As newspapers drop wire services, will readers care?

On Sunday, Allen Johnson, editorial page editor of the News & Record and my friend, announced that the paper was dropping the New York Times News Service.

Today, I read that the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, the Orlando Sentinel and other Tribune-owned papers are dropping the AP wire service.

I hope they’re dropping the services for the right reasons — to get more local reporting — but I suspect it’s all about saving money.

The News & Record’s decision isn’t unexpected. Seven years ago, when I was the editor, I dropped the Times. We were under cost-cutting orders and I wanted to save as many reporting jobs as I could. Meanwhile, the service was — still is — expensive, and we didn’t use its news report much because the stories were often long and often late. The choice was easy.

Readers responded quickly and angrily, but they didn’t miss the news stories. They missed the columnists, specifically Thomas Friedman. We appealed to the Times to unbundle the package and allow us to buy Friedman alone. No dice. (It didn’t escape me that readers had asked us for years to unbundle the newspaper, letting them subscribe only to the sections and days they wanted. We refused, too.)

That decision stood for about a year, and we went without the Times. I can’t recall how many reporting jobs that saved, but however many it was, it was worth it.

Then, the paper’s financial crisis eased a bit, and Allen found the money to buy the Times wire service again. Friedman came back and readers were happy. But times, of course, are tough again and the Times is out. This time, I suspect, it’s gone for good. Allen explains how he plans to improve the editorial pages with new syndicated columnists, new local columnists and other feature. (Not posted.) I hope he’s successful.

But it’s hard to imagine a newspaper without the AP, particularly the ones of the stature of the Tribune, etc. I have the feeling the money they will save will drop straight to the bottom line, rather than go toward increased/improved local reporting.

I had my own problems with the AP, and its cost to us dwarfed the Times’. I spent some time investigating replacement options, but nothing seemed to fit our needs. AP provided the breadth of news from around the world that traditional newspaper readers expected. Even as most of the AP news had been on television the night before, we couldn’t shake those older readers who wanted it in the morning paper. (We also needed the AP for sports, in particular. The wire service was efficient in getting us scores from around the nation in a timely way.)

But in full honesty, we really needed the AP stories to fill the space inside the paper. We didn’t have enough local content to fill pages 4-12 in the front section. We certainly weren’t going to hire enough reporters to fill that space. While I considered turning that space over to reader-submitted content, I feared we wouldn’t get enough.

The last thing I wanted to do was further devalue the paper by dropping content that some of them liked. I had already done that enough.

That’s a long explanation of why I hope the Tribune papers are prepared. I hope that they will replace the AP content with something better. With content that readers need. Consider the service you’re providing and then provide it. Are the AP stories providing a service? Can you improve upon that service? That will be value-added.

But I’m afraid it is just another act to cut costs, which will give readers yet another reason to drop them. What service is that providing to me, the reader? If the answer isn’t positive, you’re in trouble. Once people get used to the act of getting news and information elsewhere – likely for free – they’re gone forever.

I know that editors know that. I hope publishers do.

15 thoughts on “As newspapers drop wire services, will readers care?

  1. Pingback: As newspapers drop wire services, will readers care? | Media, disrupted | Articula Confins

  2. Pingback: Newsweek’s last issue and Tribune Co. cuts the AP: Death of print slowly rolls on | PandoDaily

  3. The more you know, the less valuable you believe Friedman is. Bloggers such as Driftglass and Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce have exposed many times how fact-free, illogically argued and economically biased his columns are, so I won’t repeat their exposes, but I will say the esteem in which he is held illustrates a larger problem: Global warming may doom the species within a century, but conventional wisdom will do it even faster.

  4. Good post but I would argue that there are now alternatives that fit the needs you outline above. The company I started (NewsCred) now provides wire-like news services to many of the Tribune papers, along with other major publishers in the US and worldwide. We’re especially strong in international coverage, business, sports and other vertical content — allowing local papers to focus on what they do best.

    Our biggest challenge has nothing to do with the product – it’s mindshare. The AP is part of the furniture at most newspapers, and change is hard. To be clear, we offer an alternative that can also be complementary – we carry the AP as one of our content partners, so publishers have the option of getting the AP plus 1000+ other great sources all through a single feed/agreement. The AP produces great journalism, and we want to ensure it’s still accessible. We just want to offer diversity and choice.

  5. Will readers care? No, not at first, I don’t believe. However, your last sentence is key:

    “Once people get used to the act of getting news and information elsewhere – likely for free…”

    Now THAT will be a problem! News and information from the Associated Press et. al. is very valuable. It can’t be replaced “for free”. The alternatives are the blogosphere, government press releases and PR Newswire. That doesn’t contradict Lex’s comment, nor yours. I don’t doubt for a moment that readers clamor for columnists, and that some bloggers are preferable to news media columnists. Yet that doesn’t lessen the importance of wire services, news reporting and analysis. The public takes it for granted. It isn’t. I don’t know what the answer is, though, in light of the budget problems you described.

  6. Tribune papers have been moving away from AP for several years. The centralized editing team that assembles story modules for use throughout the chain favors articles produced by Tribune Co. reporters and bureaus. It looks like they’re now willing to trust Reuters will have reporters in the places where Tribune isn’t represented.

