Home > Columns > Why reporter quotas are a good idea, or not.

Why reporter quotas are a good idea, or not.

December 18, 2012

One of the most interesting proposals made by new Nanaimo Daily News editor Mark MacDonald in his plan to rejuvenate the fortunes of his paper is the introduction of story quotas.

It’s an idea that deserves serious and sober thought. So, rather than talk about some of the more abstract proposals by MacDonald, I thought I’d concentrate on the quota idea.

Note that I’ll be writing generally about quotas as an idea, not specifically about what may or may not be implemented in Nanaimo. I may, though, use it as an example.

Before tearing the idea down, it’s probably best to build it up, thinking like a news manager, not a reporter. So, without further adieu…

Why quotas are a good idea for journalism:

  • Because journalists are cultured to do just enough work as necessary. This sounds condescending, and it may be. But it’s also true. A veteran reporter isn’t likely to write five stories if he’s only expected to write four. He’s not going to write four, if he’s only expected to write three. And so on. If there are no expectations, or if the expectations that exist are only vague, then there is little consequence for not meeting them.
  • Because the “news hole” is now limitless. The internet means that there is no limit amount of stories a news organization can publish. A paper can pump out five, 10, 20, 50 stories a day, if it has the ability to do so. And the more stories, the more reason to visit the site. Also, the more words, the more likely stories will show up in Google search results. More visitors mean more traffic means more advertising revenue. Or, if you implement a paywall, more wanna-be visitors means more subscribers.
  • Because it lowers the bar on what constitutes a legitimate news story, and thus promotes the gathering of hyperlocal news. People want to read about what happens at the local elementary school. Reporters do not want to write about what happens at the school. Or they didn’t until they had a quota of stories to file and began digging towards the bottom of the barrel.
  • Because the pursuit of lesser stories may turn up hidden gems. Often, journalists miss great stories because the people who know about them do not seek out publicity. Someone speaking to a reporter about a lame story may, incidentally, reveal a larger, better story that has so far remained unreported.
  • Because more stories require making more contacts, and more contacts equal better stories. The more people a reporter knows and speaks regularly with in the community, the more likely he or she is to stumble up on a very good story—see above.
  • Because more locally written stories mean less press releases/wire copy appearing in print. The Internet has substantially depreciated the desirability of wire copy in small papers. More locally written stories should be able to bump wire copy, press releases or press release rewrites. More content should mean that only the best stories, or most pressing local information gets published, thereby improving the quality of the paper product.

Why quotas are a good idea for newspaper owners (but bad for reporters):

  • Because quotas could allow them to fire reporters. Newspapers are not suffering for content. With revenue either flat or declining, the main challenge is to cut costs. Cutting costs in newsrooms is difficult, however, without jeopardizing the content of a paper. Web advertising is basically worthless. Revenue still comes from the printed product. Papers are not getting bigger. Editors are not being asked to fill more space with the same amount of reporters. They’re being asked to fill the same amount (or less) of space with fewer reporters. But you still need enough reporters to fill a paper and enough editors to lay it out. How do you fill a paper with fewer reporters? You get the remaining reporters to write more. If you’re ruthless, you do this before you cut staff so you can see which reporters are unable to meet your higher demands.

Why quotas are very bad for journalism:

