Time for a change: The Associated Press as Napsterized news

The Associated Press is planting the seeds of its own demise.

AP’s most recent act of self-destruction was its April 18 announcement that it would start charging newspaper and broadcast clients an additional fee for using AP content on their web sites.

This move — sprung on its clients just as they are recognizing the urgent need to reinvent themselves in multi-media, web-driven modes — ignores powerful trends:

  • All forms of content are migrating – each to its most appropriate medium. Readers and advertisers are following.
  • As news media and other information providers jump into one media platform after another, the Web is emerging as their operational core.
  • From blogs to open-source journalism to free newspapers, a wave of unpaid information is sweeping paid information off the media beach.
  • As content loses value, expert editing and customer-driven bundling are becoming the tools for building audience. And audience — not content — is the news industry’s value proposition.

Contrast those trends with AP’s recent moves:

  • Belatedly taking note of precipitous readership declines among young people, the AP is shopping around a youth publication prototype called APtitude. Its dominant story form is long narrative accompanied by a photo or two. But young people, as Rupert Murdoch recently pointed out, are digital natives, not digital immigrants. Their primary language is digital. When they do use their secondary language, print, their warmest response is to print formats that are highly visual and that are built with high proportions of short, non-narrative story forms. (See recent research at the Readership Institute.) This ill-conceived venture will add to the costs born by AP clients.
  • Addicted to its transmission fee revenues, AP has chosen not to replace its high-cost distribution model (whose roots were planted in the telegraph era) with low-cost web distribution.
  • Confronted with the rapidly growing need for web-specific content like Flash files, audio clips and other multimedia elements, AP has chosen to spend more of its members’ money to create that content rather than facilitate content-sharing among its members.

AP started as a cooperative. Today, it is a cooperative in name only. It’s time to take a lesson from music swappers and invent the new AP – a digital cooperative, a Napsterized news service.

The 21st Century news business needs a peer-to-peer network that lets local operations drive cost out of their non-local news packages, divert resources to local web content creation and operate on a level playing field with bloggers, citizen journalists and internet pure plays.

The network should be a closed, password-protected system. All content would live on members’ computers and would be indexed and shared through a central search. Open source software would keep costs down and assure compatibility with both Mac and Windows PCs.

Sharing would be governed by a karmic balance. The more you make available to the network, the more you can take out. An organization in karmic deficit would have to true up by paying a surcharge on the monthly fee.

An elected committee would administer the network, set sharing rules and levy the monthly fees – which primarily would pay for technology.

The network should support subgroups, allowing operations under common ownership to share files within the larger system and make those files available outside each subgroup as they see fit. This sub-group ability also would encourage regional networks — or even groups with a special interest in a particular story or subject area — to form ad hoc.

Members would have to adopt thorough formatting taxonomy and keywording schemes that would make articles easy to search, sort and parse for publication. Suitable schemes already exist through independent standards bodies such as the International Press Telecommunications Council and the news division of the Special Libraries Association.

A PubSub-like function would allow a member to be notified when stories with key topics hit the networks. For instance, a Knoxville newspaper or broadcast outlet would get an alert when any member uploaded a story about the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Of course, editing standards would be as varied as the members – and in some cases would not be up to the AP’s standards. But most news operations – particularly those in small or mid-sized markets – use less wire copy these days and try to localize what they do use. So long as members attribute with care, journalistic standards will not be in jeopardy.

If the network pulled in one or two large U.S. news organizations plus a few from abroad, national and world news demands could be met easily. Members with adequate editing capacity could work network content into tight national and world packages and make those available – perhaps for added Karma credit within the network.

The AP creates very little exclusive coverage. With enough members and shared editing capacity, the nation/world category would be dealt with easily.

Perhaps the toughest content area to cover would be statistical services like sports agate and stock tables. But think about that for a minute. Are stock tables still relevant when every investor has her portfolio set up on a financial web site? And couldn’t a committee of sports editors come up with an alternative source of box scores?

Although the technological challenges of Napsterized news might seem formidable to many news people, they are, in fact, minor. Most of the technology already exists, much of it is in open source and dealing with it isn’t rocket science.

Most news organizations already use the Internet extensively, have plenty of file servers and understand Windows/Apple networks. There would be no massive, centralized technology. The concept is lean, with most of the computing power residing at each member’s location.

