The news that my old newspaper was closing — not being sold, not recasting itself as an online-only news site, but actually being shuttered — left me a little stunned.
I can’t say the news was unfathomable; the steady decline of the industry (and, more specifically, my newspaper) had led me to look for a new job last year. I was lucky that unlike many of my co-workers, I jumped and was not pushed … or, in the case of the employees who stayed until the end, evicted.
It got me thinking about the consequences of taking things for granted.
Subscribing to a newspaper, for example. Without subscriptions, a newspaper can’t sell ads — which is how it makes most of its money (usually about 75% of it). No ads, no newspaper … no reporters writing stories.
(Now, that’s a little simplistic. Reporters could work on a contract basis, like my friend Kathy does. Based in China, she writes for a service whose editorial clients don’t want the expense of their own staffer overseas — but will pay a freelancer like her to write a piece when a story of interest comes up. But stay with me.)
So, let’s say you get your news online — for example, on foxnews.com. Here’s a screen grab of the “latest news” box around the time I started this post.
All the articles in the left column, except for one, were not written by Fox — they were picked up by a news service, such as the Associated Press.
Back in the print-only days, the AP’s purpose was much like Kathy’s service: A newspaper in Iowa doesn’t have the resources or access to write about something important in Oregon, and vice versa. The AP deal is this: Give us your worthy stories, in exchange for us giving you access to everyone else’s worthy stories. Newspapers got the national content they need, the AP provided the service for newspapers for a fee, and everyone won.
Until readers started getting their news on the Internet.
There’s no protocol about sites linking to source articles. For example, the News Herald of Panama City, Fla., did much of the digging on that “Missing Florida Baby” article in the lower right. The Fox News-bylined article uses it as a sourced four times in the first seven paragraphs, but doesn’t provide any link to the News Herald until the article is over. Most of the time, the originating paper gets no credit at all. That’s not true just for Fox — msnbc.com and Yahoo News do the same thing. (Kudos to Google News for linking to the originating newspaper.)
If bloggers like Perez Hilton can manage to credit their sources with upfront embedded links, why can’t full-scale news agencies?
Meanwhile, those small papers don’t get “hits” for any AP national news on their sites — their links are hooked to a hosted AP server.
Here’s the danger: If the small newspapers like the News Herald, or the Dickinson Press, or the East Valley Tribune (link good through Dec. 31 only! Did I mention they won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism this year?), all go out of business, there won’t be articles for wire services to cannibalize. You won’t be able to read the stories on Fox News or MSNBC, because they won’t have the news that wasn’t written by papers that don’t exist anymore.
Yes, a big part of the problem is that newspapers/media companies haven’t figured out how to make a living off online news. But until they do, it’s up to us to consume local news. We try to do it for food, and mom and pop stores … why not news?