As newsrooms do more with less, can reporters keep up?

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During the last week of August, Sara Coello wrote eleven stories for the Dallas Morning News. Thirteen if you count the two pieces she co-bylined with other reporters. Sixteen if you count the three she filed the previous Sunday.

It was a pretty typical week for Coello, who started as a full-time breaking news reporter for the Morning News in May, after she graduated from college. She’s published more than 200 stories since then—close to three a day. Her record is seven stories in a single day, she says, and her longest dry spell has been three days. It’s a hustle, but—so far, anyway—it’s worth it.

“I love it,” Coello says. “If I were expected to write this many articles or get a certain number of views based on what I do now in another newsroom, I would be very stressed out. But the approach here is, if you break a story, you get custody of it.”

Coello’s account differs, however, from the typical industry narrative of overworked reporters and burnout. Declining revenues have forced newsrooms across the US to do more with less, testing the productivity of journalists in new and sometimes uncomfortable ways. In January, Martha Waggoner, an Associated Press reporter and the international chair for the NewsGuild-Communication Workers of America, detailed a trend of newsrooms tracking individual reporters’ pageviews as part of performance reviews. Journalists who spoke with Waggoner “complain of goals that are too high and require too many stories, given the severely reduced size of newsroom staffs,” she wrote. The churn is constant. Pageview concerns push journalists to “take time from chipping away at that larger story to write smaller stories to keep you on track,” as one told Waggoner.

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Waggoner started thinking about the problem when she heard a handful of other NewsGuild representatives griping. Facing no such pressures herself, Waggoner was surprised to hear how common pageview-driven demands had become.  “If you heard about this going on at a widget factory, you’d have concerns about the people making the widgets,” she recalls thinking.

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Several reporters working in high-output jobs tell CJR the work is doable. News briefs don’t take too long to produce, for one thing: A recent story about a con man in Dallas who had used dating apps to scam dozens of victims out of thousands of dollars took Sara Coello about 45 minutes to report, write, and post to the web, she says—though it was backed up by a press release and a previous story by a different Morning News reporter. Several editors told CJR they’re careful to put people in high-output positions who they know can handle the pace.

Most editors are good about releasing reporters from daily duties if they’re hunting down something juicy. Becky Jacobs, a crime and courts reporter for the Post-Tribune of Northwestern Indiana, a paper owned by the Chicago Tribune, has racked up 350 bylines since the beginning of the year, an average of two for every working day. In a previous job, at the North Dakota Grand Forks Herald, she used to feel pressured to meet story quotas. But at the Post-Tribune, she’s able to watch the courts, report the news as she sees fit, and keep an eye out for bigger stories. “I’m very lucky in that sense,” Jacobs says . “I don’t have the editors that are looking at ‘How many pieces are you turning around?’ We really focus on, what’s the bigger picture? What’s the better story we can do?”

Waggoner, in her interviews, didn’t hear from anyone who admitted to cutting corners or botching a story because of productivity pressures. Yet speaking on- and off-the-record with newspaper reporters around the country, she concluded that click goals sometimes “increase stress and kill morale,” demanding too many stories or forcing reporters to abandon important beats that don’t drive traffic. “I think reporters are harried,” Waggoner tells CJR.

 

In June, The News-Graphic in Georgetown, Kentucky, a city of 30,000, posted a job for a general assignment reporter who could “write compelling and timely news stories for print, web, special publications and video” at a rate of 8 to 10 pieces a week. According to Mike Scogin, the editor and publisher, it’s a small paper with only five people in the newsroom. The News-Graphic runs three days a week, and each reporter is urged to write three stories per issue. Scogin says that he used to hate quotas when he was a cub reporter at The Natchez Democrat, but they did set expectations. “It’s not hard and fast,” Scogin says. But setting quotas fills pages. “We’ve got to have content, and we’ve got to have local content. I want them to be productive and that’s the key. It really sort of weeds out those folks that think they can just write one story a week and be done.”