As we started talking about this, we asked ourselves, “Yeah, but when have newspapers ever succeeded in working together? Look at New Century Network and all the other cooperative brainstorms that failed.”

But all such initiatives started with fatal flaws:

  • Some took control away from participants. Our idea leaves control with the members.
  • Ego wrecked many of them. But egos tend to calm down when no power position exists. Sharing is just sharing.
  • Voracious money pits swallowed most of them. This idea, to the contrary, could save news organizations a lot of money. Imagine driving 90% of the cost out of a newspapers’ wire service budget line. How much excellent local coverage could be created with the money saved?

If AP had its collective head firmly inside the 21st Century, it already would be moving at least parts of its services in the Napster direction. But AP is like any business confronted with a disruptive technology. Its first inclination is self-preservation, not cannibalization.

One of the smaller news services with less to lose could jump into Napsterized news, but the small ones tend to follow the lead of the big ones.

The best bet is a start-up consortium, perhaps starting with a few of the smaller corporate groups and independent newspapers.

We’re ready to host the first meeting. Anybody want to talk?

Bob Benz is general manager of print web operations for E.W. Scripps. Mike Phillips is the company’s newspaper division editorial director.

About Mike Phillips

Mike Phillips is editorial director of the newspaper division at E.W. Scripps.


  1. I’m all about it. I think the first steps are to create such applications that work within single organizations, searching the local library, works-in-progress, etc. The wonderful thing is that once this type of architecture is set up, p2p networks can be ‘bridged’ allowing one organization to share with another. Over time the industry could end up completely bridged and the need for the AP is obviated. Step one is building the content sharing infrastructure. Step two is P2P commerce to allow for the realtime purchases of reproduction rights. Step two is probably the hardest part.

  2. Interesting idea! It certainly sounds more Web-friendly than the current AP setup.

    I’ve gotta ask, though: Doesn’t this attempt to solve a symptom of the problem rather than the problem itself?

    The problem — as I see it, at least — is that what the AP does is unnecessary in the age of the Internet. Here’s my (quite possibly incorrect) understanding of what it did for print newspapers:

    1. Gave papers filler content to put between ads when there wasn’t enough local copy.

    2. Gave them access to coverage of out-of-market news, so that the local newspaper could be a one-stop shop for all news — local, national and international. So the paper in Smalltown, Nebraska, could have front-page stories about the Pope.

    Why does a local news site need to print national and international news? Do site maintainers really believe that people visit the Smalltown, Nebraska, newspaper Web site to find out what’s going on in Iraq? Does it make sense for a local news site to have national news coverage when CNN, the Washington Post, Google News, et al, are a click away?

  3. Elliot Onn says:

    Adrian: Although AP stories can be used as bland filler, the potential for a P2P news system as suggested by Benz and Phillips, is that you enable more individual organizations, and for that matter individuals (“bloggers, citizen journalists and internet pure plays”) to serve as an extended part of your newsroom. As I see it, the predominant issue is having a way to rank and know the credibility of an author and his/her work. If you create exclusive “sub-groups” to ensure journalistic quality, there will be a great deal of individual journalists outside of the exclusive group, who will never see their work under consideration.

    Glenn: The idea of purchasing for reproduction rights is what we are looking to avoid. The “karmic balance” is such that you take as much as you give. I am skeptical as to how two articles can be quantitatively compared by a computer program (characters provide numerical count, only a human can judge quality).

    Finally, I believe a system devoid of any monetary interchange is a better system than where you can financially compensate for your “karmic” shortcomings. That system allows for the rich organizations to dominate the environment (i.e. “voracious money pits swallowed most of them.”)

    The open-souce community would certainly welcome and perhaps be willing to build a program such as this. It seems reasonable to me that every user or group establish a profile, so before the exchange of news takes place, one user can view the others profile as a form of background check.

  4. AP writing it’s own obit by charging more? That’s like saying Verizon is hurting itself by offering crappy service — you CAN charge more when you have a monopoly! AP IS the news, at least what is found on news.google.com, 90% of US front pages and broadcast news! Remember when most US newspapers fired most reporters, lowered salaries, and filled their pages with AP stories? THAT’s why people don’t read the paper anymore! By raising its pricing, AP is demonstrating its competence as an enterprise For editors who don’t like AP’s price hike — wa wa wa, cry to your publisher to hire back some real reporters and get some real news!

