Words, Words, Words

A brilliant new scheme for measuring the productivity of journalists.

Journalists at work

My first day on the copy desk at the Royal Oak Daily Tribune in Royal Oak, Mich., the chief copy editor said something that has inspired me ever since. “Remember,” he said, “every word that you cut saves the publisher money.” But like so much else, this principle seems to have been turned upside down by the Internet.

Last week an article appeared on the Web site of Editor & Publisher, which is a magazine for journalists that also has a Web site, as you would expect. This article, by Jennifer Saba, a writer whose work I am not familiar with, although that is not intended in any way as an insult, reported that one Randy Michaels, who is described as chief operating officer of the Tribune Co., a media corporation based in Chicago that owns the Chicago Tribune (the company’s flagship newspaper, and indeed the one the company is named after) as well as the Los Angeles Times, some TV stations, and the Chicago Cubs Major League Baseball team, among other properties, had told the business community in its so-called “conference call” (a Wall Street ritual in which financial analysts and others are given an oral report on how a company is doing, so they can repeat this information to their customers) that the Tribune Co. intends to address the ongoing distress of the newspaper industry brought on by the Internet—distress that already has led to massive layoffs and buyouts and a major crisis of confidence if not identity at even the most prestigious and established and, one would have thought, profitable newspapers—by starting to measure the productivity of the journalists who are employed at the various tentacles of that institution.

And not only that: Productivity will be measured by column-inches of words. In other words, the company will assume that the more words you write, the more productive you are. Or, to put it another way, if you use many, many, many words to make whatever point you may be trying to make or fact you are attempting to report, you will be considered more productive than another writer who takes pains to be concise—that is, to use fewer words rather than more words. This Michaels has apparently been sneaking around with his tape measure (or perhaps he uses an old-fashioned pica rule of the sort once favored by newspaper people during the era of the linotype machine) and has made the piquant discovery that while the average journalist at the Los Angeles Times produces 51 pages of words each year, his or her counterpart at the Hartford Courant, which is also owned by the very same Tribune Co., produces 300 pages of words each year. This is six times as many words. Or, to put it another way (and why not?), the Los Angeles Times journalist produces only one-sixth as many words as the one working in the newsroom of the Hartford Courant. Michaels is completely unabashed, in fact he seems downright proud, of this idea of measuring productivity in column-inches. He said to Editor & Publisher, “This is a new thing. Nobody ever said, ‘How many column inches did someone produce?’ “

For many, many years, the Los Angeles Times was known for its verbosity, or tendency to use more words than other newspapers to say roughly the same thing. More recently, this habit of writing many, many words when far fewer could make the point as well or nearly so (which is the essence of verbosity) was discouraged at the Los Angeles Times. It is no longer like the old days, when stories used to jump from one page to another, and then to yet another, and then another still, snaking endlessly around ads—this was back when newspapers had ads—and rarely reached a conclusion except for an announcement that Part XIII would appear the next day. But apparently this new discipline was a terrible, terrible mistake. Or, to put it a different way, it was a bad idea. At any rate, it is yesterday’s idea. Today’s idea is that a writer should produce as many words as possible, because that means you need fewer writers to produce the same number of words.

But wait. There’s more. It has not escaped the attention of the Tribune Co. that there is a second way to reduce the need for reporters and writers—and paper and ink as well—which is to publish fewer words. According to Michaels, there should be an equal number of pages devoted to advertising and pages devoted to reporting and opinion. “What you find out is that you can take 500 editorial pages a week out of [a] newspaper and have a 50-50 ad-content ratio.” Five hundred pages a week would be about 25,000 pages a year, according to reliable newspaper industry sources. If the average Los Angeles Times journalist produces 51 pages a year, as Michaels has calculated, this means that a 50-50 ratio will allow him to lay off 500 Los Angeles Times journalists, which is more than half of the current staff. Then, if he can persuade the remaining Los Angeles Times journalists to raise their productivity from 50 pages to 300 pages a year, he can dismiss five-sixths of the rest. That would leave something like 50 journalists to put out the Los Angeles Times every day. For now. As long as advertising pages continue to decline—and there is every reason to hope that they will continue to—editorial pages can be reduced as well, and more and more journalists can be let go in order to maintain the crucial 50-50 ratio of advertising to content.

This Michaels is clearly a bright man. It won’t be long before he figures out that you can have an equal number of advertising and editorial pages if you have none of either and simply stop publishing the paper. That way you won’t have to employ any journalists at all.

So, that’s 1,003 words. Can I go to lunch now?