Thursday, December 20, 2007

The year in AP

The Associated Press has always been the 800-pound gorilla in the room, behind the scenes, influencing not only a lot of what you read and see, but the way it gets to you. Some scholars see the AP as a main reason the telegraph became viable. The company single-handedly saved the old Ma Bell system of sending photos over the phone lines, and not too long ago it was AP that pretty much decreed the news world would go to digital photography.

OK, AP may now be only the 500-pound gorilla, but its new multimedia ventures still hold the potential of reshaping the backshop, and its push to consolidate its editing functions into a few superhubs will, if nothing else, tell the rest of the newpapering world that might have been only considering it that it's "OK." Watch for more fallout from that in 2008.

But first ...
The AP Stylebook is arguably one of the most influential publications in the world of publishing, perhaps among the top two with the Chicago manual. Not that AP would have announced this, of course, but it appears from what I have been told that Norm Goldstein, who "retired" last year but stayed on to shepherd the stylebook, has now fully stepped down as editor. (Yes, I know Norm likes things low key. But that doesn't mean you can't announce a successor without making a big deal that Norm was gone.) For now, Deputy Managing Editor Sally Jacobsen, who has had the overall responsiblity for the stylebook (find the hint in this November story), appears to be the go-to person with David Minthorn given the task of handing the "Ask the Editor" questions. No word yet on whether he will have the overall responsibility of bringing the 2008 edition to press. Minthorn, a former national desk editor who now is manager of news administration, has been handling the APME's "Sounding Board" column -- another good place to check in (along with "Ask the Editor") for nuances on style and on why AP does things the way it does.

Elsewhere in review:
  • We should learn more in 2008 about AP's plans to consolidate editing. First reported on this blog and later confirmed by the New York Times, the plan for regional editing hubs may put many AP staffers in the unfortunate position of being told to move or lose their jobs (and the betting money is some jobs will be cut anyhow). Can AP pull it off? Of course, "pull it off" is relative; the past times this has been tried by AP (in the '70s) and UPI (in the '80s), the screams about poor quality forced both to pull back. But quality is not exactly at the top of the wish list of a struggling industry right now, so the chances of its "succeeding" may be higher. (For instance, my sources have told me that McClatchy has seriously discussed centralizing some editing functions for some or all of its papers in the Carolinas -- Beaufort, Hilton Head, Columbia, Myrtle Beach, Rock Hill, Charlotte and, maybe, Raleigh -- and we've seen what MediaNews has done, to much criticism (more here), with its papers ringing San Francisco.)
  • Along that same line, expect more states to be consolidated under one bureau chief.
  • Pay attention to what the audience formerly known as "the members" is doing. The Tennessee Press Association, for instance, has started a NewsSwap service. If -- and it's a huge if -- this kind of insurgency that has been talked about before actually can pull it off, it has the potential to severely weaken the AP. As written here before, AP faces a basic problem -- once it sells the national and international report to a Google or Yahoo, why is there a reason for anyone else to buy it (except, of course, for some specialty sites that might want to finely slice and dice it down only to the stories pertaining to them)? The one thing AP still has at least oligopoly power on is the state news reports. And even though the AP announced a sort of a la carte pricing earlier this year, maintaining a certain core report, and thus core revenue to cover its fixed costs, is important. The state reports, it would seem to me, play a key role in that.
  • Watch for AP to continue to clean its closet of operations that at one time might have made some sense but make little business sense now in the new world of news economics. It's already sold off its Dutch and French operations. No details have been disclosed, but AP describes these as partnerships, so it seems likely it has retained some revenue stake while getting the costs off its books. It still has Italian and German operations that could be ripe for spinning off. Not sure about its Spanish service, however, since there is a burgeoning market for that even domestically. It's also a much different animal than the others.
  • Keep an eye on the AP "skunkworks."
    • Tom Kent has been put in charge of developing a "flexible, transparent and cross-format content system that will enable all of AP's journalists to work together easily." Throw in the ability to manage assignments and general newsroom operations, and this could be another industry mover. AP's ENPS on the broadcast side has moved closer to this goal, but it isn't fully there yet, according to those I know who use it. (This kind of project seems perfect to bring in the help of an open-source community, such as that which has formed around Drupal. That has not tended to be the AP way of doing things, but I wonder if that will change.)
    • AP and other wire services have joined the MINDS project in Europe. MINDS has been very active in the mobile area. Ifra, the giant European-based publishing trade group, was one of the early powers behind the project.
    • And don't forget about Automated Content Access Protocol, the latest effort by AP and others to control the spread of their content online. So far, this requires voluntary cooperation from the search engines. Will it require some legal or monetary inducements as well? Stay tuned ...
And to AP staffers everywhere, may you be left in 2008 to "just cover the news" whenever possible. May you have good stores, great play and an occasional relief shift no matter where you are in this far-flung world. It's a tough job never given enough respect done by people whose devotion is to truth and to their craft. We are all better off because of them.

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