How Many Stories Does Your Hometown Newspaper Produce?

That’s what Jay Rosen is asking in a study at MediaShift Idea Lab. He’s trying to establish some sort of starting barometer for how much journalism we would need to “replace” if newspapers went away. Basically he’s asking people to take one daily print edition of their local newspaper and count up:

  • Number of locally-produced NEWS stories for which original reporting is required, including business and features and news sections. In Jay’s words: A re-written press release does not count. “Required some original reporting” is the key marker.)
  • Number of locally-produced SPORTS stories (oh sports, always seen as the retarded stepchild, even if you are covering multi-billion-dollar industries, events attended by hundreds of thousands and watched by millions, and people who are always in the public eye).

Here’s my count for the Friday, March 27, 2009 edition of my hometown paper (and incidentally, the paper I worked for), The Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C.

  • 14 local stories in news & features with staff bylines. At a quick glance, they all looked like they involved some kind of original reporting.
  • 4 local sports stories, including a prep roundup (because anyone who has done a prep roundup knows that the amount of time and work needed to do one of these things are enough to do at least one, if not two, stories with original reporting)

Thoughts on the Study

  • Jay gives some background information on his study. I wrote a related post on that sequence of events here.
  • The study probably should ask for circulation figures as well to help put the numbers in perspective: community rag vs. major metro vs. the likes of NYT. I think there would be just a slight difference among those categories.
  • I’m not sure why the study only wants people to count stuff in the print edition. If the goal is to measure newspaper staffs’ productivity, then why ignore their online work? After all, the journalism on newspaper Web sites gets funded by the same company that puts out the paper. If that company goes under, its online journalism goes away, too. While my hometown paper doesn’t do much with its Web site, I know that’s not the case with many other papers around the country, as more and more are getting their staffs to blog, shoot video, and contribute in other ways to the online product. In this day and age, if you’re measuring a newspaper company’s output, I think you MUST include its online component as well.
  • Counting stories in one day’s edition is a poor way to get a feel for what a newspaper produces. The amount of news can vary drastically from day to day and from one time of the year to another, leading to a corresponding variance in how many stories a newspaper produces. I’ll speak from my experience in a sports department: The summer was a dead time for us, with no more than one or two staff stories a day as our reporters used the time between April and July to recover from basketball season. Come fall, however, the action really picks up. We had days with all our local colleges competing in football and basketball, along with a boatload of preps. Even during the same sports season, how many stories you get will vary greatly depending on what’s happening that day. My point is, one day doesn’t give you any idea how much a paper produces. A truly revealing study should track it for a year. If that’s not practical, then a one-month count, or even just a one-week count, would provide a more accurate view.
  • Story counts are a poor way to measure journalism, or any kind of writing, really. I wrote four blog posts this week; Jay Rosen has written one in almost two months. So I guess that means my blog is ridiculously better than his, right?

There’s a reason journalism doesn’t fit neatly into an accounting spreadsheet. Quantity does not equal quality, especially if everybody is saying newspapers need to do more investigative journalism (the kind that takes time) in order to justify their “watchdog” and “valuable to society” claims. That’s even more true in this day and age of staff cuts and increasing workload for journalists. I know some cases where reporters were so overworked by unreasonable quotas that they split up what could’ve been one story into a lead story and a sidebar; and there are cases where reporters are so pissed off by quotas that they started putting bylines on everything, even stuff they would not have bylined before.

A truly effective study of how much journalism newspapers produce would need to devise a formula and guidelines for how to rate each story for quality, and then plug that rating into a formula that would also include story counts.

  • Measuring how much journalism a new model would need to produce to replace newspapers these days is kind of like building an NFL team to beat the San Francisco 49ers after they jettisoned all their good players back in the early 2000s. With all the cutbacks, newspapers, and the journalism they are able to do, are shells of their former selves. Given that, I think what we ought to be asking is not “How much journalism do we need to replace newspapers?”, but rather, “How much journalism do we/society need (and subsequently, how do we reach that level in the absence of newspapers, which are major players in journalism right now)?”