Sue Cross on the news industry's bleak state, bright future

It probably brews most of the news news you read on the Web, but do you really think Associated Press when you think of online journalism?

Maybe, maybe not. But in the digital flood of grassroots journalism, traditional-media outlets, including the AP, face an immense challenge in keeping their work afloat online. Sue Cross took on the task a few years ago at the AP.

Where many of her newspaper contemporaries see gloom and doom for the industry, Cross hones in on encouraging opportunities for news organizations to work with the Internet, not fall victim to it. As senior vice president of Global New Media at AP since 2005, she has guided business strategy for newspaper websites, helped launch AP’s Online Video Network and redeveloped the company’s hosted online news.

She was at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication Monday to talk about the industry’s professional and educational future.

An optimist/realist, Cross sees promise for the future, but is careful not to look beyond the next five years. She set herself up with a Rupert Murdoch quote from a recent speech at Georgetown University.

“‘We have one certainty: we can never be sure where the industry will end up. … Technology is going to destroy all the old ways and old assumptions of doing business, most especially in the media.’”

“If Rupert isn’t sure,” said Cross, “none of us are sure.”

Not to call short-sightedness a handicap.

“Uncertainty is not all bad. It generates excitement. It generates innovation. The truth is, that makes it a very exciting time to be a journalist, and I really feel fortunate to be in journalism at this point in time. It’s sometimes scary, but it is never uninteresting.”

Cross cited The Washington Post, The Tyee and Hip Hop Caucus as examples of journalism’s proven appeal creativity, social media and aggregation. Ink and paper may be dying, she said, but the newspaper is not. At least not in the short-term.

“It’s allowing people to personalize the Post,” said Cross as she demonstrated the newspaper’s new Facebook widget. “It’s a light, just kind of fun application. At the same time, the Post isn’t giving up for a minute being an authoritative force of political coverage. The Post puts incredible resources and incredible dedication into very expensive, very insightful reporting…So I think this idea of in-depth reporting and text reporting, as we’ve seen from the Post, it may take different shapes, it may be mixed up, but it’s not going to go away. Still a very important piece of the future.

“You’ll see a fair amount of blogs saying people don’t care about news anymore. Young people don’t care about news. First of all, common sense says it’s nonsense. And the research also tends to say it’s nonsense. On the contrary, I would argue we’re in really the biggest media explosion in history. You can’t get in a cab without seeing a window with news on it. You cannot get in an elevator without seeing a news ticker. You can’t open your cell phone, you can’t go to your e-mail without seeing news headlines. That represents a voracious appetite. Those would not be there unless people wanted them. So I see the interest in news surging, and that’s a very good thing.”

Citizen journalism: Credibility is cool

“It’s tremendous. It’s here to stay. It’s important. It engages people. It pulls in information and comments we wouldn’t otherwise have. But it’s too often cast as when you abandon traditional journalism, citizen journalism will be the model of the future. That’s really not what’s happening. It’s not A or B, it’s kind of A plus B, and it’s going to that.

“And now you’re seeing many of these sites come back and seek professional content. YouTube is licensing professional video because it draws an audience and there’s an appetite for it. Google and Yahoo are making great efforts to bring in credible news content along with all the rest of the content they offer. And so you again are seeing people coming back to credible news sources.”

Activist & POV Journalism

“I don’t think objective journalism is going to go away… But along with it, there is a huge increase in grassroots journalism. Activist sites are doing a form of journalism that the public considers journalism, and which gets news to the public. And I think they can exist alongside good, objective journalism, and I think they’re here to stay.”

As an example, Cross pulled up Hip Hop Caucus, a New Orleans restoration site that features some original blogging but mainly aggregates relevant stories from around the Web.

“They are not doing original journalism much that I can tell right now, but it is journalism to their audience in that this is where their audience goes for collections of stories that particularly interest them. And it’s really taking news to people where they’d find it.

“I think that it’s not surprising as we see this proliferation that you are seeing these kind of strong point-of-view, activist, non-objective journalism sources increase. I think there are clear dangers. I’m not sure people distinguish they have a point of view to the reader. But I also think there are very positive aspects of them in reaching audiences that otherwise wouldn’t be consuming news. They do encourage involvement in civic issues. And they produce rich journalism, in many cases, that otherwise wouldn’t get done by larger publications. And I do think this is a trend you’ll see continue.”

That said…

Not to blindly sugar-coat the struggling state of the news. The latest Pew report—oft-cited by Cross Monday—gives us more of the same: Almost 1,500 newspaper jobs cut last year. An expanding list of media buyouts that’s expected to grow in 2008. And, in a new twist, online news is struggling alongside its traditional counterparts.

