Friday, March 12, 2004

Pay Attention to the AP's Curley

When the AP’s Tom Curley talks these days, it pays to listen, because if the AP can pull off what he hopes, it’s not going to be a question of if we do – or teach – multimedia journalism. It’s going to be how and when.

Curley, who last year moved from USAToday to become president and CEO of the world’s oldest and largest wire service, was here recently doing the dog-and-pony show for the South Carolina Press Association. As Curley briefly flashed on the screen a mock-up of the AP’s plan to deliver its wire as a multimedia product, I found myself instinctively turning to a colleague and saying, “if AP can pull this off, it changes everything.”

Curley no longer wants AP to be that boring line-by-line display on newsroom computer screens. Instead, he wants all the media elements – pictures, graphics, text and, if available, AP audio and video – in one place on the newsroom's computer screens. This might also incorporate AP’s “e-assign,” the initiative that will give AP members a peek into the wire service’s assignment plans each day, detailing what coverage plans are, who is assigned, what photos, graphics, etc. Curley says “e-assign” is set to roll out before the end of the year.

When the AP starts to display all the multimedia elements, it will put pressure on the industry to install content management systems. Some newsrooms already are well into into CMS. But, as has been the case with other “innovations” in the news industry, Rogers’ classic adoption curve is heavily elongated: There are some early adopters and a few in the early majority, but much of the industry historically has fallen into the late majority or laggards, sometimes kicking and screaming as they are dragged into modernity. Content management, which is important to truly converging news production and dissemination, is not exactly user friendly, either. Some of my formerly sane friends have struggled with installing content management systems – where every element on the page, on the Web site, of video, etc., gets its own tag and is stored in a database so that each element can be retrieved whenever needed for whatever medium. One of those friends is now wrestling the beast at a midsized Southern newspaper, with the joke being that he’s about two cases of Jack Daniels into the process with several more to go.

The AP is the behind-the-scenes, 800-pound gorilla when it comes to forcing the news industry into change. Blondheim details how the then New York Associated Press was “a dominant force in prodding the industry in the direction of integration, and ultimately of consolidation” and, in the process, had significant influence in shaping the nation’s telegraph network. Coopersmith shows how the AP pretty much single-handedly saved AT&T’s Picture Telegraph from extinction, and the resulting Wirephoto settled the debate about whether newspapers would run pictures. (Both good articles are in the fall 2000 “American Journalism.” Unfortunately, the American Journalism Historians Association Web site has only an index, not full text).

In a bit of serendipity, Columbia, the city from whence this blog originates and which houses Newsplex, the experimental newsroom put together by Ifra and the University of South Carolina, also was home to one of the first fully computerized newsrooms in the world – the AP bureau, which at that time was across from the Statehouse. Old-timers still talk about how executives from the New York Times and other chains traipsed through the bureau in the 1970s. It wasn’t too many years later that computers started becoming standard newsroom equipment.

And it’s well-known how AP forced the industry into digital photography in the 1990s. In its classic model, the wire service began by distributing the equipment – the “free” LeafDesk that brought sometimes derisive comments from those in the industry because of the server charges. Then, one day, AP “flipped the switch” and told newspapers that from then on, it was all-digital or nothing. Notice how long it took the industry to buy all those expensive digital cameras that many shops had been resisting?

So now the AP is talking about another major move forward. It already has a content management system, ENPS. The flagship customer was the BBC, rather well-regarded for its multimedia efforts. If – and I think it’s more likely when – the AP perfects its multimedia presentation system, the rules will change. If I were a journalism executive, I’d pay close attention. The AP may again be about to heavily influence my technology future. And if I were a journalism school director, I’d start looking for donation of a CMS – and, maybe, some Jack Daniels.

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