Who will feed AP the news?
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.