Amid Newsroom Layoffs, Hard Questions Arise about Future of Print Journalism

Article excerpt

Taking a cue from the old saying about the British Empire, Baltimore's top daily newspaper once bragged about its prominent international coverage with an impressive motto: "The Sun Never Sets on the World."

It's hard to make that case anymore. Due to budget cuts, The Baltimore Sun is eliminating its London and Beijing bureaus, leaving it with just three full-time foreign correspondents.

The Sun, once the home of luminaries like H.L. Mencken, used to "hit above its weight," says Todd Richissin, the paper's London reporter, who is heading back to Baltimore. Now it's becoming more ordinary, he adds. "Having fewer reporters takes us further away from the truth."

His refrain is far from unique as newspaper newsrooms cope with a new round of cutbacks. Daily newspapers in New York, Boston, Houston, St. Louis, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and elsewhere are laying off or buying out hundreds of newsroom employees, as well as other workers. Last summer, The Christian Science Monitor cut newsroom jobs, too.

The moves come during an especially difficult time as the newspaper industry struggles with competition from the Internet and higher scrutiny of circulation figures after charges that some papers had inflated them. Disgruntled investors are calling for the struggling Knight Ridder media company to be sold, and subscriber levels continue to dip nationally. Weekday circulation of the nation's audited newspapers fell 2.6 percent in a six-month period compared with last year, the Audit Bureau of Circulations reported Monday. Of the 20 largest papers, the San Francisco Chronicle saw the largest decline: 16.4 percent. (The Monitor, not among the top 20, saw a 12.4 percent drop.)

Is retrenchment the answer? Critics accuse the industry of caring more about profits than top-notch journalism. Shouldn't newspapers hire more reporters, or at least refuse to reduce their numbers, as readers continue to drift away? Would, say, a computer manufacturer dare to produce shoddier products - and keep prices the same - during a downturn?

In fact, there's no easy way to connect staffing levels, let alone the elusive factor of "quality," to newspaper readership levels. "It's more of an art than a science," says Russ Mitchell, a veteran financial reporter and former editor of the magazine Business 2.0. "There is very little research that makes that link. Just observationally, if you've got three talented reporters covering City Hall, you're going to get a better, higher-quality job done than if you had one. But how that translates into circulation, into reader satisfaction, is unclear. …