  7. As a mere newspaper reader, I care about losing the AP. It may be generic and non-local, but news of a generic interest doesn’t need to be local, so there is value in having that content for readers. And more pages filled with stories is more pages where ads can be sold, which is really the underlying issue here. If you can’t sell ads and pages are only being kept because you’ve got stories you pay for… do the math.

    On the other hand, I will not miss the AP’s practice of running stories without a byline. If you have the guts to write a story, put your name on it. Take the praise or the blame.

    • A good comment on the use of AP. The byline decision, however, is incorrect. The newspapers themselves decide whether to use the byline and frequently take them off in an effort to make it look as though they wrote it.

    • Stories by AP reporters (that is, not short rewrites from member papers) almost always do carry bylines, and, as pointed out by others, the decision to remove them is local. Indeed, it can be purely arbitrary. At one paper at which I worked, the full AP byline remained on AP stories that ran on a section front, but stories that ran inside a section received only “The Associated Press” for a byline, without the writer’s name. No substantive reason; as I say, it was arbitrary.

  8. There’s no rocket science as to why the Tribune papers are dropping AP. It’s a major cost and Tribune doesn’t plan on owning any of these papers by the end of next year, probably much earlier. It helps the bottom line in the short term. Let the new owners decide to reinstate the wire service (which they will). Why not the LA Times? Because it is the one property in the Trib constellation that might sell for what passes for a premium price these days – and you don’t want to undercut its value. The Tribune has already undercut its value with its embrace of Journatic, which it obviously plans to use to fill the AP-less spaces.
    Bottom line: This move has nothing to do with AP, just another page in Tribune’s sad short-term strategies to pump up numbers at expense of long-term brand quality.

  9. Most AP stories do indeed carry a by-line. It is the decision of the newspaper not to publish them. Tribune newspapers have been trying to drop AP for years to cut costs; It is their readers’ loss.

  10. Tribune newspapers have been using Reuters’ increased US coverage product for a few years now, so dropping the AP is probably just another step to use more of this service.

  11. If you’re not concerned about the cost or quality of news or systems that are costly and lock papers into antiquated ways, by all means the AP is a perfect wire service. I’ve been pleased with the quality of the stories Reuters produces, and with their willingness to work with us to provide us a product that is valuable to us and to our readers — cooperation I’ve never seen the AP give anyone. The AP is a collective, and yet it seems it could care less about whether the work they’re producing matters to its members. Reuters isn’t owned by its members, and yet it seems to work a lot harder to please them.

    • I think highly of Reuters too! Their reporters and specialty content is quite fine. They are more accessible to readers than Associated Press or many other media, yet do so in an appropriate and ethical manner.

      The very best coverage I’ve noticed, (online, since that is all I really know) is when AP, Reuters and a third e.g. NY Times or Wall Street Journal, report on a major news story. They coordinate so well, especially in remote locations. Usually, one will provide photos and the others do interviews, background or analysis. Sometimes there is name attribution to contributors from each media source, sometimes not.

      Reuters has diversified into specialty areas such as WestLaw, Web of Science (or maybe SciVerse?) and of course has their financial market data, Yet I worry… if Reuters will be vulnerable to the same problems as Associated Press, eventually.

  12. I don’t know about your shop, but in ours, full-service AP cost the equivalent of 3+ FTE. I sure could have used three new reporters, but there’s no way three additional reporters can generate enough copy 7/365 to fill all the space vacated by AP copy.

    There are interesting foreign-news alternatives, such as Global Post, but again the issue is dependably voluminous news copy every day of the year. You can’t shut down AP foreign coverage alone, making room for the less-expensive GP so you can redeploy the savings; it’s either one in total, the other in total, or both in total. You’re stuck.

    There are lesser-cost sports-stats services (at least here you can shut down AP sports agate only), but they require newsroom staff resources to integrate into the front-end system and to paginate. Goodbye savings.

    There are platforms such as Publish2 that promise to remove AP as distribution middleman, but short of universal P2 adoption by all newspapers, the risk is being left blind to a breaking news story such as the Newtown shootings. As my AP bureau chief once put it: You don’t need a reporter in Lincoln, Mont., until the FBI arrests Ted Kaczynski in Lincoln, Mont. Then you need a reporter in Lincoln RIGHT NOW.

    Unless newspapers across America are willing to wait for the Helena Independent Record to post its Kaczynski story so they can use it, or are willing to let their own websites remain silent until the NYT parachutes into central Montana and files its story, there is a need for a standing army of trained reporters, available to jump on breaking stories in remote areas and file quickly. To date, only AP can supply that manpower. And it is fabulously expensive to maintain a standing army.

    As expensive as AP may be, it is, inch for copy inch, the most economical way to fill the paper. And unless your publisher is willing to dramatically cut back the number of pages in each edition (is this what the Tribune papers plan to do?), your options for keeping all those columns filled are limited. It’s just one of the ways the news business is bedeviled by its devotion to the printed newspaper, constructed in a format and published at a frequency that arose a century ago, yet publishers can’t seem to abandon or even modify to any significant degree.

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