A Shrinking Staff Propels a Newspaper's Transformation
‘If we’re forced to be a smaller place, then let’s aggressively teach ourselves the virtues that go along with that sensibility.’
Paraphrasing Samuel Johnson, folks often say that nothing focuses the mind like the sight of the gallows. I like better the version that a friend, the head of a large nonprofit organization here, recently offered. She has it taped to the back of her door: "Nothing inspires creativity like a big budget cut." It is a lesson virtually all of us in newspapers are learning — whether we like it or not.
For all its delusional, Pollyanna/glass-half-full/necessity-is-the-mother-of-
invention quality, this wisdom offers us the best — and perhaps the only — way out of the fix we find ourselves in at American newspapers today. Here's the conundrum: All across America our newsrooms are shrinking — leaving us with far fewer resources than ever before to deal with a changing industry that is presenting us with problems and issues that are ever more vexing and intractable. Here's the solution: Use the crisis to do what we should have been doing all along.
Without question our newsroom here at The Philadelphia Inquirer has earned its shrinking-newsroom chops. Since I became editor here two and a half years ago, we've lost 110 people — or nearly 21 percent of our newsroom staff — along with similar cuts in newsprint and our budgets. Those with longer memories can recite even bigger staff, budget and newsprint cuts. The sad result is that more than a few people can look around our newsroom and see 425 people — plus more than 200 ghosts.
The near-constant attrition of the past few years means that fewer people must do more work. Institutional memory and valuable community ties are severed. Every loss brings a new headache, as those who remain must spend hours, sometimes days, trying to figure out: Who will do this work? How will we train replacements? How do we juggle schedules? What will we do when people possessing unique skills walk out the door?
After big losses — like the ones brought about by cuts we've just emerged from — dozens of us spent months doing little else but figuring out how to remake the newsroom in the wake of the departures. I can't think of one of us who at the end of this process was not emotionally and physically exhausted.
That's the bad news. Now, here's the good news: There is good news.
The skills we're honing through necessity are precisely the ones we will need to propel ourselves into the future that is thrusting itself upon us with such vigor. In the face of these challenges, we don't need to settle for simply being a big institution — doing what big institutions do only with fewer people. If we're forced to be a smaller place, then let's aggressively teach ourselves the virtues that go along with that sensibility. In fact, as we've worked our way through this process, I've settled on some new favorite words: Resilience. Flexibility. Creativity. Collegiality. Cooperation. Focus.
In shrinking, we are forced almost daily to choose. Aggressive pruning is sad, of course, for ambitious journalists who know what they could do with just a little bit more. But it's also pushing us to think deeply, seriously and profoundly about what we value. About what our readers value. About what value we can bring to them. About what value we should and can bring to our community. Every choice we make is a reaffirmation of those values. It's like the old desert island game: When you think about the choices you would make if you had only one choice, it forces you to confront what matters most.
In downsizing, we are forced to think hard about the basic question of what exactly journalism is. Newspapers have stayed in much the same form for decades, as everything around us has been changing. Only the sight of the gallows is helping wrench us to the realization that journalism isn't just interviewing people, writing stories and headlines, taking pictures and writing captions. The essence of journalism is providing information, insight, education and entertainment. It is making connections, building community, uncovering secrets and hidden information, and being watchdogs for our community.
And there are lots of ways to do this — ways that necessity is forcing us to examine.
The New Approach
Here's how we approached transforming what our newspaper does and how we do it with a lot fewer people than we had before.
Within a few days of learning in 2005 that we were going to have to drop 75 people, or 15 percent of our editorial staff, we held an off-site meeting of our department heads. Our nervous and strong urge was simply to try to fix the problem. After all, everyone was feeling anxious about how their own departments were going to be hit. Instead, led by editorial page editor, Chris Satullo, we spent an entire — and sometimes painful — day examining our values. At the end of the day, we reached agreement on some core principles:
We had to maintain our ambition. Our local and regional news would be robust, inclusive and investigative; our national and foreign news would be analytical, forward-looking and informative; our paper valued expertise and voice, good writing, and unique perspectives. Perhaps most important: We would no longer consider ourselves a newspaper, but rather a news organization — one that would aim to operate with equal facility in whatever medium, be it print or electronic, that would serve readers best.
