Old habits die hard. And that's one of the things that's made it very tough for newsrooms to adapt to the online age. There are hoary, industrial-age ways of doing journalism that just don't make sense anymore, but they still go on, leading to silly inefficiencies even in newsrooms that are trying to cut to the bone.
There's a great example of this in today's New York Times: A medium-length story, buried deep inside the paper and Web site, that carries two full bylines plus a "contributed" line from a third staffer. All that for about 450 words of copy on page A37. And get this: The story appears to be mostly a rewrite of an AP story!
Maybe we can figure out why it took three reporters to assemble this story, headlined "Suspect in Ft. Hood Shootings to Remain in Hospital." It's bylined Liz Robbins and Scott Shane; "Sarah Wheaton contributed reporting," is tagged onto the bottom. Judging from a search of their Times bylines, Robbins is a New York-based generalist; Shane is one of the Times' key reporters on terrorism and the Ft. Hood story; Wheaton is a Web producer who contributes to The Caucus blog about Congress. That's a lot of talent to throw at a 450-word story on a Saturday. What did they all do?
Let's go to the newsprint and pixels for an annotated dissection of the story. Here are the first two paragraphs:
The Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., in a mass shooting this month will be confined until his military trial, a magistrate ruled on Saturday, The Associated Press reported.
In the first court proceeding for the psychiatrist, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the judge decided he would not yet be moved from the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where he is recovering from his gunshot wounds, to the A.P. quoted his lawyer as saying.
That's pretty much a straight rewrite of the AP story (which is here, if you're interested). In fact, there are some notable similarities between the first two grafs of the Times story and the AP version. Ahem.
The third and fourth grafs are basically background:
The shootings at the base’s large medical and processing center left 12 soldiers and one civilian dead and 43 other people injured, while Major Hasan was struck by four bullets fired by military police.
Major Hasan, 39, has been charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder. At the hearing Saturday, the magistrate decided there was probable cause he committed the Nov. 5 shootings, his civilian lawyer, John P. Galligan, told The A.P.
Ah! There's the AP again. So far, this is nothing but a rewrite, at best. Time for the Times reporting team to swing into action and do some reporting themselves. Or at least try to:
Mr. Galligan did not immediately respond to phone or e-mail messages seeking comment. Mr. Galligan previously said Mr. Hasan is paralyzed from the waist down. Speaking to reporters after the ruling, Mr. Galligan expressed concern that the judicial process would negatively affect his client’s treatment.
In other words, even thought the AP managed to interview Hasan's lawyer, Galligan, the Times' efforts to reach him were unavailing, as the Times used to preciously put it. The rest of that graf appears to come from the AP story. And then we plunge back into the clips—or maybe just the b-matter from the AP story, plus another failed attempt by the Times reporters to get something the AP doesn't have:
The hearing on Saturday was closed to the public and the news media. A spokesman for the Army at Fort Hood did not answer messages. The ruling came as more concerns emerged about Mr. Hasan’s connection to a radical Muslim cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, and whether counterterrorism officials did enough after intercepting e-mail messages Mr. Hasan sent to Mr. Awlaki.
Nobody's answering the phone in Texas, apparently. Maybe a change of venue will help:
In Washington, several Congressional committees are assessing whether counterterrorism officials from the Defense Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation should have opened an investigation this year after intercepting the messages.
Again, background from the clip file. But wait, somebody on the three-person Times reporting team finally manages to corner a source for comment: Sen. Carl Levin (who's hardly reticent):
Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said after a closed briefing by Defense Department officials on Friday that the committee was considering whether officials on the Joint Terrorism Task Force who examined the e-mail messages were negligent in not alerting Army officials and others to the exchange.
“That’s one of the many, many things we’re going to look into,” Senator Levin said. He also suggested the government might have intercepted other e-mail messages sent by Major Hasan, saying the committee was studying “whether or not other alleged e-mails that existed were properly handled as well.” Senator Levin declined to elaborate on the possible additional e-mail messages that the F.B.I. intercepted, which The Washington Post disclosed on Saturday.
There we go! Nine grafs in, the Times finally gets to a live person and adds some semblance of original reporting to the story. Except that the Times has to cite The Washington Post as the source for the juiciest bits, about the FBI e-mail intercepts. Curses! The Times doesn't appear to have tried to match the Post story, which itself had three bylines plus a contributed-by, but represented some real digging. Maybe this story was the teeth-gritted acknowledgement of the scoop.
Now to the final graf, which owes a lot, yet again, to "reports," no doubt aka the AP story:
The magistrate’s ruling changed Major Hasan’s status to a pretrial confinee, from a restricted patient, according to reports. The decision gives the Army greater flexibility in moving him around, though it remained unclear when or to where that might happen.
Did it really take three reporters to write this story? Let us count the ways, with a best-case scenario: One to interview Levin, one to make the unsuccessful calls for comment to Hasan's lawyer and the Ft. Hood flack, and one to take that reporting—plus the AP and Post stories—and write it all up in a compact 450 words.
That's a lot of newsroom resources to bring to bear for a story that seemingly could have been "reported" and written by a single Times staffer—or just as easily been picked up whole from the AP. And newspapers complain about the AP rewriting and redistributing their stories? Of course, we haven't even taken into account the number of people who were involved in assigning, editing and laying out the Times story.
Multiple bylines, especially on shorter stories, always make me raise my eyebrows. Sometimes they represent bizarre newsroom politics—I once wrote a story that for very complicated internal reasons appeared under two other reporters' bylines; you really don't want to know why. I also recently saw a one-paragraph newspaper Web site bulletin that ran under two bylines—a neat trick. And I had a conversation with a publisher recently who assumed that more bylines meant more reporting and more quality, but that just isn't necessarily so. These days, with newsroom efficiency more important than ever, you have to ask whether three reporters working on one simple story would have been better put to use spread over three stories. It's not that simple a decision. But a three-byline rewrite of an AP story shouts that something ain't right.
The Times, like other papers, is going through tough times, and cutbacks in its newsroom—it's in the process of cutting another 100 journalist jobs, in fact. But when you see stories like this, with three staffers spending time on something that seems quite routine and simple, you really wonder if those cuts are deep enough—or if the Times needs to think harder about how it's using increasingly precious staff resources.
Either that or we need to revise an old joke: How many reporters does it take to change a lightbulb?
(Incidentally, I've probably gone beyond the bounds of fair use by quoting the entire story here, but then again, I'm not sure how the Times can claim a copyright on a story with so little original content in it.)