Some months ago, The Economist ran a column about business schools. The tagline was: “Business schools are better at analyzing disruptive innovation than at dealing with it.”
Sounds familiar, I thought. Ditto the media.
For an industry with crummy financials, the newsgathering business is bizarrely inefficient. Over my 15 years as a journalist, I’ve written for a variety of publications and watched the Internet shake things up. And it’s struck me that for all the hand-wringing about decline, it would actually be very simple to provide more and better news to the public, and to do so more cheaply. All it takes is using a few basic economic and business principles.
So, to add to the conversation created by the excellent New York Times Innovation report and others, herewith 10 easy—easy!—ways that the media can make itself more efficient, from my ground-level perspective. Warning: Not all will be popular with journalists. But this is about creating a better product using less money.
1. Reduce repetition of stories. The universe of possible news is vast and mostly untapped. I’ve argued that most papers in the country could grow to five times their size, given sufficient money and talent. Yet news coverage reflects a herd mentality. Everyone rushes to do their own story on Ray Rice, the latest iPhone, a new fracking study, and so forth. If I ran a newsroom, I’d use Associated Press stories for such events (assuming that’s not excessively costly), and send my reporters to do original enterprise stories—“value-added,” so to speak. Marcus Brauchli, the former Washington Post executive editor, put this well recently in Politico Magazine: “One of the things that drives me crazy in a newsroom is when a reporter says, ‘We’re doing our version of the story.’ The world doesn’t need your version of the story. Unless your version of the story is dramatically different—unless the version includes all different facts or spectacularly better writing—your version of the story is a waste of your time and the newsroom’s budget. What people need to do is figure out what they can do that isn’t being done, because whether you’re working at Politico or the New York Times or the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal, you will find an audience for your story if you have something really important to say.” Exactly.
2. Stop the over-editing. I’ve worked with different papers and magazines over the years, and the amount of editing I’ve experienced varies from zero to days. Agonizing days. An editor’s eye is welcome and necessary, of course, and if an article needs serious editing, then let it be done. But too often, I’ve had to chase down the answers to a torrent of tangential questions, only to have the editor realize, once I’ve dutifully answered them, that the article is now too long. Surprise—the revisions then get deleted! Time is money, and money is short. If I ran a media organization, I’d examine the editing process from the perspective of marginal cost versus marginal benefit. Is it really worth it to use a heavy hand to make a story a tiny bit better (whatever better may mean)?
3. Reduce on-the-scene datelines, as appropriate. Traveling for a story takes time and money. Often, it’s essential (and has the added benefit of leading to other stories). But sometimes it’s not. So it’s worth doing a cost-benefit analysis on traveling. If your reporter could do the same or nearly the same job by phone—if all he/she would miss is the description of the building, or what the sky looked like at sunset—then why spend the money?
4. Collaborate. If you need to report a story but it’s far away, why not work with another publication and share? Competition is so 20th century. Similarly, if a breaking story must be covered, why not try calling up a local journalist for a feed, rather than putting your own reporters on a plane? When I worked at The Texas Tribune, we’d get calls from the national media asking if they could borrow someone to send to Fort Hood during the shootings, or to the fertilizer plant that exploded. We had a pool of talented interns and were often able to dispatch one. Everyone benefited.
5. Look harder for small-name journalists. Sometimes it looks like Washington and New York journalists play a grand game of swap-the-deck-chairs. Having worked in Texas and now California, I’ve gotten to know some extraordinary journalists whose only flaw is being undiscovered at a national level. Look harder, East Coast, outside immediate circles. You might just find better, and cheaper, people. Special bonus—this may help solve race or gender imbalances.
6. Use more freelancers. One of the most peculiar aspects of the news business is the financial imbalance between staff jobs and freelancing. I’ve been freelancing for the past year, since leaving The Texas Tribune and moving to California, and I’ve concluded that it’s virtually impossible to make a living. Despite painful cuts, staff jobs are considerably better paid. This is an arbitrage opportunity. It’s a good time to buy talent. A rational market would shrink the differential between staff jobs and freelance (even taking into account that staff jobs provide less tangible benefits like stability and certainty).
7. Rethink copyediting and fact checking. Copyediting and fact checking are time-honored roles. But once again, the cost-benefit question arises. Couldn’t the regular editor serve as a final eye on the copy? And shouldn’t writers themselves be responsible for fact checking? If they don’t get the facts right, why hire them?
8. Improve articles’ Web placement. Sometimes I have trouble finding articles I’ve written on the website of the organization that published them. They’re buried. Obviously readers can (and do) find them through Google News and social media—but if it’s a good piece, why hide it? One idea would be to create more channels within a website, so that more topics have their own Web page (though I know it’s popular to bemoan “silo-ed” reading). To get energy/environment news about the Northwest, I scan The Oregonian but not The Seattle Times. Why? Because The Oregonian has an “environment” page but The Seattle Times does not.
9. Use Twitter better. Twitter is a marketing tool. A great one. The input (time) is minimal; the output (increased readership) is potentially high. It takes five seconds to tweet an article with a link. Yet even today, not all reporters and editors tweet, or tweet enough. As a related idea, newspapers could improve their distribution by creating new sub-categories on Twitter. I’ve often longed for a WSJ Energy Twitter feed, for example; or a Seattle Times environment feed. Alas, they don’t exist. Audiences are interested in niche subjects (the “silo,” again). Why not give them what they want?
10. Think like a start-up. The most efficient place I’ve ever worked was the now-5-year-old Texas Tribune. The editors were fast and smart, the stories original, collaboration was encouraged, and the Trib’s content is distributed in other Texas newspapers and in The New York Times (theoretically freeing those publications up to pursue other stories). Start-ups can’t afford waste. Neither, this day and age, can Big Media.