Newsweek's last issue and Tribune Co. cuts the AP: Death of print slowly rolls on

By Sarah Lacy , written on December 24, 2012

From The News Desk

There are two milestones in the long -- very long -- and inevitable decline of managed print services media today.

The first is that Newsweek has published its final magazine and -- of course -- it has a hashtag on the cover. Sadly, the modern Newsweek wasn't afraid to go out without a last gasp of trying to get social media attention in the cheapest, most obvious way possible. Maybe people will Tweet about it, and because there's a hashtag in the name, it'll start trending!

I have no real emotion about Newsweek ceasing publication. I can't remember ever purchasing or even reading a single issue, and in the Tina Brown years it learned about every bad lesson from the early Internet you could. It purposely link-baited to "start conversations" and graded its journalism on the size of the controversy and how many people were talking rather than what they were saying, or you know, just starting a conversation by writing insightful stuff. It's the opposite of what I wrote about the New York Times playing to its unique old media strengths last week. You don't win at Buzzfeed's game, old media, and it's embarrassing when you try.

If Newsweek had survived and the Economist had died, I'd be sad today. As is, I'm fine with the way things worked out. But -- call me old and sentimental -- I have much more mixed feelings about reports that the Tribune newspapers are dropping the Associated Press.

On one hand, a lot of what the AP does is simply irrelevant to most readers. We don't still need write ups of what happened at a baseball game yesterday, do we? A world filled with ESPN on TV and the Web, Yahoo Sports, Bleacher Report, and push notifications on phones have pretty much given everybody but the Amish a way to find out instant scores any time they want. You could argue the Internet and 24-hour broadcast TV has made a lot of national and global news probably redundant as well.

In a world of declining income for newspapers, it seems logical that resources should be freed up for what's genuinely new or useful for readers. And the AP's pathetic attacks on Google -- which were somewhat settled years later -- have long ago shown this isn't exactly an enlightened 21st century news organization.

But, still, I can't help feeling like this is an inevitable step backwards for the local municipal paper that is running out of fewer options even more rapidly than its more high profile national counterparts.

As John L. Robinson points out in an insightful post about why he dropped a wire service years back, there's a good reason and a bad reason to do it. The good is to save jobs and focus efforts on local reporting. The bad is simply to cut costs and alleviate financial pressure in an unceasing series of cuts. His hunch is that it's the latter in the case of the Tribune Co.

The non-profit, member-driven AP was already a shortcut for papers not to have foreign correspondents, national desks, sports desks, and entertainment desks. It should have already allowed publications to operate on a more nimble basis. I'm sure the content wasn't always great or relevant, and it was pretty expensive. But it made even tiny local papers some sort of publication of record.

Are local papers just giving up on that? In an Internet-connected world, maybe they should. As I noted above, the idea that people know nothing that happened in the previous 24 hours until a plastic-wrapped dead tree lands on their porch is silly. On the other hand, if that's not the role of a local paper, what is the role of a local paper? Are they tacitly admitting to advertisers and readers that there isn't one?

There clearly are two big needs for the local paper: The first is actually covering local things. Uncovering corruption at local city councils, championing local entrepreneurs when they create jobs, even covering high school sports. The problem is newspapers do this increasingly less well.

At home, I've watched the San Francisco Chronicle try and mostly fail to compete on tech stories with national brands. I get such lousy coverage of what's happening in my neighborhood, I long ago stopped subscribing.

I'll give you an example: About a year ago, there was a shooting in my neighborhood. We walked past the scene and saw a bullet lodged in the wall of a storefront. Curious as to what went down, we went to and read a quick story cribbed from a police report about how no shots were fired. Brilliant reporting. Here's a tip: If I can walk down the street and have better information than you, you're doing it wrong, local media. Local blogs like MissionLocal and MissionMission have instead become our go to sources. But not every neighborhood is lucky to have such modern local resources.

If it's that bad in a sizable US city like San Francisco, how bad has local reporting become in America's small towns?

It'd be nice to believe that papers are playing to their strengths and covering stuff the big guys and most Web sites never will. But it's hard to in a world of ever diminishing cuts, believing in the fallacy that paywalls can save the day, and few good options for new revenues.

The second thing local papers were great for was developing talent. Something that's sorely needed in a world where job cuts are prevalent and many new media publications are link-baity, volume driven, content farms.

I started my career at a local business paper. A lot of the stories I covered back then would be irrelevant to my current readers. But it lead me on a direct path to Silicon Valley and what I do now. I learned how to cover private companies, because Memphis' economy is ruled by stealthy private companies. I learned how to stand up to power, because you have to be fearless when you're a 21-year-old girl challenging a titan in an old boy's network of an industry. I learned to find stories in a place where news didn't just happen at a rapid clip and stories didn't constantly fall in your lap. And that gives you an advantage in a place like the Valley where it does.

The AP, in theory, made this kind of reporting possible by freeing up teams not to focus on all the news of record stuff. Sure, the Tribune company still has a cheaper wire service, but many smaller papers may not even have that option in another few years. It's hard for me to believe the existing staff at these papers will still just focus on local news. What happens when there's a national tragedy like the school shootings in Newtown or a Presidential election? Is a paper really not going to cover it? Of course not. Resources will be pulled from local concerns to do what the AP used to do.

I don't envy the municipal newspaper publisher. The harsh, Darwinian answer is probably for municipal newspapers to go away and local blogs and other news outlets to form a new and in more modern ways to replace them. But that leaves a lot of small towns and cities in the lurch, decimates an important training ground for journalists, and gives local corruption a green light to run rampant.

New media has aggressively reinvented the trade press. It's time for someone to give this gaping local news hole an answer that's better than lame old AOL Patch.