By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Who said it?

I’m looking for some help with my Guardian column this week. Recently someone said that, even after recent budget cuts, the Washington Post newsroom was still bigger than it was during Watergate. Who said it? Got a link?

I’d also love to see any link you’ve got on the theme that the great Media Meltdown of 2009 turned out to be not as bad as some had predicted, especially with respect to newspaper closings.

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Why Climategate doesn’t matter (VI)


  1. Dan, you said it to me. You cited Katharine Weymouth on NPR.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Howard: Really? Excellent — will try to track that down. You think it’s easy to do this with no memory? 😉

  2. Go back into the archives of any major metro from the 1970s — much smaller papers, even when compared to today.

    The problem today’s papers are facing though is consumer perception — I over hear people talking all of the time about papers getting smaller and having less news, and considering canceling subscriptions as a result. What they forget and journalist for get is today’s papers still have more and cover more than before the 80s/90s classifieds revenue boom.

  3. Dan Kennedy

    @Howard: The idea that medium-size papers should be covering Washington, national and international news with their own staff reporters is a historical anomaly. But you’re right — it was a recent historical anomaly, so readers think there’s something wrong when papers stop doing it.

  4. BillH

    I respect the opinion of professional journalists on this subject, but I would just say that if I go to the local public library and call up a week or month of editions of my local newspaper from the 1940s or ’50s, and compare those to the same local newspaper today, the comparison would not be at all flattering to today’s effort. Nobody worries when the local paper doesn’t cover Congress, but they ought to cover city hall in more than a quick, superficial (and often sensational) couple of paragraphs. And when much of the front page below the fold is devoted to photographs of the latest restaurant that opened in town, or to Santa arriving on a fire truck, that never would have been tolerated fifty –or even thirty–years ago. But maybe I’m missing the point that you and Howard are trying to make.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @BillH: I can’t imagine a time when Santa arriving in a fire truck wouldn’t be news in a local paper. (Just a reminder: I am old.) That’s just basic community news, and it would have been on the front page in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s or ’90s.

      The restaurant example you give reeks of sucking up to a potential advertiser, and I agree, those stories don’t do much for me. But even then, a restaurant opening is news, and it all depends on how you handle it.

      I think the point @Howard and I are trying to make is that during the fat years, many papers bigger than those that are strictly local spent that money on things that were not central to the basic mission. It was wonderful, for instance, that the Boston Globe had its own reporters stationed around the country and across the world, but it wasn’t necessary. It was strictly a consequence of its suddenly having more money than it knew what to do with.

      Rather than looking at the current environment as disastrous, it may make more sense to see it as an opportunity to go back to the basics of local coverage/

  5. Just for the record, I’m not beyond sucking up to advertisers. Just look at The Batavian any day this week.

    But I would challenge anybody to say that any of my “suck up” stories were not or are not newsworthy.

    Further, I would make the point that a person of a truly ethical mind can differentiate between the suck up and the cave in.

    I can’t survive without the suck up, but neither can I survive with the cave in.

    Credibility is part and parcel of being able to make money.

    I think many journalists mistake the “taking advertisers into consideration” for misrepresenting or hiding the truth.

    I would never advocate either practice.

    Being able to have a complete separation between editorial and advertising is an _arrogant_ luxury that only the post-70s metro newspapers could afford.

    I would question the testimony of BillH that the examples he cites are really true. After having spent some time in the vaults of many newspapers, I prefer the comunity depth — which includes the new restaurant opening (strong community news) and the new model at the new car dealer, as well as his Little League sponsorship — of the pre-1970s newspaper to “everything must be watchdog” journalism of many of more recent newspaper efforts.

    For the record, I’ve been that Big J journalist of the 80s and 90s. I prefer who I am as a journalist now. It serves democracy and community better, imho.

  6. Harrybosch

    Let’s hope the meltdown continues just long enough for the Washington Times to go toes up. It can stop anytime after that.

  7. When I look at the older editions of newspapers I read or have worked for, I’m surprised what I see, especially when considering the complaints I have heard over the years.

    These days the main complaint is not covering meetings deemed “important” by some readers. And, when compared to the 1980s and 1990s, that’s true. In the case of Belmont, we had a retired gentleman who wrote about the School Committee and Planning Board as a freelancer. These days, we do the best we can do to play catch up after the fact or preview bigger stories before the meetings. In many ways, not being at the meeting is better because we do a more comprehensive job of putting the pieces together – instead of being a stenographer for officials.

    But when looking at the 1940s to 1980s, the older newspapers are filled with, well, crap. I sometimes wonder what people are complaining about. The distinction is that there are two people covering a town now when there used to be 10 people. When considering that, I think some of our thin staffs do a stellar job when compared to the old editions. As far as actual sizes, the old weeklies vary in sizes compared to today’s newspapers. Some were bigger; others smaller. It really depended on the aggressiveness of regional ads, for the most part.

    For about 2.5 years, due to new initiatives, I’ve been tracking our content output. The Belmont reporters have generally produced eight to 12 bylined stories per week. The last three weeks, our reporter produced 13 stories, which meant we had original content, exclusive to both the Web and print editions. Granted, a lot of that, of late, is multiple breakout stories from police logs or meetings instead of one narrative. But that’s pretty good I think.

