Newspaper sections: Faltering Fiefdoms

August 30, 2002 • Newsroom Management • by

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, August 30, 2002

Newsroom management as a new topic for research
Why do the media cover what they cover? What gives an event news value, why is an issue deemed newsworthy and picked up by newsrooms? For decades, researchers have looked for answers to the question of what journalists consider new, important and therefore newsworthy.

Researchers have meticulously registered about two dozen factors that give news value to an event and therefore predetermine whether an event will be covered by the media. They have mostly overlooked one factor: if a piece of information can be attributed clearly to one of the sections that the outside world is divided into within editorial departments, then the chance that this information will be published is much higher than if the information does not fit into any of these "divisions".

For decades, content in print journalism and other media was structured into "classical sections" – politics, business, culture, sports and local news. Downright fiefdoms developed in many newsrooms, and editors ferociously defended their autonomy. This led to important issues being recognized too late or being presented one-sidedly, while others were treated twice or handled in a contradictory manner. The few communication researchers who took an interest in the inner life of media companies criticized journalists for their "departmental thinking" and deplored the lack of flexibility in newsrooms – without, however, really registering how the rigid structures were gradually starting to change and even to falter in the nineties.

Klaus Meier has traced this process in his dissertation,* which has since received an award from the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Publizistik und Kommunikationswissenschaft. In a multilevel research process he first conducted a comprehensive survey among editors-in-chief of German daily newspapers and interviewed them about newsroom management, thus filtering out a handful of experimental, innovative newsrooms to which he devoted another, much more intensive, round of questioning.

The different conditions in which newsrooms work are most interesting. The size of the newsroom varies greatly even within circulation groups, as illustrated by the following examples. Among the papers with a circulation from 51'000 to 100'000, one paper is produced by 38 journalists, another by 88. The discrepancy in the second highest circulation group (101'000 to 200'000) is even more astonishing: in this group one newspaper is produced with 32 journalists, another with 225. The willingness to train people varies greatly across all sizes of newsrooms as well. About half of the newsrooms surveyed employed fewer than five interns, a quarter, on the other hand, employed more than ten.

However, Meier points out the limited comparability of these figures: there are networks in which an identical main section is produced for several independent newspapers, but there are also publishers who produce a single title with a dozen different local sections. These different legal and organizational structures make it seem futile to look for comprehensive solutions for newsroom management. Rather, each newsroom needs to be able to tailor a solution to its own needs.

At least the editors-in-chief seem to accept this challenge – now more than ever. According to Meier’s survey, many of these editors do not consider themselves primarily high-profile writers, but mostly producers and newsroom managers. Considering this, it may be surprising to see how little significance the editors-in-chief attribute to representational tasks. There are newspapers in today’s world such as Berlinese Tagesspiegel, where the clever self-marketing of the editor-in-chief Giovanni di Lorenzo contributes in part to its success story, in the same way as – in better times – the then newly created brand Daimler Chrysler profited from the aura of its top manager, Jürgen Schrempp.

The younger, newly-appointed editors-in-chief especially are enthusiastically restructuring their newsrooms to make their newspapers more reader friendly and more market driven, thereby improving the quality of the journalistic product as well. In some cases, new sections (e.g. advice columns, science, the media) have been created; the trend, however, points more in the opposite direction. More flexibility is gained by the interlinking and merging of sections (e.g. politics and the economy) into larger units, which also allow for the creation of temporary research teams across different sections when needed.

Meier's survey does not confirm the underlying suspicion that restructuring often occurs when newsroom staffs have to be cut. At least in this, the study may, however, be outdated by the time of publication. The survey was conducted before the newspaper industry stumbled into its current crisis. Meier sees the "integration of online editions into the editorial departments of newspapers" as the "next challenge for print newsrooms", because, in the long run, "hardly any papers will be able to afford to duplicate the same newsroom structure".

Vinzenz Wyss, who has made a name for himself at the University of Zurich with his work on newsroom quality management, says this: Improvements in the quality of journalism are not primarily the results of fostering individual high-profile writers. Rather, improvements are achieved by teamwork and by employing creative new combinations of available resources.

As a result of his research,** Wyss pleads for something that unconvinced journalists usually reject. "Total Quality Management" (TQM), established years ago in the Japanese automobile industry, is not only suitable as a tool for high-performance, routine and technical manufacturing processes, but can also be applied to newsroom work. Editorial work by its very nature feeds off the "routine of the unexpected", argues American communication scientist Gaye Tuchman. According to Wyss, however, this is no reason for exempting newsrooms from systematic, "integrated" quality initiatives.

The empirical part of the study is even more exciting than the TQM-concept, which the author transfers to the everyday newsroom business. Wyss investigates how Swiss journalists resort to "systems of quality assurance", and so to "quality-related rules, processes and resources". The journalists surveyed consider the assurance of quality a "central task" of the newsroom. 63 percent of them even work in newsrooms in which certain quality objectives are written down in editorial mission statements. Editorial quality management encounters limitations mainly because most journalists still have a rather unclear perception of their audience – they do not know the needs and wishes of their "clients" well enough to really be able to meet them.

There is a lot of data from readership research, but it is rarely taken note of by Swiss newsrooms. However, "customer orientation" also seems to be more difficult for media products because readers, listeners and viewers articulate their preferences less clearly than consumers who are interested in buying a washing machine or a new car. One editor-in-chief surveyed by Wyss pointedly remarks: "The crazy thing about our profession is that customer satisfaction is hard to measure. Real and apparent needs constantly overlap. If you ask a reader about his wishes, he says information, but actually means fun."

Wyss cites a lack of staff orientation in media companies as a big handicap on the way to greater journalistic quality. Especially in commercial electronic media, but also in newspapers and magazines, four out of ten editors complain about insufficient opportunities for further training. At the Swiss public broadcasting stations, on the other hand, 70 to 80 percent of those surveyed consider their additional training options "optimal".

The world is different from how the newspapers represent it in their conventional section structure. The newsrooms with their sections and their inner workings are also apparently different from what the media scientists thought they were. Both studies indicate, therefore, how important it is for journalism researchers to be in close touch with newsrooms if they do not want to risk continuing and repeating their colleagues' mistakes. However, those who know that editors and even editors-in-chief dislike filling out questionnaires – despite the fact that the media themselves depend on the willingness of others to share information with them – will not be too surprised that even the two studies at hand do not reveal all "newsroom secrets" without reservation. Nevertheless, the two studies are milestones for newsroom research, an area rather neglected at least in the German-speaking parts of the world.

 

* Meier, Klaus: Ressort, Sparte, Team. Wahrnehmungsstrukturen und Redaktionsorganisation im Zeitungsjournalismus, Konstanz: UVK 2002, 493 pages.
** Wyss, Vinzenz: Redaktionelles Qualitätsmanagement. Ziele, Normen, Ressourcen, UVK Konstanz 2002, 430 pages.

(Translation: Jasmin Bodmer)

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