Saturday, July 26, 2008

Another challenge for AP

At the ACES discussion board, Jim Thomsen, who works for the Scripps-Howard paper in Bremerton, Wash., brings up a scary thought for AP -- the defection of its smaller members.

I won't say this is a new challenge because anyone who knows much about the wire service knows that "hyperlocal" eventually makes AP more and more of a luxury. But Thomsen lays out the challenge well given the corporate mandate to his paper to slash expenses:

There are three reasons we're not quite ready to dump AP:

1. The print subscribers — mostly elderly — who still expect us to be a one-stop shopping source of all the news they want might well dump us if we took away news of the world beyond Kitsap County.

2. We're still somewhat dependent on state wire — state government coverage, especially, as well as space-pluggers when our local news report comes up short of filling a given day's newshole.

3. The sports desk is still heavily dependent on wire — especially for sports agate. ...

I'm confident that our managers — a creative and collaborative bunch — will find a way around each of the three roadblocks in the next few years so we can get this budgeting albatross — one that runs counter to our newfound mission — off our backs.

1. Those elderly print-only, 1950s-newspaper-image readers are becoming less of a viable economic lobby with each passing year.

2. I believe Washington's dailies will form a news cooperative that will supplant the need for AP statehouse coverage.

3. The mission of sports will evolve toward local-only as well.
AP's current state bureau structure would be difficult to sustain without these smaller members' payments.

Restructuring its fees would seem to be one thing the AP could do, and it has moved to do some of that already. But for these smaller papers, almost nothing but a pure ala carte model may be viable (perhaps with just a small sustaining fee). More and more papers are trying to shift their fixed costs, which AP now is in most cases, to variable costs.

If this happens, you can expect to see further radical restructuring of the wire service's state operations, where many chief of bureau positions already have been eliminated and where editing is being consolidated into several regional centers. It would not surprise me to see the remaining state offices as we now know them atomized, with the elimination of state news editors and most staff turned into correspondents (with resulting cutbacks). In some ways, this might serve AP better, spreading its staff among the states more efficiently (for instance, in South Carolina, a person has been needed in Greenville for years, but an Upstate newspaper has consistently stood in the way; I doubt that could remain the case under a dispersed AP.).

But it will eliminate much of that "local touch" that was AP's stock in trade for decades as member questions get directed to those editing hubs. Oh well, I guess we should be thankful they aren't in India (for now, at least).

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