    As far as the daily Monitor goes, I used to peddle it as a boy. I recall the Wednesday afternoon edition that was so heavy around Christmastime that I had to make two trips around the route to deliver all the newspapers. Today, it is 20 pages most days. They do a good job on features but the news slant sometimes is quite prevalent. A few years ago, when I took a tour of the facility along with some Chamber of Commerce folks, I was shocked to learn that they had 13 reporters on staff and 46 editorial employees, especially when considering the small amount of local news that was published and there is virtually no original content on the Web.

    In closing, as an aside, I haven’t finished the CJR’s “Reconstruction of American Journalism” piece – it’s long – but there are some great ideas in there that should be a platform for all of us to move our business model forward into the 21st century. I see, firsthand, everyday, the ill effects of not having an electorate thoroughly briefed on their communities because they no longer buy or even read local news (This, even though there are a ton of reporters at the local daily …). In the city I live in, the school board tonight will vote to tear down two historic elementary schools and consolidate eight of them into four, at a cost of $130M to $150M and there is a barely a peep from 43,000 people who live here. Most of the noise is coming from parents who think “state-of-the-art” schools are an automatic road to improvement and adult success. History be damned! People seem more obsessed with the health care debacle or Afghanistan than what is going on in their own backyards and that is a shame.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Tony: You offer some much-needed reality. I have been working for newspapers since the 1970s and I, too, am mystified by complaints about how much better community papers were then than they are today. What some small papers have moved away from — a mistake, in my view — is the really little stuff about neighborhood goings-on, submitted by readers. But in terms of what paid reporters were doing then as opposed to today, the change is not as great as the nostalgic suppose.

      Not to repeat myself, but the big difference has been with large regional papers like the Globe, which used to cover international and national news with its own reporters. But I think the Globe’s local report today is, overall, as good today as it was in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90 — though perhaps not as geared toward state and city politics (which, being a political junkie, would engage me more).

  8. LFNeilson

    If you’re going to do local news, it really pays to get around town. My father always insisted on picking up the mail at the post office. It’s a great source of news and meeting people. Town hall coverage isn’t just the selectmen’s meeting; it should include making the rounds to various departments, especially the planning office, where new buildings & development plans are filed. (Boy, this thread has gone astray from your question, Dan.) Circulation? The paper’s got to work at it. My father used to go door to door selling subscription on weekends. He’d meet new residents and make some money. Decades later, people would tell me, I first met your father when he came to the door . . . Most papers seem to have dropped paper boys. What a shame! That whole process was about teaching kids about newspapers. How many people bought a paper every day because they knew the kid who was delivering it? Globe routes were a real prize for kids, passed down from one brother or friend to another.
    Cutbacks on news coverage are suicidal for newspapers. There’s plenty of news out there, begging to be covered. But someone’s got to do the legwork. They have to be educated. They have to be excited about newspaper work. They have to be able to make a living in the business.

  9. The big problems with paper kids (my wife bought her first car with paper-route money, so it wasn’t “boys”):

    Most can’t drive, so their routes are short, which increases the number of people involved getting papers out to homes.

    The switch to AM papers and distribution by 6 a.m. was a killer. You try hiring teenagers to do 90 minutes work before the start of every school day!

  10. Jerry

    There’s an interesting conversation going on here — largely generated, it seems, by “old timers,” of which I am one. I agree, the Globe in both size and content today approximates that of the 70s, although Dan is right about the diminished political bent. That’s a result mostly of a generation of staff junkies moving on, and only time will tell whether that’s good or bad. As for the rest of the report – the 80s and 80s were gravy days and it was a great ride!

    Here in my backyard the Gloucester Times currently averages 20 pages daily; when I was editor in the late 60s our press capacity was 16 pages; some days we ran only 12, and we did an “early” supplement run only one day a week (Wednesdays, which then was the traditional supermarket ad day). The staff is smaller than then but, with yeoman effort, turns out an admirable news report outshining that of most other small dailies that I seen when traveling.

  11. u saw it in a comment on Romenesko affixed to an article about the WP newsroom–it was a reference to the film All the President’s Men, I believe..

  12. Al

    Something I’ve taken from this conversation is a need for papers, and consumers, to decide what their mission should be. A small local, such as my Lynnfield/Peabody News, a weekly, should be, and is, very local. It gives restaurant openings, honor rolls, city council happenings, and real estate sales. All what I expect from them. Stepping up to the Salem News, it expands the range, adding some wider news, picking up wire service pieces and some broader state news as applies to their market area. Going further to the Globe, I expect it to be the paper of record for Greater Boston, and New England, as well. I also want it to treat Boston as its local area, not descending to the level of restaurant openings, but definitely having political news specific to the city. We have to keep in mind that a large city like Boston has numerous neighborhood papers that cover the very local stories, so it may not be necessary for the Globe to go down too local for its coverage beyond that which would be of interest to the whole city. I also want to be sure I am well informed of national and global issues of importance, and don’t expect to get it by reading the Globe’s regurgitation of someone else’s work. Once all this is arrived at, I’m not sure how to produce it in a profitable way, but it’s something to think about.

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