Last week an article appear[ing] on the Web site of Editor & Publisher...reported that one Randy Michaels...intends to address the ongoing distress of the newspaper industry brought on by the Internet—distress that already has led to massive layoffs and buyouts and a major crisis of confidence if not identity at even the most prestigious and established and, one would have thought, profitable newspapers—by starting to measure the productivity of the journalists who are employed at the various tentacles of that institution.
Not such a big deal, right? Businessmen are always on the lookout for easily digestible metrics for determining "productivity," and these businessmen often convince themselves that these metrics actually mean something. Of course they don't, and they're really just ways of justifying and accounting for layoffs. But Kinsley goes on to describe the chillingly comical detail of Mr. Michaels's scheme:
Productivity will be measured by column-inches of words. In other words, the company will assume that the more words you write, the more productive you are. Or, to put it another way, if you use many, many, many words to make whatever point you may be trying to make or fact you are attempting to report, you will be considered more productive than another writer who takes pains to be concise—that is, to use fewer words rather than more words. This Michaels has apparently been sneaking around with his tape measure (or perhaps he uses an old-fashioned pica rule of the sort once favored by newspaper people during the era of the linotype machine) and has made the piquant discovery that while the average journalist at the Los Angeles Times produces 51 pages of words each year, his or her counterpart at the Hartford Courant, which is also owned by the very same Tribune Co., produces 300 pages of words each year. This is six times as many words. Or, to put it another way (and why not?), the Los Angeles Times journalist produces only one-sixth as many words as the one working in the newsroom of the Hartford Courant. Michaels is completely unabashed, in fact he seems downright proud, of this idea of measuring productivity in column-inches. He said to Editor & Publisher, "This is a new thing. Nobody ever said, 'How many column inches did someone produce?' "
For many, many years, the Los Angeles Times was known for its verbosity, or tendency to use more words than other newspapers to say roughly the same thing. More recently, this habit of writing many, many words when far fewer could make the point as well or nearly so (which is the essence of verbosity) was discouraged at the Los Angeles Times....Today's idea is that a writer should produce as many words as possible, because that means you need fewer writers to produce the same number of words.
Kinsley goes on to reveal that Michaels's plan for cost-saving also involves stripping away much of the content of his newspapers. Michaels wants to reduce the amount of space accorded to articles such that it is equivalent -- 50/50 -- to the amount of space accorded to advertising. Kinsley does Michaels one better:
This Michaels is clearly a bright man. It won't be long before he figures out that you can have an equal number of advertising and editorial pages if you have none of either and simply stop publishing the paper. That way you won't have to employ any journalists at all.