Rule of What?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   July/August 2002

Rule of What?   

What’s the source of that old “rule of thumb” that says newspapers should have one newsroom employee per 1,000 circulation? And is it valid?

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      


It's been called an industry standard, the norm, an average and a rule of thumb. It's also been called a myth, folklore and flat-out wrong. Yet it's often cited--even if it's being derided--and widely known by most in the newspaper business.

What is it? The infamous staffing benchmark that says a paper should have one newsroom employee for every 1,000 in circulation.

Most of you know of it. In my four short years at AJR, I've heard it uttered many times. But where does this rule of thumb come from?

Good question.

That (along with a refrain of "I don't know") was the response I usually got in my quest to track down the origin of this mysterious formula. Finding the first recorded knock-knock joke might have been easier.

I started with the obvious suspects: the Newspaper Association of America, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Newseum, sages of the business.

Legendary editors Jim Bellows and Gil Spencer, surprisingly, say they have never heard of the rule. Spencer says he isn't that organized. But he calls for someone who might know. Yes, his wife, Isabel Spencer, former managing editor of the Denver Post, says she first heard it in the late '70s. She doesn't know the origin, but "it was written in stone then."

Larry Jinks, a former publisher and editor of the San Jose Mercury News and a former Knight Ridder executive, says, "It's been around a long time. I have no idea when it started. I do know that during the years [I was] senior editorial officer of Knight Ridder we didn't use it as any kind of specific guideline."

ASNE Executive Director Scott Bosley says he's sure some newspaper executive somewhere came up with it, "but I just don't know." Eric Newton, director of journalism initiatives at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and former Newseum news historian, says, "It was a rule of thumb 30 years ago when I first heard it.... It was talked about at that time like some kind of rule that had been around awhile." But Newton, alas, doesn't know its genesis. "It was always communicated to me as, 'It's the way it's done, kid.' "

There does seem to be a "why? because, that's why" factor at work here. It's as if one day in, oh, say 1920, someone said there should be one newsroom staffer for every 1,000 in circulation, and a bunch of people standing around nodded in agreement. "Yes, that sounds right. And what a nice ring to it--one per 1,000!"

"I think it's all myth," jokes Gregory Favre, former executive editor of the Sacramento Bee and now a Poynter Institute fellow, who adds that perhaps some editor who only had three-quarters of a full-time staffer to every 1,000 told his publisher, "You know, I heard..."

Others hypothesize it was a bean-counting poohbah who promulgated this law. "It might have been dreamed up by a lazy publisher or editor," offers Roger Grier, a former vice president of the Hearst Corp.

Actually, my phone call to Grier was a result of finding the best origin theory out there--and I'm not just saying that because it's the only real theory that anybody came up with. The possible source? The Inland Press Association's annual cost and revenue study.

Ihe Inland Press Association, located in Des Plaines, Illinois, was formed in 1885. The organization conducts research and seminars for newspapers, primarily concerning financial and human-resources issues. Inland's cost and revenue study has been around for about 90 years and has provided newspapers with a look at how other papers do business. Inland, now with the help of the International Newspaper Financial Executives, collects information from hundreds of newspapers for the study and, while keeping the papers' names anonymous, publishes statistics on items such as classified ad revenue, advertising expenses and, of course, staffing levels.

The study is not a list of recommendations of what makes good newspapers but rather a reflection of the way things are. "Each newspaper is in its own unique circumstance," says Inland's executive director, Ray Carlsen. "This is not a fixed mold that all newspapers should fit into.... It's just a guide as to where to pay management attention."

In its more recent studies, Inland compares its findings to what it calls industry rules of thumb. Inland seems to have jettisoned the one per 1,000 benchmark--its current rule of thumb is 1.1 to 1.2 full-time equivalents (an FTE count includes part-timers) per 1,000 circulation. Carlsen says for the year 2000, the 1.2 per 1,000 guideline was the norm for dailies with 25,000 circulation, but staffing was higher at papers with 10,000, 50,000 and 100,000 circulation--1.5 or 1.6 per 1,000. The study, which included about 370 dailies, did not derive the staffing ratio for larger papers, but Carlsen says for the highest circulation publications, "you very well could be right on with your one per 1,000."

John Lavine, professor and director at the Media Management Center at Northwestern University, has worked with the Inland study since the early 1960s. He says he "believes" the rule of thumb (which he notes was never a rule) came from the cost and revenue study. "I can't tell you when it began," Lavine wrote in an e-mail to AJR. "I think it was used in the late 1950s, but that is only a guess."

