Posted by: structureofnews | August 19, 2013

What Price Efficiency?

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There’s been so much ink (pixels?) spilt on the purchase of the Washington Post by Jeff Bezos that there’s not much to add about what he may or may not do with the paper, other than that it’s going to be really interesting to watch.

But a column by Felix Salmon about the culture of efficiency at Amazon – and the antithesis of that at many mainstream media outlets – raises an interesting, and broader, point about how we can (or can’t) sustain quality journalism in the digital age.  In a way, this recalls the distinction between “artisanal” and “industrial” journalism, but questions of efficiency – and hence sustainability – apply to both.

If Bezos were to look at the most successful large-scale publishing operations of the past few decades, he would see a lot of waste. Some publishers, like Condé Nast or the Time Inc of old, turned lavish profligacy into something of an artform; newer entrants into the scene, such as Bloomberg, are no slouches on that front either.

At a large newspaper, the default mode cannot be hyper-efficient; the papers which have tried, which have modeled themselves on digital startups, have generally failed. A large and valuable franchise like the Washington Post generally improves the more slack there is in the system. If you have enough money that you can hire stars, treat them generously, and then leave them alone to do their thing, then they will ultimately reward you with first-rate (and very expensive) content.

Amazon, by contrast, is all about efficiency…. What Amazon doesn’t have is paternalism, or a culture which in any way tolerates any unnecessary increase in labor costs. Its employees are cogs in the corporate machine, and they are expected to work as efficiently as possible.

It’s not that large, wasteful organizations turn out better work because they have fat, happy staff – in fact, I suspect that’s not the reason at all.  It’s partly, I think, that good journalism drills a lot of dry wells, and so you have to account for enough failures before hitting a gusher; and it’s also that when your budget for overproduction, the competition for coveted front-page space drives up quality. (Although good pay helps too.)

An update from another column by Felix on the same subject:

Here’s a statistic worth dwelling on: “A senior editor at The Washington Post recently told me that he killed an average of three advanced investigations a year, usually over the protests of the reporters, who couldn’t see that they didn’t have the goods.”

 When Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, he bought an organization which spikes three advanced investigations per year. That’s not efficient, or cost-effective, but, whether he knows it or not, it’s part of the reason why he liked the Post enough to buy it.

That’s because journalism – at least of the large news organization kind – sits at the uneasy intersection of craftsmanship and industrial process.  (Which is certainly better than sitting at the intersection of passion and poverty.)

But beyond saying that waste can lead to good journalism, what can you do about it?  How much waste is enough?  How much is too much?  And can good quality ultimately pay for the waste, whether in higher subscriptions, more readership and ad dollars, in brand value or some other yet-to-be-discovered business model?

Old industrial journalism had a good sense of how much waste they could afford, based on a seat-of-the-pants understanding of the business and the newsroom budget; now that the traditional business model is eroding, and there’s much more data around readership and engagement metrics, how 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 year of reporting with nothing to show for it is just as quick a route to bankruptcy.

Here’s a thought: Structured journalism.  High-quality, long-form journalism will always take time, and lead to a lot of dry holes.  And if we’re simply focused on the end product as being a single story (or series), that’s a real gamble.  But if we’re consistently extracting value from the process as we go along, by getting reporters to input data about the information they’re digging up, we have the opportunity to create other types of value – and hence lower the risk of the work they’re doing.

Similarly, if we continually extract information even from the daily “industrial” work that reporters are doing – and repurpose it into new types of “information product” (eg, Connected China) – we raise the overall productivity of the operation without significantly changing the core mission and work of the newsroom.

High-quality journalism, higher productivity… what’s not to like?


Responses

  1. […] There’s been so much ink (pixels?) spilt on the purchase of the Washington Post by Jeff Bezos that there’s not much to add about what he may or may not do with the paper, other than that it’s going…  […]

  2. […] that kind of great journalism is expensive – not to mention inherently inefficient – and as revenues at news organizations have suffered and news cycles have shortened, there’s […]


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