“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
The Internet, we know, is the greatest invention since the Twinkie. It allows us to publish any time, all the time. But that doesn’t mean we have to. Given that the news business has lost an estimated 15,000 journalists since 2000, it does not directly follow to go from “we’re facing a serious transformation in our industry” to “let’s write as much as possible as fast as we can.” It’s not hard to understand the impulse to do more with less. Hamsterism is a natural reaction to a novel set of conditions—a collapsing model, a new paradigm, a cacophony of new voices, fewer people filling an infinite hole. And through the haze we can glimpse an online model that equates Web traffic with advertising dollars, though as we’ll see, the connection is far from clear.
But newspapers aren’t wire services, and wires aren’t blogs. News organizations must change with the times, but nowhere is it written in Newsonomics (or whatever thrown-together, authoritative-sounding book is being read like Torah by news managers these days) that news organizations should drift away from core values, starting with the corest of core—investigations and reporting in the public interest. These are not just “part of the mix.” They are a mindset, a doctrine, an organizing value around which healthy news cultures are created, the point.
In a report this year, PEJ cites editors at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and The Boston Globe, who recognize the problem and explicitly reject Wheel-like thinking. PEJ quotes Globe editor Martin Baron acknowledging that there may be less content in the paper, “but it is vetted to be unique and enterprising,” of higher interest and higher impact. Exactly.
So let’s recognize the Wheel for what it is: a choice.
3. The Wheel infantilizes reporters, strengthens P.R.
This is just logic. If reporters lack the time to gather, analyze, and reflect on information, then they will have less leverage to confront the institutions on their beat.