Staffing Levels as a Reflector of Quality

Nicholas Russell (School of Journalism and Communication, University of Regina)

The media's willingness to spend money covering news events can be used as a measure of commitment to excellence.

Qualitative differences between newspapers or groups of newspapers are difficult to measure, though generalizations are widespread. For instance, in Canada it is common to find members of the Southam Inc. newspaper group categorized as "better" than members of the Thomson Newspapers group, though substantive evidence is scant.

Hypothesis

Traditionally, comparisons are made of HOW media cover events. However, comparing WHICH media cover an important event appears to provide useful evidence to support the established techniques. The more staff a newsroom sends to an assignment instead of relying on wire copy--especially an out-of-town assignment requiring travel and accommodation expense--the greater the cost and therefore the greater the commitment.

It can be expected that the closer a news event is to the newsroom, the more likely it is to be covered. (Reduced travel costs militate in favour of one of the classic criteria of news value: Proximity.) As a corollary, the bigger a paper is, the more staff it could be expected to send to a "remote" assignment. Hence small papers that make a reasonable commitment to coverage can be judged as striving harder for excellence than larger papers that make a similar commitment. And both are striving harder than newsrooms which send no staff, relying solely on journalists sent by their group or by the Canadian Press news agency.

The results of this study suggest that there is a clear connection between news coverage and chain ownership. They also link quality of news coverage with circulation, size of community and presence of competition.

Method

The first three "First Ministers' Conferences" summoned by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney provide an ideal vehicle for such examination, comprising "national" stories in three different centres: February, 1985, in Regina; November 1985 in Halifax, NS; and November 1986 in Vancouver, B.C.

The conferences were organized by the Canadian International Conference Secretariat. Media accreditation was issued to 229 persons in Regina; to 212 in Halifax, and to 240 in Vancouver. The media supervisor, Tom Young, kindly allowed this writer access to the accreditation lists.

Almost exactly 25% of total accreditations (169 of 681) went to Canadian daily newspaper staff. The present study is exclusively concerned with this subset: "Canadian dailies" and "Newspaper groups." Of these, 61 people were sent to Regina by Canadian dailies, plus five sent by newspaper groups; 54 plus five were sent to Halifax; and 41 plus three to Vancouver. (The dwindling numbers may reflect increasing remoteness from Upper Canada, and perhaps a certain sense of deja vu about First Ministers' conferences.)

Though accommodation and food costs would be comparable for all those attending from out of town, the plane flight costs would vary dramatically, depending on the distance travelled. Almost all daily papers would have had to fly their staff to all the conferences.

Results

Participation by Newspaper Groups

At the time of the conferences, Canada had approximately 105 mainstream dailies in one or other of its two official languages: 94 in English, and 11 in French (Canadian Advertising Rates and Data, 1987). Seven groups controlled two-thirds of these titles (74 of 105) and the lion's share of total daily circulation in Canada.

Table 1 Accreditations by Daily Newspaper Group
Regina: Halifax: Vancouver: Average
Sent by Sent by Sent by Total per title
No. of papers in group P G P G P G accreds. per conf.
Thomson Newspapers (37) 10(4) 1 6(2) 2 5(3) 0 24 0.2
Southam Newspapers (15) 12(7) 4 11(6) 3 18(6) 3 51 1.1
Hollinger/Sterling (9) 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Irving Newspapers (3) 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Desmarais group (4) 2(1) 0 2(1) 0 2(1) 0 6 0.5
Sun/Maclean-Hunter (3) 4(3) 0 5(3) 0 5(2) 0 14 1.6
Quebecor Inc. (3) 1(1) 0 2(1) 0 0 0 3 0.3
Total: 74 chain papers 29(16) 5 26(13) 5 30(12) 3 98 0.4
Notes:
P = papers; G = groups.
Bracketed number in left column indicates number of titles in chain.
Bracketed numbers in city columns indicate number of papers sending reporters, e.g., of the 37 Thomson papers, 4 papers sent 10 people to Regina, and 1 person was sent by the group as a whole.

Southam Inc.

The Southam group, comprising many of the nation's most prosperous dailies, was represented by six or seven of its 15 titles at every conference: the Calgary Herald and Montreal Gazette each had two or more people at all three conferences; the Edmonton Journal and Ottawa Citizen each had one or two staff at each. The Vancouver Sun had one person at all three; and the Windsor Star and the Vancouver Province sent one person to two out of three meetings. These journalists were augmented every time by a team of four writers from the Southams News service. Southams' score: 15 dailies represented by an impressive average of 17 staff. Average representation: 1.1 persons per title.

