Productivity

The news has become faster, better, stronger. But how much is too much?

Photographs by William Mebane

One day in the mid-1990s, a handful of executives from the Pulitzer Publishing Corporation sorted themselves into teams, sprawled out on a hotel room floor, and started playing with Legos. The conceit was to show how building something small—from a couple dozen Legos, for instance—could provide lessons on how to build something big, like a newspaper.

Running the team exercise was Bill Boggs, a managing partner of Synectics, Inc., a management consulting firm, who had been hired to overhaul Pulitzer. In the classic manner of ’90s rebellious entrepreneurialism, Boggs was “a cigar-smoking, earring-wearing former Marine and onetime Methodist minister with a PhD in philosophy,” who dismissed the term “consultant.” As Alicia C. Shepard wrote for American Journalism Review in 1996, Boggs’s mission was to reinvent the organization. “We facilitate innovation and change for our client organizations,” he insisted, as if the distinction could be made meaningful.

Today, the lessons of the Lego exercise—“functioning in teams; problem-solving in a new medium; building with limited resources; thinking unconventionally,” Shepard wrote, channeling consultant-speak—have suffused financially depleted newsrooms, which are producing more than ever, 24 hours a day, with fewer people. The internet, which destroyed the business model of the mass newspaper, has pushed the production of news, geographically uneven and generally impoverished, to a pace that would have been inconceivable to previous generations. 

Boggs was one of an increasing number of “consultants” stalking newsrooms who represented a new era of hyper-management. The golden age of ’70s investigative reporting was over, the internet was just beginning to shape the way journalists reported and distributed their work, and the newsroom itself was being primed—once again—for the rule of profit. The developments we see today feel as implacable as a natural disaster, on the order of rising sea levels combined with rapid erosion, sapping the foundations of once-prosperous coastal houses. Not all aspects of this disaster were predictable. But it may not have been wise to settle so close to shore. 

How did we get here? Watch any ’70s journalism film or read any book from the era, and the amount of time people appear to spend doing close to nothing seems unbelievable. In the film version of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, the dynamic duo, having spent two weeks knocking on the doors of nearly every member of the Committee to Re-Elect the President without landing a single productive conversation, get lightly chastised by their editor. For the dwindling number of reporters forced to file relentless digital updates, such a scene must seem an unendurable luxury. 

The recent Spielberg retread, The Post, saturated with nostalgia, dilates the woozy appeal of pre-digital slowness. We watch journalists sift hurriedly but methodically through uncollated piles of the Pentagon Papers, and when the presses spring into action, the type must be painstakingly set by actual humans. In The Post, newspapers are vaster than empires, and slower. If a story seems thin, it simply does not run. Legal niceties are discussed assiduously. Any time pressure or need to produce seems not to exist, except in the exaggerated, mythic contest of beating The New York Times to the story. This was also, and not coincidentally, the period we look back to as the era of the hero reporter (invariably white and masculine)—typified by Woodward and Bernstein, but also Neil Sheehan, Seymour Hersh, and reporter and media critic Ben Bagdikian, who secured the Pentagon Papers from Daniel Ellsberg to publish in The Washington Post.

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Some say the current era is a backlash against that heroism. Newspaper executives and owners got sick of uppity, professionalized reporters, goes the theory, and they changed newsrooms and the production of news to put them in line. As told by Doug Underwood in his 1993 book When MBAs Rule the Newsrooms, the late 1970s and early 1980s witnessed the birth of the hyper-managed newsroom, during which time the entire operation of a newspaper became subject to scientific forms of management. If early 1970s newspaper reporters had license to snoop and dawdle, those of the 1980s worked under a stricter order, shaped by new technologies, while newspapers’ supporting staff—typesetters, copy editors, designers—had to adapt to computerization, and some were automated out of existence.

Over time, computerization and consultancies swept the newsroom, eliminating editing and layout by hand. Legions of workers, many of them doing what was traditionally “women’s work”—typists, copy editors, administrative assistants (“secretaries”)—were vaporized into the ether of Visual Display Terminals, just as increasing numbers of women entered higher echelons of newspaper work. As in other industries—design, biology, academia—pay stagnated for women entering the field as reporters, even though they were doing the same work as men before them. Of course, many male-dominated roles—typesetters and compositors—were eliminated as well, after years of strikes. The result of all these consultants and computers was that between 1975 and 1990, corporate newspaper chains reduced their production costs by 50 percent, nearly a decade and a half before the widespread adoption of broadband internet.

