By Leslie C. Norins, MD, PhD | March 8, 2017
As a forty-year loyal subscriber to the New York Times, I have watched with concern as, in response to the difficult publishing environment, it has announced sequential platoons of staff reductions. Recently, it revealed that an internal committee had recommended further cuts, hinting at an excess of editors.
As I happen to be a four-decade publisher and editor of subscription-paid newsletters for healthcare professionals, I acknowledge the painful truth that if revenue falls, expenses must be reduced. But how does one identify areas in which money can be saved?
The usual maneuver is “nip and tuck”. A nip here, a tuck there. Then, an overall percentage reduction, whereby every department suffers equally. Next, let go the newest hires.
A role for zero-based budgeting?
Not often is zero-based budgeting considered. I first heard of it when Jimmy Carter popularized it for the federal government in the 1970’s. Applying it to the present newspaper situation, we would ask, “If we were starting any Times department fresh, what would be the most efficient and least costly way to construct it?”
Magazine’s masthead inspires issue collection
One Sunday in summer 2016 I was reading the Times Magazine as my subconscious mind was mulling further news of revenue and staff losses at the paper. The issue was sixty or so pages. Because I have been a publisher so long, I habitually pay close attention to every periodical’s masthead (the listing of principal staff.). Many readers don’t; I do.
Suddenly it dawned on me that, based on my publishing experiences, there seemed to be a lot of editors and writers listed for the tasks at hand. But maybe this many professionals were all needed? After all, it’s the New York Times! And they must know what they are doing. Who was I to question the allotment?
Still, my curiosity was aroused, and my early-career medical research training kicked in. When opinions are rife, one should look at the data.
Thereupon, I decided to start collecting my Times Magazine issues every Sunday to the end of 2016, so I could analyze a whole batch at once.
Early this year, I scrutinized and tabulated every page of every weekly issue from August 14 to December 25 (missing only the issues of August 28 and October 23.) Data was thus compiled from 18 issues. I term this collection “consecutive issues.”
December 25th issue: 66 pages, 46 editors
Initially, I studied the masthead of the December 25th issue, as it was the final one of 2016, and thus the most recent included in my collection.
It contained 60 names. But the issue contained only 66 pages. Hmm. Did producing one Magazine issue require about one staff member per page? I’d never heard of such a high ratio. My inquiry buds were stimulated.
There were four functional groups represented in the 60: editors, art/photos/design editors, production editors, and writers (Table 1).
I tabulated these as:
|Total In-House Editors||46|
I surmise that the three “editor “groups (46 staff) are in-house, fulltime, and salaried. Thus, we can assess their costs and work hours against the weekly issue.
The cost of the 14 “writers” is hard for an outsider to assign. Are they fulltime, salaried? The bylines of some rarely appear. Others contribute articles to various sections of the Times, so they are not fully chargeable to the Magazine. Because of this uncertainty as to cost center, we shall leave aside the time and expense of writers, and consider only the roles of the 46 editors.
Of the 46, 30 worked with words and text in one way or another. The other 16 handled art, design, photos, and production.
Pages of 18 issues categorized, averaged
Next I scrutinized each page of all 18 weekly issues I had collected (1,352 pages), and classified it as advertising or editorial content. Most pages were clearly in a single category. In a few cases, portions of a page had dual uses, and these fractions were accumulated until they could be counted as approximately one complete page.
Each total was averaged. This smoothed out issue-to-issue variation, and allowed creation of an arithmetically representative model issue. Details are presented in Table 2.
21% of pages were ads
The 1352 pages averaged out to 75 pages per issue. Advertising filled 380 pages, or an average of 21 pages (28%) per issue. Most ads were full page, which made it easier to count the space they occupied.
20 editorial content pages deemed “constant”.
A subcategory of editorial content I term “constant pages” appeared in every issue. Though their number varied somewhat by issue, for simplicity I deemed it 20 in each.
Three pages of these had to be current each week; two Table of Contents, and one which contained Contributors and the masthead.
The remaining 17 pages comprised a mosaic of short articles. These were “evergreen” –content which is relevant for a long time, and could thus be edited well in advaance, and appear whenever it is convenient. Week by week the blend varied slightly.
Examples of these variable articles, and their typical number of text pages, include: First Words (3), The Thread (1), On Money (3), Ethicist (2), Letter of Recommendation (2), Eat (2), Lives (1), and Talk (1). Puzzles (2.5) were always included.
Most “long articles” written by non-employees
Excluding the pages of ads and the “constant content”, in the 1352 pages there were 578 “long article” pages. That is, longer-length items specially written, often with timely relevance.
Best I could discern by referencing the list of “Writers” on the masthead, and the Contributors described as outsiders, only 99 pages of these (17%) were written by staff writers. The bulk, 479 pages (83%) were from outsiders.
Because non-employed writers are usually paid per word or per article, there is no need to examine their productivity per hour. They are paid only when the item is accepted, so it’s not the Times’ concern if they write quickly or not. (It becomes the editors’ problem if they don’t write well)
How many “long article” text pages needed editing?
