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 Ross said...

Yeesh, I work at a Scripps paper and find out about this through the Newsosaur.

This somewhat resembles -- albeit in a technologically souped-up version -- what Scripps Howard News Service has long done through its news service, which is in large part assembled from its member papers.

The difficulty I experienced in my days as a wire editor was that many of the stories, particularly from smaller papers, tend to be either A) edited with such a local focus that it can be hard to use them without extensive rewrite; or B) simply badly edited. Those are fixable, but only with copy editors' time, which costs money.

AP ain't perfect, but it has honed the craft of packaging members' local stories into nuggets that read reasonably well anywhere.

6:22 PM  
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 Frederick Clarkson said...

On a more abstract, theoretical note :

The XML tagging of news releases and P2P network material with key words might be an excellent first step, but there is only so much work that this - or P2P itself can do.

The ultimate reason is this : for much the same reason as was realized decades ago, in the field of spycraft, that software could only be made absolutely secure if one removed humans completely from the equation, the XML tagging of data in a P2P network cannot in and of itself generate news.

Now first of all, there already exists a rough de facto P2P system - or systems - right now, and more powerful P2P approaches are developing every day. As formal projects and as software enabled P2P communities such as the Daily Kos. The trajectory of net based P2P systems seems so clearly to point towards a widely distributed P2P creation of news - and XML tagging would certainly be an indispensible part of that. But first of all, limited XML tagging, via keywords, actually restricts one of the crucial functions of a search process like Google, which allows cross referencing of many randomly selected keywords:

Thus, my Google search "Associated Press,newsosaur,Gunnison,Scripps,UPI" would likely pull up this comment or the post which generated it. Multiple keyword searches via Google function as the proposed XML system but far more powerfully and - in fact - the use of XML kewords, by the very selection of as limited number ( as opposed to using, essentially, all the words in a given text as potential keywords ) of XML keywords could hinder Net-based research - which operates most powerfully as a maximally flexible data-mining process that can uncover hitherto unexpected associations and relationships in data.

Moving beyond the question of keywords and XML tagging though, and drawing back for an overview :

Those "facts" which are boosted to prominence in a P2P system - via the Blogosphere or whatever mechanism - have to come from somewhere.

Currently - though this reality makes Bloggers testy - most of the facts entering the Blogosphere P2P system still come from mainstream media. "Facts" don't come from nowhere - they come via shoe leather and doorbell ringing, by established processes for vetting facts ( and so avoiding libel lawsuits ) which assure quality control.

There are few analogous mechanisms currently in existence on the Internet and in the Blogosphere, and - further - the utopian grail ( or profit model ) of distributed news generation via P2P cannot claim an authoritative mantle, of credible, responsible journalism, unless it explicitly confronts the issue of factual veracity.

"Facts" - what is widely considered to be factual - are created via human social processes that are so highly attenuated on the Net, currently, as to be nearly unworkable.

Yes, the Wikipedia can over time triangulate on and generate eerily authoritative articles on virtually any subject under the sun. But, humans - and many anonymous but nonetheless credentialed experts - provide the factual material so assembled. Humans - bearing gifts of facts - inform the Wikipedia, and those facts do come from somewhere.

Further, although P2P networks are resistant in the long run to disinformation, false allegations, and malicious intent in general, nonetheless in the short run - and what time scale does most of that we currently call "news" or "newsworthy" operate on but short time scales - P2P networks are very susceptible to bad information : P2P networks can broadcast bad information quite widely, and shockingly fast.

Over all, these are several limit-horizons - blocking and hindering the emergence of P2P news generation and citizen journalism - which advocates and boosters of such ventures and emergent processes - blogodemics, entepreneurs and financiers, and technorati and blogerati from all quarters, will have to grapple with and wrestle to Earth.

As an inversion of the Greek legend - I'd suggest - this is a foe which shrivels, grows weaker with contact with ground level realities but - held aloft as mental abstraction - swells to a powerful, intractible scope.

In other words - the Net will only change everything to the extent that we keep our feet on the ground.

7:55 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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