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.