Carlsen seconds the theory: "My guess is that it probably came from the study. People probably saw this thing and they rounded off," he says. "It's the only study; it's the industry standard."

So if--and it is an if--this theory is correct, it could be that one year, decades ago, the cost and revenue study showed that newspapers (or some papers of a certain circulation) had a one-to-1,000 ratio. Someone picked up on this and, like a childhood game of telephone, it was passed from one person to another until it became, "the standard is one journalist for every 1,000 in circulation." And, like a bunch of mockingbirds, subsequent generations have repeated and repeated the phrase, having no idea where it actually came from. Amazing.

This is a beautiful little story. Unfortunately, I can't say that this is definitely the way it happened. On Lavine's recommendation, I eagerly called Roger Grier, who worked with the Inland study off and on from the 1960s through the '90s. His response: "I'm not aware of it coming out of the cost and revenue study." He does add, "I'm not saying it didn't happen," but he couldn't say that it did.

Rats. I'm left with a pretty good hypothesis and a whole lot of nothing.

But in the words of John Morton, an AJR columnist and president of a newspaper consulting firm, if nobody knows for certain where the rule of thumb came from, "that probably makes it suspect." And there is no shortage of people who will criticize it.

Grier goes on to say, "I always thought that it was old-fashioned, and I thought that in the '50s or '60s or whenever I came across it. I think there are too many other variables to make it the bible." He says he never used it as a rule of thumb when he was a newspaper executive, but he thinks that for some newspapers it was indeed the bible. "It may be a number that you can use for comparison purposes, but for staffing the newsroom you've got to use a little more imagination than that."

In a follow-up e-mail with the subject line "beware of the metric of 1M circulation per newsroom employee," Lavine emphasizes that "this is NOT a metric that should be used. I know of no research that ties it to quality or to enhancing readership. Moreover, the number of reasons that a given newspaper may go above it or be below it are enormously varied."

Boy, are they. Some papers are in very competitive markets; others put out numerous zoned editions; many cover professional and college sports. Small papers, obviously, need more than one per 1,000, and large papers such as USA Today, with a daily circulation of 2.1 million, usually can safely fall below the ratio.

And what's changed since 1950 or '60? What hasn't?

Those interviewed for this article cite the major adaptations that have called for more newsroom jobs: pagination, more local coverage, changes in how news is delivered, competition from other media. "If it ever was a valid measure, it isn't now because of the multiple ways people get news and the multiple ways each newspaper even delivers news to its readers," says Mary Kay Blake, a Freedom Forum senior vice president and a former Gannett recruiting executive. "It's delivered in print; it's delivered online; it's sometimes delivered via a television station in the newsroom." It takes more people to do all that.

Isabel Spencer points out the ridiculousness of it all. "It is ludicrous when you think about it," she says. "If it was so fabulous in the late '70s, think about all the things that have been piled on newsrooms."

One other point: Circulation has declined at the majority of newspapers. Nationally, it dropped 10.5 percent from 1990 to 2000, according to the NAA. Presumably, newspapers aren't lopping off staffers in sync with circulation. A newspaper could simply keep its staffing level constant and--presto change-o--in a few years claim bragging rights to a hefty ratio.

Newspaper company executives, fortunately, are quick to say that the rule of thumb is not a standard that they follow. (Though they are happy to point out that most if not all of their newspapers fall above the rule.)

"It's something that you're sort of aware of," says Howard Weaver, vice president, news at McClatchy, "but...you make decisions based on individual newspapers and individual newsrooms."

"It is cited a lot, you're right," says Jerry Ceppos, vice president/news at Knight Ridder. "But in our case...virtually every paper does not adhere" to it. (Polk Laffoon, Knight Ridder's vice president/corporate relations, told AJR in November that all but two of the company's papers are above the standard.)

Says Alan Horton, senior vice president/newspapers at E.W. Scripps: "We certainly don't follow it religiously and never have.... I would argue that there are as many ways to look at proper staffing levels as there are owners and communities."

Someone at some time may very well have used the rule of thumb, or at least tried to. For instance, a 1996 Presstime article said that "in the past, at least one Gannett official" reminded Penny Feuerzeig, then the executive editor of the Virgin Islands Daily News (circulation 16,330), "that the News' editorial staff 'should' number 16.5 positions, according to a traditional industrywide guideline." The paper, however, had 23.5.