Thomson Newspapers

There was an average of nine Thomson staff at the three conferences, but they represented an average of only three of the 37 Thomson member papers. Most of the Thomson reporters were from the Globe and Mail (4.7), and the Winnipeg Free Press (3). The Lethbridge Herald (2) and the Moose Jaw Times-Herald (1) were also represented at the Regina meeting. No other Thomson papers attended the Halifax conference (not even those from nearby Truro or Glasgow, N.S.). In Vancouver, Thomson's nearby Victoria Times-Colonist sent one writer, but there were none from the other Thomson papers in British Columbia. Because of the numbers and distance, the participation by the Globe and Mail and the Winnipeg Free Press represents a considerable commitment of time and money. Thirty-two dailies in the Thomson group appear not to have sent reporters to any of the three conferences, but the group itself sent an average of one staff member each time, to write for the group's news service.

In 1980 the group acquired F.P. Publications Ltd. Earlier, the Davey Report had praised the F.P. group for its sense of corporate responsibility, and the Kent Report subsequently wondered whether this would be allowed to continue (Royal Commission, 1981, p. 177). The current study suggests that the F.P. titles have been permitted to retain their editorial integrity by their new Thomson owners, while the "old" Thomson papers remain financially tight. For instance, only one or two of the 33-odd small papers owned by Thomson before the F.P. takeover sent reporters to any of the three conferences. But of the four ex-F.P. papers (Victoria, Lethbridge, Winnipeg and the Globe and Mail), three sent an impressive total of nine writers to the Regina meeting; two sent eight writers to Halifax; and three sent eight to Vancouver. Average Thomson representation: 0.2 persons per title.

Sterling Newspapers

The Sterling group, now owned by Hollinger Inc. and comprising nine small dailies, mostly in British Columbia, was characterized by the Kent Report (p. 177) as "a smaller version of Thomson." They sent nobody to any of the conferences, even the one in B.C. Score: 0 for 9 papers.

Irving

The Irving group, comprising all three English-language dailies in New Brunswick, sent nobody. Score: 0 for 3 papers. The Irving newspaper chain--blasted by the Report of the Special Senate Committee on Mass Media for abusing the public interest--doesn't appear to be working very hard to shake off that reputation (Special Senate Committee on Mass Media, Vol. 1, 1970, p. 70).

Desmarais

Of the Desmarais group (consisting of La Presse of Montreal and three smaller sisters in Trois Rivières, Sherbrooke and Granby, Quebec), only La Presse was represented, with two writers at every conference. Score: 2 persons, for 4 dailies. Average: 0.5 persons per title.

Toronto Sun

In 1985-86, the Toronto Sun group (majority-owned by Maclean-Hunter) comprised the Toronto flagship and sister Suns in Calgary and Edmonton. The three papers sent a total of four or five staffers each time. Average: 4.7 staff for three papers, or 1.6 persons per title.

Quebecor Inc.

Quebecor owns the Winnipeg Sun and two French tabloids, Le Journal de Montreal and Le Journal de Quebec. The Winnipeg paper sent one to the first two conferences, and the Montreal paper sent two to the second. Score: 3 persons for 3 papers. Average: 0.3 persons per title.

Independents

Only six of Canada's 31 independent dailies sent staff to all three conferences. The average of 23.3 reporters from independents at all meetings is misleading, as in two cases (Halifax and Regina) the host city was home to an independent paper which registered flocks of staff at little cost. Discounting these "hometown" reporters, there was an average of 13.7 reporters from seven out-of-town independent dailies, or 0.4 persons per title, significantly less than the numbers sent by Southams and the Sun papers.

"None of the systematic studies done in Canada to date has found chain ownership to be a major factor in content determination," concluded Frederick Fletcher in his study for the Kent Commission (Fletcher, 1981, p. 36). But there seems to be a distinct correlation between chain ownership and accreditations to these three conferences. Of 74 papers owned by groups, an average of 24 titles sent their own staff to the conferences (32.4%). Of Canada's 31 independent dailies, an average of seven sent staff (22.6%): a significantly better performance by the chain papers. However, different groups performed in dramatically different ways.

These findings conflict with Soderlund et al. in their study of election coverage, which concluded that there was little difference in reporting by chain and independent papers (1984, pp. 90-91), as clearly some chain papers invested far more in reporting these conferences than did most independent dailies.

