Posted by: structureofnews | September 15, 2010

Speed Demons

Dean Starkman at CJR skewers what he calls “the hamster wheel” of ever-faster news cycles and stories and posts; it’s a smart article that looks at the price we pay for chasing speed at the expense of depth.

I’m no fan of the push for quicker-and-quicker updates, either – not just because it’s  bad for journalism, or undermines our public interest mission, or makes me work harder than I want to (although those are all good reasons), but largely because it’s just bad business.  At least most of the time.   Dean gives lots of reasons for getting off the wheel, including the business one; I’m just going to focus on that.

First, we should stipulate – as Dean does – that there’s way too much whining in newsrooms about how all things were better in the good old days, and that everyone is already overworked as it is, and so on.  I’m sure they said that when moveable type was invented (OMG! they must have said: So much pressure!)  There certainly are genuine needs for faster filing and regular intra-day updates.  And in general, improving productivity in the newsroom should a good thing.

In fact, the productivity/efficiency/return on investment approach seems to me one of the best ways to frame the question.

Newsrooms have essentially only a few assets: People, process and, for want of a better word, reputation.   Process is how we do things: What’s the newsroom structure, how do stories get assigned, etc.  Reputation is what the publication known for, who it has access to institutionally, etc.  And people are people.

If you think of each person in the newsroom of being capable of eight (or 10, or 14) hours of work a day – and you pay them regardless of what they do in that time – then the real calculus is how best to deploy the available people-hours.  I confess this is a pretty bloodless way of looking at things, but at some level, all editors work this way, even the nice and warm and fuzzy ones.

Moving someone from one beat to another – changing process, in effect – is one way of redeploying those people-hours.  So if we cut the education team by one and up the cops beat by one, what we’re deciding is that police issues deserve more people-hours over school issues.  Ditto moving a copyeditor to the online desk.

Dean does the math in his CJR piece on The Wall Street Journal (which, he concedes, is a little fuzzy on the details.  But the general idea is correct, and while I haven’t looked at the Journal’s budget for a year or two now, I’m with him on this).  The gist is that Dow Jones has made a decision to deploy its resources on more and faster stories.

Story production in the same period rose 46 percent. The decline in unionized reporters in that period can be fairly extrapolated to the broader newsroom. So given the rise in story count, output jumped 69 percent per IAPE staffer (though others, mostly Dow Jones newswire reporters, would have contributed to the Journal’s total story count). It’s enough to make a chicken-processing-plant manager proud. But in the news business, as in the chicken business, there is a point of diminishing returns, and we passed it around 2002. This is basic physics: more stories divided by less staff equals scrawnier chickens.

The problem isn’t just that the chickens are scrawnier; I suspect they’re less profitable – or at least not any more profitable than old-fashioned stories.

There are, to be sure, some very big profits to be made of doing stories very fast.  That’s the business model that Bloomberg and Reuters have been making money off for years.   Traders will pay handsomely for information that gives them an edge of even a few seconds sometimes.

But the vast majority of us don’t really care, or need to know, that very instant, whether Tiger Woods is winning (or losing) a tournament; what Obama said at a speech; or how the school board voted.  We wouldn’t turn away the news if it was given to us – but it’s not really valuable enough for us to pay for it.  And certainly not valuable enough for us to pay a premium for it to be delivered faster.

True, the first publication to report a scoop (Michael Jackson’s dead!) will get a spike in traffic.  But as we know, that’s not hugely valuable in terms of online ad dollars, at least relative to the cost of maintaining the news organization needed to get those kinds of scoops regularly.  That’s simply not a scalable business.

And – as Jeff Jarvis points out – the value of that kind of “news” quickly dissipates.  If you don’t capture it instantly through a spike in advertising, or in advance through premium subscriptions as the financial wire services do, it’s hard to make any substantial return on it.  If you’re building the first kind of newsroom, you have to keep costs very low; and if you’re building the second kind, you have to develop content people will pay a lot of money in advance for.

(Of course, you can’t not have intra-day news updates on your site; people will just stop coming.  But that’s frankly as much marketing as as it is public service.  Keeping the cost of that manageable is critical – and that means not turning the entire newsroom, and most of your available people-hours, over to quick updates.)

On the other hand, this isn’t an argument for let’s-have-everyone-go-out-and-do-year-long-investigations.  As Robert Thomson noted when he first came to the Journal, some stories seemed to have the”gestation period of a llama.”  That’s bad business, too, or can be.   That’s a lot of people-hours poured into one piece of work, so it better be worth while – whatever the metric.

And, as we’re all acutely aware, simply running a newsroom the old-fashioned way doesn’t make sense either.

So if running on the hamster wheel doesn’t generate big financial returns, and doing business as usual isn’t an option in a declining industry, what’s an editor to do?

Well, that is one of the themes of this blog: Change the product.  Rethink how we allocate the people-hours – and the process – so we can create more persistent content with better shelf-life. If you’re stuck paying salaries and have a finite amount of people-hours to allocate, use them in ways that generate revenue over as long a period as you can.

Don’t chase low, short-term online ad revenues with high-cost-to-create, transient content; spend the people-hours instead contributing to databases of information that increase in value with each additional entry and can be sold again and again.   Even better, structure the transient content so that it feeds into databases of information in a useful way so you can get two bites of the pie.  Monetize the content you create – hopefully – through some combination of mid-priced subscriptions, advertising, and sale of data/information and archive.  Get off the wheel.


Responses

  1. When I am going through all those data today, I finally start to understand your argument about the value of database and the efforts to prolong the shelf-life, esp. at one point when I found 20 stories on one village over the past decade, which reflected a lot – but the stories’ value has been buried.

    and.. so the best way to spend the people-hour of a chief-editor is to have him write his blog? =)

    • Hey! I do this on my own time. And I already put in a lot of people-hours on my day job.

  2. […] approach it – if we’re to really take full advantage of it.   And the obsession on speed – certainly one characteristic of the online world – at the expense of persistence […]

  3. […] delved into that in much more detail elsewhere here, so I won’t repeat many of those arguments here.  […]

  4. […] the speed at which we’re pumping out stories, updates and tweets.  Leaving aside the question of how economically sustainable or valuable that is, what the research points suggests is that it’s not helping our readers all that much […]

  5. […] crowd-sourcing and engagement – useful though they may be – recalls the debate over the faster-and-faster mantra that dominates discussion of journalism in the digital […]

  6. […] on speed.  Speed matters, certainly, and especially in covering news events.  But focusing too much on that undercuts an equally-important part of our missing: Offering […]

  7. […] so he’s trying out a new format to present information, and in effect getting off the hamster wheel of faster-and-faster: The most unique aspect of the site is the abandonment of the “article” or […]

  8. […] organizations have been organized mostly around news, and if anything, the digital age has increased that focus (not necessarily in a good way).  But in the other areas, we’ve just been much less […]

  9. […] can a modern editor figure out what should be cut and what should be kept?  Forcing people to post faster-and-faster updates in a quest for volume and views doesn’t generally lead to quality, but indulging reporters for a […]


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