Notoriously lofty profit expectations are in part to blame, but Cross says the larger issue is that news organizations still have not figured out how to adjust as their business models move toward uncharted territory.

“Right now, this whole discussion over the business model and what’s going to support good reporting, it’s not working for new media either. There’s not a great financial base. That’s why you see so much more opinion than reporting in blogs and citizen journalism and so forth. The Pew study said, ‘the journalism of the future increasingly appears to be a hybrid that takes advantage of the technology rather than fights it. But the questions of who will pay and how they will do it seem more pressing than ever.’ The fact is that the financial bind is affecting bloggers as well as the local broadcaster.

“What is the issue? It’s deeper than Wall Street; it’s deeper than the mechanics. It is a fundamental uncoupling of advertising and content. The two have gone together, and one supported the other. And now you’re seeing that really broken apart.

“There always was an assumed audience around journalism. So if you had investigative reporting and comics on the back, it kind of sold as a bundle. For the most part media have been able to sort of sell the bundle of their audience and say, ‘here’s the whole audience, buy this. It’s kind of the whole enchilada. And now, advertisers are saying, ‘no. I don’t want to be next to anything bad like a plane crash or Iraq, I just want to be next to this story about bottled water, and I only want to pay you if somebody clicks through on it.’ It’s very micro, and that’s sort of disrupted the whole model.

“The second thing that’s fundamental with the Internet is just supply and demand. People are now gaming and going online in all these different ways. News is a relatively small part of what they do online and what you can sell advertising against. So news is getting a fairly small piece of that advertising pie. Again, quoting Pew: ‘As a category, news websites appear to falling behind financially. They are not growing in ad revenue as quickly as other Internet destinations.’”

In-depth reporting: A hole in the bucket

“There’s no shortage of opinion, criticism, dialogue, engagement in the new media. You can go read about news issues in more sources than ever before… but what is being lost are some crucial things. One is in investigative and watchdog journalism. This is an aspect that really can’t easily be replaced by citizen journalism. Investigative journalism is hard, it is often dangerous, it is expensive. It’s generally not the biggest audience draw, so it’s not attractive to advertisers. That makes it hard to make it self-supporting. And it puts the journalist up against very powerful sources. So how many freelancers are going to have the wherewithal to have libel insurance, to stand up when they are threatened by either government or commercial means. It’s a serious type of journalism that kind of needs an institution behind it to really make it work.

“The second area that I think is being lost is consistent day-in, day-out institutional coverage. City government. County government. State government…There’s some added public access through blogs and cable channels you can go watch a whole city council meeting. But the reality is, if you look at the time pressures people are under, that role of the journalists to go do that for them and boil it down is still very important. And that coverage also is expensive in terms of time and reporting resources, and it has been cut back. You’re seeing beats combined, you’re seeing less coverage of that level of institution. Along with that is beat coverage. Real expertise. People who cover the same topic for years and develop knowledge and depth and contacts and sources. You are seeing beats combined as newsroom resources are cut down. You also are seeing people are going in with less expertise. Seasoned beat reporters are, in many cases, leaving the industry.”

Video healed the newspaper scar?

Cross sees some encouraging trends in visual journalism. Where it used to simply illustrate the written word, video and photos are now a primary storytelling device. In addition to its financial potential, visual journalism could help keep longer-form, in-depth reporting alive on the Web.

“I think journalists haven’t really come to grips with the rise of video. As we talk about the decline in in-depth reporting and so forth, what you don’t seem to see covered is there is a current increase in documentaries. If you think about it, a great many documentaries are long-form journalism, they’re just in video form. I think you’re going to see tremendous added growth in this area, whether it’s short video clips on a cell phone or full documentary journalism.

“You also are seeing people spend more and more time on sites, and that has some pretty important economic ramifications. The more time they spend on sites watching video, that might help the economics of gathering the content.”

What’s it all mean for journalism education?

“I think there is a role of the universities in bridging the next few years. I don’t think that this is going to get sorted out. I think we could lose many of the best journalists in print media and in broadcast media. And what I fear that creates in the newsrooms is a kind of generation gap in skills. Traditionally, you come out of J-school, you learn a little bit, you go work in a newsroom, and you really learn the profession from your colleagues; from seasoned reporters, from seasoned editors. Right now you have a situation where many of the best, the most seasoned, the people with real expertise are taking buyouts or their jobs are being eliminated. One way or another, they’re leaving the profession. That leaves me enormously worried about what happens in the next 10 years. And I think journalism schools have a couple roles to play in this. While the business models are being worked out, it’s carrying forward these skills.

