Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Associated Press needed an editor for its “plan for reclaiming news”

It’s strange how one of the largest news organizations in the world can make such a muddle when writing about serious issues in an important internal document.

I know the AP has good editors. But based on a reading of its confidential “plan for reclaiming news” you have to wonder whether they ever get to apply their skills to the strategic documents executives at the news cooperative produce. Thanks to the folks at the Nieman Journalism Lab for making the document available and for their intelligent reporting on the topic. The plan is worth reading. But it’s also troubling, the same way the American Press Institute’s proposals for saving newspapers were troubling. I wish industry leaders didn’t seem so defensive. There’s so much positive that could be done, and the AP, to its credit, is trying some interesting experiments.

So why do I say AP's planners needs an editor? Because editors make writing clear and understandable. And this “plan” is neither.

When reporters write news stories about the challenges an industry faces, it’s important that they be clear - and, of course, accurate - about what the problems are and what steps are proposed to address them. The reporters’ job is to help readers understand the problems and evaluate possible solutions. It’s also important that reporters be clear about the potential industry or company conflicts that stand in the way of or complicate possible solutions.

The first paragraph of the AP document makes a bald assertion without the facts to back it up that a good editor would require of any reporter. It talks of news content being monetized without fair compensation and “rampant” unauthorized use of AP content on literally tens of thousands of Web sites. It says the problem is quickly spreading. The document goes on in this vein and seems to mix and muddle two concerns: unauthorized use - the blatant stealing of entire stories or photographs - and the use of headlines and snippets by search engines and others. It never makes clear how big the first problem is. Is there really that much revenue being stolen from the owners of content as a result of bloggers and others cutting and pasting AP stories? I don’t know the answer from reading this document. But I question whether it’s a huge issue deserving of this kind of urgency. If it is, it would seem the AP has legal recourse that could serve as a persuasive warning to others. The document implies that what its authors perceive as the second problem is part and parcel of the first, that basic linking is costing the AP and newspaper publishers big time and constitutes “unauthorized” use. The conclusion one is apparently supposed to reach is that if links were not permitted without compensation, the AP would rake in more dough and the industry’s financial problems would at a minimum be much ameliorated. But there’s no analysis of the financial benefits the links bring to the papers getting the traffic or what it would cost them if they lost those links. Nor is there any examination of whether the AP has a legal foundation to challenge the link economy or why it hasn’t been able to put a stop to the “rampant unauthorized use of AP content.” Put simply: The AP position is confusing.

As for its concern about Wikipedia as a new major competitor (along with Twitter), it almost seems like a replay of the newspaper industry’s response to Craigslist. Oops, we didn’t think to build it. It would have hurt us. Somebody else did it anyway. Now they’re stealing our franchise. And we have to try to get it back. The document says the Web numbers for coverage related to Jackson’s death “suggest that more publisher content was likely consumed through search engines and aggregators than on site, which is the crux of the issue now facing publishers.” Well, do we know that to be true? Answer: No. A good editor would have asked for more rigor. It may be that other sources were better for Jackson coverage. Period. We live in a hugely competitive era. Would it also not be “likely” that Web users found many other places to go on the Web that they found more satisfying?

AP is right that Google and other aggregators get value from linking to AP content. But the AP and its members get value from the traffic generated by search engines. AP is wrong to think that just because The Los Angeles Times was the only newspaper in the top 20 for Web traffic related to Michael Jackson that it’s the fault of the aggregators or search engines. That’s not explored by the writers of the document. An editor would have asked whether there couldn’t be other explanations.

The AP’s plan sends a muddied shot across the bow of search engines and aggregators, one that I believe will sink into the sludge. I endorse the AP’s cell phone efforts and its attempt to standardize the markup of news copy to raise its profile for search engines. But I wonder whether the editors of the document shouldn’t have addressed the fact that there’s a tension between AP and its member newspaper owners. AP has historically been a business to business organization. Now it’s talking about creating features that will better serve consumers, something that is not clearly a part of AP’s DNA and something that has traditionally been the purview of its owner members. Wouldn’t an editor have asked for examples of where AP has shown itself capable of becoming a successful magnet for the general public? Just as newspapers struggle online because they’re always trying to protect the print product, the AP appears to be held back in this era because it must serve its members’ needs and can’t do what CNN or The New York Times have done, which is build robust online brands. How does it resolve that tension? Not clear from this document.

What is clear is that it wants to “extract” what it calls fair compensation from search engines and aggregators that link to its stories. Would you like to partner with somebody who wants to “extract” something from you? I can’t believe an editor would have let that word through. It's a telling word.

That’s not going to be the way to save the newspaper industry. What might be is to work with search engines and major aggregators to come up with ways to help journalism survive and thrive in the Internet era. A good editor would have asked the plan’s writers to answer whether the AP has any legal standing to take on the link economy and whether search engines or consumers would be likely to play along. The answer to both: No. But you wouldn’t know it from this call to action against those who are “siphoning off consumers and revenue from those whose content is being exploited.” What I would like to extract is the truth from that claim, something the writers of the plan never do.


  1. Great analysis, John.

    Sometimes I wonder if the AP execs are just trying to show movement and a "get tough" attitude to placate members and they really truly know these ideas are stupid.

    They don't seem to understand that by challenging fair use they're challenging a lot of what they themselves do.

    I keep thinking "why can't AP be more like NPR?" NPR has similar issues in terms of channel conflict. The members pay dues for NPR content, yet NPR has a destination site.

    And a great one at that. With constant innovation, like the recently released NPR News iPhone app.

  2. These are good points, John.

    I wonder at what point the AP will have completely abandoned its member-driven model (at least publicly) and force a true coalition to replace it. There are plenty of news orgs ready to jump off AP's ship.

  3. Mr. Temple appears to believe that the one "important internal document" on which he bases his blogpost is the lone, full summary of AP's ongoing efforts to protect its news content.

    Rest assured that additional materials, valuable research and AP's fruitful discussions with its members continue to inform this important undertaking.

    Paul Colford
    AP Director of Media Relations

  4. Outstanding!

    And as if to prove your point, along comes an AP flack who rebuts something you didn't say and ignores what you did say. Rarely has a communications company been so inept at communicating.

  5. Thank you, Mr. Colford, for your comment. But it begs the issue. News organizations routinely urge openness and transparency on the part of government and corporations. Yet your statement is that we should all "rest assured" that there are additional materials, etc. informing the AP's "undertaking." Well, based on the published accounts of interviews with AP executives, they sure couldn't explain their thinking clearly. Nor could the "plan" document. I've worked with AP in a variety of ways and have a great deal of respect for many in the organization. But that doesn't mean that we should "rest assured" it's on the right path with this plan. That's patronizing, at best. Perhaps you could explain the AP's thinking on links vs. outright taking of content?

  6. They don't seem to understand that by challenging fair use they're challenging a lot of what they themselves do.

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