Friday, April 29, 2005

A misguided slap at AP

Two execs for E.W. Scripps take a slap at AP over at Online Journalism Review. They're po'd that AP's going to start charging for online services and suggest that news feeds go to a peer-to-peer service.

There's a lot not to like at AP -- it can be a lumbering behemoth that epitomizes the definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result) and the quasi-military organization (both in the great can-do spirit of its troops and the too-often deaf-ear chain of command to innovation from the bottom up). Yet it's one of the best journalism places I've ever worked, precisely because of that espirit de corps.

If what Bob Benz and Mike Phillips say about AP's new foray into the "youth" market is true (I haven't seen the prototypes), then that part of their criticism is valid. Here's what they write:
Belatedly taking note of precipitous readership declines among young people, the AP is shopping around a youth publication prototype called APtitude. Its dominant story form is long narrative accompanied by a photo or two. But young people, as Rupert Murdoch recently pointed out, are digital natives, not digital immigrants. Their primary language is digital. When they do use their secondary language, print, their warmest response is to print formats that are highly visual and that are built with high proportions of short, non-narrative story forms. (See recent research at the Readership Institute.) This ill-conceived venture will add to the costs born by AP clients.
It does sound like AP's ill-conceived pseudo blog panned earlier here and elsewhere.

But on some other things, Benz and Phillips are off the mark or living, as too many news executives do, in the "House of Cheap." Some parts of their rant sound like desperate people seeking desperate answers and easy fixes.

In a moment, some excerpts and my comments. But before that, a specific excerpt that should mobilize journalists everywhere:
  • As content loses value, expert editing and customer-driven bundling are becoming the tools for building audience. And audience -- not content -- is the news industry’s value proposition.
What Benz and Phillips are saying is that the game is lost, give it up, "a wave of unpaid information is sweeping paid information off the media beach" and content really doesn't mean much. I'm not sure what they mean by "expert editing," but if content is, essentially, crap, as they imply, then it seems close to saying the editing function really becomes devalued, too, as primarily repurposing and repackaging. All you little reporters and whatever out there, go work for free or a pittance. Shoo. Shoo. As I have said in this space for more than a year, journalism organizations like SPJ, IRE, etc., have been remarkably silent on this -- and they and journalists in general cannot afford to be. Every journalist who is worth his or her salt has to take part, forcefully, in this discussion. The truth is we don't know what our journalism (read content) is worth because the models we have worked under for decades don't value the content but the aggregation.

Yes, as part of the "What is journalism worth?" question, we must include as one of the options -- nothing. But then we must think long and hard about what it is, if anything, that can give content worth and how to achieve that. If we let the Benzes and Phillipses of the world define it for us, then we might as well find another line of work. The malaise that Tim Porter refers to in the newsrooms of this country stems partly from our unwillingness to confront these hard questions and define the answers ourselves, instead of having them handed to us. As he notes later (and more here), the issue really isn't about the future of newspapers, it's about the future of journalism: "People made it. People can change it." So succinct, but so perfectly dead on. Newspapers are what we made them, so let's remake them.

Now, some excerpts from Benz and Phillips and my comments:

Addicted to its transmission fee revenues, AP has chosen not to replace its high-cost distribution model (whose roots were planted in the telegraph era) with low-cost web distribution.

Confronted with the rapidly growing need for web-specific content like Flash files, audio clips and other multimedia elements, AP has chosen to spend more of its members’ money to create that content rather than facilitate content-sharing among its members.

Last time I read the remarks by Tom Curley, AP's president, there seemed a definite shift to the Web. It's almost impossible to deliver the multimedia goods he's talking about any other way. As for that content sharing, I agree. AP probably should do more to facilitiate it. But as a former AP news editor, let me let you in on a little secret: Members have enough trouble sharing stories on a timely basis, let alone content like this. Trust me, we tried with graphics over the years. It makes me long for a root canal.

The 21st Century news business needs a peer-to-peer network that lets local operations drive cost out of their non-local news packages, divert resources to local web content creation and operate on a level playing field with bloggers, citizen journalists and internet pure plays.

This chorus has been heard from publishers, et al., as long as the AP has existed, I think. It's always too expensive, etc. (more on that in a moment). I'd believe it if I thought the money saved would go into boosting local coverage. Let's just say given the industry's track record, skepticism is called for on that.

Sharing would be governed by a karmic balance. The more you make available to the network, the more you can take out. An organization in karmic deficit would have to true up by paying a surcharge on the monthly fee.

An elected committee would administer the network, set sharing rules and levy the monthly fees – which primarily would pay for technology.

The network should support subgroups, allowing operations under common ownership to share files within the larger system and make those files available outside each subgroup as they see fit. This sub-group ability also would encourage regional networks -- or even groups with a special interest in a particular story or subject area -- to form ad hoc.

