Friday, August 01, 2008

Who will feed AP the news?

Ironically, struggling newspapers and booming Google both count heavily on the same source for much of the news that fills their columns and populates their pixels: The Associated Press.

But where does the AP get its news? Mostly, from the very newspapers that are trimming back their coverage as they shrink their staffs, according to a spot check of the stories moving on the AP wire last month.

If newspaper staffs continue to erode, where will the AP and its clients get the news in the future?

After counting the stories on five state wires on randomly selected days in July, I discovered that the AP itself generated an average of only 33% of the stories on its wire. The balance of the coverage came from – y0u guessed it – the member newspapers.

And that’s a problem, because the newspapers the most part are reducing their staffs as they try to sustain their traditional profit margins in the face of historic declines in advertising sales.

While I freely concede the results of this spot check are not definitive, it is the best information I could obtain, because the AP refused to disclose the actual numbers. “We’re done with that kind of story,” said Paul Colford, the former journalist who is the AP’s director of media relations.

“This was asked and answered in the Wall Street Journal,” continued Paul, pointing to this article discussing the increasingly rancorous relationship between the AP and many of the 1,500 newspapers that own the news-gathering co-operative. But the article, while a terrific summary of the growing tension between the AP and many of its members, doesn’t in the least address the question of where the AP gets its news.

I set out the answer the question with the help of friends at a few papers, who helped me count the number of AP-produced stories on their state wires on single, ordinary news days in July. Together, we discovered that there is quite a variance in the amount of original coverage supplied by the AP.

The AP coverage ranged from as few as two staff-written stories in Wisconsin to eight articles in Missouri during the Anheuser-Busch takeover by InBev.

The highest percentage of AP-produced stories (55%) occurred in Illinois. But the percentage is less impressive when you divide the state’s population by the number of stories produced by the AP. The wire service filed one story for every 1.2 million citizens of Illinois, as compared with one story for every 347,282 people in neighboring Wisconsin.

In light of the above, it seems fair to hypothesize that AP, as structured today, won’t be in the position to pick up the slack as newspaper staffs are thinned. Many of the kinds of stories covered by individual newspapers today simply won’t see the light of day in the future.

While the AP could solve this problem by putting more correspondents in more places, this is unlikely to occur, given the growing pressure from member newspapers urging the AP to cut its fees during a time of straitened economics for the industry.

Far from trying to help the AP bolster its news-gathering resources, the editors of some member newspapers actually are going the other way.

Displeasure with the cost and limitations of AP coverage has caused editors in Ohio and Montana to create alternative online exchanges to share stories and by-pass the 162-year-old news co-operative.

“We could easily do what Ohio is doing and cut out the middleman,” said one editor participating in my mini-survey. “All the AP is doing is cutting and pasting off the member sites,” which it is well within its rights to do under the co-operative agreement it has with member news organizations.

Even in states where editors have not gone so far as to create an alternative to the AP, they have reduced the amount of content they are willing to feed to the wire.

“The AP in many ways has become the enemy,” said a second editor who participated in the mini-survey. “To protect our content, we have refused to let AP share our content with any local websites or TV and radio stations.”

Far from being a solution at a time of diminishing editorial voices, the AP may be another dimension of the problem.

27 Comments:

Anonymous yelvington said...

I suspect this blog item is already being misinterpreted as saying "AP gets it news from newspapers," which is a popular but untrue notion among newspaper folk.

For as long as I've been in journalism, the vast bulk of AP's report has been Washington, business, foreign and feature copy that was reported and written by AP staff.

If newspapers quit the AP en masse, I doubt that anyone not reading newspapers would notice. State wires might wither, but state wires are not now available to AP's commercial customers, who now constitute the majority of AP's business.

And if newspapers en masse quit the AP, the wire service would simply continue to use local media as a tip service and follow up with reporting, just as foreign correspondents typically do.

The larger question is whether stories simply go undiscovered if there are fewer working reporters at local newspapers scattered across the country. I think the local impact of that would eclipse any effect it might have on national news, or the AP.

5:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Finally, someone gets it! I've been shocked over the last several months talking to people in the AP, alternative media, and even public relations, about the scale of the carnage. Most really have little idea how quickly things are disintegrating in local newsrooms. Alternative papers, like those in the Village Voice syndicate, don't seem to realize that they are the last bastion of long-form journalism in many communitie. The AP staffers clearly don't realize yet what is happening, and even PR flacks don't quite get the idea that there is less space to tout their clients.
The only gap I see in your piece Alan is the question of where the AP gets their revenue. I was recently told that only about 25 percent comes from newspapers now. Granted, that's a big hit, but it suggests that they could boost staffs a bit in many areas and make up for the decline in coverage. They'd sell, of course, to Zell-like rags that are cutting back on serious municipal and state coverage.

5:44 AM  
Blogger rknil said...

AP is a giant part of the problem and has been for some time. The Internet has only made that more apparent.

6:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ironic, isn't it, that AP doesn't want to share information on the sources of its stories with you. But I can understand their sensitivities on this issue because AP has used this period of economic problems in the newspaper industry to become fabulously wealthy. Not only does it get its content from its members to sell to others, but it then passes through crippling assessments to make the newspapers pay for it. Plus it provides a backdoor way for bloggers to get around copyright issues and pick up local stories without paying for them. AP's spokesman might like to think the recent rebate ended the debate, but he can be assured mightedly it did not.

6:29 AM  
Blogger pcolford said...

Mr. Mutter:

I’m sorry you did not use the information shared with you when you contacted the AP in June.

Your question was this: “Over the last three to five years, has the trend been for AP to develop more or less original content? As newspapers cut their staffs and spend more time feeding their own websites, will AP have a shortage of content?”

“This is an area of some misunderstanding,” I replied.

“Only a tiny fraction (less than 2 percent) of the national and international stories sold by AP to Google, Yahoo and other popular portals and web sites originated with members of the AP cooperative – typically a scoop, in which case the member paper is cited,” I added.

“Except for this tiny fraction, the stories sold to Google and other web sites are original AP reports written by our own staffers.”

I would add that, based on a limited internal study done in 2007, pickups from member papers comprised 45 percent of AP state wire copy.

But a key distinction: AP’s state wires are not licensed to Google and other online aggregators. These commercial online customers get a selection only of AP’s national and international stories.

Thank you.

Paul Colford
Director of Media Relations
The Associated Press

7:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article. Even today, newspapers do almost all of the meaningful reporting in the news business. Blogs and Web sites have helped destroy newspapers, but almost all the content they use to comment on comes from newspaper reporters. Once the newspapers disappear, there will be no reporting to riff off of. The end of the free press will be great news for a lot of people. Not so much for most of us.

7:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is not the big stories that AP relies on newspapers to provide, but information like sports scores, and local business reports AP does lacks the staff to follow. A lot of this information comprises the majority of B wire reports significant to regional papers. But as national and international news takes a diminished role in today's local newspapers, many publishers contend AP should be paying them to collect this sort of information, not charge exhorbitant and increasing assessments. There is a disconnect with the problems facing the industry, while AP wastes money installing its expanding staff in a lavishly expensive new headquarters building in Washington.

8:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, Alan, have you ever knocked over a hornets' nest with this one. It needed saying. Great work

8:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let me say that, as a reporter at a major Metro suffering cutbacks, I've been perusing job boards quite a bit recently. I didn't keep a count, but the AP seemed like one of the few journalism orgs actually hiring of late. They had advertised dozens of jobs all over the country this spring and summer. So maybe they are picking up some slack?

8:47 AM  
Blogger rknil said...

Once again, we have lies, damn lies and statistics:

“Only a tiny fraction (less than 2 percent) of the national and international stories sold by AP to Google, Yahoo and other popular portals and web sites originated with members of the AP cooperative – typically a scoop, in which case the member paper is cited,” I added.

“Except for this tiny fraction, the stories sold to Google and other web sites are original AP reports written by our own staffers.”

