Apocalypse 8: How Dare They?

Posted: October 20th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Apocalypse Series, Journalism, Technology | Tags: , , | 2 Comments »

That’s the reaction, apparently, of many newspaper editors to the AP these days. It seems some mid-size papers are opting out of the wire service, aiming to fill their pages exclusively with their own content and cut their costs.

It makes sense: when a smaller paper uses an AP story about a major international event, most of its readers are likely to turn to a major international outlet–print or online–for that information anyway. The city papers of America would be well-served to focus on local content, and they can report that without the AP.

More interesting, however, is the fact that the AP can now get on without these papers: it puts its stories on its own website, where it can monetize them directly through advertising. Really minute-by-minute breaking news often stays there while items that develop into clear cut narratives get picked up by the member newspapers, creating a second revenue stream. Indeed, the AP is, financially, lot more than the sum of its (newspaper) parts:

“Newspapers are going through their most wrenching time since the Depression, with advertising revenue falling about 25 percent over the last two years. But the balance sheet of The A.P., a nonprofit company, is healthy; last year its profit rose 81 percent, to $24 million, on revenue of $710 million, according to a financial statement issued to its members.”

This is odd, perhaps, since the AP was created 140-odd years ago by newspaper men to feed information to them. Some of the editors leaving the group still think that way, and that it seems is another reason they are walking out:

But editors and publishers at some other papers have become vocal critics of the way The A.P. operates, saying that it charges more than they can afford, delivers too little of what they need and — particularly galling to them — is sometimes acting as their competitor on the Internet. ‘They seem to have forgotten that they are there to serve us,’ said Benjamin J. Marrison, editor of The Dispatch.

Personally, I think the AP can serve the media community and itself simultaneously. It can keep breaking news on its own webpages and sell longer items to the newspapers when they need a big national or international story (think, post-election cover story of a small city daily that won’t have their own Washington correspondent). On a day to day basis, however, both the AP and the newspapers will have to do more of their own work–as the AP moves online to compete directly with the websites of the major news outlets, the small city papers that make up the backbone of its business will continue to go local. Which means the percentage of AP’s revenue that comes from the papers will shrink; it will rely increasingly on its own website ads.

If it sounds fishy, take a look at ProPublica. It’s a news service that focuses exclusively on investigative reporting, but it’s business model–a mix of content on its own site and pieces it sells to the commercial media–is a good indication of where tomorrow’s AP might go.

This summer, when the AP was busy arguing with bloggers over copyright issues on its stories, everyone was blasting the AP as passe and defunct. I didn’t disagree, but I posited that perhaps they might reconcile themselves to the digital age and thus survive the transition. Now it seems the AP is on the cutting edge of going digital, way ahead of the papers it serves.

In some intuitive way, it makes sense: wire services, as originally conceived, were about short snappy summations of the facts that reporters at individual papers could flesh out into stories. They were about giving all reporters across the country access to the same information, levelling the playing field for those who couldn’t afford the trek to D.C. Universal access? Non-proprietary content? Sounds to me like the open-source ethos of Web 2.0.

2 Comments on “Apocalypse 8: How Dare They?”

  1. 1 Colin Clout said at 4:45 pm on October 21st, 2008:

    An interesting analysis. I think that you are right, as in most your statements, that the newspapers most go to the web in order to survive. However, maybe because I am the guy that prefers reading the 1635 Donne instead of the 1995, I have a general ambivalence to what internet based news means. Specifically, here…if local newspapers strictly focus on local news, can they survive? If the answer is not an assured yes, then I am worried. What happens when local newspapers die, how then is local news handled effectively? I just fear that with internet news sources we are entering a period where the broad national interest will not only supercede, but even perhaps replace local interest. I mean thinking about elections. Many more people vote in national elections than even states, much less local, elections. How can we reverse this trend? SHould we? Am I talking out of my arse once again? Probably.

  2. 2 Colin Clout said at 4:46 pm on October 21st, 2008:

    Excuse my inability to write a coherent, grammatically correct statement.

Leave a Reply