When DeWolff, Boberg & Associates, a Texas-based consulting firm, was hired to review business practices at The San Diego Union-Tribune, I checked the company’s website to see whether it had any experience with newspapers.

The firm, whose clipboard-carrying consultants continue to roam the halls of The Union-Tribune, didn’t list any testimonials from newspapers.

But the company has worked at one newspaper: The Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal in the mid 1990s. There may be a reason the paper isn’t listed as one of the firm’s case studies. One of its major recommendations — resulting from an effort that cost the newspaper almost $1 million — was ridiculed and quickly scrapped.

The efficiency experts recommended that a typical reporter at the Journal should spend no more than 54 minutes on each story and write 40 stories a week. This, by generally accepted newsroom standards, is an exorbitant number. Furthermore, the firm decided that reporters should contact only one or two “cooperative” sources per story, and front-page stories should be no longer than about 180 words.

From a 1996 American Journalism Review story:

More than any other, one episode has fueled criticism of the use of outside consultants in the newsroom. The 90,000-circulation Winston-Salem Journal, owned by Media General of Richmond, Virginia, last year hired DeWolff, Boberg & Associates to help find ways to boost sagging profits. DBA, a productivity consultant, had never worked with a newspaper before. The firm has consulted for MCI, Showtime, AT&T and automotive companies.

“We’d already gone through expense cutting by cutting down supplies and costs,” says Jack Trawick, assistant to the publisher. “We’d tried to look for new revenues, but we felt we needed something else.”

At the outset, DBA asked the paper’s reporters to keep a journal describing precisely how they spent each minute of their working time during a three-week period. …

In the early fall, DBA presented the news staff with a management-approved grid designed to boost efficiency and measure productivity. According to the grid, “an A-1 story should be six inches or less. A reporter should use a press release and/or one or two `cooperative sources.’ He or she should take 0.9 hours to do each story and should be able to produce 40 of these in a week.”

Predictably, the grid was greeted with resentment and ridicule. It didn’t survive. Managing Editor Carl M. Crothers jettisoned it in January.

And, according to (Metro Editor Ken) Otterbourg, the grid shouldn’t take the rap for the paper’s staff reduction last October. “We didn’t fire anybody because their story counts weren’t up,” he says of the 10 newsroom positions cut. “My understanding was the grid was a goal, never a hard and fast percentage you had to reach. We never said you have to write X number of stories a week and if you don’t, you’re on probation.”

The problem, of course, is that a police brief can take 30 minutes or two hours. Sometimes it’s easy to reach sources, sometimes it can take days, and still no story. “I don’t think the DBA people, when they left, knew how a newsroom worked,” Otterbourg says. “I don’t think they understood the concept of creative downtime. There are things we do that are productive in the long run that don’t have an immediate result.”

DBA head Lou DeWolff says lack of familiarity with the news business was a plus because his firm wasn’t burdened by preconceived notions. “We don’t specialize in any industry,” says DeWolff, “because the process we use fits them all. You walk in, look around and do a lot of observing. You need an outsider because we have no axe to grind, aren’t part of the political scene and aren’t part of the culture.” …

Otterbourg and Trawick say many positive things came out of the experience, which cost the paper between $800,000 and $1 million. The paper’s management is less hierarchical, they say, and the staff is more team-oriented. And, for the first time, the paper has a staff evaluation process.

“As far as the grid, it was probably at the time absolutely necessary,” Trawick says. “We almost had to shake everybody up just to get their attention. We did have people who were sitting on their ass and doing nothing.”

ROB DAVIS

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