Please, give me some of what you're smoking. Here's one reason the AP is so damned expensive -- it's members don't share as they are supposed to, and so the AP ends up having to staff or string a lot of stuff it shouldn't have to. (How about we meet at high noon somewhere and look at the AP logs on Scripps' papers sharing? If they just automatically hit the "send" button to their AP bureau every time a local news story is ready, I'll give you $20.)

The dynamic of the AP changed significantly in the 1980s as PM papers closed and radio stations, freed from various FCC edicts, started doing away with their news departments. Before then, when there was a significant trial in some rural county seat, for isntance, chances were that the newsman or newswoman from the local radio station, no matter how untrained, was all over it. The AP could use that for much of its coverage, polishing and augmenting when necessary. PMs papers covered early hearings and meetings, freeing AP staff to cover more significant things, and allowing AP to keep staff lean. Those days ended a long time ago. Meanwhile, AM papers began demanding planners earlier and earlier, wanting to know exactly what AP was covering and how. That's fine. But you can't tell the members that if you're waiting for some recalcitrant newspaper down the line to share its story; you have to staff it. In other words, the means already exist for taking a lot more costs out of the AP, but the members have to do it.

Some of that eases with 24-hour news cycles and news outlets filing to the Web. But not everyone files as timely, and there will still be a lot of places with holes to cover.

Here's another thing about AP costs: AP, essentially, is a news utility. It has the same problem a utility does -- it serves as lot of unprofitable places. Not so much remote newspapers anymore; that went out with the satellites. But a lot of corners of the world where the stories are important, but the costs, almost always higher, can't be spread over volume.

Of course, editing standards would be as varied as the members – and in some cases would not be up to the AP’s standards. But most news operations – particularly those in small or mid-sized markets – use less wire copy these days and try to localize what they do use. So long as members attribute with care, journalistic standards will not be in jeopardy.

If the network pulled in one or two large U.S. news organizations plus a few from abroad, national and world news demands could be met easily. Members with adequate editing capacity could work network content into tight national and world packages and make those available – perhaps for added Karma credit within the network.

You think your local desk is going to want to deal with some of the -- to put it politely -- less-than-ideal copy offered up by local outlets? And what if that's the only source for your story? Or what if that source doesn't publish in English? And so long as members attribute with care, journalism standards will not be in jeopardy? That's why we have some of the garbage we have in papers now -- the same he said/she said/we quoted both sides so you can't hold us responsible journalism that has alienated our readers.

AP does give you some bodies on the ground -- maybe not on the scene, but close enough to be able to sift the genuine from the shady. The argument by Benz and Phillips springs from the "transparency" standard favored by many in blogging and other new media -- as long as we dislose how we came by it, etc., we're covered. But transparent crap is still transparent crap. Transparency is a valuable way to help build credibility, but it is not credibility in and of itself.

By the way, have these two checked recently how many foreign papers use AP, too, somtimes for the same stories that this "network" would need?

The AP creates very little exclusive coverage. With enough members and shared editing capacity, the nation/world category would be dealt with easily.

The AP creates a great amount of exclusive coverage. Another bet: Let's take all the exclusive coverage off the AP wires fed to Scripps papers. Wait for the reaction from the Scripps folks who have to put out a paper, even a mostly local one. Collect bet.

There's something deeper here, however. The Benz-Phillips piece has undertones of the "let's find the latest formula and blindly apply it" method that has become all too common, especially in the news industry. That's what scares me about a lot of the references to the Readership Institute research that I see written and spoken about at press association meetings. Too many see it as, if we just do this (more narrative -- or is that less?, more local, make news "an experience"), we can find the silver bullet that will save our hides. Instead, it will be the bullet with which we shoot ourselves in our heads.

As Alan Mutter notes:
"Although the study could be taken as a license to dumb down the news, it really suggests quite the opposite approach. It is a mandate for journalists to work harder to find intelligent, imaginative stories they can present in creative, compelling ways."

The formula that Benz and Phillips present is a version of dumbing down the news -- don't acknowledge that a local audience might have a desire for specific non-local coverage; assume local is all that will drive people to your site; treat readers/viewers as so many eyeballs with not much else. We've seen this kind of turnkey approach before: USAToday gets a color weather map, everyone does it. Papers go modular design; everyone does it to the point of squeezing the personality out. The consultants say do more "news you can use" features, and so they're done, often badly, to the point where they almost become contradictory.

The smart local news outlet understands what "local" means. If you know your coverage area, for instance, and it has a large Italian or Polish component, then all those international stories about the pope were local. How many of those will you get in a timely fashion and able to slip right into your paper or onto your Web site from the Napster-like network? If you are in an area with lots of military families, an extra dose of Iraq is in order. In a high-tech area? The Pacific Rim is going to be important. And so is an organization like AP.

