Monday, August 26, 2013

NEWSROOM MATH: 'Y' STORIES INTO 'X' REPORTERS SOMETIMES JUST WON'T GO

Wednesday, August 28, is the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech, which still, for me, stands a one of the most amazing, moving and meaningful speeches in U.S. history and possibly in the history of mankind, delivered during the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington.

This morning, in advance of the anniversary, my friend Steve Buttry, digital transformation editor at Digital First Media, posed an interesting question on Facebook, along with the link to his blog, The Buttry Diary, where he poses the same question in greater detail.

In his Facebook post, Buttry wrote: "As Washington Post editor Robert G. Kaiser details how the Post nearly ignored Martin Luther's speech and his enduring "I Have a Dream" theme in its coverage of the march on Washington 50 years ago, I wonder what historic stories are journalists missing today?" And here is the link to his blog, where he cites a couple of examples of what he regards as blown historical coverage: http://stevebuttry.wordpress.com/2013/08/26/what-historic-stories-are-we-missing-today/.

I didn't have to ponder very long to come up with my answer. Journalists today are likely missing, or giving seriously short shrift, to scads of potentially historic stories.

Consider this, The Washington Post, nearly missed King's speech as a time when its newsroom was literally crawling with reporters and other staffers and the Civil Rights struggle had been some of the hottest ongoing news of the decade to that point.

Flash forward to today's newsrooms where, for the latter half of the last decade and all of this decade so far, staffing has been chopped nearly to the bone. I would venture to say that across the country, many newspapers today have reduced newsroom staffing by as much as one-third, and perhaps more, of what is was when newsroom employment peaked in 1990. And, like it or not, less staff -- particularly in the reporting ranks -- means less coverage.

Here is what the Pew Research Center's 2013 State of the Media report, prepared by its Project for Excellence in Journalism, has to say about the shrinkage in newsroom staffing at America's news outlets:

"The effects of a decade of newsroom cutbacks are real – and the public is taking notice. Nearly a third of U.S. adults, 31%, have stopped turning to a news outlet because it no longer provided them with the news they were accustomed to getting. Men have left at somewhat higher rates than women, as have the more highly educated and higher-income earners—many of those, in other words, that past Pew Research data have shown to be among the heavier news consumers. With reporting resources cut to the bone and fewer specialized beats, journalists’ level of expertise in any one area and the ability to go deep into a story are compromised.  Indeed, when people who had heard something about the financial struggles were asked which effect they noticed more, stories that were less complete or fewer stories over all, 48% named less complete stories while 31% mostly noticed fewer stories. Overall, awareness of the industry’s financial struggles is limited. Only 39% have heard a lot or some. But those with greater awareness are also more likely to be the ones who have abandoned a news outlet." (Here is the link to the full report: http://stateofthemedia.org/.)

Sure, there are instances where newsrooms can do more with less, as owners and/or shareholders keep demanding. But simple mathematics will tell you that it keeps getting more and more impossible to cover "Y" number of events or stories with a steadily shrinking "X" number of reporters. Eventually, you are going to reach the breakdown point. Personally, I think that many, if not most, of the nation's newsrooms may already be there and the law of diminishing returns is beginning to apply, as confirmed by the Pew report.

Across the nation, at newspapers large and small, editors today play a frantic daily chess game as they try to figure out how to get everything covered that is worthy of coverage and how they are going handle the coverage they can give to those thing they determine should be staffed.

Today, an editor trying to decide what to do about covering the March on Washington might say this about staffing the event:

"We've had a lot of Civil Rights coverage lately and I think readers get that it's important, but we can't afford to send somebody over there all day just to listen to a bunch of people making speeches about stuff we've heard and reported on before. So, let's send a reporter for a while to get some color and grab a couple of quotes from people and a fotog to shoot some quick pictures, you know, crowd shots and stuff. Maybe we can just handle this with a couple of photos and an extended cutline. The news hole is real tight for tomorrow anyway."

Frankly, I don't know how many times during the closing years of my nearly 44 years in the newspaper business before my retirement at the end of April I had to settle for asking for that sort of coverage of something that could have been an event of possibly historic proportions.

It's a sad commentary on the state of the industry.

-30-
 
 

 
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his famous "I Have A Dream" Speech in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963.
 
Simply because I think it is one of the most important and eloquent speeches in U.S. history, here is a link to the full text of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech. It is well worth reading again and thinking about how much of that dream has or has not been realized and whether current attempts to minimize the Voting Rights Act of 1965 will reverse progress: http://historywired.si.edu/detail.cfm?ID=501

Here, also, is a link to a video of the speech. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smEqnnklfYs
 

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