Betting on the future of print

This is an evolutionary time for media but an era rich with opportunity. We want to find new ways to deliver quality journalism.

Those are the words of John Drescher, executive editor of the News & Observer. He is writing about a new monthly magazine in Raleigh called Walter, named after Sir Walter Raleigh. It is being produced by the N&O and filled with stories and photography from some of the state’s leading writers and shooters.
It follows O. Henry magazine, a bi-monthly started a year ago about the people and places in Greensboro. It is produced by the Pilot in Southern Pines.
It’s tough times for newspapers, but print isn’t close to being dead. The number of regional magazine titles is growing, and it seems as if their is money and interest there. Those who dare to produce great journalism whiile expanding their horizons are to be admired. I hope other newspapers will follow their lead and make some bets on the future.

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.

Outsourcing the copy desk

Do you know that Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes doesn’t use periods in his first name? Do you know that CTG Executive Director Mitchel Sommers’ first name is spelled correctly? Or that Greensboro City Council member Nancy Vaughan’s last name is spelled correctly? (Or is the correct style “city councilwoman?”) Is it Four Seasons Town Centre or Four Seasons’ Town Centre or Four Seasons Town Center? Is it Carolina Theatre or Theater? Of course you know that GC refers to Greensboro College, not Guilford College.

And don’t even get started on which Grand(e) Theater you might be talking about.

I bring this up as I think about the High Point Enterprise, which is apparently the latest newspaper to eliminate its copy desk. It joins the News & Observer, the Charlotte Observer and the Winston-Salem Journal in basically outsourcing its copy editing functions. That means that the people who make sure the copy is error-free, who write the headlines, who design the pages, who say “this doesn’t make sense” and who are essentially the last line of defense “aren’t from around here.” The people who live in the community and know the difference between B.J. Barnes and BJ Barnes double-checking a story are being replaced by people who don’t.

The idea is that combining copy desks improves efficiency and reduces costs. Without a doubt, it does the latter. These days, whenever a newspaper can save a buck, it should. But the jury is still out on whether it improves efficiency. (Someone has started a website chronicling the copy editing errors in the N&O.) I don’t intend to deride the current copy editors. I have no doubt they work hard, fix errors, raise good questions and are dedicated to the craft. I’m just not sure that the loss of the local institutional memory outweighs the cost savings. Do newspaper readers notice? My experience is that they notice the diminished news coverage when reporters are let go. I don’t know if they notice grammatical mistakes, for instance. (Yes, I know that retired English teachers do; my experience is that others do, too.)

To answer that question and a few others, I have emailed Rick Thames, editor of the Observer, and John Drescher, editor of the N&O, and asked for their evaluations of their combined copy desk. If I hear back, I’ll let you know. (For the record, I think that the combination of their political staffs and the combination of their sports staffs have been a success.) See below.

I argued against combining copy desks whenever it came up in Greensboro because I never heard anyone make the case that it improved the journalism delivered to readers. And I’ve worked for four publishers and each got annoyed — highly annoyed — whenever we published corrections. I can’t imagine this system will help their blood pressure.

Update: John Drescher responded for himself and Rick:

The N&O and Charlotte Observer merged our copy editing and design work under the leadership of one person (Hope Paasch) in 2010. This year we consolidated copy editors and designers in one place (in Charlotte). They produce The N&O, The Observer, the Rock Hill Herald and our community papers.

This was a major undertaking. About half of the employees at the McClatchy Publishing Center are new, so we have a steep learning curve. Overall, the center is working well. We’ve come a long way in just a few months. We expect the improvement to continue as our new employees learn the various publications and get established in their roles. 

At the beginning, we had some bumps and heard from some readers about missing sports scores and that sort of thing. We have worked out most of those problems.

The papers serve different markets and will maintain separate identities. Readers of The N&O and Observer have benefitted from the papers sharing content. For example, N&O readers have benefitted from The Observer’s NASCAR and NFL coverage. Observer readers have benefitted from The N&O’s coverage of ACC sports. Those are just two examples.