Now, AP can improve. A lot. It should move more stories, unedited, from members domestically and from those news outlets overseas with which it can establish trustworthy arrangements -- and especially those overseas that have different viewpoints. [I have edited that last section slightly because, as a couple of my former AP colleagues noted, AP does not have "members" overseas.] And as too often happens with organizations, AP is becoming burdened with bureaucracy. One of AP's strengths is its bureau system. I remember a bureau chief once backing a New York editor out the door -- this editor had told the CoB not only what to cover but how to staff it and cover it. It would have meant losing a staffer for an entire day when the stringer on the ground could write rings around several of those on the New York desk. Listen, the bureau chief said, you just tell me what you need; how I get it is my problem. Lately, however, with more regional editors and VP's hanging off a command chain that used to be news editor-bureau chief-president of the AP, those in the field say they are being told more and more not only what is needed but how to get it and how to write it.

In the "old" days, AP wasn't dealing with corporate behemoths who could pull millions of revenue at a moment's notice. Before, if the editor in South Succotash was annoyed at something, AP tried to make nice, but did what it had to do. Now, if Gannett, for instance, says jump, it would be understandable if AP asked "how high?"

So while Benz and Phillips have issued a valuable wakeup call, their model is more than a little troubling. Their efforts might be better spent trying to cull the best of the AP from the old-media legacy rather than suggesting something with so many potentially fatal flaws built in. And they might want to be more worried about John Battelle and his plans to create an aggregation service for bloggers, FMPublishing. While the Scripps pair is worrying about AP and how to squeeze the last nickel out of things, someone could be stealing their lunch.



At 4/30/05, 6:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since I indirectly work for Benz and Phillips, maybe my comments will ring hollow ... but I love the idea.

The idea of AP charging me for content on the Web make no sense.

The comments you made and quoted about local news are 100 percent off the mark. For a local news site, true local news is all that really matters and I've got the traffic stats to back up that statement. The Pope story, for example ... our editors wanted to treat it like a local story. Our online audience didn't really care about it. They already had their fill of it elsewhere.

However, in the co-op model, now our online editors have some unique content to pick and choose from because of the variety of sources, and not all editors are going to pick and choose the same, so our national and international coverage has a chance to gain in uniqueness. That's value. That's value that on its best day AP can't hope to emmulate.

As I just posted on my own blog, AP's content is of little or no value. It's too common. Way too common.

As for feeding the open-source co-op ... that's what RSS is for. It would be easier to feed the co-op than it is currently to feed AP. And good tools would give editors a way to parse the feeds on a variety of trusted source levels and content tags making consumption, quick and easy and reliable.

At 5/1/05, 2:36 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Here's your problem ... if you dismantle AP or something like it, your comments about getting their fill of national/international elsewhere may also ring hollow, simply because that news won't be there in a coherent way.
Yes, there may be Google news aggregating from who knows what and where, but to me that's the nub of things -- your "trusted" sites, etc., sounds good in theory, but in practicality it leaves large parts of the landscape uncovered.

From my observations, people go to Yahoo and the like precisely because the AP report is there coherently -- a lot more coherently than many local sites. They don't buzz around dozens of sites looking for stuff. But they'll go to the local site if you present it in a way that serves their needs better. Most, being not much more than local shovelware either these days, don't.

Furthermore, we now sound like we're going back to the "Afghanistanism" that we got smacked about the head on as a result of September 11. Sweet.

I agree AP content is too common -- it's been forced to be by members who want it to be plain vanilla, and while they're at it want all the local football scores, etc. (I had these discussions with member editors too often to remember.)

So yes, if your system will help clear the unnecessary dreck from AP's plate, go for it. Then AP can maybe do something of more value to you.

And I'll wait for that moment you really, really want that story from another part of the state or the state capital -- or overseas -- but somehow it hasn't hit the RSS yet because, well, that news outlet just hasn't gotten around to filing it.

At 5/1/05, 2:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Saying that AP content has no value because it's too common is like saying air or water has no value, because it's too common.

The same people who brought us UPI are talking about how to save the AP. That's rich beyond words.

At 5/2/05, 12:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, if it ain't in the RSS, then it don't exist ... for my site or theirs.

I don't see at all the connection to 9/11 and a local site covering only local news.

At 5/2/05, 3:02 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Well, if it ain't in the RSS, then it don't exist ... for my site or theirs.

I don't see at all the connection to 9/11 and a local site covering only local news.

Well, now you're trying to change the rules in the middle of the game. The OJR post specifically mentions foreign news. So that's why my 9/11 comment is relevant.

But if you're going to do strictly local news, why are you worried about news from anywhere else? You've got an intellectual disconnect there. Can't have it both ways.


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