Looking for rules to go with our thumbs

This month’s Carnival of Journalism is about the theme of “How to support journalism online financially.”

There are examples of successful journalism online: Rafat Ali’s PaidContent, Nick Denton’s Gawker Media, Pete Cashmore’s Mashable, AOL’s blogs and others. I’d even include Wikipedia and Mahalo as doing journalism. Wikipedia is a non-profit and a Web “encyclopedia,” but nonetheless  “covers” breaking news very well.

(Side note: Nick Denton’s dire predictions for the 2009 advertising environment are looking more on target than those who poo-poohed them as “there goes Nick again.”)

I think, however, what Carnival host Paul Bradshaw was getting at with his question was how would journalism as practiced by newspapers and broadcast outlets be funded online. And that’s a much tougher proposition.

Some argue the geographic territory covered by most regional newspapers and TV stations is too small to develop the audience size necessary while others argue that newspapers are uniquely positioned to have the feet-on-the-street forces necessary to get local advertising. Both of those could be true, which makes the Yahoo Consortium’s effort so incredibly important to its members, the feet on the street will sell both their sites and Yahoo’s geographic audience for their market.

But as we are developing these new media forces, what will be new rules of thumb for online journalism?

In talking to a colleague yesterday, my off-the-cuff guess at how many people could be supported by an online-only version of the Rocky Mountain News is five journalists. Nearly 250 could lose their jobs if the newspaper closes. An announcement about its fate could come as early as today.

Where did I come up with five? I just made it up, of course. It could be 10, 15, or more, but definitely not 250. For newspapers, we have a good basis of knowledge about expenses, costs, and staffing levels over time from the annual Inland Press Association studies. These are the rules of thumb for running a newspaper, at least in the United States.

A post on Thursday on Inland’s site provides an overview of how the stats changed in 2008 and more info on the report is here.

The post notes that while newsroom job cuts have been much publicized, staffing levels,  according to the most recent study, are higher than the traditional “rule of thumb” based on print circulation.

Though the prevailing opinion is that newsroom staffing has declined, study results indicate staffing is increasing when measured using the perceptive “per 1,000 circulation paid,” coming in at about 1.5 persons per thousand against a rule of thumb of about 1.2 news staffers per thousand. This may mean that newsroom reductions have not kept pace with circulation declines.

Some of the other newsroom related traditional rules of thumb are:

Newsroom expenses should be 12-13% of total revenues

Newsroom expenses should be 14-15% of total expenses

Newsroom expenses of 76-80% going to employee labor

Newshole at 50%

But if the media organization is all digital or primarily digital, what would those rules of thumb be? I don’t know of any data that’s been developed or even theorized.

What would be yours or point me to some resources in the comments below.

(A Wikipedia useless tidbit of information on “rules of thumb:” It is often claimed that the term originally referred to a law that limited the maximum thickness of a stick with which it was permissible for a man to beat his wife, but this has been discredited.)

See all the January Carnival of Journalism posts.