High Stakes

Changes in the news business bring less ‘gatekeeping’

Tennessean_officeA recent issue of our hometown newspaper, The Tennessean, brought some sad news that was an unmentioned consequence of an announcement of plans to restructure newsgathering operations.

The announced news – and good news at that — was that The Tennessean would be adding reporters at a time when that’s not common in the beleaguered news business. The sad, unmentioned part was that the overall news staff would be cut yet again — this time from 89 to 76. By way of perspective, 15 years ago during a period of time that I was managing editor, the staff stood at 220. The paper was far fatter then and a bigger staff meant more stories and more opportunities to reflect the wonderful diversity of activity in Middle Tennessee.

The economics of the news business have been on a hard down trend ever since — not just in Nashville but all across the country. Current management can hardly be faulted for cutting payroll in the face of declining revenues.

But the way changes are being made at newspapers across the country — and not just in Nashville — are worth examining because they risk the creation of a more hastily assembled, less-well-considered news product. They will also mean that PR folks and others in the community could find it easier to get their material in the paper and with less filtering than ever before. Depending on your point of view, that may be seen as a good thing or not.

How you might ask can the news staff be shrinking while the number of reporters goes up? The answer is basically to cut more editors and other types of personnel than you add reporters. The role of editors is often not well understood by the public, but they are the glue that holds a news organization together. They provide the crucial second and third looks at stories assembled under extreme time pressure, adding perspective and acting as gatekeepers. They also help maintain overall tone and standards. Adding reporters makes sense if you want to increase story count. Doing so with many fewer editors likely means more errors and less perspective in those stories.

Most reporters I have known work extremely hard to do a professional job and be gatekeepers themselves, but the plain fact is that fewer editors means less review in a very time-pressured environment. The gates are less well guarded. That is a loss in an Internet-driven environment for public discourse where editing is frequently not an ingredient.

Newspapers are in a very tough spot and have to take risks to innovate and survive, so I am certainly not faulting The Tennessean or anyone else for trying this approach. And as a current PR guy I suppose I should be happy. Access to traditional outlets is probably going to be easier. And there is certainly an argument to be made that easy access to publication via the Internet has made our public conversation richer.

But as a former longtime editor I can’t help but be sad for my old industry and for the readers who appreciated the perspective that a little gatekeeping helped produce.

 

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