For many, last week’s news that the Associated Press planned to begin to crack down on news aggregators that link and quote its content wasn’t news at all. Media industry publications have long been reporting on the friction between the AP and aggregators — a series of verbal swipes made at conferences and in news articles that perhaps reached an apogee in an American Journalism Review article titled, “A Costly Mistake?“ which questioned whether the AP should have “refused to play with the portals.”
News organizations are finding it increasingly difficult to justify the expense of paying for articles that are appearing on hundreds of other websites simultaneously while others simply get away with block quoting and linking to the content. But while the AP scrambles to put the genie back into the bottle, there are several regional newspapers that are working to bypass the news subscription service completely. Early last year, a group of newspapers in Ohio formed a partnership called the Ohio News Organization (OHNO) to share and use each others’ stories, a move that seemed almost antithetical to the notion of competition for breaking news.
But these newspapers had already been sharing news stories with each other through the AP; the service took their articles, stripped them of attribution, repackaged them, and delivered them to their competitors. This new organization, newspaper editors said, would make for a more efficient method of redistributing the stories and, in the process, increase traffic to each others’ websites.
For roughly the past year, the eight OHNO members — the Columbus Dispatch, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Toledo Blade, the Dayton Daily News, the Akron Beacon Journal, the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Canton Repository and the Youngstown Vindicator — all shared their daily story lists on a secure site. If the Columbus Dispatch is considering sending a reporter to cover something in, say, Cleveland, the editors will first check whether the Plain Dealer is already covering the event, thereby allowing the Dispatch to avoid devoting unnecessary resources that could be put toward other stories. If a newspaper uses another publication’s article, it places the headline on its web home page and then links directly to the other paper’s website. This is the “payment” that the newspaper gives to place its competitor’s article in its own print pages.
Dropping Out of AP
Since forming this organization, several of the Ohio newspapers have given two-year notice to the AP that they plan to discontinue using its wire services. In light of AP’s recent crackdown on aggregators, I reached out to several of the Ohio newspaper editors to hear how they’ve fared in the last year and whether their strategy is an effective method of bypassing the AP cooperative.
Alan Miller, the managing editor for the Columbus Dispatch, told me last week that though his newspaper has put in notice with the AP that it would be discontinuing its services, the Ohio News Organization was not born solely out of frustrations with the news service.
“There’s a little bit of confusion out in the marketplace that this cooperative exists to somehow stick it to AP,” he said. “It was born out of some frustration with the Associated Press but also — and even more importantly — our eagerness to serve readers in a timely fashion, and do it very efficiently.”
Still, many of the frustrations that Miller described circled back to the AP distribution model. For one, he said that the service didn’t operate well on the Dispatch’s timetable, meaning that if he wanted to get hold of an AP version of a competitor’s story he might have to wait an entire 24 hours for the organization to take the story, re-edit it, and put it on the wire. He complained about the AP’s method of reworking the articles in that they felt “obligated to edit and edit and edit until the point that the life has been sucked out of these stories.”
“There is also an issue of credit for work that we’re all dealing with,” Miller told me. “When the Associated Press picks up a story, we usually don’t get credit in those stories for the work we’re doing. And though part of that has to do with pride, our main concern for credit is rooted in the fact that we want the world to know that newspapers are producing this stuff. The Associated Press is not. And the reason we want the world to know that is so they understand how important newspapers are.”
The understanding among the newspapers, he said, was mostly informal and so far had worked smoothly, with newspapers providing better coordination; the move has led to a more symbiotic relationship between the different news outlets. And over the past year Miller said his newspaper has used far fewer AP stories, especially for regional news (though it still uses the AP and other wire services for national and international coverage). So far, the decision to drop AP once the notice period is up still stands, though he said he will keep his mind open as he watches how the AP changes and adapts in the coming months.
Saving Resources Trumps Traffic Concerns
Curiously, the editors I spoke to for this piece didn’t seem that interested in how much traffic the experiment has been driving to their respective websites. Miller acknowledged that traffic has shown a steady increase, but noted that the Dispatch’s site gets far more traffic when it’s linked on places like The Drudge Report than when it appears on another newspaper’s front page. Most of the emphasis in our conversation was placed upon the increased efficiency of the new system, which allowed the news outlets to better use their increasingly smaller pool of resources (i.e. reporters).
Beacon Journal editor Bruce Winges said that in terms of web traffic, he hasn’t been “hearing much at all on that front” and that his newspaper’s motivation for participation is that it’s simply “just a good way of getting the best stories we can to our readers.”
Like the Dispatch, the Beacon Journal has put in notice that it’s canceling its AP services. I asked Winges about whether sharing resources might somehow cut down the competition between the papers, given that the Beacon could just link to a story rather than produce its own version.
“I still want to beat the Plain Dealer and the Plain Dealer still wants to beat me and so forth,” he replied. “But still, readers want good stories, and this is another way to get good stories to readers. If you would have asked me several years ago if we would have been doing this, I probably would have said I don’t think so, but it worked, and it’s worked well for us I think.”
The AP’s Response
Paul Colford, director of media relations for the AP, acknowledged that newspapers are struggling and that this is forcing them to seriously analyze how they allocate their resources.
“To that end, the AP Board of Directors this month further lowered, by $35 million, the rate assessments to be paid by member newspapers,” Colford wrote. “The board also introduced the option of a ‘Limited’ service of AP news content, aimed at papers with minimal international and national coverage needs.”
He disagreed with Miller’s assertions about credit, saying that the AP has always tried to provide attribution for stories when possible. “I hope it’s clear that AP — a member-owned cooperative — does provide member credit and papers’ URLs on those stories that we pick up exclusively from one member (if we weave a couple of member stories together, we don’t provide that credit),” he said. “We also provide in-body-copy credit to all members who have exclusive material — material that shows enterprise beyond routine beat coverage, and if the member quotes anonymous sources. As a result, for example, the AP has given The Columbus Dispatch credit on hundreds of stories in the past 12 months.”
But the elephant in the room for these conversations was the question of whether the Ohio News Organization is evidence that the AP’s business model (and way of delivering content) is outdated, that the genie could never be returned to the bottle and that newspapers shouldn’t be paying for content available all over the web. At the end of his email to me, Colford said that characterizing the OHNO model as “a regional version of the AP” was “inaccurate.”
“I think the AP’s model is changing,” Winges said. “I don’t think they’ve been hit as hard by the change as we have but I think they will in the near future. They do a lot of good original reporting, especially on the national and international scale; they provide a lot of good information. I think what we’ll find is a lot of the information that we reproduce is valuable, we know that, and I think we’ll continue to find there are different ways to get that information.”
Miller was similarly hesitant to declare the death of the service.
“You know, I think that if AP continues to work toward something that’s more palatable to newspapers that are struggling with the current economic conditions, that what they offer is still in demand,” he said. “It’s just, can we justify the cost for the value? I think it would take significant effort on the part of these small cooperatives to somehow supplant AP, at least for everything we get from AP. That would be a huge challenge.
“But AP is not the only one out there offering this kind of content. That’s why we subscribe to McClatchy and New York Times, and Scripps Howard and a few other services. Because they all offer things that we need and want, we might be able to piece something together. But if you’re asking me in a year or two will we see some competitor for AP that will provide everything we need? I can’t see that happening yet.”
Simon Owens is a former newspaper journalist and an associate editor for MediaShift. He currently works as an online analyst for New Media Strategies. You can read more of his writing at his blog or contact him at simon[.]bloggasm [at] gmail.com.