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.