When the American newspaper was in its prime, there was a rule of thumb for newsroom size: one staff member for every 1,000 printed copies sold. What would be its equivalent today?

The implosion of print advertising has transformed the economy of journalism, from the freelance newsletter writer on Substack to subscription publishers like the New York Times or the Washington Post. The internet has attracted huge potential audiences.

But, oddly enough, the modern reporter / reader ratio for subscription news may not be all that different from the old American newspapers that turn the money and rely on advertising. At $ 10 per month, 1,000 or 2,000 paying subscribers per staff member is enough to make a decent living as a Substack writer, and potentially to generate profits in a digital newsroom.

The biggest problem for traditional publishers is the transition. Still carrying printed baggage with old costs and with an eye on what is left of advertising money, some executives are understandably reluctant to act on all the implications of the subscription economy for their staff and strategy.

The Substack fleet is less of a direct threat to these well-established news brands and more of a big reminder of what the subscription business essentially boils down to. A handful of star writers have shown that newsletters can generate six- or seven-figure paychecks, well in excess of most newsroom salaries.

Noah Smith, a Bloomberg opinion writer on economics, started his newsletter just four months ago and has accumulated 1100 subscribers. It’s early, but at the monthly subscription rate that would make over $ 100,000 a year after 10 percent sub-stack charge and 3 percent of the Stripe online payments processor for transactions.

More established newsletter editors like historian Heather Cox Richardson or Rolling Stone contributor Matt Taibi earn many multiples. But there is the ruthless reality of being a journalist-entrepreneur: most Substack writers fail.

Even so, the simplicity of the newsletter template should be a sit-up time for traditional publishers – not just about competing for top talent, but in terms of how newsrooms are designed within their businesses. .

Not so surprisingly, the headline is that the subscription news model depends on convincing people to pay for good journalism, rather than selling an audience to advertisers. Talent and quality count.

The most difficult consequence to grasp is that the model elevates newsrooms as the newspaper company’s main investment, scaled up or down to match its ambition, rather than a cost center to be managed in a downturn. advertising revenue.

Which brings us back to ratios. Even in the heyday of printing, the 1,000-copy staff requirement was inaccurate, and mostly tied to local titles (an academic study found the average staff ratio to be 1.04 in 1995) . But it has distilled the commercial potential of the audience (to advertisers) and the number of journalists needed to maintain its attention.

When the legendary Washington Post Editor-in-Chief Ben Bradlee retired in 1991, his newsroom numbered 600 and the newspaper’s circulation was around 800,000 copies, a ratio of about one employee to one. 300 copies sold.

Under the ownership of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the newsroom has grown to over 1,000. The circulation is only 200,000 copies, but the Post has an impressive 3 million paid online readers, or about one. used for 3,000 subscribers. He benefited from a Trump bump and some economies of scale.

If average subscribers were paying somewhere near the subscription price under $ 10 per month (the Post doesn’t disclose such numbers), in theory, that makes a tidy business.

Revenues of $ 360 million would cover the costs of a Post newsroom three times as much if salaries and expenses averaged around $ 100,000 for an editor. Old newspapers usually spent a quarter of income on the management of the editorial side. Well-run digital publications should do a lot better.

In the words of Marty Baron, former editor of the Post, Bezos gave the Post a “lead” to invest in a digital future for news. It remains to be seen if the newsroom is big enough to continue building the 3 million subscriber base, especially outside of the United States.

How many journalists does it take to reach the target audience of subscribers? This should be a question all news editors are asking themselves all the time.

alex.barker@ft.com





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