Making sense of staffing

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Tim Timmons
Tim Timmons

By Tim Timmons

As staffing becomes more of an issue for newspapers working hard to meet demanding budgets, how do you know how big the newsroom workforce should be?

As an old editor (heavy emphasis on old) before going over to the dark side, I remember sitting through budget battles wearing heavy armor and asbestos underwear as I tried to talk my way into more staff or at least not losing staff.

I used to plead my case that the rule of thumb of 1.0 full-time news employees for each 1,000 in circulation was cast in stone.

I usually lost.

Years later when I was attending a newspaper program at Northwestern University, the 1.0 rule came up in discussion. No one seemed to know where it came from.

Whether grounded in fact or tradition doesn’t really matter.

There are few things we do today that aren’t being examined and re-examined.

To say our industry has changed would be an understatement of epic proportions.

It only makes sense that rules should change as well.

So what I’d like to toss out for consideration is an idea on how to determine the size of a newsroom staff.

Let’s start with the product itself.

Typically we have a reasonable idea on how many pages we run, right?

And we generally know what the percentage of open space is on those pages.

That means we know in a broad sense how much space newsrooms have to fill.

Going from that point, and recognizing that each newsroom is different, how much of that open space will be filled with stories?

How much with photos, headlines, agate and more?

We know our products pretty well. Those are answers that we have a good handle on.

From that point forward, we determine the processes in each newsroom.

At larger papers, with copy desks and more layers, there are more people represented in each inch of space allotted to news.

At smaller papers where there tends to be one-person sports staffs and no copy desks, there are far less.

Ultimately, this idea boils down to a simple question: How many newsroom people at a particular paper does it take to fill the available space?

You get the idea.

The answer can be as complicated as coming up with a mathematical formula: Open space divided by staff.

If a 12-page paper has 50 percent open space, that newsroom has six pages to fill. What’s it take?

What I like about this approach is that it does not leave things up in the air with some adage from the days of green eyeshades and wax pencils.

It also allows editors to make a strong and compelling case for a larger staff when ad sales and page count rise.

If there are more ads and more pages, this criteria can easily be used to build a case for more staff because there is more work to be done and more revenue in the coffers.

Conversely, if ads and revenues decline, so do the pages. At least then there is some logic to where cuts might be made.

This approach allows each paper to use a method that is specifically tailored to its own needs and resources.

Tim Timmons is publisher of The Paper of Montgomery County (Crawfordsville) and The Times (Noblesville) and president of the HSPA board of directors.