We had to maintain our mission. As important as what we decided we were was what we realized we were not. We were not — nor should we be — a paper of record. The notion fell hard. Still, this was an important conclusion. It had, in fact, been years since any newspaper had truly been the kind of all-inclusive recording-secretary chronicler of the daily institutional activity of the region. What's more, every type of reader survey told us over and over again that readers no longer valued this kind of blow-by-blow incremental institutional coverage. Yet, without a specific recognition of that fact, we feared that our shrinking resources would go increasingly to a futile, frustrating and ultimately boring attempt to chase down each detail of the day's news.
Our core conclusions underlay our subsequent decision-making. During the next few months, nearly 160 people throughout the organization came together as part of this rebuilding process. One group focused on what we called "regionalism" and was charged with fully integrating coverage of our eight-county region into every beat. One group examined our organization and its structures. Another focused on breaking down our online aspirations into achievable jobs. Yet another was tasked with simply acting as a transition team — getting us from here to there.
Fundamentally we restructured much of our operation. Some of the restructuring, admittedly, was simply for greater efficiency. But the exciting part of the restructuring was where we could merge efficiency with greater effectiveness — and get ourselves closer to our long-term goal of transforming our journalism.
Here are a few of the things we decided to do:
Re-Imagine Page One: We agreed to blast Page One out of its decades-old format, remnants of a day when newspapers were still the prime source of yesterday's news. Instead, we go deep on one daily story, layering the story of the day with background, context, interpretation and analysis. Fewer people means more planning so that we can be prepared to produce excellent packages for the major stories of the day, while creating robust briefs collections for much else inside our lead section.
Think community: We fundamentally altered our labor-intensive, geographically based zoning in favor of team coverage focusing on communities of interest. Rather than trying, unsuccessfully, to blanket all school boards, or crime stories, or town council meetings, our suburban coverage now focuses on issues with impact. Some recent examples: How communities are "unpaving" their roads to retard development and increase privacy; how high school advanced placement classes aren't just for top scholars any more, and an investigation of underreporting of crime at local colleges and universities.
Create community: Our losses pushed us to pursue bold Internet experiments. As a result of the loss of our two theater critics, we've launched a pilot project to work with local theaters to turn Web pages we create into places where we can go beyond reviews to engage the readers themselves in richer conversations that will, hopefully, turn us into a local hub of discussion about movies.
Train, train train: Our training budgets were slashed to nearly nothing. So we decided to do more training. We used computers freed up from the downsizing to create a training center and launched "Inquirer University." Among our 425 people, we have skilled editors, computer-assisted reporting experts, designers, photographers, interviewers and wordsmiths who can act as coaches. We have launched an ambitious yearlong curriculum including classes in everything from ethics to the use of quotes, interviewing skills and narrative, to using databases, creating audio text for online to creating photo slide shows. One goal is to improve our journalistic quality despite our reduction in numbers. Another goal is to increase our flexibility by giving as many people as possible as many skill sets as possible.
Be flexible: Our cuts left departments without vacation backups. So we paired departments in a buddy system. We cross-trained editorial assistants in multiple jobs. Fewer copyeditors meant looking closely at peak-period scheduling to find dead time that could be filled effectively with nondeadline work. We're working to improve planning to eliminate costly delays and to ruthlessly excise low-value work. We've been breaking down walls between departments so that we can practice on daily stories the same kind of all-hands-on-deck cooperation that every newsroom exhibits during major breaking stories.
Integrate online: With so many fewer people, how can all of this extra online work be done? The answer was to make it as little extra work as possible. We worked with designers to make sure that graphics were designed only once — to work in the paper and online. Our director of photography, Hai Do, massaged a software package to turn the job of creating online photo shows from a half-day ordeal to a two-minute add-on. We took the job of daily posting of breaking news, which previously was done centrally, and trained editors and reporters to do their own work. We're even going back to the "Sweetie, get me rewrite" days by rotating people through a slot that will be available to take dictation from people out of the office — turning that part of the job from a complex technological nightmare to one cell-phone call.
Nobody would contend that they like budget cuts as a spur to creativity and change. But given that is what we have, I am extremely proud of the path our newsroom has chosen.
Amanda Bennett is editor and executive vice president of The Philadelphia Inquirer.