“Universities also have a role as incubators of what’s going to come. You have a student population that is at the forefront; tons of new ideas fresh ideas; the ability to bridge public institutions; some private, experimental stuff. You can pull together groups of people and talent in a way and be the place that is an incubator of new ideas and trying to figure out where to go, and I would hope to see universities take that role in journalism.

“What do you do with a curriculum in a time of change like this? I think journalism education has something of the same dilemma that the industry does in that we still think of ourselves in these channels. We think of ourselves as newspaper people or broadcast people or new media people. And those distinctions are really going away. So what do you do with it? I think it will be a real challenge for journalism schools to figure out how to do it just in a practical sense when things are changing this rapidly.”

Reconceiving storytelling at the Associated Press

Ted Anthony has played many roles for The Associated Press, from national correspondent to China news editor. Most recently in 2005, the AP tapped him to be the founding editor of asap, its multimedia news portal. Still, he says he considers himself, first and foremost, a writer—even publishing a book this month titled “Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song.”

Given the AP’s proven formula for writing breaking news articles, I spoke to Anthony about how this over 150-year-old news cooperative’s youngest division is tackling multimedia storytelling, how the asap has changed over the past two years, and what skills multimedia journalists need in the AP universe.

OJR: What were some of the initial goals of asap when it was launched and how have those goals evolved?

Anthony: We started the service in response to AP members who told us repeatedly they needed some help attracting and retaining the 18-to-34 year-old audience. But what we learned quickly along the way was that it was much more about how media was being consumed, than it was about the subject matter chosen for 18 to 34-year-olds. We found it very much transcended that age group. We have people as old as in their eighties who have said that they consume media in the ways that the online world has become accustomed to.

So reaching a younger audience was the dominant narrative, but by the same token we very much wanted to fundamentally reconceive storytelling at the AP. In some ways we wanted to get away from the assumption that a story would be text and photos. We implemented what we call the multimedia litmus test that would ask at the beginning of the story process, how should the story be told?

We also recognized that the AP is this rich tapestry of people from around the world, who know different things and who have different sets of experiences in different areas of expertise. So another goal was that we wanted to bring them into the mix, in ways that perhaps they hadn’t been brought in before. Their main product had always been the stories that they wrote, the photographs that they took and then applied in ways that were time-tested. But we wanted to see what we could do in bringing out those talents in different forms.

So asap has evolved into what we call a premium multimedia service of The Associated Press. The asap entertainment editor calls it a multimedia imprint of AP and an alternative storytelling lab.

OJR: How alternative can asap’s storytelling be given its clients—the traditional newspaper industry?

Anthony: Well, I recognize that when we talk about alt-storytelling in the newspaper industry, we are a little less alt then perhaps the mainstream of the Internet has become. But it’s the place where we need to be pushing towards—we recognize that. The way we are experimenting with storytelling is very much the mainstream in some online communities.

OJR: How is it different reporting and putting together a multimedia piece?

Anthony: I’m the child of linguists and the printed word is very near and dear to me. But when I started pushing into this stuff, I realized that the fundamental building blocks of storytelling really do cross platforms–and I know that’s a very trendy way to put it these days, but it is very true. We perceive stories in certain ways. We recognize that a story moves through time. We recognize that a story has characters, settings. We recognize that a story has resolution. All of those things that we apply to storytelling, whether it’s non-fiction or fiction, those things all play very much into multimedia.

OJR: Can you please give me an example?

Anthony: This may sound too lit-crypt, but for years when I was a national correspondent, I used first a film camera than a digital camera to take notes on stories. These weren’t photos for publication. I used them essentially to supplement my written notes to make sure, say, that if I was going looking for a missing plane on a mountain in New Hampshire, I could come back and write that the grass that crunched under my feet was green or that the bark was peeling off the trees. Things that I might not have noticed during the time that I was there but that I can have at my fingertips. I recognize that those were as much a components of my storytelling as my notes were. That’s a very basic and fundamental thing, but it’s not necessarily something that we would think of.

I have always believed that the visual specialists in the newsroom are as pivotal and as insightful if not more so than the word specialists. Once I started realizing that there was such a deep relationship between the two, and then I realized that we had to be able to control the tools that we use. That’s what we’ve tried to teach here. We’re bringing people together who are versed in different storytelling techniques and having them playing common ground. The common ground is the storytelling essentials. Once you get that down, the story can be told in a Flash presentation or an audio slideshow with photos, or just an audio podcast.

If we are able to see a story as a story rather than a chunk of text or a series of photographs, then we’re going to be able to tell that story in all different realms. One of the things that I have always wanted to do–but we never really had the resources– is to send four reporters with different specialties out to cover the exact same story and see what they come back with. I think that will be an interesting exercise, but to some extent that’s the mentality that we’ve tried to spread here.