Waggoner, for her report, spoke with Ed Fletcher, a now-former reporter and Guild unit chair for the Sacramento Bee. Fletcher told Waggoner that traffic performance would soon be incorporated into reporters’ performance reviews. (Fletcher, who had been at the Bee for more than fifteen years, lost his job during a round of layoffs in April. Traffic goals hadn’t made it into the contract by the time he left but, he tells CJR, “it’s apparent that [management] will make an issue of it or try to add that to performance evaluations down the road.”.)  Most of the reporters at the Bee were writing between three and seven stories a week, Fletcher says, and the pace of output was faster than when he started.

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In 2011, the Pew Research Center released a study of nonprofit newsrooms showing that a typical newsroom produced eight stories a week with an editorial staff of three. At 18 of the 46 sites studied, all of the stories were authored by one or two people. Some positions expect much higher churn: In 2013, there was a brief Twitter storm over a Washington Post gig for a style blogger who could produce 12 posts a day. (In vintage contrarian style, Slate ran a piece headlined “Stop Making Fun of WaPo’s Blogger Job and Start Applying for It.”)

 

The way newspapers report news…you produce more errors if you try to produce things fast. That’s just a fact.

 

“Newsrooms are smaller and the news has not decreased in volume,” Rebecca Baker, the president of the Society of Professional Journalists, says. Some reporters are better suited to breaking news or features or investigative stories; some are fast and others are slow. But everyone has to be accurate and above-board, she says, and it’s an editor’s job to decide where to place people. “Everybody has to make those personal choices,” Baker says. “But a good newsroom manager should be able to see when one of his or her reporters is starting to be affected by either the amount of work or the trauma of covering a violent news event. And reporters also have the responsibility of being forthright in saying that they need time for self-care.”

Recently, Richmond BizSense, a local business news site, was looking for an intern who could produce between eight and 10 stories a week for $650 a week during the academic year. That’s about on par with what the site’s four full-time reporters produce, says Michael Schwartz, the editor, who also writes pieces. It’s fast-paced, but Schwartz says his newsroom avoids burnout by being “quick-hit, hard-news heavy.” They don’t do many features. The average story is 400-800 words, Schwartz says, and they know how to manage their time. “As the editor and sort of the manager of the reporters, I’m cognizant of observing whether they’re feeling burned out.” Schwartz says.

 

Even if 10 stories a week feels like a manageable workload, the pace seems hard to square with journalism’s quality-control concerns. Early this summer, two reporters working in high-volume positions at major daily papers were fired for cutting corners when attributing material to its original sources.

In June, The Washington Post made public its decision to dismiss Marwa Eltagouri, a reporter whose work “mimicked too closely the structure of news stories she was aggregating,” Paul Farhi, a Post media reporter, wrote. In July,  Robyn Tomlin, the editor of Raleigh’s News & Observer, posted an online note to readers saying that, following up on a complaint from a writer at another outlet, the paper’s leaders had reviewed the recent articles of Anne Blythe, a journalist on staff, and “found at least a dozen that contained phrases, sentences or, in some cases, whole paragraphs, lifted from other publications.”

Volume wasn’t cited as a reason in the dismissals, yet it seems unlikely that it played no role. Blythe, a 30-year veteran of the News & Observer, had published 600 stories since the beginning of 2016. Eltagouri had filed close to 150 stories for the Post in the first five months of 2018. (Both Eltagouri and Cameron Barr, The Washington Post managing editor, declined to be interviewed for this story. Blythe did not respond to messages seeking an interview; Tomlin says that the News & Observer doesn’t have story quotas “or any kind of measured productivity standards.”)

It is unclear, however, whether the reporters or their publications consider volume to be a factor in the dismissals. “The way newspapers report news, and the Sacramento Bee included, you produce more errors if you try to produce things fast,” says Fletcher. “That’s just a fact.”

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Jared Brey is a freelance journalist in Philadelphia and a contributing writer at Next City. His work has appeared in Philadelphia magazine, Grid magazine, PlanPhilly, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and other publications.