13 March 2009

Dilution Of News In St. Louis

This is a commentary, not a news story.

But, this is also a story about news - more specifically a news wire service which many who deal with St. Louis media are familiar, but those outside news may never have come across the particular source for local news of which I write today.

I announce this because some may look at this site purely as someone searching for news stories. And, yes, that is a point to this blogsite --- to produce some news for St. Louis area residents to read. But, there are reasons to blog --- we've all read that somewhere before --- and blogs are quite often just commentary. Today, this entry is more than commentary or just a news story. It is a story that may be overlooked if not documented.


More than a few dozen people have been associated with a news wire service in St. Louis which was once of local origination. One service with which many in the broadcasting industry are familiar is METRO NETWORKS - the wire service known as METRO SOURCE.

Recently, Westwood One announced that it was planning to consolidate its offices into "pods" and lay off hundreds of people from one of its --- if not MOST --- profitable subsidiary...Metro Networks. The author/chief editor of this blog sends condolances to the many people who have already been laid off from work at the St. Louis office of Metro Networks over the past several months and years.

For more than 16 years, the news staff at the St. Louis office --- of what has been known for 15 of those years as Metro Networks News --- was one of the best sources and providers of local news, primarily for radio. More recently because of staffing reductions forced upon them by corporate orders, a smaller staff was producing the local news. Within the past several weeks, although those who staffed the Metro office in Clayton knew this, most local news was not even gathered in St. Louis, but by a news desk in Phoenix.

This is not a new movement. Although Associated Press continues to operate a St. Louis office, it has worked with a smaller staff than a mere 25 years ago. Other news sources have done similar layoffs, including --- across the board --- radio newsrooms, television newsrooms, and newspapers. Metro Networks had done well because throughout the first two-thirds of the 1990s it was BUILDING UP a network of offices, staffed with reporters and editors who were in their local communities gathering information, pooling it, and distributing it throughout its network. In the days leading up to Westwood One's acquisition of Metro Networks from its founder David Saperstein, and shortly thereafter, Metro Source was becoming the premier news wire service, especially for radio. In fact if one were to read the various "local news feeds" from a Metro Networks METRO SOURCE computer just six years ago, the amount of news generated was astounding. Local news in Boston, Houston, St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago, San Diego, Baltimore, and dozens of other markets was out daily, some markets putting out two to four feeds per day. The "network" news office in Phoenix would do an hourly newsfeed, which was used by radio and television stations --- and occasionally other news-intensive media --- to inform its audience with the latest national news. Back then, if there was a train wreck and massive cloud of toxic gas somewhere in the country, with a "Metrosource" computer the news spread all over within minutes. Then, Westwood One was talking a good game, but was already distancing itself from the way it had inherited the Metro Networks product. In essence a part of the CBS and Viacom umbrella, Westwood One felt it knew better than Metro Networks and started looking more at the costs than at the wealth and breadth of production. News (and traffic) product suddenly became secondary to making a few extra dollars to make the shares of Westwood One stock go up. And if one was within the heirarchy of Metro Networks OUTSIDE of New York after Westwood One acquired Metro...you were soon eliminated from your position. It was not three full years after Westwood One purchased a well-run, productive and money-making company, that the main builders of the product were summarily dismissed from Metro Traffic and/or MetroSource management positions.

Naming names of the Metro Networks managers wouldn't matter except to those who knew these men and women...but they are real. They were humans who cared about the product, were determined to make it better, as accurate as possible, and showed their faces at the various offices throughout the United States. In St. Louis, it was NOT unheard of to see founder Saperstein, his son-in-law, and several upper-level managers stop in to make a personal show that they truly did appreciate the workers and the work being done by those people. Even after Westwood One acquired Metro in the late 1990s several of those managers would come to see the gateway city. And there was clearly one reason why they did so: prior to Metro Traffic's existence in St. Louis the news and traffic service they bought had a very good reputation.

The St. Louis wire service had been begun in the early 1990s as Brad Hildebrand's CompuTraffic and NewsPlus with a growing news staff inside a small office in Overland. When Metro Traffic bought the rights to the St. Louis area in the mid-1990s, several meetings involving St. Louis personnel helped spur the "local feed" idea to spread, and in a few months Metro Traffic had local news bureaus in numerous local markets --- another way to spread product and grow revenues through the commercials used in connection with the newscasts. Now you can connect the origin of this local news source LONG before Westwood One was involved. The newsroom and local wire service had already grown to include nearly two-dozen affiliates before Metro's initial purchase. Within a six-year span, it had gone from a small operation with one early morning news feed to a fully staffed newsroom including sports coverage, business and political coverage, producing three feeds daily plus bulletins.

Well, it seems that a legacy of local service actually does not matter to bottom liners who run big corporations. So, Westwood One declared its full authority over the local markets which have had fully staffed "Metro Source" local bureaus. St. Louis is not alone in losing it's local news gathering. Several dozen bureaus are being "consolidated" - downsizing hundreds of people out of jobs over the past several months. That is the new way of doing business, right?

Here comes the problem with the "new way" of doing business at Westwood One's Metro Source:

No local news staff means no immediate news.

It's not that MetroSource will stop feeding St. Louis area news. It won't go away, but the amount and quality of Metro Networks MetroSource news will suffer in the bi-state region. What once housed ten to twelve reporters and editors now houses no local news. Why? The local news bureau ceased to exist this month. As mentioned, the actual news feeds have been produced --- for several weeks --- in Phoenix. This means that those in St. Louis CAN get news from MetroSource --- but those who MAKE NEWS have to be in contact with an editor in Phoenix and practically spoonfeed the story to that newsdesk for it to make it onto the "St. Louis Feed".

As for those dozen or so reporters and editors in St. Louis who spent many years gathering, reporting, and feeding news to radio with NewsPlus and Metro Networks --- it's off to find other jobs at the height of an economic nightmare.

No comments: