Sunday, August 03, 2008

About AP

Some of the comments drawn by Alan Mutter's post about AP a few days ago illustrate both a lack of historical perspective while they also underscore how the situation for the AP has changed and how some of its actions have hurt it as a result.

I think it's worth stipulating a few things about AP:
  • It's not a news-gathering service, it's a cost-saving service. OK, I'm being deliberately provocative there, but too many forget the AP's history. It was basically formed by a bunch of publishers who decided it was stupid and costly to have multiple correspondents meet the boats to get the news dispatches, so just have one person row out and bring them back. It remains as much a cost-saving operation as a news-gathering one.
  • Part of the cost-saving bargain was using its members' stories. AP agreements had a clause (I assume they still do, but I haven't seen one lately) that gives the wire service full use of a member's spot stories that are generated from within a certain radius of that member's home circulation area. The AP generally was not required to credit the stories to the member -- but people forget the members were not required to credit AP on each story either; a notice that you were an AP member in the masthead was sufficient. Thus, for every aggrieved newspaper reporter there is also one at the AP whose byline simply became "The Associated Press." Not that it makes it right - just pointing out.
  • The "spot news" clause means probably more than ever that online stuff is, legally at least, fair game. The rub here always has been what is "spot" and what is feature or analysis or investigative. When I was with AP, we generally tried to give members credit more and more in the bodies of stories. We also had "member exchanges" for the more featurized offerings that maintained the members' name and byline. And while it may be legally fair game, practically it's giving the AP and its members indigestion (see more below).
  • There's no honor among thieves, editors or publishers. If you want to complain about stories being sanitized, look in a mirror. More than once as a news editor, I called member editors to politely complain that they had stripped another member's byline off a story and merely put "Associated Press" or had taken out the other paper's credit in the story. And I remember coming in to the desk in the Ohio bureau at 6 a.m. By 6:15 the suburban papers around Cleveland were on the phone with their "orders" of what they would like picked up from the Plain Dealer. Oh, and please remember to take the PD's name out of it.
  • The AP is not your enemy, but it's not your friend either. Labeling the AP the "enemy" is stupid when you look at the historical record of why it was created and how members have shaped it. If you consider it the enemy, then your own paper's chain has probably had some role in that.
  • Having said that, the view of the AP as enemy illustrates how things have changed. The AP was not the "enemy"" when the public had no access to its wires except through member newspapers or broadcasters. Now, the AP, which tried early in the days of the Internet to limit access through its members' Web sites, has become a brand of its own. As such, it is morphing into this odd role of provider/competitor. The competitor role is a vestiage of the news cooperative, cost-reduction days. Eventually, that will probably have to be scrapped and the AP will have to become a stand-alone news-gathering service. Otherwise, it would have to build in delays of delivering breaking news that members have on their Web sites, and that would turn it into a eunich.
    • Side note: As for the story appearing on the broadcast wires, the sense I get from some comments on Mutter's blog and elsewhere is an old one -- newspaper folk have long complained about the sanitized feed going to broadcasters (even if the source is credited - see above) AP once tried to limit membership. Do a Google search for AP and antitrust to see why it can't.
    • Having said that, one must duly note that you now can get AP's news direct from its site, where there are ads, and RSS feeds are available.
  • AP continues to bring some of this on itself by failing to recognize it needs to build brand identity in j-schools. Some, maybe a lot, of the misunderstanding of what AP is and how it works comes from this. For instance, while it has eased up (relatively), it still makes the wire hard to get for teaching purposes. (I personally know that a major university with one of the leading journalism programs in the U.S. was just turned down in its attempt to get wire access, and this was even after a local paper was wiling to be its "sponsor.") [Disclosure - not us.] This is short-sighted. I'm going to go out on a limb and say AP, unfortunately, has a cadre of reporters and editors in member newsrooms who see it as the enemy partly because they didn't always work with it closely in school, and the AP has done little to market itself and its story at that level. It's still largely the big, mysterious Oz behind the curtain. Maybe it's time for AP to re-examine that.

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