The numbers further suggest that the half-dozen dailies which did cover the conferences have a far greater commitment to news gathering than other independents: Those sending staff to all three meetings, no matter how far away, were: Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, Regina Leader-Post, London Free Press, Montreal Le Devoir, Toronto Star, and the Halifax Chronicle-Herald. Not unexpectedly, the lion's share was taken by the Toronto Star, Canada's largest daily, with an impressive average of five reporters at each session.

There are some surprising gaps: As far as could be ascertained, no reporters were sent to any of the three conferences, for instance, by the St. Catharine's Standard, Kingston Whig-Standard, or the Kitchener-Waterloo Record.

In addition, almost every Canadian daily subscribes to the Canadian Press news agency, which (with BN) blanketed the meetings with 10, 15 and 15 writers respectively--an average of 13.3 writers per meeting.

Table 2 Typical Cost of Airfares for Canadian Dailies
Typical Airfares
Metro Total
West to East pop. circ. Reginaa Hfx. Vcvr. Totalb
(000) (000) ($) ($) ($) ($)
B.C. (3 of 17):
Vancouver Province 1,268 175 416 -- -- 416
Vancouver Sun " 230 416 1,145 -- 1,561
Victoria Times-Col. 233 78 -- -- -- --
Alberta (5 of 9):
Calgary Herald 593 134 548 1,982 600 3,130
Calgary Sun " 73 274 991 -- 1,265
Edmonton Journal 657 161 560 991 468 2,019
Edmonton Sun " 84 280 991 468 1,739
Lethbridge Herald 54 25 740c -- -- 740
Saskatchewan (3 of 5):
Moose Jaw Times-Hld. 34 10 -- -- -- --
Regina Leader-Post 164 70 -- 1,692 452 2,144
Saskatoon Star-Phnx. 154 60 548c 887 422 1,857
Manitoba (2 of 7):
Winnipeg Sun 585 45 248 -- -- 248
Winnipeg Free Press " 170 744 2,187 1,728 4,659
Ontario (7 of 44):
London Free Press 284 127 1,208 932 652 2,792
Ottawa/Hull Citizen 718 185 1,208 702 964 2,874
Ottawa/Hull Le Droit " 37 604 -- -- 604
Toronto G. & M. 2,999 317 2,256 2,574 3,664 8,494
Toronto Star " 526 2,256 3,003 3,664 8,923
Toronto Sun " 287 1,128 1,287 2,748 5,163
Windsor Star 246 88 564 501 -- 1,065
Quebec (5 of 11):
Montreal Gazette 2,828 199 1,896 324 1,984 4,204
Montreal Le Devoir " 30 1,264 648 992 2,904
Montreal La Presse " 192 1,264 648 1,984 3,896
Montreal Le Journal " 317 -- 648 -- 648
Quebec Le Soleil 576 112 632 -- 1,048 1,680
Nova Scotia (2 of 6):
Halifax Daily News 278 20 -- -- -- --
Halifax Chron.-Hld./Mail-Star " 76 -- -- 2,360 3,960
a.
Airfares typical, for comparison only; based on Office-to-Regina return number of accredited persons.
b.
Of Canada's 105 dailies 27 had staff at one or more sites and 15 had staff at all three conferences. The Canadian daily reporters totalled 61 (from 24 papers in 7 provinces). Excluding their hometown paper there were 45 (from 23 out-of-town papers).
c.
Indicates city is within practical driving distance: airfare perhaps not needed.
Note:
Provinces not represented: N.B., P.E.I., Newfoundland (0 of 8 papers).
Sources:
C.A.R.D, Air Canada and Norcanair.

Population and Competition

Table 2 compares average airfares, as quoted by major airlines after the third conference. This permits a rough comparison of the probable travel costs from the city where each newspaper is based to the conference sites. Each fare is multiplied by the number of writers sent by the newsroom, so the three Toronto dailies can be seen to have invested substantially more than any other papers on airfares alone. This commitment would also be far greater in terms of salaries and accommodation costs.

Table 3 compares newspaper prosperity (measured in circulation) with conference coverage. The numbers thus extracted (circulation in thousands divided by estimated dollars spent on airfares) have no absolute value, but serve as a comparison.