Internal technological changes reflected changes in ownership and outlook at the top. Though it is difficult to track, the practice of bringing in outside consultants to change newsrooms had become commonplace by the ’80s. In addition to conducting research on readership, they transformed relationships between editors and reporters by making it more common in newspapers to attempt to measure reporters’ productivity. A 1981 survey of the American Newspaper Publishers Association showed that performance evaluations had become increasingly important to the industry. Corporate concentration tightened. Mergers brought more papers into fewer, if larger, hands: Chains owned 30 percent of dailies in 1960; by the mid-1990s, they owned 75 percent. Newspaper executives of that era also started going to business school, where they learned the latest fads, like consumer targeting: In the words of one communications company executive in 1980, newspapers needed to help “the new value-consumer seek self-fulfillment.” Editors tried being circulation managers; pages were redesigned to accommodate fewer words and more graphics. 

In his 1971 book The Information Machines, Bagdikian, then working for the RAND Corporation (where he met Ellsberg), describes a research panel that assayed some futurological understandings of how technology would affect the demands placed on newspapers: 

In the future, news, once written, will enter the newsroom in faster ways . . . . The panel sees editors in different parts of their buildings, or even in different cities, working at consoles like high-quality television screens, on which they can call up stories, and, discussing them in voice conferences, making changes of material on the screen. When a decision is made on the final version of the story, and the alterations are made on the screen, it is re-entered into the computer.

He describes the effect of technology on the delivery of news to the consumer: 

In the 1980s the consumer seeing the lists or pictures of items on his television screen may be able to make selections by telephone. In the late 1990s, he might be able to select them by simply placing an electronic pen or even his bare finger on the point of the TV screen where the desired item is shown.

“Such a signal is possible now,” he notes, “utilizing the energy added to the screen by the fingertip, but it is highly specialized and expensive.” Though off here and there in concept and occasionally in the time of arrival, the accuracy of this prediction is astonishing, when most versions of futurology tended, and tend, to be bunk.  

In a sense, the 1960s and 1970s are a parenthesis in the history of newsrooms. The efficiency craze introduced by management theorist Frederick Taylor and his acolytes in the early 20th century came to newspapers early. Scientific management made its impress felt in every aspect of the newsroom. Landmarks are hard to come by, but the evidence lies in the archives. In the early 20th century, a writer for the trade magazine Editor & Publisher noted that the American Newspaper Publishers Association forcibly standardized the newsroom. “Cyclonic attics with desks gerrymandered into disorderly clusters by sulphurous editors,” they wrote, “were supplanted by modern city rooms as regimented as a real estate office.” Hence the classic image of the newsroom filled with rows of desks, ruled by serried orthodoxy.

Under the presiding spirit of Taylorism, white-collar productivity—the holy grail of management theory—became highly sought after by newspaper executives. By the turn of the 20th century, many of these executives had ceased to be journalists who rose through the ranks and more closely resembled those in other industries: educated and moneyed. Though the goal of each executive was the same—increased production—the methods for securing it varied. In 1919, the managing editor of the San Antonio Express developed cost-accounting techniques for determining the output of each reporter. The New York Herald debuted a system by which a statistician would compare the results of other, competing papers, and produce a score; after the Herald ended in 1920, the Herald Tribune maintained the system. The proliferation of copy editors, in fact, derived from these management techniques, since they gave the production of news an analogous workflow to manufacturing—further justifying the assembly-line look of newsrooms. In the 1930s, The New York Times had the largest copy desk in the world: 14 for local, 11 for cable, and 12 for telegraph. (In 2017, the Times’s freestanding copy desk was eliminated.)

By the postwar era, this version of the mechanized newsroom was set. And the form of the typical newsroom survived well into the digital era, when experiments in office design offered other possibilities. This was partly because daily news production seemed to necessitate open offices, with the relatively straightforward series of steps that each story took: Reporters handed their copy to editors, who handed corrected copy to compositors, who input stories into Linotype machines (after the 1950s, it became common to feed stories punched onto tape into Linotype), who handed leaden versions of copy to proofreaders, before clean type was outfitted into a metal page frame, over which hot lead was poured to create a stereotype, and the stereotype was put into a rotary press, which would produce the newspaper. 

 

By the end of the day, the sub-editor has processed 110,000 words, the equivalent of a 200-page book.

 

The classical era of news production, in all its glory and with all its constraints, is best illustrated, as Bagdikian demonstrated in The Information Machines, with wire services. Teletype machines received and emitted wire news, but were limited to producing a certain number of words per hour. In RAND’s study of one local newsroom, the words received on one teletype machine generally ran somewhere between 2,500 and 3,500 words per hour. But of course, with multiple machines, running all night, the amount of words actually received by any newsroom was enormous. Bagdikian describes the day of one suburban newspaper, where a sub-editor—whose job is to check copy for readability—arrives at 7am to find 50,000 words in the teletype. While he goes through the wires, he has to make a dummy of page one. He gets press releases at 8:30, and then a second batch thereafter. At 10am, he draws up a new page one. At 11:30 he redraws it, moving a page-one story to the inside. At 11:40 he discovers he has miscalculated on available space: There is more of it than he realized, and he includes more stories that he rejected earlier. At noon, the city editor comes by and shows him a competing paper’s version of his own story that he likes, and he tries a new headline. At 12:15, the sub-editor junks the story, because he finds a wire version that he likes better; this requires changing metal plates for page one, which he had already cast. By the end of the day, he has processed 110,000 words, the equivalent of a 200-page book. 

