How Do I Beat Quota Journalism?

February 16, 2008
Category: Uncategorized

Q. I’m looking for a reporting job at a daily newspaper after spending the first two years of my career at a weekly.

At the weekly newspaper where I work, quantity trumps quality by far. In order to meet our quotas, we have to keep our research and interviewing time to a minimum because that cuts into our writing time. We can rarely afford to leave the office and do in-person interviews because of the time involved, so almost all of our interviewing is done by phone.

The editor tells us to fluff up our stories with extra quotes and minor information. Rather than guiding us to write better, she pushes us to write faster and finish each story in less time so that we can write more stories per week.

The result is usually superficial reporting, although I put as much extra effort as time allows into the more important stories.

Where I work, good reporters who kept their stories concise have been fired for failing to meet the quota.

I have managed to adapt to these requirements, but the quality of my stories has suffered. Looking at my best clips, they are good considering the conditions I work under. But I’m concerned they will not look good to the daily newspaper editors I’m sending them to.

My clips are many times longer than a typical daily newspaper would print. They also don’t show much evidence of enterprise work.

How much will this hurt me in my job hunt, and how can I compensate for it? Thanks in advance.

From the Paragraph Factory

A. Bad clips will hurt a job hunt, and unreasonable workloads are not good for your development or fulfillment. But quotas are real as newspapers try to serve increasing numbers of niches with declining staffs.

I once interviewed a person who had similar circumstances in her job as a bureau reporter at a large newspaper. There, the imperative was on numbers of stories — though they had to be of a certain length, as well. She told me that she was worried that if she worked under a copy quota, she would generate only quota clips.

I told her that one reason we had flown her in for an interview was that she had good clips. I asked her how she did that under the quota system.

She said she would work her butt off Monday through Wednesday, trying to accomplish the week’s quota in three or four days. The stories were thinly reported and shallow, but they helped her make quota. Then, she wrote one really good story a week on a topic she had saved for just that purpose. Those were the clips she used to get out of there.

She went on to become an executive editor.

Coming Monday: He is about to embark on his career and wonders whether shared ownership really makes editors at one paper look more favorably on another.