The AP’s Battle For Relevance In A Decentralized Universe

How the Web is breaking up the news gangs

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What’s the biggest threat to a centralized organization? Decentralization, of course. Like antimatter to the AP’s matter, the populous Web built a new publishing reality Old Media would rather not face: they’ve lost control of the news.
Computers Taking Over
For over a century, the Associated Press has controlled the news in text form. But this century brings the AP a larger threat than it has ever faced: the decentralization of news dissemination and the removal of news publication cost barriers due to the Internet.

The Associated Press, so the narrative of its origin goes, was born of inglorious necessity. Competing journalists in rowboats braved the rough waters of New York Harbor, and precariously clamored aboard immigrant ships for news from Europe. Enough of them drowned that those surviving thought it best to centralize the process and form a union for news distribution. In that sense, it was designed to be anticompetitive from its very start: one collaborative organization distributing news for all.

And the AP would like to keep it that way.

Slate.com’s Jack Shafer points us to an article, ironically found via Google Book Search, written in 1918 by legendary journalist Oswald Garrison Villard for The Atlantic. Shafer’s intent was to highlight the similarity between concerns about the newspaper industry expressed nearly a century ago to concerns being volleyed about the newspaper industry today. Today, it’s the Internet (and by symbolic scapegoat default: Google), and then, it was the cost of paper threatening the news industry.

No doubt you’ve heard the famous maxim advising one shouldn’t pick fights with people who buy ink by the barrel. Villard eloquently illustrated people who buy ink by the barrel are no match for the man controlling the price of paper. (If you watched “Family Guy” Sunday night, you know that was William Randolph Hearst.)

Oswald Garrison Villard
Oswald Villard
Photo: Wikipedia

Villard worried about the number of dailies going under because they couldn’t withstand the rising cost of publishing. He also worried about the lack of sufficient advertising to support newspapers and the growing number of one-paper towns (the “old American tradition” was to have two newspapers, one for each side of the issues). Though many newspaper failings were the result of poor management (just like now), there were at the time numerous papers in the US run at a loss, even when paper was cheap, by passionate publishers psychologically invested.

“There is one penny daily in New York which has not paid a cent to its owners in twenty years; during that time its income has met expenses only once.” Nevertheless, Villard wrote, “the deficit is cheerfully met each year.”

But because of the new cost of the newspaper business, he feared only businessmen, not journalism purists, would be able to sustain newspapers. Hence, he thought, great new causes, ideas, and voices not supported by industry would not be heard. Cost alone would prevent a “journal of protest,” like those set up by abolitionists and early Republicans in the previous century, from being founded.

“It is a situation to cause much uneasiness when one looks into the more distant future and considers the distrust of the press because of a far-reaching belief that the large city newspaper, being a several-million-dollar affair, must necessarily have managers in close alliance with other men in great business enterprises,–the chamber of commerce, the merchants’ association group,—and therefore wholly detached from the aspirations of the plain people.”
This thought brings us around to the current (1918 and 2009) problem of the Associated Press. The AP of early last century was as prone to monopoly and protected by barriers to entry as the burgeoning, reinvented newspaper industry was. Villard mentions the technology required to create and distribute “ready-to-print” news to 14,000 publications across the country. He feared those who could afford such syndication structures could manipulate the news in their favor throughout the nation.

These cost barriers persisted throughout the 20th century in all media, in newspapers, radio, and TV, and did not come down until the advent of the Internet and subsequent technologies to make use of it. Suddenly anyone with a small amount of money could be instantaneously and simultaneously a journalist, publisher, and distributor.

And that’s a huge, huge threat to the AP, an organization that has enjoyed a monopoly on the news precisely because of cost barriers. Surviving newspapers benefited as well, not only because of cost barriers for publication, but also because the AP’s centralized news and syndication structure allowed them to offset the costs of journalism itself (staffing, travel, etc.) with ready-to-print news at a much lower cost.

Robert Scoble
Robert Scoble

The newspapers failing today are the papers whose owners bet on these barriers remaining in place for the foreseeable future and proceeded with business as usual. Robert Scoble provides a list of digital services that newspapers should have intuitively been at the forefront of—classifieds, reviews, local news, astrology, comics, etc.—but were upstaged by small, nimble upstarts without the burdens of enormous debt those who bet against the Internet have incurred. (Shafer notes how those papers falling the hardest are those whose owners paid astronomical sums to acquire them right at the onset of the digital revolution.) 

Quite obviously, the Internet has toppled the news game onto its head. The Internet, bloggers, and search engines become not just a threat to the AP’s news monopoly and business model, they become a threat to the AP’s relevance. And that’s why—as opposed to sanctimonious weeping about search engines profiting from their material while refusing to opt out of search distribution algorithms—the AP is staging an assault on the very (non)structure of the World Wide Web.

By chance in 2006, I coined the phrase “the Associated Blogosphere,” and come to think of it, that’s the worst news the AP could hear.

The AP’s Battle For Relevance In A Decentralized Universe
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  • Rich Ord

    The “AB” is in many ways already more powerful than the AP. I think the AP does provide a great service in covering stories that otherwise would not be covered, but that doesn’t mean that the AP will survive in the long run. It’s business model has simply run its course.

    Rich Ord
    CEO, iEntry, Inc.
    Publisher of WebProNews

  • http://donscycleware.com Donc

    The AP is a good example of a 20th Century monopoly that has to evolve or die. Printed newspapers are apparently an outmoded method for disseminating information. They are the AP’s bread and butter. The internet is driving them to extinction. I haven’t bought a newspaper for years and probably won’t for the foreseeable future.

    If the AP is going to survive they have to find a way to market their product in the 21st century. It won’t be easy but hopefully for their sake they have sufficient resources to make the painful changes necessary to survive

  • James

    Lets here it for the death of biased news reporting. Currently most of the news stations and AP are owned by the 5 large media conglomerates.
    It is time for creative destruction of the news monopoly. And hopefully
    everyone will benefit by its destruction. When was the last time you heard any of the major media talk or criticize our government / officials for failing to adhere to their oath of office (that is their personal pledge to support the constitution) or for that matter all of
    the shenanigans that is currently going on in our government that is forbidden by the constitution.

    There was a time in this country when the news media helped keep the government in check by fairly reporting on the governments attempts to subvert the constitution.


  • Guest

    I liked your story, and its content until you made claim that the current ownership bought in at the wrong time. The other claim about a men’s only club is a lie (many of these people have children and so they are ‘family persons’).

    The discrimination and assults committed by the Old Media to retain un-elected power is wrong by any standard. In my country (not the USA) the papers have feministic funding while they promote the assult, bashing, and intimidation of any other life form (preferance of male) against their commercial ideals that benfit them selves. And I would assert to the extent that all space suits must be for abled body persons with hollywood badges while writting laws to sell land they do not own – and never legaly will own until they can removal all others who are not rich enough to afford the true cost of this fraud syndication for the benfit of a few at the expence of all life on this planet.

    I would love to go on and on, but I think you get my point.
    Long live the net!

  • http://www.gunnarandreassen.com Gunnar Andreassen

    AP needs to re-think, re-invent or something.

  • http://www.freelygive-n.com Robin Calamaio

    Bury Them.

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