Academic journal article Newspaper Research Journal

Above-Average Staff Size Helps Newspapers Retain Circulation

Academic journal article Newspaper Research Journal

Above-Average Staff Size Helps Newspapers Retain Circulation

Article excerpt

How many news-editorial staff members does it take to produce a viable newspaper? In recent years, there has been enough variability in newspaper staffing to produce the opportunity for a natural experiment. In the late 1990s, earnings of newspaper companies soared, and staff sizes grew. Then a mild recession led to cutbacks that some feared would permanently damage their companies. Jay Harris, publisher of the San Jose Mercury, resigned over that issue. (1) In March 2002, Editor & Publisher reported that the end of the recession would not lead newspapers to return their staffing to previous levels. "Permanent fixed-cost reductions" would be the top priority as investor-pressured newspaper companies continued to try to improve their profit margins. (2)

While publishers recognize that news-editorial and sales jobs have something to do with a newspaper's ability to grow--or, if growth is impossible, to at least retard its decline--these categories were not immune from the recession cuts. Such decisions are difficult for managers because the value of the news-editorial staff, while intuitively appreciated, is difficult to measure with any precision. Most attempts have been indirect.

One obvious quality element related to staff size is what military strategists call "surge capacity." Some newspapers are so thinly staffed that it takes 100 percent of everyone's effort just to get a routine paper out every day. When a big story hits, it has to be compressed into a product not very different in size and format from the routine. A newspaper with surge capacity, can, under the guidance of a good editor, perform seeming miracles like The Miami Herald's day-after reporting on Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Staff size is not the only relevant variable, of course. Management skill has much to do with surge capacity. But a minimally efficient size is necessary, if not always sufficient.


Williamson argued that declining circulation could be remedied by improving the quality of the news product. (3) Some newspapers have demonstrated that the quality of their newspapers has enhanced their business success. Examples include the Guardian in the United Kingdom (4) and Times Mirror, (5) in addition to The Washington Post's coverage of the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate affair. (6) Recently, Lacey and Martin found that the Thompson papers lost revenue and circulation during the 1980s when high profit goals were set. (7) These cases and anecdotes suggest that good quality produces profit.

Others have explored more specific indicators of newspaper quality for predicting the relationship between quality and circulation. Becker et al. found that staff size, starting salary, number of women on staff and type of ownership were related to newspaper performance by studying 109 daily newspapers in New England in 1973. (8) Also, Stone et al. studied 124 newspapers using an interval scale for newspaper quality. The interval scale was created by the categorical distinction between superior and inferior papers and the numerical rating established by judges' agreement. They found a positive correlation between newspaper quality and circulation. (9) In addition, Lacy and Fico found that the quality of newspapers at time one (in 1984) was positively correlated to circulation at time two (in 1985) for 106 daily newspapers. They used a content-based quality measure. The quality index included high ratio of staff-written copy to wire service and feature service copy. (10) Also, Blankenburg examined the 1986 Inland Daily Newspaper Association Cost and Revenue Study data. He found quantifiable quality-related variables--expenditures on news-editorial departments, staffing levels and number of news pages--in the data: He found that these variables were somewhat correlated with circulation in 149 newspapers. (11)

In short, several studies have found a positive correlation between quality and circulation, and a few have related staff size to quality. …

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