These figures sag with the weight of caveats. They originate not from the news organizations themselves but from estimates by media research firm SNL Kagan. CNN declined to speak on the record about the numbers, which the network would neither confirm nor deny. A rep pledged that the network would continue investing in the news! Fox News didn’t respond to a request for comment.
MSNBC isn’t buying the data. In October, the network launched its own digital platform, MSNBC.com, an undertaking that required a significant investment of personnel and other resources. Writes network spokeswoman Lauren Skowronski in an e-mail: “msnbc continues to make long-term investments in both the network and digital. There’s been no scaling back.”
Pew isn’t budging. “[W]hile these numbers represent projections, we think Kagan’s data are reliable and we have used them consistently over the years,” e-mails Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project.
Investment in newsgathering operations doesn’t happen without money. Here’s a look at these cable-news channels’ 2013 revenue estimates, also courtesy of SNL Kagan via Pew:
Now to place the news-investment numbers alongside the revenue numbers:
Fox News Revenue: $1.89 billion
News investment: $848 million
News investment as a percentage of revenue: 44 percent
MSNBC Revenue: $475 million
News investment: $272 million
News investment as a percentage of revenue: 57 percent
CNN Revenue: $1.1 billion
CNN news investment: $757 million
News investment as a percentage of revenue: 68 percent
Again, all the numbers are estimates, and without a breakdown from the networks themselves, it’s hard to know what percentage of news investment goes to anchoring talent v. foreign bureaus v. news aides and so on. Another complicating factor stems from MSNBC’s relationship with NBC News, a partnership that amplifies the cable net’s bandwidth, especially in breaking news situations.
Yet even if you attach some rounding error to the numbers, they help explain a little bit about the key story of these past few weeks, missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 — a story that CNN has flooded with reporting and speculation and a bit of silliness here and there. CNN spends a lot of money — both in absolute terms and relative to its revenue — on putting together a news operation. It has “44 editorial operations around the world and around 4,000 employees worldwide,” according to its Web site.
Jonathan Klein, the founder and chief executive of TAPP, ran CNN/U.S. for six years prior to his September 2010 departure. He sorts out the cost considerations in splurging on a big story: “Most ‘newsgathering’ is sunk cost — salaries and bureaus, equipment and infrastructure. Breaking stories do result in higher travel and satellite costs, and some extra manpower/overtime, which can become significant but still marginal compared to the overall expenditure,” writes Klein, in an e-mail. “That’s why it always made sense to me at CNN to double-down on news coverage — not only to ‘flood the zone’ on major breaking stories, but to devote resources to more ongoing in-depth coverage and documentaries.”
More Klein: “The basic philosophy is, you’ve got a cadre of excellent global journalists on the payroll; instead of spreading them thin across a vast range of stories, set teams of them on the same story.” That approach, says Klein, leads to better and deeper storytelling with which other outlets cannot compete. “For a news network, that is the surest path to not only awards, but to higher revenues, because the news audience will find you and stay longer, leading to higher ratings, advertising CPM’s, and subscriber fees paid by cable operators.”
So there’s the rationale, whether or not you like the over-coverage that comes along with it.