[Warning: Go ahead and read this piece, but also make sure to read the follow-up, which mea culpas for this piece’s deficiencies. –Jack Shafer] As newspaper circulation cartwheels into the abyss and print advertisers defect to the Web, publishers keep profit margins high by snipping, shearing, and slicing costs. The large-wingspan Wall Street Journal recently shrank its page size to the industry standard to save an estimated $18 million annually, and the New York Times will soon follow.
Dollar-pinching publishers are now paying experienced reporters and editors to leave their jobs. Buyouts will soon reduce the Los Angeles Timesto 850 journalists, about three-quarters of its peak. * The San Francisco Chronicle has announced plans to cut the newsroom from 400 to 300. The San Jose Mercury Newsemployed 400 journalists seven years ago and will soon have only 200 crashing the keyboards. Similar stories can be told about the Dallas Morning News, the Boston Globe,the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Baltimore Sun, and other newspapers. Foreign bureaus are being shuttered, and full-time arts slots at newspapers in Atlanta, Minneapolis, Chicago, and elsewhere have been eliminated or downgraded.
How many journalists can a newspaper jettison before its hair falls out and its ribs start showing?
The connection between quality and head count would seem intuitive, but a dip into the microfilm archives of the New York Timesand Washington Postshows that decent newspapers have been produced with far fewer hands.
In the last three or four decades, newsroom staffs have ballooned almost everywhere. Today’s Timesemploys about 1,200 newsroom staffers and the Post about 800. But 35 years ago, each produced a quality daily with about half that number, according to Leon V. Sigal’s 1973 study, Reporters and Officials: The Organization and Politics of Newsmaking. Sigal found that the Times employed 500 “reporters, editors, and copyreaders” and the Postabout 400 at the time.
Some of the expansion came in the establishment of distant bureaus. The Times had 15 national bureaus and 28 foreign capital bureaus in 1972. Today it has 11 national bureaus and 26 foreign. The 1972 Post had four national bureaus and 11 overseas. Today there are about a half-dozen domestic and 19 foreign bureaus.
As you unspool summer of 1972 Postmicrofilm, you’re struck by the relative reliance on stories from wire services and other newspapers. To pick a representative issue, I read the July 6, 1972, edition closely. It had two wire stories and one from the Manchester Guardianon Page One. The Post sports page even delegated coverage of the Baltimore Orioles, Washington’s nominal big-league team after the departure of the Senators to Texas, to a wire service.
The Post of yore ran about half the number of comics, and its TV listings were limited to a box of five local stations compared to the full page containing almost 100 channels today. Style had not yet morphed into a full daily feature section. A thin feature about Emmylou Harris stops 7 inches after its jump from the front of Style, and a wire story about Jacqueline Onassis winning a lawsuit over a paparazzi also played on the front.
The feeble 1972 Business section made big news out of a story titled “New Shoe Shine Pickup Service Set” and also relied heavily on wire copy. Today’s Business section is two or three times as hefty. The Metro section from 1972 ran one-third-to-a-half as many column inches as today’s Metro. The old obituary section (aka “The Irish Sports Page”) ran at half or two-thirds of today’s space. The paper of 1972 had yet to spawn a Weekend section, a Health section, a Sunday Source section, the zoned weekly neighborhood sections, scads of service journalism, or a kids’ page. These features and sections account for much of the staff growth since 1972.
The Post gave about the same emphasis to national and foreign coverage in 1972 as it does today. Although the average Post story from 1972 is probably 25 percent shorter than today’s, the national and foreign stories I read from the July 6, 1972, edition Post don’t skimp on the day’s events. The paper captures the presidential campaign in full fury, files breaking combat news from Vietnam, and informs the reader of the reshuffling of the French government. On Page A4, staff writers Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward team up to report about the fallout from the June break-in at the Watergate. White House consultant E. Howard Hunt Jr., implicated in Watergate and wanted for questioning, is found to have a “special interest in Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s accident at Chappaquiddick” (” ‘Bug’ Suspect Said to Seek Kennedy Data”).
The July 7, 1972, New York Times places a similar emphasis on national and foreign stories at the expense of other coverage. A.M. “Abe” Rosenthal had yet to “section” the paper to increase coverage of the arts, business, science, the regions, various service sections, and the boutique extras the contemporary Timesreader has come to expect.
The 1972 Times is a good newspaper. You’ve got Drew Middleton reporting on the Pentagon; Sydney Schanberg filing from Saigon; Steven V. Roberts, Bernard Gwertzman, and James M. Naughton covering Washington; Flora Lewis on France; and Francis X. Clines writing local news, just to name a few bylines in the July 6 Times. The 1972 Timesand the Postplace greater reliance on more short wire stories to deliver the day’s news. How much of this was to inform the reader and how much just to make pages fit is anybody’s guess.
By my personal measure, the national and foreign news published in the summer of 1972 by the Times and Post matches the current product, even though it is less “featurey.” That both papers did fine work with half the current manpower should encourage serious readers—even though it may depress journalists.
Answering the harder question of whether quality journalism can survive staff-slimming depends on 1) how big the original staff was and 2) which beats the survivors end up covering. Theoretically, a staff of 400 or 500 journalists working in 2007 should be able to out-report a staff of 400 or 500 journalists working in 1972, thanks to all the new tools at their disposal: computers, cheap long-distance, cell phones, convenient air travel, and news and information databases. But if hard-news sections take a disproportional hit as papers rescale, all the iPhones and Googles in the world won’t matter.
Obviously, my preference would be for soft sections to erode faster than hard ones as newspapers retool and that the future newspaper ends up looking like its cousin from the recent past. I’m rotten at predictions, so I really shouldn’t venture a guess as to which way publishers and editors will steer, but if you pushed me for a forecast, I’d guess that most will make a mess of their papers by drawing down manpower proportionately, guaranteeing that the hard-news pages are as mediocre as the soft ones.
Fun facts I couldn’t fit into the article: The space given to editorials and op-eds since 1972 is unchanged in both papers. Also, corrected for inflation, the Washington Postis your better deal. The 1972 Timescost 15 cents—75 cents in today’s money. The Timescurrently costs $1 at the newsstand, but the price rises to $1.25 later this month. The Post charged 10 cents—50 cents in today’s money—and currently costs 35 cents. E-mail your newspaper predictions to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)