The pressures and size of the operation increase dramatically, of course. In an urban afternoon paper also studied by RAND around the same time, there were 22 teletype machines, operating 24 hours a day, producing 2,500 different news items that make up 400,000 words (not including sports and financial news). The thumbs-up or -down decision on the 2,500 wire stories is made by three men; every wire story is handed to another reporter or rewriter (usually a man); 90 percent of the stories are discarded. Each editor in the RAND study takes an average of one to two seconds to determine whether to use or junk a story, and most of the stories are junked. 

When computers came on the scene, it was already a space with strong propensities toward rationalizing and calculating output, even though for a time in the 1960s and ’70s, reporting had become partly exempt. After the computerization wave, that exemption was no longer. In When MBAs Rule Newsrooms, Underwood notes that some newspapers used computers to monitor the productivity of workers in their classified and circulation departments, and that computers could be used to determine “the number of stories produced by a reporter, the number of column inches, and the placement in the newspaper.”

 

The demise of print advertising, associated with the rise of the internet, has routinely been blamed for the hollowing out of newspaper budgets. But the stage was set long before. Profit motives have ruled the newspaper business since newspapers were a business, and labor is inevitably the largest drag on margins. 

Even the turn-of-the-century muckrakers—Ida Tarbell and the rest, who lent reporters new power and prestige—were not able to excoriate big business for long. The rise of scientific management, in manufacturing and newsrooms alike, came about so as to strip control of the labor process from workers—including arrogant reporters. Will Irwin, writing in the classic muckraking magazine Collier’s in 1911, produced a 15-part series that laid the blame for the decline of this style of journalism with the advertising system and newspaper publishers, who shifted editorial control away from editors to corporate boards. 

The golden years of the 1970s appear to have prompted a more direct reaction. In Underwood’s telling, newsrooms had filled with reporters, many of them fresh from journalism programs, who possessed a strong sense of professional and ethical obligation. These same reporters became known, some of them household names, for their coverage of the 1968 Democratic Convention, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. The industry suddenly began to seem like a creative one: a vehicle for exceptionally talented people to hold other, more powerful people to account. Newsrooms had become professionalized and many had become unionized. 

 

Newspapers have always pleaded poverty, especially to justify savage personnel decisions.

 

As with the muckrakers, newspaper executives eventually reacted against the romantic generation of investigative reporters. In a speech to the American Society of News Editors in 1982, Michael J. O’Neill, the former editor of the New York Daily News, lamented the press’s “harshly adversarial posture toward government and its infatuation with investigative reporting,” which, he felt, had partly led to “disarray in government,” perhaps alluding to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. The response in the Reagan era appeared to be to divert focus from uncovering corruption, malfeasance, and criminality, among corporate and governing classes, and instead focus on the booming world of American business. The 1980s saw a sudden expansion of newspaper business sections. Few of these employed investigative reporting. Writing in 1983, the nearly indefatigable Bagdikian noted that only six out of the then–1,100 members of the organization Investigative Reporters and Editors covered business. This was partly because, by the end of the decade, more executives had been to business school, and perhaps didn’t feel business needed to be investigated. Underwood noted that executives of The Seattle Times, The Dallas Morning News, The Miami Herald, the San Jose Mercury News, and Knight Ridder had MBAs or had been through business programs. 

To eliminate workers through technological means—to replace living labor with lifeless screens—would satisfy the imperatives of papers, their owners, and their owners’ investors. As Bagdikian wrote in a subsequent essay, “The Myth of Newspaper Poverty” (1973): “American publishers have always felt obligated to pretend that they are an auxiliary of the [Catholic charity] Little Sisters of the Poor. This was always amusing, but now that so many papers are owned by publicly traded companies which have to disclose their finances it is taking on the air of slapstick.” 

Newspapers have always pleaded poverty, especially to justify savage personnel decisions. According to James Squires, former editor of the Chicago Tribune, newspaper profits increased as much as circulation declined from 1969 to 1989. These were the same years newsworkers were being shed in the thousands. In fact, Squires pointed out, it made business sense to lose circulation among less wealthy readers to concentrate on those with money, in order to justify selling better ads.

The business-ification of American newspapers prepared the way for the current newsroom, in which an entirely new workflow has developed, and the chain of command has interposed a new class of workers between reporters and the reported product. What were otherwise unspoken nostrums about the mission of the press became pithless slogans emblazoned over the top of stricken papers (See: “Democracy dies in darkness”). But it is a defensiveness absent from the era The Post depicted, only arising later, as newspaper executives continually cried wolf, laying the groundwork for a pro-business, worker-lite model of newspapers. And in the 2000s the wolf finally came.

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Nikil Saval is co-editor of n+1 and the author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace.