Thursday, October 1, 2009

Farewell, LATWP// 2nd UPDATE

Washington Post, Bloomberg to launch news service
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Washington Post is teaming up with Bloomberg News on an information service that will focus on political and economics coverage beginning next year.
The partnership announced Thursday fills a void created by the dissolution of a 47-year-old news service that the Post and the Los Angeles Times had jointly owned.

Those of you in the newspaper business are probably familiar with the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service and its strong reputation for delivering quality stories. It will, unfortunately but not surprisingly, shut down effective Jan.1.

I worked for LATWP for 10 years, editing Newsday stories for the service, during pretty newsy days, from the Clinton impeachment, multiple plane crashes, including that of John Kennedy Jr., and of course, through Sept.11, the anthrax attacks and the invasion of Iraq. The very first Sept.11 story on the wire came from Newsday, and the first report of the release of two kidnapped Newsday journalists from pre-invasion Iraq came from LATWP.

When Cablevision bought Newsday, the people running LATWP kicked the paper off the wire, not wanting to have contributions from a non-Times Mirror/Tribune paper. That took an estimated 15 percent of content off the wire, just like that, including, perhaps most significantly, coverage of the New York sports teams. I lobbied hard to keep the paper on the wire and, not incidentally, my job, but to no avail. On my last day, as we awaited the close of the sale, I prepared my last few stories on the wire; the final two were the story about the close and then a little book review I'd written for Newsday, e-mailed the LATWP boss to see if there had been a reprieve, and when there was not, said goodbye to my Newsday and LA colleagues.

It's sad to see the demise of a good news operation but one whose time had run out, for different reasons, and that had not adapted to the changes that have shaken the newspaper industry.

The first thing to put the service on a death watch was, of course, the Tribune takeover of Times Mirror. Tribune already had a number of other syndication operations in place, including participation in what was then the Knight Ridder news wire; the latter was later merged into McClatchy-Tribune. From the day of that sale to Tribune, those of us working for LATWP knew our days could be numbered; that it hung on as long as it did as its own separate operation is pretty amazing. But it was not always clear to the staffs at the separate services that LATWP would be the one to shut down--I know there were some nervous times for the other guys, too, and we traded speculation and rumors for some time.

It always seemed to me that the services could have been merged somehow. Frankly, LATWP was a little more selective about what it used; the McClatchy wire/nee Knight Ridder, bombards subscribers with material, including duplicate versions of the same story but offers far more stories overall. There was, until the decision to kill LATWP,room for both kinds of service.

The second thing, in my opinion, was a resistance to change. The service's web site was inaccessible to non-subscribers; once you got to the site, you could see that it consisted of little more than a copy of the wire itself: you could scroll down the page and see the story slugs and numbers just as they appeared on the wire and you could open the story and copy it, if you had to, but that was about it. Suggestions that the page be pumped up, redesigned to keep fresher news, to add RSS capabilities, to do something to keep up with technological changes, were simply rejected. The page, in fact, frequently failed to work properly; for years, many Newsday stories wouldn't show there even though they were clearly on the wire. It always seemed to be a bit of a shoestring operation, one that ultimately kept it from growing and now, even surviving.

Similarly, the decision to refuse to allow stories with bylines from Tribune papers that were not officially part of LATWP contributing newspapers onto LATWP simply pissed off a lot of editors and reporters and left LATWP less valuable. After Tribune merged its newspapers' Washington bureaus, for example, a story written by, say, both a Newsday reporter and someone from the Chicago Tribune, could not appear on LATWP. But it could and usually did appear on McClatchy. How could this end well for LATWP?

The third thing, and this is just a guess, is that fewer papers were willing to keep subscribing. Even though LATWP's fees were quite modest, I hear, there are simply too many even cheaper alternatives for news. With shrinking news holes and declining interest in national and international coverage, LATWP, I'm sure, became a luxury for some papers. I do believe it's another sign of the willingness to give up some quality to save money.

For those of you who thought the LATWP stories were too long, and, within the old Times Mirror family, grumbled endlessly about how the LA Times stories,in particular, weren't cut, sorry,you're wrong. Practically everything that went onto LATWP got edited down to more reasonable lengths.

And, just so you know, some times those long,long stories were appreciated. While working at The Hartford Courant years ago, I came to use quite a lot of them. One of my jobs was to fill pages that came with zoned ads, zones that didn't match editorial editions. It was kind of like having my own little newspaper, with sometimes as many as 48 pages over two days that had to have stories that fell outside of editorial's editions--if you could reach only a third of, say, Enfield, you couldn't very well put Enfield news on them. And we didn't want to let the space revert to house ads. So mostly, LATWP, and occasionally Knight Ridder, stories took over the pages. (With lots of BIG pictures.) Readers in certain parts of Connecticut got rich, deep coverage of national and international issues, in bits and erratically because of the inconsistency of available space, but they got it.

The Hartford Courant may have been the only paper outside of Los Angeles to have used the Times' excruciatingly long--I mean multiple hundreds of thousands of words spread over several days--examining gas prices and shortages, back in the late 1970s.

Ah, the good old days when the biggest problem of the day was filling space around the tidal wave of ads.

The question now is what the Post will do to get its stories out to the world. The Times has already announced it will expand its contributions to the McClatchy wire but will anyone buy just the Post? I hope so and guess that somehow it will be part of the Post's general web-based news operation. Or perhaps the Post will try something new, offering stories on a case-by-case basis, or marketing specific packages and perhaps delivering through a different system.

I hope my old pals, at both ends of LATWP, survive these changes, and that folks at McClatchy prove to be as friendly to their new LA colleagues as they have always been to me.

UPDATE: A number of LATWP people will be losing their jobs in this move. The publisher's memo that talked about the LATWP team moving over to work with MCT did not mention that several terrific editors would be left behind and out of jobs, not assigned to regular LAT spots. It's unclear what is happening to the WashPost team.

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