Can It Swim?—There’s a phrase petrifying newspaper reporters across the country: “budget cuts.”
Some call it a symptom of the inevitable death of the print industry. Others call it a rough patch. But in an era when print advertisers are eschewing newspapers in favor of their online competitors (or sometimes companions), the question is no longer whether a newsroom will be cut and bled, but ultimately how well the bandages will hold it together.
A July 3 article on Slate (cruel coincidence that this happens to be an online publication) by Jack Shafer, “The Newspaper of the Future,” provides a fraction of the casualty count: The Los Angeles Times will soon be reduced to 850 journalists, three-quarters of its peak staff. The San Francisco Chronicle will deflate from 400 to 300. Early last week, the San Jose Mercury News cut an additional 31 employees, leveling their once-booming newsroom of 400 down to 200. And the trend continues with papers like the Dallas Morning News, the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Baltimore Sun and others.
Sometimes budget cuts take different forms. A number of papers are shrinking page size as the Wall Street Journal did and as the New York Times soon will. Other papers are slicing freelance pay, thereby lowering the diversity of voices and sources in newspapers and halting the development of the next generation of writers.
It begs the question: What happens to a newspaper if you cut off all its limbs? Sure, it may float. But can it swim?
Shafer thinks it’s possible. In his article, he writes about going through microfilm archives of the Washington Post and New York Times, seeing how their smaller staffs of 35 years ago compare to today’s, which are about twice as large. What Shafer found was quality papers, but ones that relied much more on wire services and other newspapers and offered less overall content. In the Post of 1972, he discovered a “feeble” Business section, a Metro section half as big as it is today, fewer obituaries, comics and TV listings, an undeveloped Style section, nonexistent Weekend, Health, Sunday Source and neighborhood sections or a kids’ page. It also lacked what he refers to as “scads” of service journalism.
What the Post did well and continues to do well is national and foreign coverage. What Shafer calls “hard news” still flourished, raising the overall worth of a much smaller paper. He found similar characteristics in 35-year-old issues of the New York Times.
The conclusion he comes to from his research is that it’s possible for newspapers to thrive on smaller staffs and resources, but budget cuts need to be placed wisely, salvaging the majority of hard news.
His recommendation is music to a news editor’s ears. Yet his optimism doesn’t rescue us from the gravity of the situation. Even if newspapers are able to cling on to their credibility and produce the same quality of news (which is doubtful), the paper as a whole will still suffer. Owners and publishers are faced with a choice. They can shrink the pages of their papers and allow reporters to do fewer stories but do them well, or they can strive to maintain the size of their papers and overwork their reporters, burning them down like cigarettes and extinguishing them along with the paper’s quality and integrity. There’s only so much blood you can squeeze out of a thing before it dies. Wise management will choose the first option. The second leads to reader disinterest and, eventually, the disinterest of advertisers, an apocalyptic combination.
The real question becomes: Will the newspaper of the future be long, or will it be good?