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. …