Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Newsroom Dieting 101

"I don't really believe that quality of a newspaper is a direct function of body count in the newsroom. I walk through way too many newsrooms where I see people just talking or looking on the Internet and having fun."

Canadian publisher David Black, head of Black Press Ltd. and owner of the Akron Beacon Journal and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, thinks that newsrooms aren't working hard enough, a view seemingly shared by many owners as layoffs and buyouts overhaul the industry. But when cuts are made carefully because "newsrooms are stretched too thin to allow deeper slashing," I must take pause to reflect if this is indeed the best solution.

Setting aside the expected fight for the everyman, it's clear to me that newspaper owners see the newsroom as a messy, disorganized stew of chatter and clicks - but how often do they really come by? If you embed yourself in a newsroom, especially around closing time, you realize that the chaos is really what runs the newspaper, even if stories are handed in before deadline. The confusion stems from updated stories and warring opinions, and the nerve center adrenaline rush is inevitable. You just can't simply push back deadlines to before the news actually happens.

When David Black sees a newsroom, he doesn't see a pressure-cooker - he sees leisure and boredom. It's my opinion that it's almost impossible to not feel rushed or held firm by a deadline, and I believe that the problem doesn't lie with the staff per se - after all, you all hired them on the basis that they write or edit well and have the uncanny concern of the published product - but in fact the structure of the newsroom at large. When news staff are sitting around, it means the copy flow isn't efficient, not that news staff can't write or edit. It means that people don't have direction.

The sense of camaraderie that a newsroom has, in my opinion, produces a paper worth reading - and I imagine that much of the chatter and Internet surfingthat David Black sees are for stories or advice from a fellow colleague - or at worst, a cooldown from anxiety. I'd wager to bet that your standard-issue cubicle worker does far less actual work than a news staffmember. It's harder to ignore work when it's your name on the masthead or the byline each day.

Should some staff be fired? I certainly expect that some aren't into their work. But I think that in firing these people, instead of giving them new direction and incentive, newspaper owners trying to lose weight are losing more muscle than fat.

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