If you’re not hip to media savant Clay Shirky, he’s a media futurist and NYU adjunct professor that all the cool kids swoon over. Shirky is unsparing about newspapers, viewing them as inefficient creators of the original news content touted as a bulwark of democracy.
Anyway, Shirky recently conducted what he calls a “news biopsy.” He literally chopped apart his former local paper, the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune, to discern just how much news content was staff-created. After sorting piles into hard news, “other” content (which included opinion columns, sports, crosswords, etc.), and ads, he weighed the piles of clippings.
- Created vs. Acquired: The content created by Tribune staff made up less than a third of the total; over two-thirds was acquired from other sources, including especially the AP.
- News vs. Other: The paper was about one-third news and about two-thirds “Other” (and this is after ignoring the all-sports insert, tipping the balance in favor of news.)
- Created News vs. everything else: News reported by the paper’s staff was less than a sixth of the total content of the paper (again, ignoring the insert, which tips the balance in favor of news.)
As Shirky concluded, “News reported by the paper’s staff was less than a sixth of the total content of the paper … In other words, most of the substantive part of that day’s Trib wasn’t locally created, and most of it wasn’t news.”
Doing something I wish I’d done myself, Utne Reader’s Bennett Gordon performed similar surgery on Tuesday’s Strib. His findings?
News content accounted for 3.9 ounces, compared to 7.3 ounces of “other” non-ad content — roughly the 1:2 ratio Shirkey turned up.
Of the news stuff, staff-generated content totaled 2.3 ounces to 1.5 ounces of commodity coverage — the inverse of Columbia’s 1:2 ratio.
In other words, while the Strib’s news-to-“other” ratio is about the same as a mid-sized Missouri paper, nearly twice as much of that news is staff-generated. And of course, given the Strib’s size, you’re getting far more than the six local news reporter bylines Shirky discovered. (I’ll have to ask Bennett how many Strib bylines he found.)
One of Shirky’s main points is that saving democracy doesn’t require saving newspapers, and nonprofits can pick up the function more easily than people think, because a surprisingly small staff produces this stuff right now.
“There are a dozen or so reporters and editors in Columbia, Missouri, whose daily and public work is critical to the orderly functioning of that town, and those people are trapped inside a burning business model,” he writes.
The Strib’s relatively high percentage of original news content undermines that narrative here — I certainly don’t believe nonprofits like mine (or others) would fill the gap left by the Strib or PiPress any time soon, a big reason I write about the papers’ survival all the time. Some digital believers strenuously disagree, rooting for the dinosaurs to die so more nimble mammals can take over.
That’s not to say the business model isn’t burning. It’s worth noting that Bennett’s results revealed only 30 percent of the Strib’s weight is in ads — papers traditionally devote 40 to 60 percent of their space to paying the bills.
Assuming weight is a good proxy for space, this shows you how sucky the climate is, though Tuesday papers are usually ad-light compared to Thursday and Sunday papers. You could also credit the Strib for maintaining a historically large news hole in historically bad times.
Of course, Shirky’s scale doesn’t measure quality, only quantity. Six 10-inch stories written from press releases weigh the same as one 60-inch investigation, but the latter takes a lot more staff time and energy. Collectively, the mammals not only must replace the dinosaur’s heft, they must make sure they replace the roar.