  5. There is hope in the halls of traditional media. Mssrs. Benz and Phillips seem to “get it” as far as “being digital” means (apologies to MIT). At least in the opening strains of their lengthy piece, they seem to get the picture. And they clearly responded sensitively to Murdoch’s speech at ASNE.

    They stopped short of saying how easy it would be for media organizations to embrace the revolution and share their own content — without any help from the AP. But then the last part of their piece sounded so much like the immigrants that we all are.
    — rlr

  6. The Benz Phillips piece is certainly a wakeup call for AP. It’s also a bit naive. An excerpt from a more lengthy comment on my weblog:

    “You think your local desk is going to want to deal with some of the — to put it politely — less-than-ideal copy offered up by local outlets? And what if that’s the only source for your story? Or what if that source doesn’t publish in English? And so long as members attribute with care, journalism standards will not be in jeopardy? That’s why we have some of the garbage we have in papers now — the same he said/she said/we quoted both sides so you can’t hold us responsible journalism that has alienated our readers.

    AP does give you some bodies on the ground — maybe not on the scene, but close enough to be able to sift the genuine from the shady. The argument by Benz and Phillips springs from the “transparency” standard favored by many in blogging and other new media — as long as we dislose how we came by it, etc., we’re covered. But transparent crap is still transparent crap. Transparency is a valuable way to help build credibility, but it is not credibility in and of itself.”


  7. Susan Allen says:

    Hey, I think the demise of the AP began when the policy became to only rewrite “news” stories from media outlets which were members. No matter what the importance of the story could be, it will not get reported unless the outlet is an AP member.

    The AP, which for decades, has been known as a trusted source of information is now nothing more than a corporate machine. Their motto should be “It’s only news, if we get money for it.” What a disgrace to the principle.

  8. John Collins says:

    Hooray, it looks like Scripps executives are finally acknowledging their mistake in walking away from UPI. It’s great to see Scripps willing to put its vast fortunes behind paying off the costs of the libel suits when content from questionable sources is published. A provocative but perhaps much too revolutionary idea of news gathering.

  9. We’re already doing this. It’s called NEWSapE.com (get it?), and we welcome anyone to join us. We’ve got a great FREE sharing tool online that our resident genius programmers have developed. We’ll host anybody at no charge. You can exchange with any other participating organization.

    It is really a good tool — easy to use, and fast. Articles can be associated with photos or Illustrator files or compressed archives or whatever you want. You can search in a variety of ways. You can provide advance budgets to you co-op partners. We can even exclude your competitors from seeing your material, even if they are also a member of NEWSapE.

    Yes, it is time for Napsterized news, but we will need to ramp up to a national exchange. It’s not going to happen overnight.

    Any newspaper interested in taking a look at NEWSapE.com should contact Mark Bullard at the Daily Herald in Provo, Utah. His e-mail is [email protected].

    Randy Wright

  10. I should add to my previous post:

    We see the first step in Napsterizing news as being a return to the cooperative concept. AP started out this way, but over the years has come to see itself more as a commerecial vendor with customers.

    With our fledgling new cooperative, NEWSapE members offer their material at no charge in exchange for receiving material at no charge. The easiest arrangement is to pick a newspaper in your region with which you share some common news coverage interest — like the capitol or sports. Then work out your own agreement on what you want to share with each other. NEWSapE provides the tool for sharing at no cost.

    We’ll see how it evolves. I’m certainly open to suggestions on a basic agreement between the partners in the use of NEWSapE. As for such things as publication rights, I see no problem for now with newspapers making their own arrangements with each other.

    By the way, NEWSapE is secured by passord and IP, so you can’t log on unless you’re an approved member. And even if an employee leaves your newsroom to join your competitor and takes your password, they won’t be able to rip off your stories.

    Randy Wright
    Executive Editor
    Daily Herald
    Provo, UT

  11. Oh, one other thing … (sorry, I’m doing 10 things at once today) …

    We’re sharing news ON CYCLE, not a DAY LATE as under the AP model.


