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Tom Curley, AP's New Boss, Is No Longer Thinking About Today

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The former president and publisher of USA Today says he sees a rosy future for the world's largest news service.

Tom Curley moved from "the nation's newspaper" to "the world's news service" when he left his job as president and publisher of USA Today to succeed Louis Boccardi as president and CEO of Associated Press in June.

At 54, the former wire editor with 31 years experience on the editorial and business side became just the 12th person to lead the news cooperative since its founding in 1848 -- and the first outsider in at least 40 years.

Curley, who also was a senior vice president of USA Today?s parent Gannett Co., Inc., takes on a $600-million budget and a multimedia company that because of its ubiquity can seem like its competing against itself. AP's omnipresence increased in 2000, when the cooperative broke from tradition and began selling content to nonmembers. The move allowed AP to keep costs down and fund new services for members; it also blunted the competitive edge between AP members and other news providers. (Member news organizations have part ownership in and are obligated to contribute news to the cooperative.)

Online, AP offers member-only services like The Wire -- customized Web sites that are accessed through specific news outlets; AP Online -- a limited feed designed to flow onto sites via software; and AP Digital, which provides content for Web sites and wireless services. In some way, shape or form, the AP claims to reach more than one billion people a day. 

"The Net went through several phases and only now is approaching what I could call rational: There was a great mania, a great collapse, it was overvalued, it was undervalued and now people are trying to integrate it into business strategies."
-- Tom Curley, AP president and CEO

Curley faces the difficult task of using experience gained first as part of the original USA Today team and later as its top executive without raising the specter that AP is about to be "McPapered." He has another tightrope to walk: ensuring the news cooperative makes the most of the Internet without disenfranchising its own members. 

Curley has spent the summer getting to know AP from the inside and laying the groundwork for serious discussions about the AP's near-and-long term future. This week Curley and some of his staff are going on a retreat in upstate New York to "debate the priorities and hopefully ... come up with some breakthrough ideas" about where to take the AP next. Excerpts from two phone interviews follow:


Q: Where do you start?

A: You just look at all the lines of business and try to learn and spend time with the things that seem to be the least familiar. AP is making a very strong initiative on ad infrastructure, so I?m trying to come up to speed on that; that commercial business area is important to understand. The core business of AP I understand. ... Having been one of AP?s largest customers and having years of experience as a wire editor, I?m not unfamiliar with what AP has been about. Fundamentally, it comes down to listening.

Q: What do AP?s members want these days?

A: Anything you can do to help provide context, to help provide a complete package ... in different sizes and formats. That?s a clear message.

Q: Do they want broadband content?

A: There are only a few that have really so far gotten into the broadband play. Many others are looking more for texture on a story, context, some perspective on an event, a breaking story. There are many who want help with the packaging. ? The technology enables you to do everything and then present it just about in every way. That?s the great opportunity of Associated Press -- it has all the pieces of all media and the technology to deliver it.

Q: What do you bring with you from the experience of being at the helm when USA Today went online?

A: The last thing I want anybody to conclude is I had any desire to "USAToday-ize" AP or anything like that. ? I think some of the things I do bring are some familiarity with the various media forms, what it means to be competitive, to provide the news at a high level -- and it comes in terms of packages with a strong graphics play.

Q: There?s still sensitivity about importing ideas from "McPaper"?

A: You just don?t want to come in and be seen as that.

Q: Without bringing USA Today into it, what did you learn about the online world as a businessman that you bring to AP?

A: The Net went through several phases and only now is approaching what I could call rational: There was a great mania, a great collapse, it was overvalued, it was undervalued and now people are trying to integrate it into business strategies. This is a far better time for the Net, and people?s investments in the Net make a lot more sense.

Q: When you were a wire editor, if there was a problem with a story that went out on the AP morning cycle or the evening cycle it usually could be fixed before it went public. Now one stroke sends a story across the world where it is instantly published by automated software. Does that raise AP?s level of responsibility?

A: The fundamentals are still the same -- great reporters and editors, the processes and the policies are in place. That standard has pretty much been with AP since day one, given the reliance on AP as a source of information.

There are certain stories that you just want to be sure of and double check ... you can wait as long as you have to be accurate. The Florida election proved that. There's no pressure to be wrong; the only pressure is to get it right.

Q: What does your background add to your understanding of AP?

A: Frankly, it enables me to look at the new business initiatives of the AP. What we're doing is putting everything on the table. We put a lot of teams in place. We?re bringing dozens of people together on a strategic retreat. When we set priorities and initiatives, it will not be what Curley wants. It will be what AP decides. I do not have a platform. I did not campaign on one.

Q: Will there be changes in the products AP delivers?

A: We're working on a number of things. Some may go forward and some may not.

Q: You were not brought in to fix things or because there is a crisis.

A: This is kind of a life transition in terms of somebody who is a longtime CEO who reached retirement age. They made a very serious search and determined what the qualifications for success would be.

Q: And those were?

A: They went from someone who had been an editor to someone ... who had been dealing in a revenue environment. That?s a change.

Q: But you?re not there to be a caretaker either.

A: I don?t have that in me. ... This is an era with evolutionary changes in technology and revolutionary changes in other areas that require actions and especially in an organization that is so intimately connected.

The era provides a fantastic opportunity for AP, and that's why I?m here. The media have become more niche-oriented and in many ways more commercially driven and in many ways the opportunity for an AP has never been better.

Q: Does AP lose value when it?s so easy to get news from other sources?

A: AP's ability to break stories is second to nobody. If you look at the number of journalists at AP, it's like a small army.

Q: Will it continue to be?

A: I believe it?s absolutely essential.

Q: What's the greatest change in your 31 years?

A: Without question it's the diversity of media. The range is almost mind-boggling.

Curley has agreed to answer questions from OJR readers. Please post your questions to the forum by Aug. 26 and check back for his replies. 

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Related Links
AP Digital
AP press release on Curley's move
ASNE story on USA Today
Associated Press
The Wire
USA Today article on Curley's departure
Washington Business Journal article
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Tom Curley: "When we set priorities and initiatives, it will not be what Curley wants. It will be what AP decides. I do not have a platform."

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