The Real Danger for AP

UPDATED: Clarifying a few points.

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There’s a lot of grumbling and retorting about the AP’s attempt to then sort-of retreat from making bloggers either paraphrase or take down their pickups of material from the venerated wire service. But there’s a more immediate problem that runs deeper than complaints from bloggers like Michael Arrington, Jeff Jarvis or Jeff Nolan.

A few weeks back the editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on "On the Media" talked about how newspapers in Ohio were reaping great benefits trading material, and linking and cross linking. More importantly, she said she was no longer reliant on The Associated Press for her stories from the region but instead was getting the original versions direct from the other sources around the state rather than paying “a big chunk” of her budget, about $1 million for rewritten AP stories. Picking up directly, on the Web, and putting other papers’ stories directly in the newspaper was also better quality, she said, and readers were noticing:

“I mean, we've always had access to news from all over the state. It was just, you know, it went through the AP mill. I frankly think we're getting better, more distinctively written stories because they're not going through the AP mill.”

If local papers skip the AP, that means the core constituency is in revolt. That will potentially be more corrosive than the fight with the blogosphere over fair use. "As long as there are are two papers to trade articles, the AP will exist," one rake at the wire service -- where I worked for seven years on the international desk and as a foreign correspondent -- quipped to me once. But what if the members form their own cooperatives and cut out the AP as middleman?

I’m not saying this will happen immediately. AP, whose core business is the not-for-profit cooperative dues of member newspapers, has offered to cut its rates starting next year. Newspapers, despite ad and circulation declines for decades, have been notoriously slow moving, and many will be reluctant to pick up content from papers they might think of as competitors; the AP has given them the cover they sought to do so less blatantly. But the economic pressures are only increasing as revenues and readership decline more precipitously, and any success in Ohio could be the thin edge of a wedge. “We've set up this little cooperative,” said the Plain Dealer editor, Susan Goldberg. “I don't know how it'll work in the future, but right now it's working really well.”

Add to that AP’s deal to have its direct results placed higher in Google than member papers, further pissing them off, and newspapers will look harder at the Ohio example. We're talking months or perhaps years, certainly not decades. The example could spread nationally or internationally.

CEO Tom Curley has been leading the AP into a future in which an increasing share of its revenues comes from sources other than member dues, such as direct photo revenues, Web content services and broadcast fees. But the transformation may not be fast enough. AP doesn't have the luxury of Bloomberg or Thomson Reuters in which news gathering can be supported by financial terminals that really bring in the bucks.

AP should own the Web. It has its roots in the trading and sharing of information. It gets a significant chunk of revenue from providing the backbone through which others pass content. It coded and tagged and parsed content with everything from category codes to prioritization markings, and ways to match text and photos decades before those practices became fashionable for everyone. But culture and old habits are very hard to change, and I fear for the company's viability while hoping it can work out a more creative win-win solution for all.

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