On staff reductions and missed opportunities

My friend Matt Welch, a former LAT opinion editor, has some not very nice things to say about the Times:

A small detail, but perhaps illustrative (or counter-illustrative) at a time when the Holocaust itself will soon be blamed on Sam Zell — my former newspaper, in fat times as well as lean, does a l-o-u-s-y job of retaining, harnessing, leveraging, or even knowing about the information and talent percolating within its own walls. Some of the better writers in the country are kept far off the page, saddled with bureaucratic tasks while mediocrites churn out column inch after column inch and editors whine about there not being enough writing talent to fill the daily hole.

Yet how many times have managers looked around for the (many) people not pulling their weight, or for the staffing models dating from a half-century ago (or more), and said “You know what, let’s cut the bloat first”? Not bloody often. There are few writers in L.A. more hated within the Times than Mickey Kaus, but I agree with him, not them, that you could do much more with 500 very good people than you can with the 900 or so in the newsroom now.

Which reminds me of Mark Potts:

Well, maybe. The dirty little secret of big-paper newsrooms is that, well, they aren’t all that productive. That’s what gave a little edge to that alleged anecdote about the Post’s productivity–there usually were a lot of reporters and editors just sort of sitting around, reading papers. Every big newsroom has its share–more than its share–of reporters who write only occasionally, of editors who spend an unfortunate amount of time sitting and waiting for the next piece of copy to come in. For a lot of reasons, big newsrooms just aren’t very efficient–as a high-ranking editor at a big daily said to me recently: “We could put out the same paper with half has many people as we have now–but they’d have to be different people.

Bold added to the last quote to connect the dots with Welch.

Sorry for repeating an anecdote from a previous post, but when I was a reporter at the Daily Californian (El Cajon, Calif.), our reporters would laugh at San Diego Union and Evening Tribune reporters who complained about writing more than two stories a week, while we routinely wrote more than that in a day.

A friend of mine who worked for the Times at the back then, complained about about a pair of journalists whom nobody had seen in the office for two years, nor had their bylines appeared — can you imagine getting two years to work on a story? A newspaper story?

The Times bloat and waste is legendary.

So I understand where Matt is coming from. And Mark, also, who was writing about a Tribune memo indicating Sam Zell has plans to cut staff and newshole dramatically, reasoning that some of the less productive staffs at the bigger papers can become as productive as some of the staffs at smaller papers.

That’s not an entirely unreasonable thought.

The Internet punishes inefficient business models, and one of the biggest inefficiencies at many, many newspapers are staff writers who aren’t as productive as your average part-time blogger.

I realize “quality journalism takes time,” and that most bloggers don’t do as much solid reporting as your typical newspaper journalist. What I am pointing out is: this is what the competitive landscape looks like. Either newsrooms adjust, or they die.

The modern journalist, whether cloistered in a big-media newsroom, or working independently as a journalist-blogger, must be more productive than was required under the old print-only paradigm.

That may be an unfortunate truth for many, but it is reality.

Returning to a quote from Matt that I excised above:

I think one of the worst things to happen to modern newspapers is the Buyout. Not because I weep for journalists losing their fat newspaper jobs — truly, I do not. But because a generic get-out-of-jail-free card is too often taken quickest by those who have genuinely interesting prospects outside of the Velvet Coffin, instead of the lifers just looking to hang on to the meal ticket.

It seems logical that the most entrepreneurial, the less risk-adverse, the most creative, the ones who can imagine a future outside of print journalism would be the first to take a buyout. That has got to be a problem for our industry.

But one of the things that crossed my mind during my forced hiatus from blogging, when the debate around Tribune’s productivity increase started, and reflecting on all of these staff reductions and buyouts — the question came to mind — if a newsroom, under economic pressure, can afford to lose 10, 20, 30 or even 50 staff positions now, why couldn’t those same newspapers have lost them five years ago — and lost them to the Internet side of the business?

Imagine if the Los Angeles Times had shifted 50 or 100 positions to web-only content production five or 10 years ago how much further along would LATimes.com be in audience growth today?

When the history of the newspaper industry from 1995 to 2005 is written, the historians won’t wonder why the Tribune Co. didn’t invent Google itself, or Ebay or Facebook, or that Hearst didn’t react more quickly to Craigslist, or ask why the New Century Network didn’t buy Yahoo!?

No, the big question will be — why didn’t newspapers invest in online when they had the chance?

Not only were opportunities squandered to shift more resources to the Web, but starting in about 2000, most well-run (well-run being a relative term) newspaper web sites started to turn a profit. Very little of that extra cash flow went into hiring more people, investing in product development or buying up Internet start-ups (one notable exception, E..W. Scripps buying Shopzilla). Almost all of it went to the bottom line.

And again, I’m not talking big, grand, innovative R&D — but simple stuff … doing what we already knew worked, such as user participation, social networking, blogging, web-first publishing and so on — stuff that we now consider the blocking and tackling of a good news web site. Basic stuff that few newspaper web sites really do well yet, but if they had started sooner, would have mastered by now.

It wasn’t hard to predict as far back as 2002-2003 when online recruitment revenue was strong for newspapers, and other classified categories were starting to take off, that the good times wouldn’t last. A recession was inevitable (they always are), and we were already in an unpredictable war footing, and broadband penetration was increasing (with observable changes in adoption rates for consumer reliance on the web) — it was easy to see this day coming.

But like the little pig who built his house of straw, the big newspapers took the easy route. They kept expenses low and bragged about 30 percent year-over-year increases in online revenue.

Now the strong winds are blowing and they’re looking at the big brick houses in the Silicon Valley and saying, “Those lucky bastards.