July 20, 2009
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Newspapers Are Big, Not Bloated

John Gruber has a thoughtful argument on why newspaper efforts to charge for the news are probably doomed. I agree with his conclusion, but his diagnosis of the problem with newspapers is wrong.

Old-school news companies aren’t like that — the editorial staff makes up only a fraction of the total head count at major newspaper and magazine companies. The question these companies should be asking is, “How do we keep reporting and publishing good content?” Instead, though, they’re asking “How do we keep making enough money to support our existing management and advertising divisions?” It’s dinosaurs and mammals.

And it’s not really surprising that they’re failing to evolve. The decision-makers — the executives sitting atop large non-editorial management bureaucracies — are exactly the people who need to go if newspapers are going to remain profitable.

The heavy staffing of traditional newspapers was not the fault of management bureaucracy. It was the fault of technology and distribution.


I remember visiting the Chicago Sun Times/Daily News building as a kid, where my best friend’s dad was a columnist. The place was huge! But it wasn't filled with middle managers; it was filled with compositors and pressmen and ad sales clerks. You didn’t just need someone to mark up the HTML; you had to cast the letters in lead type. And, if you needed to make a change, someone had to go take the plates off the press, melt them down, cast new plates, and start the press up again.

Keep in mind, too, the problems of doing business without computers. Every little transaction generates paper, and that paper needs to be reliably filed and quickly retrieved. Every transaction: two bucks for the delivery boy, the rent for the Paris office, the fee for the department store ads. Every paycheck had to be computed and written out by hand, in duplicate. Even in the 70’s, the fax machine was so new and faxes were so slow that Peter Gammons was able to write the story of a lifetime faster than the fax machine could send it.

If anything, the newsroom of old was notably short on bureaucracy. That was the whole point of the news room: you had a huge open office in which dozens of people worked because all those dozens of people reported to one editor. Some of those dozens would turn out to be idiots, some of them would be crazy, plenty of them were drunks, and all of them were prone to be unmanageable. Even so, there are remarkably few layers of bureaucracy.


If you’re going to be a big daily paper in the early or mid-20th century, you’re going to need to run a big printing facility. That means you’ve got huge production costs, and lots of people who set up, run, and maintain the presses. You’ve got to staff them for the worst case, too; that means you need enough maintenance people on hand that, when the worst possible breakdown happens at the worst possible time, you still get the paper on the street.

Plus, you’ve got a fleet of trucks to deliver the paper to retailers, because you can’t just sell the thing on your doorstep. Before you had trucks, you had horses and wagons. Lots of horses, and lots of wagons, and lots of teamsters to drive them. Those horses got a raw deal; the teamsters did, too, and eventually they drove a hard bargain. Newspapers are living with the consequences of that bargain, but it’s worth remembering how badly those early drivers, and their horses, were treated.

This puts the newspapers into the same bind as the movie business. If you’ve got to support a theater in every town in the country, that’s a lot of mortgages to pay. If you’ve got to run the largest printing operation in town, and the largest cartage operation in town, as a side-effect of your real business, then spending an extra dollar or two on editorial has no significant effect on the bottom line. You add writers, and editors, and bureaus, because their cost is small relative to your presses and your delivery trucks – and if you have a Paris bureau and the other paper doesn’t, then someday you might outsell the other paper big time.

This is the core dynamic of the 20th century newspaper. Why did columnists make so much money? Because they recruited readers, and because it wasn’t much money compared to the rest of the operation. Why did they have rewrite boys and typists and gofers? Because lots of newspaper reporters were still barely educated – reporting was a job for people with a high school education – and you needed someone to fix the spelling. (“Never let them know you can type,” my mother’s first editor told her.) Why fix the spelling? Because a bunch of readers have gone to college, and the advertisers badly want those readers. Fact checking? Same story. Why did newspapers have crime reporters and book reporters and theater reporters and society reporters, not just in New York but in Detroit and Denver and Des Moines? Because those columns sold a few papers, sometimes they attracted an advertiser, and the extra pair of hands came cheap.

Newspapers aren’t bloated bureaucracies because they have antiquated management. They’re heavily staffed because they are built for a different technology and a different distribution system. The old economy made them strong in some areas, and vulnerable in others. The new economics will change their structure. But it’s not simply a matter of antique management; it’s the result of that press in the basement and all those trucks out back.