So, did all 578 pages of “long articles” require intensive text editing? Well, no. Because on inspection one finds that many of the pages in the “long articles” are filled, not with text, but with full-page photos or graphics. These don’t need attention from the text editors; they are dealt with by the photography and graphics editors.
By my count, of the 578, roughly 294 pages worth of space (51%) was taken up by photos/graphics.
That left approximately 284 full pages of “long article” text (49%) to be reviewed by the text editors.
Text pages to be edited per issue
Dividing the 284 pages of actual text of “long articles” by the 18 issues in which they appeared yields an average of 15.7 pages of text per issue to be scrutinized by editors. And there are possibly 30 editors who do, or could, edit text.
Nominal work week productivity
A 40-hour work week is accepted in the U.S., and intellectual work is not physically strenuous. Editing of the above 15.7 pages must be done weekly. Dividing 15.7 pages of text into the theoretical 40-hour availability of one editor provides that person 2.5 hours to edit one text page.
How many employees required?
The above calculation is merely for one employee. Put it this way: One staffer editing at the slow pace of one “long article” text page every 2.5 hours could edit in a normal work week the entire 15.7 pages “long article text “contents of each weekly issue of the New York Times Magazine. But the masthead indicates there are 30 people who could provide some type of “text” editorial function.
Can editing time per text page be reduced below 2.5 hours?
Certainly the editing time per text page can be reduced below 2.5 hours. Remember, we are saying “edit”, not write. Contributors to the New York Times are paid in two coin; money and prestige. It’s a highly sought-after status. If contributors’ writing is so abysmal that it takes 2.5 hours to edit one text page of submitted work, it’s time to dismiss them and move on to other writers more talented or careful.
And let’s not forget, tolerating slovenly submissions encourages the contributors to continue dumping more research and grammar problems on the editors. These staffers have thus become enablers. (But these continuing deficiencies in the writers’ submissions do provide role justification for some editors, so there is established a kind of literary codependence.)
Raise standards for acceptability
If submitted copy were required to be more carefully prepared by writers, perhaps 15 minutes per text page would be a realistic goal for one editor. That would mean the entire weekly 15.7 pages of “long article” text could be edited by a single editor in 4 hours. (Caution: To prevent panic, do not reveal this calculation to anyone.)
Then what about the other 29 text-capable editors at the Magazine? That is the creative challenge for Times management.
Theoretical vs. real-world work hours
For many consecutive issues, the Times Magazine has included on its Contributors page one selected result from a summer 2016 online survey, to which 2,563 readers responded. The pertinent one is: “In an eight-hour workday, how much time do you spend actually working?”. Answers: 7-8 hours, 43%; 4-6 hours, 44%; 1-3 hours, 7%; Less than 1 hour, 6%.
Summarized, in this non-scientific sample of respondents, 57% do not work the eight hours of their official workday.
But do these results apply to the Times itself? Outsiders can only guess at its internal work culture. How many hours “nose to the grindstone”? Siphoned off to staff meetings? Writing memos? Coffee klatches? Bathroom gossip sessions? Long lunches? Office politics? This bears review.
Innocent growth of overstaffing
No doubt all editors of the Magazine are highly talented professionals. Nobody is lazy. All would report they are busy—even overloaded. So how could there be editorial overstaffing?
Probably two factors contribute. One is the slow accretion of interruptions and distractions, reducing the time available per person to do the essential tasks–thus requiring more employees to get the necessary work done.
Parkinson’s Law applicable?
The second is ever-increasing pondering, review and refinement of each editorial analysis and decision. This phenomenon is described in Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
What might a zero-based Magazine look like?
Starting afresh under the pressures of today’s publishing environment, the Magazine should restructure as follows:
Outsource all contributors. Demand of each well-crafted, largely self-edited, accurate writing, that needs little or research at headquarters. Yes, such providers are out there. Set your acceptance standards higher. Some of the Old Guard writers will threaten to leave; let them. Engage “Rising Stars”.
Buy each genre of the evergreen “constant content” in bulk, well in advance, at a discount. Efficiently edit each such batch in one assignment, and store. These can later be accessed and inserted quickly, as needed.
Hire two editors for substantive editing of contributor “long articles”. One more for copy editing. One photography editor, one for design. One production editor. One administrative assistant/secretary. That’s it. The Magnificent Seven.
Let all actually work eight hours per day. Pay accordingly. Declare it’s up to them; make it happen or the Magazine dies. It will now thrive. And thus be there for my 50th year of subscribing▪︎
Table 1: Roles of 60 staff in masthead of New York Times Sunday Magazine
66-page issue, December 25, 2016
|Editor in chief||1||Dir. Photography||1|
|Deputy Editors||2||Design Director||1|
|Managing Editor||1||Art Director||1|
|Features Editor||1||Deputy Art Dir.||1|
|Story Editors||8||Digital Designer||1|
|Spec. Proj. Editor||1||Virtual Reality Ed.||1|
|Associate Editors||2||Photo Asst.||1|
|Head of Research||1||Production||Number|
|Research Editors||6||Production Chief||1|
|Editorial Asst||1||Production Editors||2|
Table 2. Page categorization of 18 New York Times Magazine issues 2016
|Date||Pages||Mostly Ads||Writer Pages||Photos or Graphics||Text for Editing|