The new cost of news

Wayne MacPhail

Wayne MacPhailWhat does journalism cost? That’s a question that’s being batted around a lot lately as the economic case for and against traditional newsrooms gets made in the press, on the Web, and certainly across well-polished boardroom tables.

Recently on J-Source Kirk LaPointe, managing editor of the Vancouver Sun, argued that when the cost of news is sliced and diced a lot of pricey items like infrastructure, IT, HR, salespeoples’ salaries, legal fees, marketing etc. aren’t tossed into the mix.

He’s right, running a regular old-school newsroom is expensive and goes far beyond journalists’ pay envelopes. The Globe and Mail’s cleaning staff wages, for example, are probably the same as the salaries of everybody at THIS Magazine, twice over.

But, to me, LaPointe isn’t making a case for how expensive news gathering must be. He’s just itemizing the upper limit. So, to balance that model out, let’s examine the low end:

I’m on the board of rabble and get to see the balance sheets, which I will share with you now. Last year rabble ran its entire national news operation on a budget of $203,140.41. That’s all in: salaries, travel, marketing, IT, redesign – the whole frugal ball of wax.

The nine folks who get paid most often get paid for just one day of work per week. They all get the same salary, from editor to podcast network producer to publisher. And, they all work a ridiculous number of volunteer hours and, more often, days per week. Many more folks across Canada volunteer serious time each week posting to blogs, consulting, doing graphic design or the hundreds of other tasks that make an online news site tick, day after day, year after year.

All that effort doesn’t get counted in the balance sheet. If it did, it would be under the tab marked “Gift Economy” or perhaps the one marked “Cognitive Surplus”. Neither of those categories, I’d wager, appear on the spreadsheet LaPointe used to calculate the costs of doing the news business in the old school way.

It is clear that the model outlined by LaPointe is failing and is not sustainable – for all sorts of reasons, only some of which reside with the newsrooms themselves. A centralized, non-virtual newsroom with infrastructure, delivery and production costs isn’t cutting it in many markets. It just can’t generate the kinds of return on investment shareholders want to see these days.

It’s also clear that the model isn’t sustainable, or, at least, fair and scalable. Staff and volunteers contribute willingly to the gift economy that makes rabble run. But, that is a fragile well to drink from for a sustained period, especially during an economic drought. And, while we have depended upon the kindness of non-strangers, the gift/reward ratio needs to tilt a little more in their favour.

So, there are sustainability issues on both ends of the economic scale: traditional newsrooms at one extreme, rabble-style models at the other. But I’d argue the sweet spot, that marvellous, magical mix of altruism, recognition, ego-satisfaction and cash-for-effort that can sustain a news venture is much closer to the rabble side of the spectrum.

So, if you want to find a model for a workable future news organization, its probably in our neck of the woods. And, I think it’s going to be far easier for rabble and its supporters (and future supporters) to slide rabble up the scale a bit towards the sweet spot than it will be for newspapers with all their baggage to become frictionless enough to slide down.

I don’t argue with LaPointe’s view of the true cost of traditional newsrooms. But, there is a big difference between what news has cost and what news has to cost.

And, biased though I am, I think rabble and other news organizations that depend on the power of the crowd and the gifts of the like-minded and which have harnessed and focussed the renewable energy of concerned citizens are closer to a modern media model than anything else I’ve seen. I think we need to think about news the way some of us have come to think about produce.

We should grow our own and think local. We should cover ourselves, take civic responsibility to inform ourselves and our neighbours and not depend on large, expensive and unwieldy newsrooms to do it for us. Many of them have clanked and bellowed ungently into their good nights.

That doesn’t mean we should undervalue, or ignore the experience and expertise that goes into longer form, longer-to-do investigative journalism. Far from it. Part of the additional funding news sites like rabble need should be earmarked to hire shop-worn journalists to do what they do best. But, there is a lot of day-to-day journalism we can all participate in.

This is the media age of the small and agile. We’re cheap, but, goddammit, we’re worth it.

Wayne MacPhail is director, emerging-media at He has been a print and online journalist for 25 years and was managing editor of Hamilton Magazine and was a reporter and editor at The Hamilton Spectator until he founded Southam InfoLab, a national future information products facility for Southam Inc. in 1991.

This column also appeared on