Shoe-Leather Reporting at the New York Times

The New York Times‘s says they’re going to take another stab at erecting a paywall, just four years after they abandoned their previous effort. On Friday, I got into a debate with Dan Rothschild about it. Dan wrote that “if advertising were a silver bullet, presumably someone would have figured out how to really make it work by now.” This left me scratching my head, because of course there are lots and lots of examples of news websites that turn a profit without charging subscription fees. But Dan says these examples don’t count:

Shoe-leather reporting is extremely valuable… The opinion and inside baseball sites that you mentioned can’t exist without the work the Times and others do… Those sites are low cost because they don’t have bureaus in Chicago and San Francisco and Houston, much less London and Frankfurt and Cairo and Jerusalem and Singapore. And I haven’t seen a business model wherein well-compensated, talented journalists do investigative reporting around the world outside of traditional news media.

I’ve written before about the “shoe leather” argument. While there are undoubtedly some kinds of stories a publication can only get by putting a reporter on a plane or staffing a foreign bureau, the Internet has dramatically reduced the universe of stories for which that is true. Sports seems like a pretty clear example of this: if you’re a reporter for the New York Times, and you want to get your readers information about a Yankees away game in Toronto, there are lots of ways to do that other than “shoe-leather” reporting: you can solicit first-hand fan reports or link to coverage from local publications, for example. Or you could even watch the game on television. There are a lot of beats that require less shoe leather than they used to.

But even setting that kind of efficiency issue aside, there’s also a basic point about what the New York Times actually does. The NYTimes.com website has 12 virtual “sections.” Of these, three and a half (World, U.S., N.Y./Region, and some of “Business”) feature a significant amount of “shoe leather” reporting. The next three (Technology, Science, and Health) are technical subjects that can be handled at least as well by specialized web publications. Technology, the beat I know best, is already dominated by web-native publications like TechCrunch and CNet. The last five sections (sports, opinion, arts, style, and travel) are the kind of content that involves relatively little shoe-leather reporting. Niche websites, amateur blogs, and user-generated content sites could easily replace these sections.

Now add to this Clay Shirky’s point that reporters are a relatively small fraction of the staff of a newspaper. Shirky counted 6 out of 59 reporters for the Columbia Daily Tribune, a relatively small daily in Missouri. The ratio seems to be a little higher at the Times: the annual report tells me there are 3094 employees in the The New York Times Media Group, while there are reportedly around 1200 editorial employees—about 40 percent of the staff. Do the math (3.5/12*1200/3094), and you find that, very roughly, around 11 percent of Times employees are directly contributing to the “shoe leather reporting” process. Now, the “shoe-leather” sections probably consume more resources than the others, but even adjusting for that it’s hard to believe that more than 20 percent of Times revenues are devoted in covering these beats.

Compare that to Pro Publica, a non-profit organization dedicated entirely to funding serious investigative reporting. They have a budget of $9 million, and according to their annual report almost two-thirds of that went to “News salaries, payments and benefits.” They list a staff of about 30 reporters and editors, compared with just 8 executives and administrative staff.

So even if you believe that a purely advertising-supported web won’t be able to support an adequate amount of shoe-leather reporting, voluntarily subscribing to a paywalled Times, despite the existence of high-quality, free alternatives like CNN and the BBC, seems silly. If serious news is what I want, then I should donate to an organization that focuses on producing it. About 65 cents of every dollar I give to Pro Publica will go to support serious, public-interested newsgathering. It makes no sense to instead give money to an organization that will spend less than 20 cents of every dollar on shoe-leather reporting as a means to its primary goal of making the Sulzberger family wealthier.

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14 Responses to Shoe-Leather Reporting at the New York Times

  1. Brett says:

    That’s good news about Pro Publica. I’ll have to make a donation when my next paycheck comes in.

    I wonder if ultimately the major US papers will effectively “out-source” their foreign news gathering to free-lance reporters and news sources within the countries in question. Instead of stationing reporters in, say, France to get French news, they could just work out a deal with a major French newspaper to trade/buy news stories for each other. Rapidly improving translation software would make this even better.

    You would still have countries where there are no good news sources to work with, and you might still have to pay for either your own reporters or free-lancers.

  2. quanticle says:

    I have but one quibble with your post. You called CNN a high-quality free alternative. I disagree with that assertion. CNN, it seems to me, is much more concerned with celebrity coverage, human interest stories and sensationalism than factual reporting.

    This is best observed by contrasting CNN’s and BBC’s coverage of the Fukushima reactor incident. The BBC articles, in my opinion, were much more restrained about the scope and scale of the tragedy. They stated what was likely to happen and marginalized unlikely worst case scenarios (e.g. “OMG! Chernobyl!”). CNN, on the other hand, featured such scenarios front and center. Of all the American news sources, I actually found the New York Times to have the most sensible reporting on the matter. Take from that what you will.

    Of course, the local news/newspaper was even worse than CNN, so I can’t complain too much, but the lack of perspective in American journalism is beginning to grate.

  3. Abe says:

    “It makes no sense to instead give money to an organization that will spend less than 20 cents of every dollar on shoe-leather reporting as a means to its primary goal of making the Sulzberger family wealthier.

