The Newspaper Problem, in a nutshell

April 9, 2006 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

The sports editor of my local newspaper wrote a column this weekend that, inadvertently, summed up much of what is wrong with American newspapers. (He and the newspaper will remain un-named and un-linked.)

The column must have been in reaction to some criticism the sports department had received from high school sports partisans. The newspaper had apparently not given enough attention to the schools of these partisans, and they were accusing the sports department of bias.

The sports editor had grown a bit testy with these folks.

In an area that includes over 40 high schools, seven colleges and numerous other sports activities, it’s impossible for a seven-person staff to be everywhere everyday.

Just do the math. We haven’t learned the trick of making five loaves of bread and two fish feed 5,000. Sorry.

Until we learn how to do that, we depend on the coaches throughout the area. Without their diligence to call in results from games that we’re unable to cover, readers and supporters of those schools would not see the results in the next day’s paper.

Despite his testiness, one can sympathize with the editor. Seven people on the sports staff? He could probably use three times that many.

But the significant fact here, I think, is that people were complaining. They thought that the newspaper wasn’t serving them, and they cared enough to take the time and effort to say so.

And what was the newspaper’s response to this concern?

Do the math.

The math, of course, does not concern simply asking an underpaid seven-person staff to do an impossible job. Rather, and more significantly, it has to do with the fact that newspapers like this one operate at 15 to 20 percent profit margins (far higher than most other businesses), and they do so because they are a monopoly – the only game in town. The math also concerns the failure of newspapers to invest in improving the quality of their product by hiring more staff and paying them a decent wage. Instead, they have done exactly the opposite – cutting back on staff and staff development and keeping salaries and benefits for editorial and news people as low as possible.

Today the newspaper industry is aflutter with concerns about losing readers and tanking advertising revenue. “What shall we do?” the publishers wail. In the face of this, a newspaper should look at readers who complain about lack of coverage as a blessing. It means that, maybe, there is an audience out there that still cares.

But what has been the newspaper’s response? A seven-person sports staff.
And what will be the readers’ reaction? Will they say, as the sports editor seems to want them to say, “Oh, ok, we understand. Hey, those profit margins have to be maintained. Thanks for trying.”

Or will they say to the newspaper just what the sports editor has said to them:

Do the math.

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