Wow! Two percent! And how much of that other 98 percent is useless, irrelevant crap that no one on the Internet is going to read or care about? The only reason I read half of the snoozers on the AP budget was it was my job.

Also, another note here: Maybe the APers think everything west of Manhattan is flyover country, but I guarantee that a good chunk of the stuff with a New York dateline has little interest to the portion of the world that's saddled with the burden of not living in the Mecca known as the Big Apple. Hate to burst your bubble, folks.

Steve Y. falls into the same trap by saying the bulk of the report originates with Washington and New York staffers. Well, zip-a-dee-do-dah! Again, how much of this is of interest to the Net-surfing folks at any one time?

Over on the print side, some wire editor is scratching his or her head trying to fill four Sunday business pages with poorly written, poorly illustrated AP stories and art. Outside of that realm, though, few people really care that the Barbie doll has inspired today's business execs. And I'm sure they're not interested in the mandatory, 4-column static photo of a business front that ends up being used because AP can't be bothered to send out anything better.

If we're going to analyze things, let's look at the worthwhile stuff; anyone can load up 20-pound bags of fertilizer.

9:30 AM  
Blogger rknil said...

Also, even though AP says it's getting less of its revenue from newspapers, it's still subsidizing some of its production with this revenue. If that production is going to the Internet first, then newspapers are effectively paying for news going to other outlets first. People who can't see the flaw in this process need to open their eyes.

9:36 AM  
Anonymous clarifxn said...

Anonymous @2:

Click thru to that WSJ article and you will see a breakdown of AP revenue.
Short version: US newspapers are still the largest single slice -- but not by much. They used to be far more dominant as a revenue source.

RE: AP 'ripping off' newspaper content, newspaper people frequently (and conveniently) leave out the other half of the equation.

Yes, being a member of the wire gives other members access to rewrites of your copy. But it's a two-way street: You get rewrites of all their stuff too.

It's fairly common for a newspaper to call an AP bureau and request that the staff 'pick up' and add to something the local TV stations are reporting.

This is especially true if the newspaper staff has gone home for the day, or if the story is not quite big enough for them to throw their shrinking staff at.

10:22 AM  
Blogger rknil said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Yelvington. AP's reliance on member newspapers depends on the state and the newspapers available in each state. When I ran AP's Sacramento bureau, the vast majority of our coverage was by staff reporters, not pickups from members in our area. That was the result of smart decisions by our bureau chiefs in the state and an emphasis on our original stories, not recycled work by other papers. In other states, such as Alabama, some of the best and most original journalism is done by AP staffers in the capital.

11:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

an interesting piece by the newsosaur. I would like to add an additional dimension re the AP.

The AP was created in the 19th century to address an emerging technology -- the telegraph. The cooperative's original purpose was to share the high costs of using the telegraph to transmit correspondents' dispatches.

A revolutionary use of AP now would be provide a similar solution to the new technological problem -- the internet.

The AP could provide a universal content platform for all its members, who would in turn yield their individualized websites. Such a change would be transformational -- enabling users to access one news site for all their local content and a huge well of national and international content.

in addition, a universal content platform would create a second benefit -- a universal advertising platform. The network effect on both content and advertising would give the newspaper industry a response to the cannibalization effect now taking place thanks to yahoo and google. just a thought....

12:43 PM  
Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Alan:

AP's model has been stressed for some time, starting in the late '80s as PM papers died and radio stations were not required to have news departments anymore.

The AP's basic model has always been about a 50-50 split between staff-generated copy and that picked up from members (I write as a former AP staffer, 18 years, including more than a decade as a news editor and managing correspondent). In some states it was more member copy, in some states less, depending on the staffing.

As PM papers died and those county-seat radio stations largely did away with their news departments, AP's model started showing cracks. For instance, if you had a big murder trial in South Succotash, the model often had been to staff it only on major days of testimony -- in-between the local radio folk would have enough to feed you for a story, etc. Likewise, PM papers could feed you enough for AMs on things that were important, but not so important to staff. It was always a delicate balance of deploying staff vs. doing a pickup. (For instance, the day you didn't have to staff the trial, you might be able to cover that legislative committee hearing that several of your members wanted.)

