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Reporter headcount: Why papers matter

Readers sometimes ask why I focus so much on newspapers, especially the Star Tribune. The explanation that satisfies most is that papers have the biggest newsrooms and usually set the local news agenda.

But in strictly numerical terms, how many more bodies do they put on the streets? And at the top of the metro pyramid, how dominant is the Strib?

The chart below is my first whack at the questions. There are a number of caveats that I’ll discuss below; the biggest is that this only measures staff reporters.

As you can see, the Strib, even in its bankrupt, bought-out state, towers above the landscape. Twice as many newsgatherers as the PiPress (120 to 60), five times as many as third-place MPR, six times more than any individual TV station, etc.

The color bars reflect media type: gray for newspapers, blue for radio, green for TV, orange for non-daily papers and red for online only. (While everyone competes in the online sphere, I’m using their legacy roots for now.) For space reasons, I didn’t include monthlies, or non-metrowide outlets like community papers.

About those caveats: Why am I only measuring reporters, and not everyone in the newsroom — editors, producers, photographers, design-production folks, etc.?

Because it was the only consistent data I could get. Most organizations clammed up when I asked for details, claiming trade secrets. Fortunately, they list their supersecret reporter data on their websites. Because other categories (such as producers and photojournalists) aren’t there, this was the only apples-to-apples I could do.

TV news directors were especially squirrelly, so I averaged out small variations in their crews and gave everyone the same headcount. Each station got credit for three additional positions because field producers do more reporting than newspaper editors.

(Disputations welcome at the email address in the right-hand column, especially from you managers who were shy the first time.)

Also for consistency, I did not include freelancers. This hurts organizations that depend more on them — for example, MinnPost and City Pages. Such is life.

Finally, I counted news, sports, arts and feature reporters but not, say, weathercasters and traffic reporters. This is strictly headcount, and doesn’t account for reporting quality. And I did not count unaffiliated Twin Cities newsbloggers, although they definitely add to the info stew.

So anyway, back to the point. How dominant are newspapers compared to other local media? The pie chart below is by type:

 

The raw numbers:

Newspapers, 180
TV, 72
Radio, 29
Non-dailies, 22
Online-only, 10

By the way, this adds up to 313 newsgatherers overall, at least by the above definition.

And just to make it clear that our poor, embattled newspapers still employ a majority of local staff reporters, here’s that boil-down:

The numbers pump up the print dailies (I hope Strib publisher Chris Harte doesn’t use this as an excuse to cut into his big lead), but don’t break out online reporters within traditional outlets. That obscures a big part of local news evolution.

But it does beg the question, what will these graphs look like in a year? This parlor game has so many scenarios. For example:

The big tree falls. If the Strib goes under (very unlikely) or we become a one-newspapers town (more likely), how many of those 180 “print” reporters would we lose? Thirty? Sixty? A hundred? That turns out to be 10, 19 and 32 percent of our corps, respectively. (Again, no accounting for quality.)

Surviving organizations might gain market share — and move up tipsters’ lists — but would their reporting crews grow? How likely would new reporting organizations (or loose associations) emerge, and how fast would they scale?

The steady bleed. This one’s the front-runner at the moment: Everyone survives, but everyone’s headcount shrinks. No real change in positioning, though online adapters do better.

Winners and losers. Some segment does markedly better than another. Newspapers figure out the web and stabilize without much additional carnage. Online-only blossoms, perhaps through individual, entrepreneurial reporter/bloggers. In all likelihood, though, reporting numbers shrink.

Anyway, you’ve got current data to get you started, subject to revision after disputations. I welcome futurists and bettors’ comments below.

Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Matt Thompson on 01/27/2009 - 04:26 pm.

    Great stuff, David. If you get the itch to do further reporting in this vein, I’d be really curious to see the breakdown in reporting by beat, at least at the newspapers.

  2. Submitted by Steve Pease on 01/27/2009 - 04:29 pm.

    Your former paper, Southwest/Downtown Journals, have four (Formerly five, ahem.) staff writers. There’s a couple more gray (tangerine?) percentage points right there.

  3. Submitted by David Brauer on 01/27/2009 - 04:36 pm.

    Steve, forgot to add that I was only counting metro-wide outlets. Caveat added. Thanks for the catch.

