The AP struggle for survival

The grumbling by some Associated Press members has "gone public" and is nicely summarized by Forbes writer Louis Hau, who asks: "Do newspapers still need The Associated Press? And does The Associated Press still need newspapers?" I discussed this last September when I wrote that "AP's goose has been in the oven for years." Not a lot has changed since then except for some editors objecting to AP's fairly reasonable efforts to perpetuate itself in the new world.

AP has announced it's restructuring and simplifying its member assessments (that's AP-speak for "pricing") in a revenue-neutral way. By definition, that means there will be winners and there will be losers.

Hau writes that "AP copy accounts for up to 40% or more of many a daily paper's news content," but that's not true of smaller daily newspapers, most of which are pulling back on global coverage and focusing entirely on local issues. Some have simply dropped AP service.

My employer owns a bunch of smaller newspapers. Not surprisingly, we came out slightly ahead in the rate restructuring.

Larger newspapers generally are likely to see increases, and some of them are complaining.

AP is a member-owned cooperative and a business. Under the direction of its newspaper owners, it's mutated into a company that derives only 30 percent of its revenues from U.S. newspapers, and those newspapers are clearly receding in importance as a "customer base." Any sound business strategy would have the AP focusing on growth areas such as new media and commercial sales.

For editors who are frustrated by the existence of new media, this is no comfort. But the AP's new plan actually has some benefits for newspapers, at least in theory. Members will be able to choose from a much broader selection of content, including much that's not available to commercial customers.

Here's the idea: Local interest isn't entirely defined by geography. If you're editing a newspaper in a cotton-producing area such as West Texas, a cotton-related news item from afar might be of more interest than a news story from Dallas. So AP's plan is to let editors search pretty much everything and use what makes "local" sense, rather than requiring that a newspaper in a cotton town subscribe to a separate business wire in order to find out what's happening in Egypt.

In practice this doesn't work as well as you might hope, because all search technology falls short of what we imagine it to be, editors still have to dig through a pile in order to find the occasional gem, and the wire/copy desk has just about disappeared from the American newspaper scene due to budget cutting.

The big picture is that the old Associated Press is dead. It exists only in the imaginations of a few newspaper editors. The new Associated Press may find a path to survival, but it's not going to please those in the world it's leaving behind.