Talking to young reporters working in Ireland over the years, I’ve been shocked by the number of articles that some have told me their editors expect them to write.
Twenty years ago, in my first full-time job working for a daily newspaper, there was a period when I was turning out two or three articles a day – and I thought that was an unsustainably high number.
Today, young journalists have told me they’re asked to produce several times that. And I just keep thinking that demanding more than can be done properly must lead to poorer quality, more mistakes, and irritated readers.
I am obviously not the first or only one to think of this. In recent years, some major news organisations have been cutting back on the number of stories they publish – including The Guardian, The Times (London) and Le Monde.
For The Guardian, cutting the number of stories it publishes online by a third meant that its editors could be pickier about what they chose to publish, its editor Chris Moran has said.
“The value of this process is the self reflection and standard setting that allows editors to really do their job, the focus it brings to the journalism and the clarity it gives to readers,” says Moran.
Le Monde, meanwhile, reduced the number of articles it was publishing and increased the number of journalists on its staff, according to managing editor Luc Bronner.
The result: both papers say their readers are happier, and their readership has grown.
All this made me want to learn more about how many articles journalists in Ireland are being asked to write, and how that’s been changing, and how it’s affecting their work. So I put together a survey.
I asked where respondents work (which some of them disclosed), but I didn’t ask their names because I wanted to give them a chance to speak honestly about their employment conditions without risking their livelihoods.
I’ve had 20 responses, from 17 staff reporters and three freelancers – nine working for dailies, eight for weeklies, and three for other types of publications.
This is obviously too small a sample to draw any real conclusions about the state of the trade in Ireland today. But where’s the fun in that? I’m going to do it anyway.
There are definitely some newsrooms in Ireland where the pace is ridiculous, where bosses are letting the industry down by pushing their reporters to produce too much too fast, demanding a pace at which no one could produce top-quality journalism.
But, happily, quite a few publications here are opting for quality over quantity it seems.
How Many Articles?
There was a big range in the numbers of articles that survey respondents said they were expected to produce each day or week.
One said they worked for The Journal, and that it “depends on the week, but you’d be expected to be at 6-8 a day if you were just on the news desk and not covering anything else”. That works out to, what, 30 to 40 pieces a week?
This was the highest response to this question, but it wasn’t an outlier.
A freelancer said they had to produce about six pieces a day, which would work out to about 30 a week. A staffer at an unnamed digital publication said they did 25–30 pieces a week.
A staffer at another unnamed daily said they “write at least five news stories a day on average and publish wire copy as well. Also do features etc” – so, somewhere over 25 pieces a week.
At the Irish Times, a staffer reported that “in the last month I’ve had 65 bylines” – about 16 a week – although they noted that “that is probably an exceptionally busy time because of the election”.
A staffer at another publication said “there is no set limit but usually three a day” – so about 15 a week. A staffer at the Dublin Gazette said “12-ish” a week.
At the other end of the spectrum, a staffer at the Sunday Times said they had to do three stories a week, and another staffer at the Sunday Times said “3–4”.
A staffer at The Currency said they write three stories a week, and a different staffer at the Irish Times said “2 or 3 on average but it’s not specified”.
At the Irish Mail on Sunday, meanwhile, a staffer said they had “no targets – I work on long-term investigations.”
“Like anyone in this business I am concerned about – and care about – declining standards in the quality of public interest journalism,” this journalist wrote.
“I’m answering this survey because I want to ensure that any report you compile also gives credit to those media organisations that continue to support such work,” they said.
One thing to remember with all this, of course, is that not all articles are the same length, depth, or difficulty. Generally, the respondents who said they were doing more articles, were doing shorter ones.
That The Journal staffer who reported doing the most, for example, said they were “150-600 words, depending”, while the Irish Mail on Sunday journalist with no targets said “Investigations typically run to 2,000-4,000 words.”
Is That Too Many?
So did these journalists feel they had enough time to properly report, write and fact check each of their pieces?
Some of those being asked to churn out dozens of pieces a week were not so sure.
The Irish Times journalist with 65 bylines in a month said, “Barely. To do all properly means you’re constantly under pressure to generate leads, report out, write etc. Mistakes and sloppiness arise from this.”
A freelancer who does shifts for RTÉ said: “Per shift … you are expected to churn out sports reaction piece after sports reaction piece, even if the manger/player is saying very little (which he/she usually is!).” Did they have enough time? “In terms of what I would consider to be a “properly” informed article, not always.”
And that staffer at The Journal who reported the highest number, when asked if they had enough time, said, to “Report and write, yes. Check? Not really.”
A staffer at a weekly who said they were being asked to do “usually no less than 20” pieces a week, ranging from 100 to 500 words, when asked how whether they had time to do it right, said “Not at all.”
In contrast, the journalists who said they were being asked to produce two or three pieces a week said they did have enough time.
“I’m at about the right level. If I had to produce more pieces the quality would suffer,” said the reporter doing two or three stories a week for the Irish Times. “I’m aware that I’m in a relatively privileged position and that my experiences may not be typical.”
One of the staffers at the Sunday Times said similar. “Journalists, particularly Sunday newspaper ones, have PLENTY of time to research and write good articles. Don’t take too much industry whingeing on board!!” they wrote in response to the survey.
And indeed, overall, most (11 of 20) respondents said they felt they had enough time to report, write and fact check their work.