  12. >>”As content loses value, expert editing and customer-driven bundling are becoming the tools for building audience. And audience – not content – is the news industry

  13. (((As content loses value, expert editing and customer-driven bundling are becoming the tools for building audience. And audience — not content — is the news industry

  14. The Peer-to-Peer aspect is already underway in Connecticut. The afternoon daily in Willimantic (the chronicle.com) dropped the Associated Press three years ago. It uses Reuters and LAT/WP to replace the AP

  15. With their recent TrustRank movement, our friends at Google clearly see the coming need for qualifying what to this point has merely been quantified. Namely, the “stand-alone journalist”.

    While I’m not so soon to write AP’s obituary, I do see the writing on the wall. Pity those who choose to react rather than act on what is coming.

  16. Chris J. Walter says:

    I am fascinated by the ideas mentioned in the initial document by Mssrs Benz&Phillips as they reflect very much the proposals I have brought forward as head of development at a national wire service in Switzerland (which I left since) a long time ago already. I am convinced that the media industry can benefit profoundly from well optimized, professional content sharing services which will become a virtual marketplace similar to eBay.com or other professional trading plattforms.

    I am all for it and would like to propose as next steps to give this initiative a somewhat more formal environment by

    – giving it a name (something like ‘google’ or so 🙂
    – creating a room to continue and expand this discussion in digital way (like an eGroup at yahoo.com or something similar) which should allow for multiple topics and for proper threading etc.

    I am certainly ready to contribute details for the model I’ve had the time to think about for several years now. (Before well known reflexes to disruptives changes became effective, it was endorsed as a strategic project by the board of directors what allowed for some prototyping work to be done). I am convinced that a scalable technical (preferably open source) solution is relatively easy to achieve and that most if not all concerns can be addressed in the long run. However, the most challenging task will be to convince all the established players in the news industry to adopt new ways of doing daily business. Of course, there is a economic argument growing stronger by the day and this will be helpful.

    Numerous initiatives for establishing some sort of an exchange for news articles have taken place all over the planet and can be reached on the Web and some are mentioned in comments above. As forerunners they have planted the fields and have created awareness for new possibilities emerging with new technologies. But they have not changed the industry (yet!). What is fascinating me is that this seems to change now as executives from a considerable media company have come to the same or similar conclusions and are supporting steps to move forward. It is not only the media companies in the U.S. (with the specific AP membership situation), but the news industry on a global scale who can benefit from a re-arranging of the way news content is exchanged among professional partners. Although, thanks to the Internet, content can flow around the globe (almost) for free nowadays, it is important that professionally created content keeps it quality and commercial value. A future news exchange network must strive to not only provide a smart technical solution, but to preserve these values in a fast and sometimes adversely changing world.

    [email protected]

  17. Allan Kim says:

    Could AP’s new policy have more to do with empire-building at AP Digital than with institutional cluelessness. While I’m not privy to price information, I’d suspect it’s intended to drive newspapers toward premium services (e.g. AP Wire) and to discourage AP members from publishing and distributing AP content on their own.

    The idea of P2P news cooperatives supplementing or replacing AP does have some appeal. I am concerned that years of enjoying the luxury of the wire-service libel exemption have eroded independent news judgment at small- and mid-sized papers, and I wonder if editors are ready to paddle their own figurative canoes on state and regional issues.

  18. I was looking for something in the article which justifies the term “experience paper.” I have to draw issue with the methodology for the conclusions. I don’t see how this identifies any new audience and separates that new audience from any previous audience.
    On page eight of the startrib_overview.pdf we are shown two ads and told this represents the old and the new. All I can see are two approaches which have been taken for as long as I can remember. Writing an ad which appeals to someone’s eye and someone’s interest is as old as any display advertising (or nature). The catalog-listing derided here are the very things sought out by persons who are looking for price listings in shopper type publications and web sites. The catch-your-interest ads are draws in other types of publications. A further extension are those ads which are deliberately obscure. I fail to see how this is new.
    Here is a text summary from page seven:
    “In summary, the main techniques used were:

  19. Hi. I am very much interested on this story ablout AP’s future. Very interesting.

    Could somebody mail me the AP’s 2004 annual report? AP is declining to release it to journalist…


    Patrick White

    Contact me by e-mail: [email protected]