Journalists will tell you that where once newsroom incentives rewarded more deeply reported stories, now incentives skew toward work that can be turned around quickly and generate a bump in Web traffic. “You’re constantly looking for the next story like that,” says Zachary Roth, a former reporter for Talking Points Memo (and before that a CJR staff member). “The posts you end up pitching and writing are less likely to be investigative.”
None of this is written down anywhere, but it’s real. The Hamster Wheel, then, is investigations you will never see, good work left undone, public service not performed. It is the perceived imperative to churn out every story that might have been nice to have had, at some point, maybe, given unlimited resources, but that, given highly constrained news budgets, should be allowed to recede into history unrecorded—or unrecorded by you, even if it is recorded by a thousand others. How many readers really ask themselves, “I wonder why my site didn’t have that Lugar-urges-‘common sense’-in-new-farm-dust-trials story?” (AP, 8/9/10).
You say, “Why not have it?” I say, “Because it isn’t free.” The most underused words in the news business today: let’s pass on that.
The Hamster Wheel, really, is the mainstream media’s undoing, in real time, and they’re doing it to themselves. So before the Wheel spins completely off its axle, sending hamsters and wood chips flying, we should think about the Wheel, question the assumptions that underlie it, and recognize a few truths that emerge after painstaking analysis performed over a truly obscene amount of time:
1. The Wheel is real
“We give them three times as many things that are completely unimportant,” fumes a Wall Street Journal reporter. Clearly, this whiner is exaggerating—but not by much. According to a CJR tally using the Factiva database owned by the paper’s parent, News Corp., the Journal’s staff a decade or so ago produced stories at a rate of about 22,000 a year, all while doing epic, and shareholder-value-creating, work, like bringing the tobacco industry to heel. This year, the Journal staff produced almost as many stories—21,000—in the first six months. The hamster creep started in 2000, with a spike to 26,000, and story counts have risen more or less steadily since, topping out at 38,000 in 2008, dropping a bit last year, and resuming a record-setting pace this year. By the way, this count does not include Web-only material, blogs, NewsHub, etc., which the staff also produces, so the figures in the chart below are conservative.
Meanwhile, the number of journalists producing those stories has shrunk. The International Association of Publishers’ Employees Local 1096, which represents a substantial part of the newsroom (though probably less than half; it doesn’t count staff outside the U.S. and Canada, or editors above a certain level, for instance) says the number of its covered Journal staffers dropped 13 percent, from 323 in 2000 to 281 in 2008. (A Wall Street Journal spokeswoman declined to provide a headcount; a News Corp. reorganization last year blurred the distinction between WSJ staff and the company’s wire reporters.) Story production in the same period rose 46 percent. The decline in unionized reporters in that period can be fairly extrapolated to the broader newsroom. So given the rise in story count, output jumped 69 percent per IAPE staffer (though others, mostly Dow Jones newswire reporters, would have contributed to the Journal’s total story count). It’s enough to make a chicken-processing-plant manager proud. But in the news business, as in the chicken business, there is a point of diminishing returns, and we passed it around 2002. This is basic physics: more stories divided by less staff equals scrawnier chickens. Respectfully, Mr. Murdoch, you are wrong—but you aren’t alone.
This is not to say the Wheel is universal, even within organizations. The Journal let its reporters go deep with its recent Internet-privacy series, and has been rewarded with Pulitzer-caliber work. Clearly, some reporters still have time to make a phone call before they tweet. And that suggests rule no. 2.
2. The Wheel is not inevitable