  4. Submitted by Paul Kane on 01/27/2009 - 04:53 pm.

    The interesting thing to me would be whether there is any correlation between the ability to “dig up” news and numbers. Who’s really breaking our important stories?

    Hard to do. But maybe you could do it this way.

    Take the top 10 or 20 “metro” stories and determine who “broke” them. Look at a five year period.

    Reporters add significant, but lesser, value in covering “continuing” stories, so I think you could argue that that was less important.

    I also think that with more stuff accessible in the “public domain” on the web (govt proceedings, records, wire services) the role of local reporters in aggregating that for us is diminished.

  5. Submitted by Paul Kane on 01/27/2009 - 05:52 pm.

    Did the professional investigative reporters in the Twin Cities break any really important stories in 2008?

    Looking at the Emmy nominations I’m not seeing any. Reports on the Smiley Face killers and Lube Station rip offs don’t qualify.

    I am thinking of something along the lines of TIZA by Kersten. Or the Franken tax mess by Brodkorb.

    I am of course betraying my political leanings here but I can’t really think of any others.

    Getting fed Kazeminy documents by the Franken campaign would also not count IMO.

  6. Submitted by Norman Paperman on 01/27/2009 - 06:29 pm.

    Also, another big loser: Radio news “reporters” (outside of MPR). Without newspaper reporters to do their work for them, radio “newspeople”, such as McSkinny, would have nobody to do their work for them and nothing to read over the air “on the eights”…

  7. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 01/27/2009 - 11:39 pm.

    Paul, what’s your evidence that Franken fed Kazeminy documents to the press? Franken denies it, and Coleman’s assertions are hardly proof. Provide some proof, or quit copying talking points from conservative blogs.

    And Brodkorb isn’t a reporter. He’s an opposition researcher, and sometimes he gives his findings to the press. A real reporter would have figured out that Franken did pay his taxes after all, not just let out half the story. Fine for an opposition researcher, but not a journalist.

    I also disagree about the value of breaking stories. Breaking news is rarely more than half right, and stories get rushed to be first. Give more credit to whoever gets it right.

  8. Submitted by John Wanamaker on 01/28/2009 - 01:52 am.

    I feel I should stick up for my (former) fellow radio reporters, in light of comments made by “Norman.”

    As Brauer points out the two locals have, by a huge margin, the most reporters on the street, but they still don’t break every story. Keep in mind, 3 of the 8 reporters in the WCCO AM newsroom have been laid off over the past couple of months, including me. Moreover, it’s because CCO has newscasts “on the 8’s” (one every 25 minutes) that I didn’t have the luxury of hanging around the Hennepin County Government Center, babysitting a story like Rochelle Olson does (by the way, she’s an excellent reporter). Furthermore, WCCO is a “headline news” outlet. Feel free to tune in MPR if you prefer long form pieces. I worked at Wisconsin Public Radio before moving to the Twin Cities, and would much rather write long form stories, complete with nat sound, instead of trying to cram the salient details into 35 seconds.

    That said, I’ll be the first to agree that Strib and Pi Press (and to a lesser extent the weeklies) are invaluable resources to broadcast outlets in the metro, truly a prime example of a parasitic relationship. Stop any TV or radio reporter on the street and look in his/her pocket, you’ll find a newspaper story.

    As someone who has worked in print and broadcast, I’m pulling for the Strib. It would be a sad day indeed if the city’s paper of record folded.

    P.S.: Norman, consider using your real name the next time you feel like posting a snarky comment.

  9. Submitted by elizabeth farnsworth on 01/28/2009 - 08:23 am.

    Excellent column David!

  10. Submitted by elizabeth farnsworth on 01/28/2009 - 08:26 am.

    Broadcast ‘reporters’ are ususally people who are hired because of their appearance. It is a ratings driven game – and the ratings are falling.

    I will take print reporters anytime.

  11. Submitted by Julie Kramer on 01/28/2009 - 09:14 am.

    As a former local television producer for WCCO-TV, let me assure you that producers function as off-camera reporters and break numerous stories. Not including producer counts in your reporter numbers does not give a realistic picture to staffing of news gatherers at television stations. Television photojournalists also function as content and fact gatherers in a way that their counterparts in print don’t. Or haven’t in the past.

    Your numbers might be a fair comparison across the board for print organizations, but you are shortchanging television stations in this market. While I appreciate that these numbers were the only ones you could easily obtain, you are creating a false impression of broadcast resources.