There’s always the possibility that these respondents are actually doing a crap job and just aren’t aware of it. But, likewise, they could be doing a great job – I haven’t checked their work.
Have Things Been Changing?
When asked whether expectations had changed at their current workplace, for how many pieces they would produce each week, the most common answer was no – that’s what nine respondents said.
However, three respondents said they’d seen a decrease.
For example, the staffer from one publication said that, when the election was called, they got promoted to political correspondent.
“This means I am expected to do less stories, 3 a day, but they have to be original stories or the latest political lines,” this journalist said. “Before the promotion, I was expected to get six stories a day filed.”
Meanwhile, four other respondents said they’d seen an increase in their workloads.
“We recently updated our website, and will now have to publish frequent articles on the website in addition to in print, as well as the printed content going live on the website,” said a journalist at an unnamed outlet.
Other respondents’ answers weren’t definitive enough to categorise as yeses or nos.
It’s “hard to say for certain that the expectation has changed, as it’s a hard thing to measure,” said the freelancer who works at RTÉ. “But there’s an element of pressure to put something out to ‘cover a story’, even if it’s implied that the actual quality of the article isn’t that important. ‘Just make sure it’s on the site etc.’”
Another respondent said that because they work at a digital outlet, “the expectation is to be ‘always on’”.
“If a story breaks that you miss because you are at home eating dinner or sleeping, it’s your fault,” they wrote. “The idea is to ‘just be better’ but time pressure and the ‘always on’ mentally make it impossible to produce top quality work.”
A staffer at the Dublin Gazette pointed out that, as a weekly freesheet, it’s advertising-funded.
“So, the amount of articles we have to write depends on how much advertising we have in the paper,” they said. “This can vary from week to week and it is expected and accepted by staff.”
Overall, there seemed to be a pattern of editors requiring journalists in more junior positions to produce far more articles – and promotions bringing reductions in workloads.
This applies to me as well. Decades on, I am now very old, and those days of doing three stories a day are a distant memory. Now I am on a much more civilised pace of writing maybe three a year.
Did the survey respondents feel their publications would suffer if they wrote fewer articles? Could they go the way of The Guardian, or The Times (London) or Le Monde?
Some journalists with heavy workloads said their publications would benefit if they slowed their pace down a bit.
It would be “better, in that you could dedicate more time to each piece and make sure it is tighter”, said the Irish Times staffer who had 65 bylines in a month.
The freelancer who works at RTÉ said it would serve readers better to slow down. “I think that by churning out mundane article after mundane article, that you risk putting people off,” they said.
Another respondent, who said they were a freelancer who writes about six pieces a day, said it would be better for the publication if they wrote less. “I think readers and reporters would be more satisfied with newer content with some space for reflection rather than a high amount of short news pieces,” they wrote.
A staffer who said they wrote “no less than 20” pieces a week, said the weekly where they work would be “much better off” if they wrote less.
It “would allow more time for research, creativity, an angle that is unique to us”, they wrote. “In my outlet, the focus is very much placed on the commercial side of things, with journalists and content suffering.”
Another journalist, who said they write 25–30 articles a week at an unnamed digital outlet said: “The number of young journalists working on a conveyor belt in digital landscapes is making a joke of the industry and undermining ‘proper’ journalism.”
“It’s not their fault – the expectation is speed and nobody cares for integrity, personality – or spelling,” they wrote.
In contrast, journalists writing fewer stories didn’t see a need for change.
For example, the journalist doing three stories a week at The Currency said the publication would be worse off if they slowed down and scaled back.
When asked whether their publication would be better off if they were able to write fewer articles, a staffer at the Business Post said it “wouldn’t matter”.
They thought “the reporting of pieces rather than the writing up of copy is what’s important”. “Loads of reporting doesn’t result in any piece being written, or is not included in a final piece – as long as time is given for that, it doesn’t really matter how many pieces are produced within reason.”
Among the respondents, there was a recognition that a publication’s business model helps to determine the required output of its reporters.
Working for an advertising-funded online publication seemed to mean writing more, shorter articles – presumably as part of a strategy to get more clicks, and therefore more advertising money.
A reporter at an anonymous publication said: “It would be worse off [if they wrote less] because they are heavily reliant on clicks. Some staff in [here] can do 14 stories in a day. This type of work rate is necessary to get the Internet traffic to survive.”
There are also social-media algorithms to consider. A person at an unnamed digital outlet said that “Every story goes on Facebook which is an important traffic driver.”
“As they (Facebook) monitor the number of original stories appearing and encourage other publications to compete with each other to produce more than each other, you are at a disadvantage when you produce less, even if it’s better quality,” they wrote.
At other publications, meanwhile, which generated revenue not only through online ad sales, but also maybe print ad sales, and subscriptions – the pace was often a bit slower for journalists.
That includes Dublin Inquirer, where we do not sell advertising, relying instead on our readers to fund what we do – mostly through subscriptions, but also through a few sales through stockists.
We ask our staff reporters to write three stories a week, and they try to make them original, thoughtful and in-depth. That’s still a big ask, and a pretty demanding pace.
Whatever the reason for driving journalists to turn out 20 and 30 and 40 pieces a week, whether it’s to serve an advertising-only business model, or just to squeeze more work out of fewer people – I definitely don’t think it serves readers well.