The high cost of good journalism

Good journalism costs money. Good investigative journalism often costs a lot of money. How much?

Today, Tyler Dukes, managing editor of Duke University’s Reporters Lab, tweeted: .@newsobserver editor John Drescher says it’s not unsual for the paper to spend $150,000-$200,000 on a single reporting project.

I love that John has put a price tag on it. The N&O does a number of ground-breaking investigative projects. The paper swept the investigative reporting category in the N.C. Press Association contest this year. Series on faulty water projects, the behavior of the Durham DA, and the UNC football scandal are powerful works of journalism. That kind of watchdog journalism demands accountability of public officials and public money. My sense is that when an N&O reporter knocks on a public official’s door, their heart jumps just a bit.

I wouldn’t second-guess that expenditure on those projects.

But it does cause me to reflect upon the trade off. $150,000 to $200,000 could pay for three or four decently paid reporters. If a paper does, say, three projects a year, we could be talking about the salaries of a dozen additional reporters. When newspapers, including the N&O, are faced with staff cuts year after year, at what point does the cost of day-to-day news coverage confict with the cost of in-depth investigative reporting?

Every editor and every publisher has to make that decision for themselves. (I write that as if it is just now happening. Actually, thoses decisions have been made ever since 2007 when papers started what seems to have become annual downsizing.) When I left the News & Record, our reporting staff was too lean. We couldn’t cover everything that we and our readers wanted us to cover. We missed stories because we just couldn’t get to them. There’s no question we sacrificed project journalism because of the manpower it would take. Our readers noticed.

I’m glad that John and the N&O has stuck a stake in the ground to do the sort of investigative journalism this state needs. I worry — and every citizen in this state should worry — when newspapers have to sacrifice their watchdog role because they don’t have enough reporters. I fear we’re close to that point.

I’ve emailed John a few questions about his estimate. I’ll include his comments when he responds.

Update: Tyler Dukes writes about the same topic at Reporters’ Lab, and he spoke with Drescher about his comment.In fact, John says the paper aims to do four to six projects a year. Depending upon the number the cost of the reports could exceed $1 million.

My response as quoted by Tyler: “If I had that choice when I was still the editor [of the News & Record], I would probably fall on the side of fewer projects and more feet on the ground for daily reporting,” Robinson said in a phone interview Thursday, although he added that such a philosophy is highly dependent on the type of newspaper you want to be.

10 thoughts on “The high cost of good journalism

  1. Quality accountability journalism has never, ever made money. It has always been subsidized. Even “60 Minutes” subsidizes its hard news pieces with puff pieces on Lamborghinis and pop stars. That is the nut that most needs cracking, and legacy media have pretended instead that it didn’t exist. “Bitter Blood” sold at most 10k extra copies of the N&R a day, meaning it generated about $2,500 in additional revenue per day, about what a single full-page ad cost at the time.

    So outlets either need to subsidize that kind of journalism or charge customers its true cost plus a reasonable markup. And if they’re not willing to do that, they need to take their capital, invest it elsewhere and stop bullshitting their employees, their customers and themselves.

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  3. I thought this was already settled by the pioneer of the New Journalism School.

    The in-depth reporting is given to Alec Baldwin and Marlo Thomas. The city council and developer permit beat is assigned to whoever has the time and a smartphone.

    Net expenditure: $nothing a week.

    Next problem.

  4. The good journalism shortfall is even greater than it appears — the absence of a game story (or horoscope!) is sure to be noticed. Not so the unrealized project….

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  6. I was a newspaper reporter for 16 years and loved doing investigative journalism. One of the reasons I left journalism was the diminished interest among most newspapers in investigative stories, or for that matter, any stories that cost money, particularly travel money. If it entailed getting on a plane, you could forget about it. When I proposed an investigative story, my editors asked: how much is it going to cost, how long will it take, how much space will it require, who’s going to do your job while you’re doing this? All perfectly reasonable questions, but it got to a point where the answer was always no, and the quality of what I proposed wasn’t even considered.

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