Sunday, July 29, 2007

Shafer blows piece about Times and Post headcounts and the future of newspapers

Slate Magazine: By Jack Shafer
[NYT Executive Editor Bill] Keller maintains that headcount growth [that is, an increase in numbers of reporters and editors] has benefited not just the lifestyle sections but the hard-news pages, something I don't dispute in my piece. I write that both newspapers relied more on wire services in 1972—especially the Post—and both papers ran shorter news stories.

But Keller has a larger point to make, writing:

[M]y main purpose in writing is not to belabor metrics, it is to wave a crucifix at the vampires who might be animated by your logic.

Your conclusion seemed to be roughly this: It's possible to cut many pounds of flesh from the country's best newspapers—heck, cut 'em in half!—and still end up with really good papers of the kind that covered Vietnam and Watergate. To do that you just have to confine your knife to all the sections that don't do wars and politics.

And that, in the real world, is bollocks.

If you cut the staff back to a replica of the 1972 New York Times newsroom, the result would be:

—A drastically diminished news report, in print and on line; and, I believe,

—A company that would almost surely be unprofitable, because those features that have grown up since 1972 attract the advertising that currently makes the difference between a paper that makes money and one that loses money.

In other words, the baby is the bath water. Sacrifice the lifestyle and softer news sections that have expanded in the last 30 years and the Times itself becomes unviable. ...

I'd still write that if at the end of all the staff downsizing we ended up with the 1972 Times and Post, we'd be lucky. Not even Keller would argue with that, although he'd surely predict that we'll never be that lucky. I'd still assert that not all reductions in headcount are tragedies. The Post has trimmed staff in recent years, and while I notice the departure of some features, I don't think the overall paper is diminished. Not even Keller would deny that the Post does a good job of covering the news with a staff that's dramatically smaller than that of the Times. A similar point could be made about staff contractions at the Los Angeles Times. ...

Indeed, newspapers may be ailing, but the appetite for news has never been larger, as the successes of the Times and Post Web sites prove. There's got to be a business model in there somewhere.

No comments: