Thursday, April 28, 2005

Peer-pressuring the Associated Press

Saying the Associated Press “is planting the seeds of its own demise,” two Scripps executives want other news organizations to help them replace the legendary press co-op with a Napster-like system where members can share digital content freely among themselves.

“If the AP had its collective head firmly inside the 21st Century, it already would be moving at least parts of its services in the Napster direction,” say Bob Benz and Mike Phillips of Scripps in a commentary in the Online Journalism Review. “But the AP is like any business confronted with a disruptive technology. Its first inclination is self-preservation, not cannibalization.”

Accordingly, they say, the AP is spending too much money on costly programs and initiatives to maintain its increasingly anachronistic role as a middleman gathering and distributing content to member news organizations.

In part to send a message to the AP – and in part to see if they really can create the new P2P network – the executives plan to host a meeting among news organizations interested in establishing a news Napster. Although it’s impossible to tell if it will work, the proposal represents the type of bottoms-up thinking that can revitalize the news business.

Bob and Mike decided to put some peer pressure on the AP after the organization announced plans to charge newspapers and broadcasters additional fees as of Jan. 1 for using its previously free content on their web sites. The move will put AP members at an economic disadvantage at a time when so much other free content is available from blogs, open-source journalism and free newspapers, according to the Scripps execs.

The AP was started in 1848 when six New York publishers, eager for the latest scoop from Europe, decided to share the costs of posting a single correspondent in Nova Scotia to meet in-bound vessels and telegraph the news to New York ahead of the ships. There’s no need for such an intermediary today, say Bob and Mike, because news organizations themselves can post their articles, photos, graphics and other digital assets on a common, password-protected web network, where the material can be searched and acquired by members.

Every article on the P2P network could carry an XML tag to alert harried news editors to topics of interest to them. Thus, a story about pollution in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park could be tagged as “Great Smoky,” “national park,” “pollution” and “conservation.” Editors wishing to be alerted to any of those keywords automatically would get the article.

With online assets conveniently tagged, news organizations would have an instant new premium product to sell to subscribers wishing to create individual news reports tailored to their interests.

Production costs in the P2P venture would be reduced sharply, because employees of member organizations, not people on the AP payroll, would create and edit the shared content. “The 21st Century news business needs a peer-to-peer network that lets local operations drive costs out of their non-local news packages, divert resources to local web content creation and operate on a level playing field with bloggers, citizen journalists and internet pure plays,” say the Scripps execs.

The P2P network would be governed by “karmic balance,” say the execs. “The more you make available to the network, the more you can take out,” they explain. “An organization in karmic deficit would have to true up by paying a surcharge on the monthly fee."

The karma-challenged AP can do itself a lot of good by supporting, not hindering, the News Napster Network. In so doing, the AP may find that peer pressure, contrary to what your mother told you, actually can be a good thing.


Blogger Newsosaur said...

From Rob Gunnison, a former UPI correspondent and former colleague now on the faculty of the j-school at the University of California at Berkeley:

The Associated Press' slow technological development is part of a long and rich tradition.

Its rival for many years, United Press International, invented the Teletype and later the Teletypesetter, a "revolutionary device that permitted its stories to be automatically set in type in newspaper composing rooms, a great money-saver that lured many small newspapers from the AP" ("Down to the Wire: UPI's Fight for Survival" by Gregory Gordon and Ronald E. Cohen).

In 1935, UPI was the first wire service to supply news to radio stations. In 1951, it launched the first international film service for television stations. UPI was the leader in developing new methods to transmit photographs.

Alas, UPI in its original incarnation -- a subsidiary of Scripps Howard, the current employer of Benz and Phillips -- exists only as a shadow of its former self. In 1982, Scripps sold the financially struggling company and wire service journalism was never the same. The stodgy, dependable AP and the more sprightly and daring UPI couldn't live with each other financially.

And the rest of us can't quite live journalistically without them.

12:23 AM  
Blogger weldon berger said...

What's supremely peculiar, in light of the increasing cost to news outlets of carry AP stories, is that AP are making their entire output available, via rss, for free to individual consumers for non-commercial use. Maybe there's a master plan behind making content free to consumers who would otherwise be visiting institutional sites and creating traffic to boost advertising to pay for the increased AP costs, but it's difficult to divine from here.

The AP pages carry a minimal amount of advertising so there's some revenue being generated by them; are the organization experimenting with the notion of bypassing their institutional customers?

Ross, did you know about the AP rss feeds? How do they deliver content to your newspaper now?

12:54 PM  

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