Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Can news agencies just do 'good enough'?

That's essentially the bottom-line question of ex-Reuters man Philip Stone in Follow the Media.

It's going to be difficult. It's a result of the legacy of the news wires and the pressures the grew in the halcyon days of the 1980s and '90s.

Before then, the AP, for instance, had state offices that were fairly lean but were able to put out decent state reports because of the abundance of local media - PM papers, radio stations with news departments in about every county seat, etc.

In the '80s and '90s, covering such routine local stories started to become a bit unfashionable in metro newsrooms. In addition, the papers had started on their bureau cutbacks. (Remember, many states had at least one paper that saw itself as the state's paper of record, with far-flung bureaus. In Iowa, for instance, it was the Register. In Rhode Island (OK, far-flung there would be a little stretch) it was the Providence Journal. In South Carolina, The State had bureaus as far away as Beaufort, for instance.)

The call went out to the wire services more and more to take over more and more of those stories. It worked, for a while. And the culture that developed was that more and more kept members happy (and quiet) -- a good thing.

Then the bottom fell out. AP is buying out staff and consolidating desks at regional hubs, for instance. But that also means doing less. And let me tell you, one of the biggest complaints I hear in S.C. newsrooms is that the AP wire here, for instance, is a shadow of its former self. (I hear the same complaints from friends in other states.)

So if you are a wire service manager and your job security depends in at least part on not having member complaints, what would your reaction be, even if reason told you cutting back probably is critical.

AP is making the changes, as are other wire services. But it's a race against time -- and the members.

It's also a struggle against an idolatry of a false reality that AP loves to trot out as evidenced by this from a Columbia Journalism Review Article (you'll also find it retold on page 3 of AP's own reporting "Reporting Handbook" by Jerry Schwartz):

As the story goes, Mahatma Gandhi was released from an Indian prison in 1932 in the middle of the night to elude the press. He was taken to a remote railroad station where darkness obscured his identity. But then an intrepid Associated Press reporter named Jim Mills appeared out of nowhere.

It was not the first time the reporter had tracked down the holy man to land a scoop. An impressed Gandhi quipped: "I suppose when I go to the Hereafter and stand at the Golden Gate, the first person I shall meet will be a correspondent of The Associated Press."

AP emblazons that apocryphal quote on T-shirts as an emblem of its huge international footprint.
AP and the other wire services may be able to pull it off - but it will be a struggle for all these reasons.

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