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There’s something bland and homogeneous about an Associated Press wire story. Just the facts, ma’am, in classic inverted pyramid style. The satirical newspaper The Onion has made a mint mocking the news wire style, and the blogosphere has targeted the AP and Reuters for hidden agendas in their oh-so-perfect objective style.

How do the staid wire services play in a world where our attention is increasingly shifting toward the commentary and eyewitness reports of blogs and citizen media? Changing their very nature is difficult, so the major news wires have chosen to take small steps toward something bigger. Reuters sent a reporter into the virtual world Second Life and made alliances with blog aggregators Global Voices and BlogBurst. And now the AP has made an alliance with the Media Bloggers Assocation (MBA) for blog coverage of the Scooter Libby trial, and a wider deal with citizen media site, NowPublic.

The recent news of AP teaming with NowPublic was announced at the We Media conference in Miami, where the focus was on how the suits in media could adjust to the new decentralized world of citizen journalism. Jim Kennedy, vice president and director of strategic planning for the AP, told me the wire service has been seriously looking at citizen media since 2004, and has distributed iconic images shot by average citizens for many years.

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Jim Kennedy

“From the Oklahoma City bombing, there’s the famous picture of the fireman carrying the baby out of the rubble, captured by a bank clerk,” Kennedy said. “The space shuttle breaking up over Texas was captured by a cardiologist shot from his back porch. And we’ve had people capture shots in the Twin Towers during 9/11 and in the tunnel during the London bombings, and the tsunami images and video.

“The bottom line is this: You can’t continue to approach the news in the same way as you always have, in a world where everyone is equipped to capture some of that news. In the days when only the professionals were equipped to do that, then you had one approach. In a world where people have the tools at their disposal to contribute on a regular basis you’d be foolish not to tap into that. The potential here is that you have someone on the scene of almost everything, and as a news wire that’s a really rich resource to tap into.”

So what does NowPublic offer the AP in such an alliance? The site was launched in March 2005 but has built up a registered base of 60,000 contributors, who can upload text, photos, audio or video to the site. NowPublic co-founder Michael Tippett told me the site’s active participants are “in the thousands,” uploading material on a daily or weekly basis. The site has improved some past usability problems, according to Tippett, and NowPublic’s board now includes longtime online journalist Merrill Brown as chairman.

“NowPublic has a presence where [the AP] doesn’t have it,” Tippett said. “If news happens, chances are we have someone [there], more people than [the AP] does. [Our users] aren’t trained journalists, some of them are, but they can take photos and video and make phone reports and cover things that [the AP] just can’t cover. The other thing we do is make sense of all that stuff. That is a big problem for a lot of mainstream media organizations. If something happens, and a news organization tells readers ‘send in your coverage,’ they’ll get 20,000 emails, and what do you do with that? We have some filtering mechanisms to help them sort through stuff.”

As for figuring out hoaxes or inaccurate material, Tippett says the community can leave comments about stories or flag something if it doesn’t pass the smell test. But NowPublic is taking an open newsgathering approach where people in the community see raw material and help sort the good from bad. If something important breaks on NowPublic, and the AP is alerted to it, the wire service can then purchase the text or photos or video, and will pay the content creator — with a cut going to NowPublic.

“The AP gets the content, the creator gets paid and we would get a percentage of that,” Tippett said. “It’s the first time the AP has gone about this with an organized system.”

Bloggers Handcuff Themselves

Not long before the NowPublic alliance, the AP made an agreement with the Media Bloggers Association to point to their member bloggers’ coverage of the trial of Lewis “Scooter” Libby. The MBA made waves by getting press credentials for 18 bloggers — conservative and liberal — to rotate in to two slots in the court’s press room to live-blog the judicial proceedings.

[Full disclosure: I am a member of the MBA. Plus, the MBA will be running blog posts on the PBS Frontline site related to the News War documentary.]

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Robert Cox

Blogger Robert Cox is the president of the MBA, and is focusing on getting press credentials for bloggers at high-profile events, while also offering legal protection for bloggers. Cox told me some people at the AP had concerns about running unedited blogs from the courtroom, so he got the bloggers to agree to some basic ground rules of conduct.

“I called around to all the bloggers, and said, ‘There’s a time and place to be edgy,’” Cox said. “This is not the time to write a post titled ‘Dick Cheney is a [expletive deleted].’ We sought to address [the AP’s concerns] by saying we have a vetted membership of bloggers who’ve agreed to ascribe to certain ideals of what they’re trying to do. [The AP] has the kind of accountability that they want. I’m not going to control what the blogger writes, but if they get way out of line and embarrass the AP, they can be pulled from the feed.”

The AP is limiting the distribution of the bloggers’ posts from the trial, only including a pop-up box off their main Libby wire stories that run on about 750 medium- and small-market newspaper sites. So if you go to the Des Moines Register home page, you have to click on From AP Wire and then find the wire story on the Libby trial. Then you go down that page and find a box on the sidebar titled, “Posts from the Media Bloggers Association.” Clicking on that box brings up a pop-up page with headlines and the first few sentences from each blog post, which then links through to the blogs themselves.

