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by Andrew Kiraly and Scott Dickensheets | posted April 16, 2014
SCOTT: I see from the Romenesko media-news site that Journatic — a “low-paying hyperlocal content provider” that serves various newspapers, and which suffered a fake-byline scandal a few years ago — has renamed itself LocalLabs and carried on. And one of its clients? The View community papers published by the RJ. More visionary penny-pinching by Stephens Media. It’s a win-win scenario! A win for the bottom line, and a win for the demise of newspapers.
ANDREW: And a win for irony, since The View newspapers are Stephens’ hyperlocal backyard-journalism stalwart — now with content-chum provided by far-flung contributors in Chicago, New York and — if Journatic’s old practices live on at LocalLabs — India. It’s well-known that newish Stephens CEO Ed Moss has a rep as a cost-cutter — under him, apparently, there’s been a blood harvest of copy editors and midlevel production functionaries — but don’t you feel like there’s a whiff of treachery to this move — to the community the paper serves, to the practice of journalism? That sounds pious and melodramatic, but I’m trying to articulate the troubling lame-itude of this development.
SCOTT: Absolutely. In ideal theory, Stephens would temper its reasonable desire to make bank with a strong commitment to spend a sizable chunk of that cash on quality newsgathering, for the benefit of this community — an informed citizenry, a more vigorous civic life. All those J-school verities that seem so quaint now. But as Stephens shrinks its notion of a sizable chunk, amid the layoffs and talent drains, one begins to wonder if there isn’t a Potemkin-journalism aspect to the operation — a facade of actual news production propped up by a desire to maximize executive bonuses — and this remote-content business feeds grimly into that, even if it hasn’t infected the RJ mothership yet. (Yet!) The inevitable erosions in quality, the inability of typists in Chicago to backstop their long-distance reporting with real local knowledge — these are small but crucial subversions of a newspaper’s contract with the community, IMHO.
Now, before I’m overcome by scorn, I should note that (1) there is still good work being done at Stephens, and I don’t want to underplay this; and (2) some newspaper functions can (theoretically) be done from afar. Listings: At most publications they’re compiled by workers in hamster wheels who mulch press releases and web searches. Nothing says the hamster wheel has to be in Vegas. In that narrow case, the loss of community knowledge seems rather minimal, no? But otherwise, it’s an affront to the promise of locally sourced journalism.
ANDREW: Or maybe Ed Moss is unwittingly … on the cutting EDGE Edge edge edge … ? Your second caveat inspires a thought experiment informed by the blurring line between virtual and reality, the increasingly fuzzy nature of thereness: Could a dogged, determined View reporter based remotely in India, deploying all of today’s globe-flattening, distance-compressing tech and research tools, do a better job than a lazy View reporter based in Vegas? I could imagine that. (Great premise for an alt-future dystopian novel about journalism!) But even if that were the case, there’s still some violation of the unspoken principle that a local paper should fundamentally live in the community it serves. But, these days, believing in that may be as naive as believing that newspapers still matter.
SCOTT: Aren't we already in a dystopian novel about journalism, generally and locally? I mean, I’d hate to be the Stephens Media morale officer these days — “The writers and editors are upset, and raised concerns, but they’re also resigned to their fate,” a source within the company told Romenesko — particularly with the arrival of each quarter’s profit-and-Moss statement, as the hallways echo with the clack of the front-office abacus. (In dubious fairness, such anxieties pervade most newsrooms.) As for newspapers mattering: Maybe Vegas has experienced peak journalism, with the Sun’s Pulitzer and the RJ’s “Deadly Force” series, and what’s ahead is a long bleed-out of revenue and talent, replaced by a frantic shuffle of “innovation,” clickbait, rear-guard actions and Plans B (The Sunday, this week with $659 in coupons!). So, yeah, perhaps irrelevance beckons. Sadly, this LocalLabs thing doesn’t fill you with confidence that a turnaround is coming. Too bad. Because (conventional-wisdom alert!) without newspapers, who's gonna foot the bill for the next “Deadly Force”? Or even the volume of day-to-day coverage the, ahem, informed citizenry gets now, under-resourced as it is. Sad face.
ANDREW: Guess we’ll have to hold out for the Jeff Bezos/Washington Post-Pierre Omidyar/First Look Media mogul-philanthropic-hobby model. Maybe Ed Moss can convince Elaine Wynn that the Review-Journal is, in fact, an obscure and unusual Francis Bacon painting.
(Full disclosure: Both Andrew Kiraly and Scott Dickensheets have worked for Stephens Media, though not under the current executives.)
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