Slicing up the local newspaper

Clay Shirky decided to measure (literally) the content of a local newspaper.

Then I weighed the piles (in grams.) Once I had the weights, I ignored the ads — they are about half the paper, but not the half I care about — and did comparisons of the remaining content:

  • Created vs. Acquired: The content created by Tribune staff made up less than a third of the total; over two-thirds was acquired from other sources, including especially the AP.
  • News vs. Other: The paper was about one-third news and about two-thirds “Other” (and this is after ignoring the all-sports insert, tipping the balance in favor of news.)
  • Created News vs. everything else: News reported by the paper’s staff was less than a sixth of the total content of the paper (again, ignoring the insert, which tips the balance in favor of news.)

In other words, most of the substantive part of that day’s Trib wasn’t locally created, and most of it wasn’t news.

I wouldn’t have ignored the ads (that would have been interesting). Nonetheless, this is pretty much what I would expect. Newspapers are a bundled product. They produce some stuff themselves but procure news from reporting services. Their self-produced content grabs readers and then they can earn advertising dollars off of the procured content. This works for paper but for electronic stuff it is an issue.

On the internet, this bundle does not sustain itself. You don’t need to go to the local newspaper site to read that stuff and can grab it all over the place. This means that any rent the newspaper was earning in terms of its ability to bundle self-generated and procured content has gone. This may well have been cross-subsidising (in a profit maximising way) the production of local content; that is, if you earn an extra dollar from procured content every time you attract a local reader, you have more incentives to ensure you grab local readers. Take that dollar away and your incentives to compete for local readers on the basis of quality investments goes down.

Shirky points out that this means that the entire — you can produce local content on a budget idea — is still around as there weren’t that many local reporters to start with. Indeed, for them, cut out the middleman of the newspaper itself and maybe there is enough money around to get local content produced. It dashes the whole, you need to product the newspapers in their traditional form to get local content idea.

1 thought on “Slicing up the local newspaper”

  1. If newspaper journalists work as hard as anyone else and I assume they do, there must be an interesting ratio between the amount that journalists  write and the amount that makes it  into print or onto the web site.
    For instance, The New York Times has 1200 people on its news staff. Allowing a substantial proportion for editors, fact checkers and the like, and allowing also for the fact that a major investigative story may take several weeks or even months to research, there must surely be a lot of stuff that ends up on the spike.
    The Economist at the other extreme appears to have fewer than 100 (although it publishes roughly once a week rather than daily).
    There is something I really do not understand about the economics of newsgathering.

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