The total distance from the Des Moines Register front page to the full blogger posts is at least four clicks. “The bloggers are literally being kept in a box,” Cox noted wryly.

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Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson, online editor at the AP who is overseeing the deal with the MBA, said the AP had to create this amount of distance to make sure its editors — and AP member newspaper editors — were comfortable with running the content.

“There was a certain amount of distancing we had to do,” Johnson told me. “The MBA is intriguing to us because they have some standards, they have a balanced group, with liberals and conservatives. They have an informal agreement about how far they would go with trashing people. It’s funny that what happens when people say they want legitimacy, they will put handcuffs on themselves. When you go to a court and say ‘I want to be certified to be a reporter,’ then suddenly the court administrators and lawyers see what you write about them. And you’ve crossed a threshold and it matters, because they can kick you out of the courtroom and keep you from coming back.

“That was a key selling point. We want to keep doing this with other trials and other events. And that means there’s certain language you can’t use. If you’re covering a beat, you can’t burn your sources.”

So far, no bloggers have had their credentials pulled, though Cox did have to remove a comment on the very first blog post about the trial. That comment was aimed at the AP for using Iraqi policeman Jamil Hussein as a source, a long-running feud the wire service had with the conservative blogosphere. Cox told the blogger to remove the comment, and she did.

But just as some bloggers are trying to become legitimate members of the press, other bloggers are wondering if that’s the point of what they do, and are opposed to creating a new elite for bloggers. Law blogger Tim Gebhart lauded the MBA’s efforts, but noted that many bloggers can already cover live events and that credentials work against the bloggers’ ethos. Here is part of Gebhart’s argument:

Any effort to proclaim one segment of a group of similarly situated individuals as an “elite,” entitled to advantages over the others, should raise red flags for all bloggers. Designating an “elite tier” of bloggers seems particularly contrary to one of the best concepts underlying blogs — they allow almost anyone a low-cost means of participating in the marketplace of ideas by distributing ideas, analysis, and criticism worldwide…

Don’t get me wrong. Adhering to certain ethical standards behooves bloggers and their readers, but it isn’t just what the [Washington] Post calls “this experiment of free expression” that is guilty of ethical lapses….An “elite” stamp from any particular organization does not guarantee anything. It certainly should never become the determinant of the legitimacy or value of any individual or collective blog.

Social Networks for News Junkies

So now that the AP has taken their baby steps into citizen media and blogs, what comes next? Cox hopes the MBA bloggers will move up the food chain at the AP and eventually have their content run directly on newspaper sites and perhaps in print. NowPublic hopes to gain more exposure for its site and its army of citizen journalists, who could get paid for their work.

Jim Kennedy at the AP says that wire services will become part of an online social network of news hounds, and says that professionals will still be needed.

“The Internet audience will evolve into a big social network of news junkies,” he said. “Instead of sitting in front of a television at 6:30 pm or reading a newspaper religiously every morning, the next generation of news junkies will be connected to the Internet through multiple devices and multiple networks, and news will surface through those networks. Working with people and letting them participate will become a built-in part of the consumption patterns. Connecting with users in a personal way will be part of what we’ll do. If you want to be the most comprehensive source in news you’ll have to connect to that resource or you won’t access the kind of news that you need to have.

“The professionals will still be on the big stories, and there will be a value to that and to editors and to setting the agenda of what the top stories are. But there will be this whole new visibility of other things, a Long Tail of news that’s impossible to capture now with what we’ve developed as mainstream tools, so we need to develop new tools and new networks to expand our reach. Everyone will do that. The kind of things we’re talking about now will be absolutely routine and expected in a couple years. It sounds really new and risky today, but if you’re not game to get in and work through the risks then you’re going to lose the opportunity, and that’s finally what we came to.”

What do you think about wire services stepping their toes into the citizen media waters? Are these the right steps, or should they be looking at more radical reinventions? What do you think the future holds for wire service stories, photos and video? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

UPDATE: David Bauder, the TV writer at the AP, didn’t appreciate my stereotype of all AP writing as being bland. Here’s what he wrote to me in an email:

As the television writer at the AP, I appreciated reading your smart, perceptive piece on the AP’s alliance with bloggers. All except the lede. There are a lot of people at the AP who take great pride in their writing, and a lot of examples of good, and different, writing on the wire. Sure, there are plenty of stories like you suggest, either due to time pressures, necessity (a story that doesn’t need much more) or lack of creativity. But it’s a sterotype I think we’re moving beyond, and it makes me wince to see it reinforced.

Fair enough. I think there’s a bit of tension on where the AP would go if it went beyond the bland and simple inverted pyramid. With so much opinion and snark in the online world and blogosphere, it might take a cultural leap for wire writers to go that far. And perhaps the fact that the AP is so focused on being bland and geting it right sets it apart from the ocean of online rants.