Doing more with less: The changing landscape of newspaper journalism

By Ben Johnson Jon Nowacki's world was in turmoil. The University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) football team had just won its first national championship and he had work to do, lots of work.

There was a live blog to wrap up, video to upload, players to interview, a press conference to attend and, of course, the actual game story to write for the Duluth News Tribune (DNT), where he is employed as one of the paper's three sportswriters.

“I ended up only having only 40 minutes to write my actual story, and it was the biggest story of the year,” Nowacki said, remembering with a mix of frustration and nostalgia. “Bob Nygaard [UMD's Sports Information Director] was on my ass telling me we had to get going, so I was running out to his car, papers were flying out of my briefcase, I was trying stuffing them back in; it was quite a scene.”

His story is probably familiar with journalists across the country that face the challenge of having to produce more content while coping with a shrinking staff.

A 2009 study by Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Poynter Institute found that “by the end of 2009, the total job loss since the beginning of 2001 will likely pass 14,000 - roughly 25 percent of the industry’s news workforce lost in nine years.”

Couple those staggering losses in the newsroom with increased demand for reporters to create more content for the web, and one can see why many foresee a bleak future for paper-bound Journalism.

Comprehensive Coverage: Expectations vs. Reality

The internet community, which has played a leading role in the newspaper industry's decline, has not taken pity on print's plight.

"Wild Ride Coming to Duluth" was an Oct. 9 article that appeared on the front page of the Duluth News Tribune in regard to Spirit Mountain's plan to add an alpine slide course. The article included quotes like “It's the coolest thing ever, I loved it,” from Renee Mattson, the executive director of Spirit Mountain, and cited Mattson's assertion that, “The ride is expected not only to pay for itself quickly but also to help generate revenue to help pay for other big projects on the Spirit Mountain master plan.”

To complete the DNT's coverage of the slide plan, an editorial was published the next day entitled "Our View: Bring on the Slide," which further praised and pushed for “Duluth's next big thing.”

“The stainless steel track ride, the first of its kind in the Midwest, is to cost $2 million to build. But it’s an investment that could quickly be recouped via ticket sales,” the editorial read, without citing any statistics or studies done on the economic impact of the ride.

On Oct. 13, John Ramos, a noted Duluth freelance journalist and blogger, penned a scathing attack on the DNT's coverage of Spirit Mountain's plan in an article entitled “How to Control the Media: A Rant.”

Ramos argued that “There is no evidence that [the DNT] did anything but spew out the press release verbatim.”  He added (with the venom and vitriol that the blogosphere is infamous for) that he had been attending Spirit Mountain board meetings and was very skeptical of the ride's ability to pay for both itself and a chunk of the $6.2 million Spirit Mountain master plan.

Ramos wrote, “At $8 per ride—and without considering maintenance, labor or inflationary costs—this means that 1,050,000 riders will have to zip screaming down the mountain before the projects break even. Is this realistic? Does anybody care?”

Ramos articulated a fear shared by many, which is that newspapers, through declining revenue streams and an antiquated pay model, no longer possess the talent nor the resources to produce consistent, quality investigative reporting.

“Now it has become more of a challenge, certainly,” said DNT City Reporter Brandon Stahl.  “We can't cover certain stories as in-depth as we'd like to … stories are going to get missed.”

Although later, when asked about the Spirit Mountain dispute, Stahl maintains they didn't miss anything.

“We did two separate stories on [the ride] and we felt the numbers showed it would sustain itself,” Stahl said.

Although many don't agree with the vehemence with which Ramos burned the DNT, this issue underscored a truism about Journalism in this day: At this point the local media simply do not have the manpower to comprehensively cover Duluth.

The Times are a-Changin'

In the past there was a hard and fast rule in journalism that a newspaper does not run with tidbits that are stumbled upon while listening to the police scanner, or "scanner chatter."  But now with the need to constantly be first with big news stories and the means to instantly communicate with the community, that rule is much more flexible.

“That rule was put into place because back then we had all day to work on our stories.  If we heard about something at 2 p.m. and didn't have to file until 10 p.m., there was no reason to run with scanner chatter, we had time to sort of flesh out the details,” said former Duluth News Tribune Executive Editor Rob Karwath, who was recently let go by the newspaper.

Now with the rapid spread of instantaneous communication via text message, Twitter, Facebook and other technologies, it has become more acceptable to run with barebone details of stories picked up on the police scanner.

When there was a murder in the Central Hillside neighborhood last summer, Karwath made the decision to run with scanner chatter.

“We knew something big was happening because we heard 12 police units had surrounded a residence,” Karwath said. Obviously we didn't know all of the details, but we did put an alert up on our website and updated it as we got more information.”

Not everyone in Journalism has been on board with these changes. Another study by the Pew Research Center found that 57 percent of journalists “say the internet is changing the fundamental values of journalism,” and that the largest change in journalism due to the internet was “the loosening of standards.”

“Newspaper journalism didn't change for years and years and years. All of us were steeped in this culture where there were very clear rules for how you did everything. There's so much gray area now... I've had people leave [the DNT] because they need those firm rules and structure,” said Karwath.

One person who has stuck around is Kevin Pates, a 31-year veteran of the Duluth News Tribune sports section.

“I still have assignments, I still go out and talk to people and get their stories… It's not necessarily more difficult but it is busier,” Pates said.

On a typical game day covering UMD men's hockey, Pates is a busy man indeed. During the game he's recording statistics and sketching out a rough play-by-play for his game story, posting a separate play-by-play for the readers of his live blog, and reading, posting, and responding to comments sent in by those in following along in the live blog.

“I don't get to eat my popcorn as much as I used to, that's for sure,” Pates said.

Not All Bad

When Pates is live-blogging a hockey game, he tries to give the reader a sense of how the game is going; he documents the ebb and flow of the game, the momentum shifts and mood of the arena. Although the live blog keeps him busier, he says that a lot of the stuff he puts into it are observations he normally wouldn't have written in his notes, and that ultimately improves his game story for the paper.

Brandon Stahl would agree with him. When his bosses informed him that he had to start blogging in addition to his reporting a little over two years ago, he was not pleased.

“I figured if I had anything interesting we would put it in the paper,” Stahl said.

However, over time he has found his Buzz.Duluth blog to be a useful tool for reporting on city government and it has landed him several tips.

“The stuff I write for the blog has a different audience than the stuff I write for the paper. A lot of my blog readers are hyper-interested [in city government] or work at city hall. Often they will tell me 'hey, you're wrong about this' or 'hey, you should really check this out,'” said Stahl.

Jon Nowacki, who had to write his biggest story of the year, (and possibly of his career) in 40 minutes, ended up winning an award for Best Spot News – Sports from the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists for it. Through the chaos culminating in his comical sprint through the football stadium parking lot, he managed to deliver for his readers.

“When you don't have a chance to get bogged down in the nitpicky details of the game and spend more time talking with people, it can give you a better perspective on a story,” Nowacki said.

Cold water doesn't deter Superior's avid surfers

Collaboration effective in changing newsroom environment