More with less: should MSM focus on niche or general?

The other day, my husband and I began the fifth season of The Wire. So four years ago, right? We watched this episode called "More with Less," showing how reporters and editors at the Baltimore Sun have to do "more with less," more stories, more tweeting, more multimedia with less reporters, less pay, less resources.

Since I work for a print publication, I think I know a little bit about the state of the publishing industry and this concept of "more with less." But Fred Clark at Patheos isn't convinced, based on a post he wrote in response to a brief comment I posted earlier this week. Let me explain.

Last week we discussed the state of the philanthropy beat where I lamented that the New York Times no longer has someone focused specifically on that beat, instead moving the reporter over to the business desk. In promoting the podcast discussion, I wrote the following comment:

We’re also noticing a possible disappearance of the philanthropy beat where a reporter focuses specifically in that area.

... One thing is becoming clearer: newspapers seem less eager to assign reporters to such specific beats.

In response, Clark wrote:

How can anyone claim to be performing media criticism without being aware that newspapers don’t have enough reporters anymore.

A beat reporter for philanthropy? What universe are you living in if you imagine that’s anything more than a pipe-dream luxury for a 21st-century American newsroom?

The key here, though, is that the reporter wasn't laid off, so the newspaper could obviously still afford to employ the staffer. The question is, should she be devoted to a niche like philanthropy or something more broad like business? What I see is newspapers following each other in droves to capitalize on the latest trending topic instead of developing niche, original stories. How many reporters do we need covering Jessica Simpson's baby or even Instagram's sale to Facebook?

Clark quotes a study that newspapers now employ 40,600 editors and reporters, compared to a peak of 56,900 in the pre-Internet year of 1990. Yes, that's tough, but we also all have access to more news than ever before. Keeping people in niche beats isn't necessarily about the state of the industry, but if we're talking in economic terms, it seems like you would want your reporters to offer something unique to the news hole, not become more generic in coverage.

Back to Clark, who says:

Newsrooms are doing less with less. A lot less with a lot less.

The editors and reporters all know it. Their readers certainly know it. Even the beancounters themselves know it.

But the news seems not yet to have reached the media critics at GetReligion.

Believe me, I know about "more with less." Just today I worked on a feature piece, edited stories and blog posts, brainstormed and assigned others, formatted some photos, tweeted and Facebooked a bunch, responded to several emails, jumped on a Google video chat, made a few phone calls, toyed with Google+ and Pinterest, read part of a book for an upcoming interview and clicked through most of my Google reader. I don't even know what it's like to write one story per day anymore, and I work for a monthly publication. Watch Kate Shellnutt, Dan Gilgoff/Eric Marrapodi, Elizabeth Tenety, Cathy Grossman, Bob Smietana, Kevin Eckstrom, and many more at daily (or hourly) publications. Many reporters and editors will likely resonate with this new Tumblr.

Yes, there were 28% more reporters and editors before, but journalists also didn't have equipment like smartphones, laptops, iPads, equipment that allows every outlet to post all day every day. And all of a sudden, we're in competition for eyeballs with the rest of the internet, Justin Bieber's twitter feed and all. If publications want to be smart about "more with less," they would ask reporters to find more unique stories instead of chasing the same story. Sure, you might tip your blog or twitter hat to the Time magazine boob cover, but you don't need to have eight reporters producing a predictable, bland story about President Obama and gay marriage.

What I meant in my very quick/passing comment was that as more and more niche sites are popping up (Golf for women! Vegan for the foodie! Mormons who love Pinterest!), newspapers seem to be getting even more and more generic, putting someone from the philanthropy beat into the generic business category. The business model is complex, but perhaps newspapers would do a bit better if they assigned people to really niche categories so they could generate fascinating stories about a particular area, not try to make everyone so generically bland in their beats.

Yes, it's more with less, but that doesn't mean you have to stoop to the lowest common beat. If your newsroom staff gets cut by 50%, do you hone in on what you do best or stop trying to offer something unique in the absence of others on the beat? From a business model, I would think you want to do the latter. It's why more newspapers are trying to go local, local, local. If they extended that idea, they would go beat, beat, beat.

Just look at the Washington Post's recent Elizabeth Flock-gate where the newspaper had one reporter capitalizing on the most popular stories through aggregating. "The goal is to surf the trend waves on the Internet, hoping to catch a few thousand page views as a story crests," Patrick B. Pexton wrote. "It’s cashing in on the passing popularity of a story even if you don’t have a reporter covering it." The problem was, Flock made some mistakes under pressure to write a lot under little deadline. The question many outlets will have to face is, should they invest in very nimble content through experts who can really exploit coverage areas, or should they go generic to try to save money but possibly degrade the brand?

This all goes back to the religion beat for us, where we strongly advocate media outlets employ at least one person with an expertise in religion to spot stories, prevent holes and explain nuances to an audience. It's about prioritizing more what you do have with less resources.

Image "do less be more" via Shutterstock.

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