    O, Lets work out how much of the revenues go towards “making the Sulzberger family richer”. Based upon the Annual report you linked to (for the year ending Dec. 2010):

    # NYT Company revenues: $2,393
    # Net income: $109 million
    # Sulzberger family stock holding: <20% (based upon the numbers in NY MAg's Bleeding ‘Times’ Blood article)

    Doing the math (0.20*109/2393) less than 1% of your subscription would go toward enriching the Sulzberger family, while per your (conservative, in both senses of the word) estimate 20% would go towards shoe-leather reporting.

    So, tell me again, why is 1% unacceptably high, and 20% too low ?

  4. LWC says:

    Isn’t the BBC supported by British tax payers? That’s hardly a fair comparison.

  5. Edward says:

    Hate to break it to you but CNN and the BBC aren’t free. While it’s true their websites make money, those ventures are re-appropriating content paid for by their respective cable channels. In the United States if you get cable you’re paying a monthly fee of about $.48 cents a month. The only reason this is so low is because every cable operator carries them, so 60% of the country is paying this monthly fee.

    Just look at this chart from Time Warner
    http://www.mediabistro.com/tvnewser/this-is-where-cnn-makes-its-money_b24388

    CNN is in the subscription business, with other incomes secondary, exactly like the New York Times. The BBC is a combination, with US revenue being primarily carriage fees and the UK model being solely taxed based.

    You also fundamentally don’t understand the actual cost of reporting. While there is no question some of the Times content is replaceable consider their war coverage.

    In Iraq the Times is “spending more than $3 million a year to maintain a heavily fortified Baghdad bureau.” This is the same as 60 of the reporters you consider fluff stateside.http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2008/12/nytimes200812

    ProPublica is great, but the main need for its existence is derived from the fact that people like you don’t think the Times should be subscribed to.

  6. This sentence doesn’t make sense:
    “Shirky counted 6 out of 59 reporters for the Columbia Daily Tribune, a relatively small daily in Missouri.” Please clarify.

    Perhaps you mean 6 of the 59 employees of the Columbia Daily Tribune are reporters? That seems awfully low if true. BTW, they recently put up a paywall.

    Thanks.

    Cynthia

  7. Yes, Shirky found the Tribune had 6 reporters out of 59 employees. Sorry for misstating it.

  8. Kent says:

    Your formula cited the NY Times as having 3,094 employees, but that’s wrong. That figure represents the employment numbers for The New York Times Media Group, which includes the following companies/subsidiaries: The International Herald-Tribune, a company called baseline.com, the New York Times Index, Digital Archive Distribution, as well as the The New York Times News Services Division.

    I don’t know how many people work for the NY Times newspaper, but it seems highly likely that it’s a lot less than the 3,094 you used as the denominator in your equation.

    Ironic that in a post questioning the Times’ shoe leather reporting, you didn’t do enough it it yourself.

  9. Hi Kent,

    My impression is that the IHT is the international edition of the Times and largely re-publishes NYT stories. The others… seem to be built on the work of NYT reporters. Do any of those organizations have significant reporting staffs that aren’t included in the 1200 figure I cited? If not, I don’t see how it contradicts my point.

  10. Kent says:

    Hey Tim,

    My comment doesn’t contract your point, but I do think it discredits it, a bit.

    You urged readers to “do the math” — and I’m left wondering if your math quantifies what it purports to quantify.

    Also, I think your decision to omit Sports from the “shoe leather” reporting crowd weakens your case. Positing that they don’t have to engage in shoe leather reporting because they could just watch the game on TV is akin to saying Hill reporters could adequately cover Congress by watching C-SPAN.

  11. Kent says:

    Hey Tim,

    My comment doesn’t contradict your point, but I do think it discredits it, a bit.

    You urged readers to “do the math” — and I’m left wondering if your math quantifies what it purports to quantify.

    Also, I think your decision to omit Sports from the “shoe leather” reporting crowd weakens your case. Positing that they don’t have to engage in shoe leather reporting because they could just watch the game on TV is akin to saying Hill reporters could adequately cover Congress by watching C-SPAN.

  12. Kent: the “hard news” reporting the New York Times does in Iraq, Washington, and elsewhere is a classic public good. We all benefit from a better-informed electorate even if we don’t read the paper personally. So I have an interest in seeing someone do the kind of work that the Times carries out independent of my personal interest in reading the results.

    In contrast, sports reporting is a quintessential private good. If the market fails to provide “enough” shoe-leather reporting, that will only hurt sports fans themselves, who are free to subscribe to paid sports content if they want to. So even if I’m wrong about the amount of shoe-leather sports reporting that goes on, that doesn’t seem like much of an argument for subscribing to the NYTimes rather than getting sports news from one of the many free sources out there.

  13. Kent says:

    re: sports reporters and the private good.

    Fair point.

  14. Frank says:

    I’d like to see the NYTimes replaced by an even more serious practitioner of journalism but ONLY when that more serious forum has close to an equal influence on the public debate of our common issues.

    NPR has a chance and I support it…….as I do the NYT with my subscription. I’ll now look more closely at ProPublica also.

    Thanks for highlighting ProPublica. A new consideration is why I read your blog.

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