Table 3 Travel Costs as Factor of Circulation
Newspaper Estimated total airfares divided by circulation in thousands
Victoria T.-C. 27
Moose Jaw T.-H. 26
Halifax D. News 25
Montreal Journal 24
Vancouver Province 23
Winnipeg Sun 22
Vancouver Sun 21
Windsor Star 20
Edmonton Journal 19
Quebec Le Soleil 18
Ottawa Citizen 17
Ottawa Droit 16
Toronto Star 15
Calgary Sun 14
Toronto Sun 13
Montreal Presse 12
Edmonton Sun 11
Montreal Gazette 10
London Free Press 9
Calgary Herald 8
Toronto G. & M. 7
Wpg. Free Press 6
Halifax Chron./M.S. 5
Lethbridge Herald 4
Regina L.-P. 3
Saskatoon S.-P.i 2
Montreal Devoir 1
Notes:
All Canadian dailies receiving conference accreditations are listed.
Papers with cost likely did not incur airfares to send staff, covering only local conferences.
Dailies not listed sent nobody, so spent nothing on airfares.

From the preceding data, the following highlights can be extrapolated:

  • At the time of the conferences, there were only about eight communities in Canada where daily newspaper competition could be said to exist (in English: Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto and Halifax; in French: Montreal and Quebec City). Some 18 titles (see Table 2) are involved. Irrespective of distance (cost), almost all dailies operating in a competing environment sent staff to cover some or all conferences: Half (average 54%) of all daily paper accreditations involving travel costs belonged to papers from these eight communities. Of the 18 "competing" dailies, an impressive average of 14 sent reporters to all three conferences.

    Such numbers suggest that competition is, indeed, healthy for readers. As Fletcher says in his Kent Commission research report: "A competing newspaper provides an effective audit on performance, serving as a check on the temptation to ignore or suppress controversial stories" (Fletcher, 1981, pp. 114-115). (But his comment is appropriate for far more than only "controversial" stories.) This relationship is explored by Gerald C. Stone (1981, pp. 16-24).

  • As a result, compared to one-paper towns, readers in competitive markets were exposed to a much greater range of voices, yielding a high ratio of writers to readers. For instance, Toronto citizens were served by an average of 1 reporter per 256,000 population; Edmonton was 1:205,000; Calgary 1:237,000. But Montreal averaged 1:449,000 and Ottawa/Hull 1:359,000. Few towns with no newspaper competition sent any staff reporters. This bodes well for Montreal and Ottawa where English-language competition was recently introduced.
  • Almost all papers in the largest markets (1/2 million population or more) sent staff to one conference or more: An average of 15.3 of the 20 papers in those cities attended every conference. The only major exceptions were the Hamilton Spectator and the tabloid Le Journal of Quebec City.
  • The nation's 10 largest dailies (in circulation) sent an average of 25.7 staff, or half (49.4%) of the entire daily paper contingent.
  • Toronto, Canada's largest city--and the one with by far the toughest nose-to-nose newspaper competition--was represented by easily the most writers--an average of 11.7. Thus almost a quarter (22.4%) of daily paper writers at the conferences wrote for those three papers. Of out-of-town reporters travelling to the conferences, nearly one-third (29.9%) were from Toronto.
  • An average of 83.7 dailies declined to send reporters to each conference.
  • Of cities sending reporters out-of-town to the conferences, Vancouver was the worst served, with a ratio of one newspaper reporter for every 634,000 people. However, far worse served were the readers in communities where no print reporters were sent. Six of Canada's 20 largest cities also had no local representation among press reporters (Hamilton, St. Catharines, Kitchener, St. John's, Oshawa and Sudbury). By this criterion, the best served communities were those with the lowest populations-per-reporter, e.g. Saskatoon (1 per 77,000) and Halifax (1 to 93,000 people).
  • It appears that some papers, given their resources, could have contributed far more to covering these conferences--but perhaps they compensated in coverage of other events.

Conclusions

Clearly, the decision whether to staff an event is predicated on far more than merely proximity or cost: Evidently questions of newspaper size, size of market and the presence of competition all have an effect. Not unexpectedly, bigger papers and bigger cities are better represented than smaller ones, but in areas where newspaper competition exists, readers appear to have been given a more thorough coverage with a greater variety of writers.

Meanwhile, the newspaper chain reputed to be most generous in its news-gathering budget (Southams) and those that are reputed to be "cheap" (Thomson, Sterling and Irving) appear to be living up to those reputations. But the numbers reinforce the conclusion of Romanow and Soderlund that acquisition of the Globe and Mail by Thomson Newspapers has not injured that paper's concern for professionalism: "[T]hose who feared the Thomson acquisition . . . would alter fundamentally the paper in a negative way, were needlessly concerned" (1986, p. 8). The Winnipeg Free Press also stands out for its commitment.

