The Chilean mine rescue captured the imaginations of millions of people around the world. It’s hard to imagine a more made-for-the-web human interest event than this, and certainly lots of news organizations responded with round-the-clock coverage. But at what price?
The Guardian reports, courtesy of a leaked BBC memo, that covering the rescue cost the British state broadcaster more than 100,000 pounds (US$160,000); it doesn’t say if that’s an actual cash outlay or whether it includes the salaries of the 26 people they sent to Chile, but I’m guessing that that’s dollars out the door, beyond what they pay the staff.
And, as a result, the BBC is going to have to cut back on other coverage, including the upcoming G20 meeting and the Oscars.
“The financial situation is serious”, (BBC’s world news editor Jon) Williams warns. “We are currently £67k beyond our agreed overspend of £500k; newsgathering’s costs for Chile will exceed £100,000.”
I don’t know what the size of the BBC News budget is, or how many people they have on staff; but I do know from experience that even at large news organizations like the WSJ or the NYT, 26 people is a lot of people and $160,000 is a lot of money. And that a budget overspend of 500,000 pounds is a very big number. I’m sure there was lots of traffic – and maybe even advertising – but it’s hard to imagine that covered the cost of the coverage. Not that I’m advocating that everything earns its own way; but we do have to think about how we pay for all of this journalism.
Not to make too many value judgments about whether the mine rescue is more or less deserving of coverage than the G20 (or the Oscars), or even whether sending 26 people is overkill – but it seems to me there are two threads that could be followed here.
One is, is no one watching the shop? It’s hard to imagine that you could spend 100,000 quid without noticing – and surely someone should have mentioned early on, before the money was spent/committed, that there would have to be trade-offs. Money is a finite resource, after all, and one of the more important jobs an editor/manager has is figuring out how to juggle that, and the other key resource, time. Perhaps they did do that in advance; but the memo implies a certain amount of reactivity.
But the broader point is the one that pertains more to the central themes of structured journalism – how to spend the limited resources we have on things that have more long-term, and hopefully more public interest, value. The mine story is a great one, and lots of people will read it as it happens. But unless that work is structured in some meaningful way for use down the road – as part, perhaps of broader coverage of mine safety or rescues or something like that – what we have a a collection of spot news updates that lose their value almost immediately after they filed. Not because they were bad pieces of journalism; but simply that they were overtaken by new events right afterwards.
For example, if there was wall-to-wall video of the rescue – and I confess I didn’t watch it regularly, so I don’t know – then hopefully the BBC did what Major League Baseball is doing, which is real-time logging and tagging of the footage, so it’s searchable and is more valuable in its archives later on.
Could we be building a data-driven site that looks at mine safety in general, and write and feed stories that fit into that data structure into that site, so that future coverage of such events will be broader and offer more context? We’ll (unfortunately) always have mine disasters, so we may want to anticipate that and figure out what elements of mine disaster stories are common, and ensure that we focus on those as much as on the unique elements of each disaster. And so on. I concede it’s easier said than done, and I don’t know much about covering mine disasters. But I do know that 100,000 pounds is a lot of money from anyone’s news budget, and it would be good if we found a way to make it last longer.
None of this is to say the mine rescue wasn’t worthy of tons of coverage – it was clearly a story that captured people’s imagination. (There’s obviously a whole different post to be written about news priorities and how we tend to chase breaking, emotionally-laden stories rather than dig into duller but equally (or more) important issues, but I’ll leave that for other blogs to delve into.)
But the issue really is how to get the most out of the money we’re going to spend on huge events like this, and how we can and should think in advance about how to make sure the way we cover things in such a way that gives us (and our readers) more long-term value of that coverage.