Too many journalists ?

An unpleasant question: Do we have an excess of daily press journalists? And, if so, how does the surfeit vary from country to country?

Two years ago, Earl Wilkinson, the managing director of the International Newsmedia Marketing Association (INMA), produced a chart showing how the growth in the number of journalists employed by US dailies had not prevented a decrease in circulation:

A former journalist himself, Earl is a strong advocate of editorial differentiation; therefore, he is not against large newsrooms. But the fact remains: on the US market, the size of the newsroom isn’t a shield against readership erosion. With the possible exception of India,  the era of big editorial cathedrals is gone. In France for instance, according to a 2009 study conducted by the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), the number of journalists almost tripled in two generations, about 50 years. For the same time period, the number of copies sold per 1000 inhabitants shrunk by 66%, from 360 about 120 per 1000 people.

I took the OECD report titled The Evolution of News and the Internet and fed it to Excel. The output shows the following trends:

#1: editorial workforce. If adding journalists has proven unable to reverse the trend in reader depletion, in any given market, the more numerous the journalists are, the better the newspaper industry holds. The chart below covers seven countries, with two superimposed data sets. First, in blue, the number of journalists per 100,000 daily copies sold; second, in red, paid circulation per 1000 inhabitants.

Sweden and Norway show the most favorable ratios: strongest readership and the biggest editorial staff per copies sold. Italy shows the worst numbers: relatively few journalists for the lowest readership.

One notable exception: with only 41 journalists per 100,000 copies sold, Japan enjoys the highest newspaper penetration with more than 402 copies sold each day per 1000 inhabitants. The reason is Japan has five of the world’s top 10 paid dailies; among them, the Yomiuri Shimbun has a daily circulation of 10m copies, and the Asahi Shimbun 8m. While Japan has 13 times less titles that the United States, its population is only 2.4 times smaller. As for the US, it has 112 journalists per 100,000 copies sold and a penetration of 159 copies per 1000 inhabitants. But those numbers are degrading fast due to a higher reliance on disappearing advertising revenue.

#2: Productivity depends on market density and concentration.

To produce a million copies per day, it takes

414 journalists in Japan, a record high dense market in which the average daily sells almost 500,000 copies

… but 1600 in Sweden and Finland where a daily sells typically 40,000 copies

…and 1122 in the US where, on average, a daily sells 34,000 copies

Trend #3: Profitability. In Europe, there are basically two groups:

– Those who have been able to maintain a decent profitability through workforce adjustments. This group includes Finland, Germany, Norway – a country in which companies can be quite decisive when it’s time to restore profitability.

– The others, who have made no adjustments and whose profitability lags (only Sweden suffers from both downsizing and weak profitability).

The chart below shows profitability and its main components.

Trend #4: Subsidies. The OECD data show too many subsidies lead to low operating profit, no workforce adjustments and decreasing readership.

Italy and France are the perfect examples. Compared to Sweden, Italy has 4 times less readers par 1000 people but 12 times more subsidies per reader.

For France, the numbers are slightly better: 3 times less readers than Sweden and 5 times more direct subsidies (according to a conservative estimates, 10% of the revenue of the French dailies comes from public funding). The latest OECD data shows that neither France nor Italy have undertaken any sensible downsizing.

In fact, in Europe, the soundest newspaper economy is the British one: no direct subsidies, only a VAT at zero (like in Finland and Norway).


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