But now, if there is a big trial, you have a problem -- wait for the AM paper to feed you or hope you can get enough off the Web sites of the paper, the area's TV stations, etc. Or you can staff the thing, tying up a limited resource far more than you would have in the past. AP staffing, likewise, is down in some states.

Steve Yelvington is right -- the bulk of the AP report has come from D.C., sports, the business desk and overseas. The gem of the state bureaus has been their statehouse coverage. That has become more vital as others cut back and as the federal government moves more to the states. And Steve is right in his assessment that the larger question is what stories go uncovered.

I recently wrote that I expect the AP to radically alter its state bureau system within a few years. With the establishment of its editing hubs, the idea of concentrated state bureaus and their desks is becoming outdated. I expect to see most turned into statehouse correspondencies, with other correspondents spread around the states more widely. In the long run, that may be better for AP coverage.

I've written extensively on the AP and its business model problems on my blog.

12:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A larger problem is that by competing with its own "members," the AP is set up to get itself cut off from this supply.

AP's free local feeds, on which it charges advertising, are increasingly pirating traffic from its members' own web sites.

AP gets to keep all that money, and the notion that "we use this to provide you with the content you can no longer pay for" is sales hype at its best.

What happens to foxes in henhouses? Sure they eat well for a while, but eventually they get shot.

2:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

AP is not only competing with local newspapers, but it is undercutting their financial underpinnings. Here's how: A local newspaper (in intense competition for local ads with area radio and TV stations) develops a story over a couple of days. It is edited and perhaps even put through a lawyer to deal with libel, and then published. The AP picks it up and (sometimes) attributes to the newspaper and sends it out on the state wire. It appears locally in an AP Internet feed and both the local radio and TV read it on their newscasts, citing "an AP report" because they know the newspaper editors will soon call if they don't attribute it. They are damned if they will give any credit the newspaper unless they have to.
So the newspaper has made the investment of two days of salary for a reporter, one day of work by an editor, a few hours of a lawyer. But not only does credit go to AP, but so do revenues the story raises.
Tell me, is that fair? More to the point of this post, is it viable for the future of local journalism to have a huge and insensitive wire monopoly rip off its own clients? Operating a local newspaper these days is akin to being one of those donkeys used to heat up mares before the stallion is brought in for breeding.

3:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yelvington says xxx And if newspapers en masse quit the AP, the wire service would simply continue to use local media as a tip service and follow up with reporting xxx
There was once an organization that tried this approach, called United Press International. Only a remnant of UPI remains today. Unfortunately, the economics of the business are such that AP could not afford to provide the staff needed to gather copy in all the states on its own. There are already rumbles inside AP that they are about to scrap their historic state structure in favor of some more regional desks. I suspect this will be followed by cutting back staffing in some states and adding staff to areas where AP finds increasingly lucrative with its commerical clients. If Alan and others are correct about the economic pressures on newspapers (and I think he is), that means vast areas of the country will be left uncovered by an independent watchdog press.

1:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is a breaking news example of how the AP is ripping off its clients on all news. In the Bruce Ivins anthrax case, the New York Times got a scoop with an audio transcript of a court hearing involving an effort by Ivins' therapist to get a restraining order. As the AP itself acknowledged in its Aug. 3 story: "An audio recording of the court session was obtained by the New York Times and posted on its website." So when the AP posted its transcript of the hearing, where is the reference to the New York Times? It is not anywhere. Instead, the transcript appears under the slug "AP," with an ad used as an introduction. So who got the revenue here? I bet not a penny went to the New York Times, which made all the effort to get the exclusive.

10:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the AP transcript in the Ivins anthrax case issue: looks like someone else noticed the problem because the latest AP version has stripped out the ad, and has a three second "Audio Courtesy: New York Times" in it. So why isn't the attribution carried through the entire video, along with the AP slug?

10:48 AM  
Blogger rknil said...

