staffers to New York after September 11. Witt allowed that a Knight Ridder powwow this fall on measuring editorial quality gave him some pause when the conclusion was that the only valid way was reader perception. Would the next survey come on the heels of the Jim Crow series, which was "inflammatory but something we needed to do"?
As the newspaper becomes the stuff of prize citations within Knight Ridder, the Turner-Witt duo take pains to avoid complacency. Circulation and household penetration, up the last six months, had been less than wonderful for several years, thanks in part, Turner said, to a pair of "self-inflicted" systems snafus. Accepting that the news operation was due for some tightening, Witt said that like most editors he now feels he could do more with a few more people –- a better job in the Hispanic community or faster expansion of a fledgling four-person investigative team with its own managing editor.
If there is any giddiness in the ranks about the Dallas Morning News faceoff, Turner is quick to correct it: "We didn’t win in Arlington. They just adjusted their strategy for now –- and they’re still a presence."
The Star-Telegram won two Pulitzers in the early 1980s but hasn’t made it to the finals lately. Nor did it figure in the 1999 Columbia Journalism Review ranking of America’s best papers. How has it flown below the industry radar this long? Witt reflected, then said, "Well, we weren’t all that good until recently." This used to be the kind of place where tough stories on local heavy hitters disappeared into the publisher’s office and never returned -– not current practice, Witt said, but a rep for pulling punches takes years of undoing. Also, Witt said, he and Turner have generally chosen to stay home and stick to their knitting rather than seek a high profile in national professional organizations where news executives and their papers gain recognition. Now, Witt and his deputies seem eager for more of a look-me-over.
That leaves the question of how good a paper the Star-Telegram is after five years of super-sized staffing. Absent an expert panel, here is an impression: Top regional papers like the St. Petersburg Times and Raleigh News & Observer consistently deliver some yarn-spinning and grace notes along with ample, well-grounded journalism. In Fort Worth, things loosen up on the features page, and marquee sports columnist Randy Galloway is smooth as a songbird, but the norm for stories and headlines is workaday clear. (Unlike me, many readers may prefer that to literary reach.) I would still put the Star-Telegram even or ahead of a number of papers I’ve seen in recent years that made the CJR top 30 or are reputed to be fast-improving. There is a lot in it, clearly presented, and the reader-friendly focus without dumbed-down gimmicks comes through.
And if you accept as a partial diagnosis of what ails journalism that there are just too many anorexic papers out there, the Star-Telegram is a cheering contemporary example of the good things that can happen, news-side and business-side, going the opposite direction.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story reported that the Star-Telegram devotes less than 8 percent of its revenue to news and editorial expenses. In fact, the newspaper spends 10.5 percent in those areas, just a bit higher than the industry average.