Coverage Matters

Peter writes:

I’ve heard this before, but does anyone really believe that any substantial number of long-time newspaper readers dropped their subscriptions because of a lack of some sort of coverage? I’ve heard occasional complaints about media bias (left and right), but mostly, as far as I can tell, people dropped their subscriptions because they could get all the same content — and, in fact, far more — for free on the internet! I’m a news-junkie and a journalism obsessive. I subscribe to about a dozen magazines but not a single newspaper. Why bother? The Post and the Times and every other paper I could possibly want to read are all online, for free. The lack of city council coverage (or whatever) has nothing to do with it.

Actually, I know a substantial number of people for whom reduced coverage factored heavily in their decision to cancel a newspaper subscription. Consider an 80,000 circulation newspaper whose coverage area spans a dozen municipalities. Before layoffs, that newspaper assigns a beat reporter to every city, employs two cops reporters, counts four people on the sports desk, three people filling out the business section, one education reporter, and three people who produce special sections — “Home” on Tuesdays, “Style” on Thursdays, “Entertainment” on Fridays, and a Sunday magazine. Add three general assignment reporters, and you’ve got an editorial staff of 25 writers, plus 3 copy editors, a managing editor, an assignment editor, a day and night city editor, a photo editor, and three photographers. That’s 37 people total.

Round one of layoffs forces staff cuts of 10 percent. So a copy editor, a photographer, a sports reporter, and the weakest general assignment reporter are laid off.

Though the lost copy editor means there are more errors in the newspaper everyday, and a marginal decline in quality, there is no immediate impact on readership. The weakest GA, though his work wasn’t much good, did cover a lot of daily grind assignments, allowing the other general assignment writers to invest more time on in depth stories at which they excel — after layoffs, the weak GA is no longer publishing subpar crap, but the better GAs are more pressed for time, and unable to do their best work, resulting in canceled subscriptions from the small percentage of readers who got the paper mostly for the longer feature stories that used to appear every Sunday.

But the biggest impact on subscriptions comes from the lost sports reporter. He wasn’t all that good, but he covered high school sports, and his absence means that instead of covering 10 prep football, basketball and baseball teams, only five now make the newspaper — say goodbye to all the longtime subscribers who only read the sports section and can get all their sports news save local stuff from ESPN, and to the parents of high school athletes who liked seeing the names and pictures of their kid and his friends in the newspaper.

Staff size: 33. Still, not so many subscriptions are lost… until the next round of layoffs, when word comes down from on high that another ten percent staff reduction is needed. The managing editor is a news hound, so his instinct is to cut first from the special sections, a plan the publisher objects to, because the advertising dollars they bring in are so valuable. A compromise is reached: one of the people who staff the special sections is laid off, another is reduced to part time, and the rest of the staff is made to pick up the slack, penning an extra story each week to fill the Style, Home and Sunday Magazine content holes. A cops reporter is also laid off, as is the beat reporter who covers the smallest city — the woman who covers the city next door now has two municipalities to cover.

One of the GAs, now forced to pen fluffy trend pieces for the Style section, no longer has time to go by the courthouse once a week to scan the docket for interesting cases, a skill at which she excelled, and the absence of which didn’t go unnoticed in the local legal community. A single cops reporter means there is no longer anyone to work the night shift, so lots of crimes that happen after 8pm no longer get covered in the next day’s newspaper — as readers start to hear about crimes in their neighborhood on local tv and radio that the newspaper never reported on, they notice that it isn’t as good as it once was, and some cancel their subscriptions, wondering what else isn’t getting covered. The beat reporter asked to cover two cities is good at her job, but she hasn’t built up any sources yet on her new beat, and completely misses a story of interest to all the hard core politicos in that municipality — on local Internet message boards, they begin to spin conspiracy theories about how their old beat reporter was probably laid off to avoid ruffling the feathers of powerful local politicians. They begin a campaign to get the new reporter, who they imagine missed the big story for nefarious reasons, fired, and while that doesn’t happen, the whole kerfuffle causes one guy to launch a blog that covers city hall, which in turn causes canceled subscriptions as some residents of that town figure — wrongly, but still — that they can keep up with their city almost as well on the Web for free.

So far, I’ve merely described the impact of two ten percent cuts in staff, but of course many regional and local newspapers have shrunk far more than that, and as you can imagine, the farther the cuts go the more vital people are lost, the less able the remaining staff is to pick up the slack, and the more readers get frustrated by the sudden absence of whatever it is they most liked in the bundle of stuff that is a newspaper.

None of this is to take issue with Peter’s larger point. A government bailout of newspapers is a bad idea for all sorts of reasons. But there are all sorts of newspapers for whom a vicious cycle of staff reductions and declining quality is costing readers aplenty.