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Taylorism meets Journalism

The New York Times’ about the Tribune Company’s impending cuts included insight into the value placed on editorial contribution, and how the company measures - in column inches, seemingly - success. “[Tribune Company COO Randy] Mr. Michaels revealed that the company had analyzed the volume of material produced by each reporter, and the per capita production at each paper; it concluded that many people were not pulling their weight and would hardly be missed.”

It reminded me of the principles of Taylorism, which (according to Wikipedia) is also known as “scientific management”, whereby a standard method for performing work tasks is implemented, based on analysis of individuals performing tasks, designed to increase productivity and consistency. The cost, according to detractors, is initiative, morale, and fundamental humanity.

Productivity is not a term often used in conjunction with the newsroom. Had Woodward and Bernstein been judged in terms of work volume, I have a feeling that they would have abandoned the low-yield Watergate investigation in favor of far more lucrative topic.

Of course, it is the job of the journalist to supply stories and feed the beast. But any sense that a reporter’s precise contribution can be judged by the number of words he or she squeezes into a story is ludicrous. Unlike manufacturing, you can’t assume that by applying a certain level of energy to one story will achieve the same result, and deliver the most, or best, content.  

As a fan of pith, of fewer words-better chosen, I can’t help but worry that comments like this will send mediocre reporters out to pad their copy beyond the limits of editorial need. Meanwhile, the real problem - that of dwindling ad revenue even as content strategy is more targeted and reactive than ever - remains unsolved.

1 Comment so far

  1. R.J. O'Hara on June 13th, 2008

    Some people in higher education are contemplating a Global War on Taylorism:

    Perhaps journalists should join in.

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