"So when the AP posted its transcript of the hearing, where is the reference to the New York Times? It is not anywhere. Instead, the transcript appears under the slug "AP," with an ad used as an introduction. So who got the revenue here? I bet not a penny went to the New York Times, which made all the effort to get the exclusive."

But, but, but -- AP uses only 2 percent of what papers generate! There CAN'T be a problem!

7:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And I would add as a current AP staffer that newspapers rip off our stories all the time. The NYT is one of the great offenders. I've seen my reporting repackaged in newspapers with a staffer byline repeatedly. In most cases, all the staffer did was get another quote, insert and steal the story. The AP breaks many important stories and spends a lot time rewriting local copy that is simply horrible, allowing the masses to understand what is being reported.

10:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not entirely true to say the AP depends on members for news. It's the largest newsgathering organization in the world.

The AP probably backed off from stories that can be covered by members, because the local paper can handle a story a lot better than any out-of-town correspondent.

That's what newspapers do best--write the local news. You don't open a paper and then buy the local news from some outfit in New York.

The cuts in newsroom staff are what scare me. Papers are selling us up the river when they cut staff. Every city in America needs a newspaper, because it is an essential part of democracy.

6:33 PM  
Blogger rknil said...

"And I would add as a current AP staffer that newspapers rip off our stories all the time. The NYT is one of the great offenders. I've seen my reporting repackaged in newspapers with a staffer byline repeatedly. In most cases, all the staffer did was get another quote, insert and steal the story. The AP breaks many important stories and spends a lot time rewriting local copy that is simply horrible, allowing the masses to understand what is being reported."

Um, you do realize the paper is paying for YOUR stories, don't you? I don't condone running an AP story without a wire credit, but if you're trying to equate that with your organization's blatant carpetbaggery, then you have failed here.

Also, don't go bragging about your rewrite skills. First, it's your job. Second, sometimes the stories are so stripped and gutted that you can't make heads or tails of them once AP gets through with them. Third, some of the rewrites are useless. For a while in Michigan, the overnight stories were so riddled with typos and misspelled words that we couldn't run any of them without doing our own editing. That's right -- we were paying for edited stories and getting raw copy. Same goes for cutlines -- newspapers are paying for photos and captions, but they are getting gibberish that has to be rewritten.

Bottom line: Newspapers have been getting ripped off by AP for some time. The Internets have only made it worse. AP has gone from petty thief to Jack the Ripper.

12:16 PM  
Anonymous DM said...

Apologies if you've covered this already: what is the newspaper industry doing to address the potential loss of the free press in the U.S? What will that look like? How will it affect individual freedom? Perhaps this is the equivalent impact of information global warming on freedom.

Newspapers are in a rush to force their advertisers to their web sites, but despite lots of talk about the necessity to do so, is there any evidence that this model is actually working, or even has the potential to? Or is this just more denial of market realities?

Where is the story about the underlying failure of the industry to confront its own CULTURE of privilege and disdain for the business side of operations? Where is the story about newspaper managements' key roles and responsibilities in the industry decline? If it is not addressed, how will that change?

For instance, is there a Marshall Plan to ensure continuation of the free press, to include exemption from telemarketing "do not call laws", personalizing classified advertising with texting and other direct response technologies, promoting exclusive offers available in the newspaper by partnering with local businesses, with change to non-profit incorporation status,leveraging and monetizing their physical and digital distribution networks,
realistic review of ad rates that continue to rise 5% per year despite declining circulation, and monetizing of news content on the Internet?

If newspapers acted like any other business, they could still find ways to survive. But perhaps not without going outside of their own cultures and management thinking by working with truly entrepreneurial partners, and bringing in non-industry management. Instead, entrenched management continues to resist change and justify the status quo while talking change.

AP can generate national content on its own. Will consumers continue to pay for local content? Controlling and monetizing CONTENT, not just advertising, has to be the focus of solving the industry's problems, because that is what is of its core value.

9:44 AM  
Blogger rknil said...

DM: No newsroom has ever been one percent as proactive as your questions would require them to be.

The managers wait for things to go wrong, and then they make excuses.

11:20 PM  

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