Feuerzeig says the guideline was never enforced; rather, it was said as a way to make her feel grateful for the staff she had. "It was simply held up as a rule of thumb that they might in an ideal world have wanted to live with but given reality couldn't," she says. In her case, even working with 23.5 people "was a strain and a struggle...because we were at that time a very ambitious newspaper." (Gannett sold the paper in '97.)

So if few people feel the one-to-1,000 rule of thumb has real merit and newspaper executives themselves question it, why has this thing had such staying power?

Weaver repeats the saying, "For every complex question, there's an answer that's simple, straightforward and wrong." (Supposedly H.L. Mencken said something like that, but after writing this story, who knows?) For most people in most fields, Weaver says, "It would be nice if there were easy answers."

People do like neat little rules. Edwin Hutchins, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, has been trying to find the origin of a couple other guidelines, one from statistics (why is .05 the level at which a study is deemed statistically significant?) and one from aviation (why is a pilot allowed plus or minus 300 feet as the acceptable range to vary from a given altitude?). He hasn't found the sources, but at least in those disciplines, practitioners accept the numbers as valid. With the newspaper industry, many people believe the staffing rule of thumb is bogus. (That's because it is, but I guess that doesn't matter.)

Hutchins says there is something to be said for the it-has-a-nice-ring-to-it attribute. "1.2 per 1,000 or 1 per 1,358 is a lot less compelling," he says. "The fact that an idea is true often has little to do with its success in a community. And this is a nice one. It's convenient to use, it's easy to remember, and at one point was probably close to something."

I have one other idea about why the rule lives on: Citing the standard is a great way for newspapers to feel better about themselves. (Jerry Ceppos cracks up when I float that theory and says, "Maybe that's the reason.")

Rick Edmonds, who soundly demonstrated why the standard doesn't hold true in a piece for the Poynter Institute's Web site, states the theory more eloquently: "I think among the reasons it's had this long and hardy life is that it's a real convenient way for corporate managers to tell the people who are getting less than average staffing, 'Well, you're still around the rule of thumb' or 'You're still above the rule of thumb.' "

But because of all the factors cited in this story and others, especially given the circulation-has-declined tidbit, any boast of a newspaper being above the one-per-1,000 rule should be met with a resounding "Well I should hope so!"

Or if you'd rather, "Duh."

But math, as goes the old stereotype (which seems to have much more backing, by the way, than the rule of thumb), isn't journalists' strong point. To illustrate: A Presstime article from March 2000 states that Inland numbers show "staff levels range from 1.2 to 1.7 full-time slots per 1,000 circulation, a pinch higher than legendary industry benchmarks." A pinch? Get out a calculator. In a 1997 Presstime story, the publisher of a 13,000-circulation paper is quoted as saying his newsroom is slightly bigger than the norm, with 1.4 staffers per 1,000 in circulation. Slightly? If it followed the standard, the paper would lose 5 of its 18 people. That's a lot.

Despite the benchmark's many flaws, however, some think it's not so bad to have around. "It's a nice anchoring point for tracking change," says the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Philip Meyer. And staff size does matter. Meyer recently completed a study that found the number of employees has a "small but significant effect" on a paper's ability to retain circulation. The study will be published on AEJMC's Web site, aejmc.org, in early August. There have been times when newspapers have been staffed below the rule and times when staffs have increased, Meyer says. "So I don't see any harm in it." The harm comes, he says, when it's viewed as a rigid standard.

"It's at least good to have some kind of a notion to be able to decide if a company is making some kind of an effort," says John Morton. If he's appraising a newspaper that has .5 or .6 newsroom staffers per 1,000 in circulation, "it makes me suspect that, gee, they're really cutting corners there."

After at least 40-some years, though, it would be nice to see the rule of thumb change. Edmonds, who is working on a series of reports on the business of journalism for Poynter, says, "I think getting to what it really is would be quite useful, and I think editors and even citizens might like to know, is my paper about average, below average, above average...as other papers in its circulation size."

The current 1.2 doesn't seem to hold for at least several categories of newspapers, according to Inland's numbers. So how about, "According to the industry norm of 1.2 to 1.4 or so FTEs per every 1,000 in circulation, depending of course on circulation size..."

Well, keep practicing. And maybe someone will come along with something better, and just as catchy as the good old one per 1,000. Catchy seems to be the key. Now, about that knock-knock joke....

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