Posted by: structureofnews | October 16, 2010

The Cost of Coverage

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.


Responses

  1. This makes me wonder how much the media-org had spent on the Gulf Oil Spill incident, which obvious had a larger influence and was packaged into a way that has longer shelf-life, with a better context given.

    And totally agree that “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.” – though I think part of that responsibility goes to governments or research centres, who have better expertise on the technical issues.

    Also, while mine disasters no longer be considered as news in China, this kind of stories can add value while it provides a globalized standard/benchmark on similar cases – There aren’t many of these, except CNN http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/asiapcf/10/13/china.mining/index.html

    • It’s true that governments or research institutes know more about mine disasters than journalists do, but journalists know more about telling mine disaster stories. So it takes a combination of the two to come up with a workable taxonomy of coverage that – if enough people sign on to – gives us much more value from any individual mine disaster story.

  2. Reg, completely agree to your point that “unless that work is structured in some meaningful way for use down the road… what we have a a collection of spot news updates that lose their value almost immediately after they filed.” I think this doesn’t only apply for the media industry, but others as well. For a company that aims to reshape the industry and its future market, each of its product would not be of an ad hoc basis but more to compliment the org’s goals in the long run. On that mission, the product by itself doesn’t even have to be revolutionary (as in the classic example of the iPod). Companies don’t understand this, so they also won’t understand why it’s always so painful to sell the stuff they come up with. And for media (especially the local ones), this makes the difference between a journal and just colored paper. Stealing your concept of “Structured Journalism”, can I call it “Structured Product Development”.

    And your note on the cost of coverage also reminds me in a business sense. It’s kinda like a company finds surprisingly big cost items out of its financial report. It’s worth to look into its cost structure (exactly like you said, follow the money) to see if the process can be optimized. I’ve long be wondering whether the current solution is the most efficient and cost effective way to get our news (and flush our webpages, too), and seeing a dozen satellite news vehicles lining up in front of the White House can’t give me the positive conclusion. To me the medias are pretty much a parallel connection right now, if anything breaks out you see twenty different camera crews rushing in, but the next morning you still see pretty much the same picture on all the papers and channels. Recently there have been different collaborative models/partnerships, but everyone’s focus still stays much the same. Would it make sense to have a model that change the parallel connection into series, re-segment the value chain so that each organization focuses on one or few processes on the chain, instead of having many different chains laying around? In that case would each player on the chain be more focused? It might help to trim down the huge organizations and make it easier for the news start-ups. Also Everyone can probably have a more solid revenue model. Looks like our bounty hunter friends at AP are doing something kind of like this. But can this be applied in a larger scale?

    • I understand that everyone doesn’t want to miss any detail yet still wants to keep its own insights.

    • It’s true that running in “parallel.” as you describe it, is somewhat inefficient. But then again that’s what a free market is supposed to encourage: Competition. But too much competition to produce a commodity doesn’t really help anyone. The problem is that there isn’t really a system for allocating people to each element on the value chain. Actually, there is: It’s called socialism, and it doesn’t work all that well either.

      Sorry, being facetious here. But the idea that news organizations can build a better ecosystem where they collaborate by focusing on individual parts of the value chain, if you like, is not a bad one. To some extent that’s happening already, with smaller news startups picking a very specific area to cover – a community, or health or government, etc. In time we might see them set up loose alliances so that they keep their focus but are better able to do cross-topic/cross-community coverage well.

    • Yuxin, here is a list of collaborations going on in media FYI. U.S. cases. http://stearns.wordpress.com/2010/04/22/indexing-journalism-collaboration/

  3. Don’t think the BBC is a valid example here. It resides on a different planet from the commercial media segment — it isn’t funded by advertising — its annual income, in the region of 4 BILLION pounds sterling, comes mostly from licence fees.

    Hence the recent British taxpayer revolt over its lavish spending.

    Eyebrows are being raised over some of its staffing levels — some 400 to cover a music festival — including senior execs on a boondoggle — more than 400 staff for the Beijing Olympics at a cost of 3 mln sterling … wouldn’t you like that problem?

    That said, most of the public anger is directed at the mind-boggling salaries and perks trousered by its senior execs — its top 50 got some £13.6 million last year. £100k is a drop in the ocean — given it has just proposed to lop £10 mln off that wage bill …..

    Wouldn’t you like that problem?

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/5671336/BBC-sends-407-staff-to-Glastonbury-festival.html
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/oct/15/bbc-senior-management-wage-bill

    • Diane, I’d love to have that problem; that’s a pretty big budget, although I assume that’s for all its channels and programming, including entertainment, and not just news. Not that I’d complain if I had to manage even a teeny fraction of that. That said, being rich is no excuse for bad spending habits and not creating value when you do spend. That’s how you become poor…. Reg


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