When one superimposes newspaper prosperity (measured by circulation) on conference commitment (measured by probable costs incurred in total airfares), differences emerge. Some papers (most notably Le Devoir of Montreal) made significantly larger commitments to the conferences than might be expected from their circulation. The Winnipeg Free Press, 10th largest paper in Canada, ranked fourth highest in travel spending, and the Regina and Saskatoon dailies also spent far more on conference travel than their circulation might suggest.

On the other hand, some substantial papers spent much less than might be expected from their size: the Vancouver Sun, the country's fifth largest daily, ranked 17th in travel spending, clearly making a significantly smaller commitment-per-reader than others. Even recognizing that these numbers in effect "penalize" the Sun for being in the hometown of one of the three conferences, this major daily spent far less on covering the Regina and Halifax conferences than other papers of comparable size. The Province (in Vancouver), too, with one commentator in Regina and nobody in Halifax, spent less than their substantial circulation might justify.

Nonetheless, once again this is only comparative: all 27 papers which sent writers to the conferences easily outshone the 78 papers which sent NO staff. Notably absent: the Hamilton Spectator, with half-a-million circulation, the 12th largest daily in the nation's ninth largest community, and the only major Southam paper to miss all three conferences. And Le Journal of Montreal--third largest daily in the country--ranked 21st in conference travel spending.

Furthermore, small cities are evidently much worse served than larger ones: Papers owned by chains in one-paper towns tend not to send their own staff to remote assignments, relying on reporters and commentators serving the entire chain, and the Canadian Press news agency. And communities served by one daily which neither has its own reporter nor a chain reporter at the scene will likely read only reports generated by Canadian Press.

CP does a fine job of reporting major national stories, but its staff cannot look out for the interests of readers of 105 different dailies, nor can they provide the color and interpretation which local writers will generate. If they did all that. . . then why would a few conscientious newsrooms be sending teams of their own staff to each event, sometimes at great expense?

Notes

1
Southam Inc.: "Its concern for journalism is exemplified in its news service for the daily newspapers and in its scholarships. The Southam approach is not single-minded. It is not solely profit maximization. It is not operating a business organization that just happens to be in newspapers" (Royal Commission on Newspapers, 1981, p. 93).

Thomson Newspapers: "Its small-town monopoly newspapers are, almost without exception, a lacklustre aggregation of cash-boxes" (Royal Commission, 1981, p. 177). See also Royal Commission, 1981, p. 102; Report of the Special Senate Committee on Mass Media, Vol. 1, 1970, p. 85; Siegel, 1983, pp. 122-123. For modest rebuttal, see Burris et al., 1987, pp. 12-13).

2
See, for instance, Guido H. Stempel III (1975). Measurement of space given stories tells more about papers' relative prosperity than about commitment. And content analysis can be distorted by variables such as proximity of the stories, daily variations in newshole (ad. revenue) and picture availability.

References

Burris, Anne, & Puhala, Bob. (1987, May). The Thomson machine: Small papers, big profits. Columbia Journalism Review, pp. 12-13.

Canadian Advertising Rates and Data. (1987, March). Toronto: Maclean Hunter.

Fletcher, Frederick J. (1981). The Newspaper and Public Affairs. Vol. 7 of Research Studies for Royal Commission on Newspapers. Ottawa: Supply & Services.

Romanow, Walter, & Soderlund, Walter. (1986, June). Thomson Newspapers' acquisition of the Globe and Mail: A case study of content change. Paper presented to the Canadian Communication Association.

Royal Commission on Newspapers. (1981). Kent Report. Ottawa: Supply & Services.

Siegel, Arthur. (1983). Politics and the media in Canada. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson.

Soderlund, Walter, Romanow, Walter, Briggs, E. Donald, and Wagenberg, Ronald H. (1984). Media and elections in Canada. Toronto: Holt, Rinehart.

Special Senate Committee on Mass Media. (1970). The Davey Report. Ottawa: Queen's Printer.

Stempel, Guido H. III. (1975). Media evaluation: The state of the art. Paper presented to the Association for Education in Journalism, Ottawa.

Stone, Gerald, Stone, Donna B., & Trotter, Edgar P. (1981). Newspaper Quality's relation to circulation. Newspaper Research Journal, 2(3), 16-24.



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