    Your main premise, however, that the Strib Tribune has more news gatherers than any other outlet in this market is correct.

  12. Submitted by David Brauer on 01/28/2009 - 09:29 am.

    Julie – I have no doubt field producers qualify as reporters, and did try to take into account (with the arbitrary +3. I may have actually overcounted reportorial staff because via websites, I couldn’t distinguish between part-time reporters and full-timers.

    Case in point: WCCO, where I have some detailed data. Here’s my accounting:

    Full-time reporters (7): Brown, DeRusha, Hudson, Kessler, Lowe, Pohland, Turner.

    Part-time reporters, which includes anchor/reporter (5, or 2.5 FTEs): Collin, Lauritsen, Murphy, Nishikawa, Schugel.

    Full-time field producers (4): Engelking, Gilbertson, Goins, Littman

    Part-time field producers (1, or .5 FTE): Awes.

    That adds up to 17 bodies, or 14 positions. I’d add another one or two for sports reporting, and we’re right in the ballpark of the 18 figure used in the story.

    PS I hear what you’re saying about TV photo-js, but I’d hate to elevate them above paper photo-js.

  13. Submitted by Paul Kane on 01/28/2009 - 10:03 am.

    Eric-
    Sorry about the Kazeminy jab, I just recall that a package or something had been delivered to the Strib so I wouldn’t count that as digging up a story (if that’s what happened).

    Having read the Strib every day for decades, things wouldn’t seem quite right if it didn’t show up in the morning.

    At the same time, I just can’t help thinking that the real fact is we have too many reporters in town, not too few.

    Do I need 5 reporters telling me about a trial, the weather or another TPaw presser? Why not just 2 or 3? Or 200 telling me that a bridge collapsed? How about 5?

    That’s not to diminish the tragedy of the latter, it’s just that past a certain point it seems more about the Emmys and Pulitzers.

    If the reporters aren’t breaking new news, what’s their real value add? Do I need someone to read press releases to me? How many new angles do I need on the same story?

  14. Submitted by Mitch Berg on 01/28/2009 - 10:49 am.

    Counting the “Mindy” and the “Daily Planet?”

    OK, as much as I rip on the Strib, MinnPost and City Pages’ editorial agendas, they are legitimate news-gathering organizations.

    But the “Mindy” and the Daily Planet?

    Criminy, David, even Steve Perry – as dyspeptic a conservative-hater as exists – finally copped to the Mindy’s status as a propaganda mill.

    Are you sure you wanna put eithef of them in the same category as the rest?

    If so, why?

  15. Submitted by Brian Hanf on 01/28/2009 - 11:00 am.

    @Paul Kane –
    I think we need more reporters. But, like you said, we don’t need 200 covering the same story. Lets hear about the City council of xx city doing something, etc.

  16. Submitted by James Rhodes on 01/28/2009 - 12:24 pm.

    Having a diverse source of news is preferrable and would be in the best interest of any community to keep as many sources viable as possible. However, the sources have to make themselves viable and with the overwhelming number of reporters available, we should be able to expect that at least a few could write fair and balanced stories that allowed the readers to reach their own conclusions rather than feel forced-fed the paper’s point of view.

  17. Submitted by Brian Simon on 01/28/2009 - 01:07 pm.

    What I’ve found surprising – almost shocking – lately is that the Strib is carrying wire reports of the Franken-Coleman trial. This story should be owned by the local dailies – but they’re resorting to picking up wire pieces?

  18. Submitted by Jason DeRusha on 01/28/2009 - 01:39 pm.

    I do think it’s unfair to not count full-time anchors in your reporter count. Many of ours turn stories that they go do themselves, more than just fronting pieces by producers. And Esme anchors 1 day, reports 4. Liz reports 3 days, anchors 2.

  19. Submitted by David Brauer on 01/28/2009 - 01:53 pm.

    Jason – counted Liz Collin. Also Esme. (Each as +1 in original accounting.)

    But what % of time does an average full-time anchor report? I thinking less than 50/50. At some point, diminishing returns.

  20. Submitted by George Hayduke on 01/29/2009 - 10:43 am.

    Mitch Berg is so blinded by his rage for libruls he can’t see straight. Sad, really. He should stick to writing his North Dakota memoirs instead of critiquing the independent media. At least a half-dozen people in Mandan might still read it.

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