  • Because quotas will force reporters to spend less time on a story than they would have otherwise done.
  • Because reporters will speak to fewer sources. The one-source story will become a favourite, especially if it can spur a comment (and thus another story) from another source in the following paper. Instead of balance, you get he said, she said.
  • Because reporters will stop asking questions sooner, rather than later. If I know I need to get a story done ASAP, I’m going to speak to an interview subject not for an hour, but 15 minutes. I can almost always get a decent-length story out of that quarter-hour. While I may have more questions, and while those questions may prompt better quotes or more thoughtful responses, interviews stop increasing story length after the 20-minute mark. At that point, the story stops growing and starts getting better. But if I’m judged on piecework, 20 minutes is good enough.
  • Because ‘good enough’ will become not just a newsroom joke but a real mantra.
  • Because reporters will be discouraged from leaving the newsroom. Fifteen minutes spent driving to an interview subject’s home and 15 minutes spent driving back, is a lot of time to spend not cranking out copy. Why not do the interview on the phone? Phone interviews, obviously, aren’t as good as in-person interviews. You can’t look your subject in the eye, or observe how they interact with your surroundings. For the same reason employers prefer to interview prospective employees in person, journalism is better conducted face-to-face. The travel time discourages this, as does the fact that in-person interviews are more likely to last longer than the 20-minute good enough limit.
  • Because however fast a reporter writes, less time for a story means less time spent checking for factual errors, typos or leaps of logic. Less time spent checking means more time spent getting sued and apologizing. On the other hand, maybe corrections would count towards one’s quota.
  • Because less time on a story means less time writing the lede. Most reporters can write a lede to any story they come across in 30-seconds. Writing a lede that is good and draws the reader in, however, often takes much, much longer. But what’s the point, when you’re being measured by quantity, rather than quality?
  • Because there is such a thing as a slow news day. There just is.
  • Because some reporters will get screwed. Some beats come ready made with ideas and topics to cover, although they often depend on the time of the year and the principals involved. Other beats require more time and more enterprise. Can you afford the genius assignment editor you will require?
  • Because features and investigations will be devalued. Presumably exceptions could be made for select stories that require more than two hours of work. But a quota-based newsroom is likely going to provide less time for such subjects. Even in a system that gives generous amounts of times for certain stories, quotas will encourage reporters to reduce or eliminate the time they spend on those smaller features that don’t quite qualify for a quota exemption. Good stories won’t get told because they take just a little too much time.
  • Because the writing will suffer. Why make a sentence shine when a dull matte sheen is good enough?
  • Because a quota-based newsroom sounds like a horrible place to work and is unlikely to attract good reporters. The quality of applicants for jobs that require reportas to meet quotas will suffer. And the turnover rate will be astronomical. Which may allow a paper to fill its ranks with cheap labour. But that inexperienced labour is going to turn out a cheap product.
  • Because a newspaper that has to rely on reporter quotas to survive or prosper is not a newspaper I want to read or work for.

Disagree? Leave a comment. Please try to keep comments civil/not libellous. I had to put the kibosh on a couple on the last post that crossed the line.

  1. January 8, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    Very interesting subject! I’ve worked with quota and non-quota papers now. The quality of my work has jumped hugely since losing a quota. This also could just be maturity, improvement and all of course. I am strongly against quotas but I understand the benefits. I think quotas skew what news really is, and it becomes more just content generation. As has been mentioned, quota journalism usually means transcriptions of interviews with 100-word-long quotations. That said, I’m in a newsroom of two people now, so I don’t think I could submit nothing under the excuse I’m not a quota robot, haha. Ultimately, I think the editorial team needs to be clear what is expected and how work flow should go. As mentioned, a good editor doesn’t need a quota to rate how his reporters are doing, and reporters generally know when they are not putting in enough effort, quota or not.

  2. Anonymous
    December 31, 2012 at 10:53 am

    Long ago at a newspaper far away, when the industry was attacking photographers, we lost ours. The editor I was working for then instituted a “quota” system for all the reporters to produce standalone photos. The result was lots and lots of really, really crappy photos.
    Also, long ago at newspaper company not that far away, the bean counters, unable to quantify editorial content on a spreadsheet, designed a system of counting column inches, dividing by the number of reporters at a paper and by the issues per week to come up with “number” to compare reporters. This, of course, was patently unfair to all reporters as a reporter in a one-person newsroom working on a tab was being compared to a beat reporter in thrice-weekly reporter at a broadsheet. Plus, the system didn’t account for the fact that some papers were using 10-point type with 11-point leading while others were using 11.5-point leading or 12-point … not to mention different type fonts. That didn’t stop the company from having someone go through every paper in the chain with a ruler counting editorial space filled and running it through the formula and then managers taking editors to task because their “numbers” weren’t up to snuff.
    Instituting a quota system for reporters is, essentially, admitting human resources failure. A good editor knows which reporters are performing and which ones aren’t and, once again, a good editor will be praising those who are doing a good job and holding those who aren’t to account. A quota system tells the reporter that quantity is the most desired quality of their performance while, at least in my opinion, integrity, quality, attitude, clean copy, and host of other attributes rank above how many press releases a reporter can re-write in one day.

  3. Anonymous
    December 21, 2012 at 11:14 am

    The Nanaimo Daily News editor describes himself as a capitalist with a social conscience. The captialist in him wants to increase yield by demanding reporters write four stories a day. But does his social conscience understand the impact his request may have on the mental health of his employees? . .

  4. johnk
    December 20, 2012 at 8:45 am

    My experience was always that the worst journalists would write up interviews essentially verbatim and produce tediously long stories. So if productivity is a key measure of performance, the worst journalists will thrive. Those who endeavor to understand the issue and contact multiple sources will not. The idea of a bottomless pit to feed because of the internet is scary. Newspapers are one of the last mediums to edit for content, and the last thing the world needs is a journalistic youtube of unfiltered information.

  5. JR Ewing
    December 19, 2012 at 8:30 pm

    The last part of that post sounds like most Black Press newsrooms these days.

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