After teeing up a column, I like to write a lede that creases the center of the fairway and then a nut graf that puts me pin high. After that, I’m happy to produce any copy that allows me to two-putt for a birdie.
I had the birdie buzz on earlier this month after completing my column “The Newspaper of the Future.” Then I heard from New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller. Keller essentially informed me that I had shanked my ball into the rough, mowed the grass with my 2-iron, and tiddlywinked my ball into the cup for a quadruple bogey. He was much nicer than that. But he did catch me trafficking bad data, and for that there is no defense.
To spare you the bother of having to read my original flawed piece, I argued that newspapers’ newsroom headcount has grown dramatically over the past 35 years. Faced with an industrywide downturn, today’s publishers are cutting staff. The relative good news I discovered in my reporting was that in 1972 both the New York Times and Washington Post published very good newspapers with smaller staffs. I wrote that much of the headcount added since 1972 has gone to fill the soft-news, lifestyle, and service sections that have proliferated in the last 35 years. I concluded that once publishers finish cutting headcount, we should consider ourselves fortunate if our newspapers looked like the newspapers of the past, i.e., many fewer soft pages but as many hard-news pages as in 1972.
My big mistake: My headcount numbers were wrong. I should have worked harder to get the right ones. Mea maxima culpa.
I wrote that the Times newsroom had 500 “reporters, editors, and copyreaders” in 1974 and that it has 1,200 newsroom staffers today. The accurate number for today’s Times, Keller informs me, is 750 reporters, editors, and copyreaders. The 1,200 number I stupidly cited includes Times photographers, designers, graphic artists, researchers, secretaries, clerks, and budget and tech wranglers. Of the Post, I wrote that it had about 400 reporters, editors, and copyreaders in 1974 and about 800 today. Post Managing Editor Philip Bennett says his newsroom now has 550 full-time reporters and editors. In 1975, about 340 served in comparable positions.
So allow me to take a mulligan. Times and Post headcount growth has not been as dramatic as I made it out to be, and the smaller numbers undermine my analysis.
Keller maintains that headcount growth has benefited not just the lifestyle sections but the hard-news pages, something I don’t dispute in my piece. I write that both newspapers relied more on wire services in 1972—especially the Post—and both papers ran shorter news stories.
But Keller has a larger point to make, writing:
[M]y main purpose in writing is not to belabor metrics, it is to wave a crucifix at the vampires who might be animated by your logic.Your conclusion seemed to be roughly this: It’s possible to cut many pounds of flesh from the country’s best newspapers—heck, cut ‘em in half!—and still end up with really good papers of the kind that covered Vietnam and Watergate. To do that you just have to confine your knife to all the sections that don’t do wars and politics.And that, in the real world, is bollocks.If you cut the staff back to a replica of the 1972 New York Times newsroom, the result would be:—A drastically diminished news report, in print and on line; and, I believe,—A company that would almost surely be unprofitable, because those features that have grown up since 1972 attract the advertising that currently makes the difference between a paper that makes money and one that loses money.
In other words, the baby is the bath water. Sacrifice the lifestyle and softer news sections that have expanded in the last 30 years and the Times itself becomes unviable.
Phil Bennett e-mails to say that the headcount numbers “only take you so far.” He continues:
We’re trying to solve an equation where shrinking resources are on one side and improving journalism are on the other. No newspaper I know has been able to stick an equal sign in the middle of that apparent contradiction.Unless you can do that, you lose. For papers like the Post in 1975, as important as the amount of resources was the fact that they were growing.Growth was our method of improvement. So how do we improve while shrinking?Well, the web is one variable that can make that equation work. Another is time. The faster we improve, the less we’ll have to shrink. And our journalism will be better. At least that’s my theory.
If I were to replay the hole today with the better numbers in hand, I’d attack the cup more conservatively, even though subtlety isn’t my strong suit. On the point that Keller raises about the Times’business model being based on advertising drawn in by the feature sections, I’d ask if that is sustainable strategy. If those ads are so lucrative, what lock does the Times have on them? If that’s the primary thing that keeps the paper profitable, I too fear for the Times’ future.
I’d still write that if at the end of all the staff downsizing we ended up with the 1972 Times and Post, we’d be lucky. Not even Keller would argue with that, although he’d surely predict that we’ll never be that lucky. I’d still assert that not all reductions in headcount are tragedies. The Post has trimmed staff in recent years, and while I notice the departure of some features, I don’t think the overall paper is diminished. Not even Keller would deny that the Post does a good job of covering the news with a staff that’s dramatically smaller than that of the Times. A similar point could be made about staff contractions at the Los Angeles Times.
And finally, I’d follow Bennett’s train of thought about the potential of the Web. Indeed, newspapers may be ailing, but the appetite for news has never been larger, as the successes of the Times and Post Web sites prove. There’s got to be a business model in there somewhere.
And I don’t play golf, not even with vampires. Send your handicap 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.)