OJR: News organizations have traditionally done the reporting to tell the story. Now more are trying to tap into their readers’ interest in telling their own stories. How is asap incorporating that form of storytelling?

Anthony: Let me come in through the back door on that answer. As a B2B (business-to-business) model, it is more difficult to reach out to users online because the online relationship is predicated on the fact that there is some kind of interaction between content provider and content receiver. A B2B model makes that a little bit more difficult, because it puts in a middle man, i.e. the AP’s member newspaper or the client, who we are providing content to. So we’ve looked for ways editorially to essentially make that connection without blatantly reaching around the people who we’re serving.

One of those things we’re doing is called “Assignment: You” in which for the last several weeks, we’ve solicited story ideas from people and said that you can assign an AP reporter a story. What have you always wanted to see a story done on, but you think the mainstream media will never do? We will assign a reporter and put the resources of asap and the larger AP behind it. We’ve had a great response.

Another thing we’ve done is something called “My World” in which we hand over a camera to someone who is in a middle of a major news event and have them shoot their lives for a day. Then they give the camera back to us and we produce the piece. One of the pieces we got out of that was pretty staggering in its impact but also caused some controversy. We gave cameras to two Iraqi children and one of them came back with the picture of his friends playing execution. That was a really dramatic photo that emulated the videos that you saw from al-Zarqawi for such a long time.

We certainly got negative feedback, but we also got feedback of how this felt like it was really authentic and that’s something I know that is tough to achieve when you are trying to develop relationship with your users.

OJR: Are your member news organizations seeing the kinds of results they were hoping for through asap? Are they drawing in younger readers who are actively participating on their sites?

Anthony: The active participation part, I can’t really speak to. I know that our renewal rate after the pilot project was roughly 70 percent, which I think was a little higher than expected. But that stuff is more business side stuff so I’m less confident speaking about it.

I will say that the feedback that we’ve received suggests that the more innovative we are with our storytelling, the better the results. Earlier on, we sometimes took safer routes because we were a still a bit unsure of our footing.

OJR: Can you give me an example of something that drew participation or feedback?

Anthony: What’s a good example? We did a Flash interactive on how to buy a man’s hat for our lifestyle section. It involved about six different pieces of video, with a hatter talking about different kinds of hats, how to buy them, what type of shop and that got really, really good feedback. That’s not something we would have thought about doing early on. It wasn’t a story in the sense that we traditionally view stories but yet it resonated with a lot of people, because it seemed to represent our willingness to tell something in a very alternative way.

I think that we have been surprised at how far we can go—in terms of telling stories in different ways and not how far we can go in being “edgy” or “provocative.”

OJR: The AP has of course perfected wire service format–getting daily news stories out quickly, accurately and fairly across the wires to member news organizations. How do you assure that those same standards transfer to asap when there is much more technical production work involved that may slow the posting process?

Anthony: We’re pretty relentless about hammering home daily that this may be a new department but this is the AP and certain things can’t be compromised. We’re in new frontiers but we have regular and sometimes very lively discussions about ethics and standards and how they apply online. When it comes to those kinds of questions we try to err on the side of traditionalism. One of the hugest things that AP brings to the table and through it to asap are the AP standards—readers know that they are seeing something that’s accurate and that’s real. We do not try to match word for word or image for image the AP’s covered spot events. We recognized earlier on that we should not compete with 3,000 colleagues in terms of bringing back the news. So we’ve looked for alternative ways into the news. We’re not designed to be a breaking news service. We’re designed to be a very timely, a very fresh and a very newsy online magazine.

So we aren’t cranking out news, but that said we have had reporters at every major news event in the last couple of years. We had two go to Virginia Tech two months ago so we definitely stand on top of the news. I think it is certainly harder because there are no neat answers that come from decades of literature that we learn in our journalistic ethics classes. But we adhere to the AP’s baselines and AP’s ethics statement. It has not skewed us wrong yet.

OJR: Can you give me an example a decision you have had to make?

Anthony: Hmmm…we had a story when Betty Friedan died on how she was the original “Desperate Housewife.” We decided we were going to do a photo illustration of Betty Friedan with the Desperate Housewives. This is something that magazines and even The New York Times now do all the time. These photo illustrations that tell something iconically. We had what must have been an hour-long talk here about whether we wanted to do this and if so, how we wanted to do this. And what we did was to have a picture that had Betty Friedan in black and white, amongst the Desperate Housewives and their very deep colors. We wanted anybody looking at that to be absolutely sure that there was a wink-and-a-nudge in there.

It certainly is a challenge. You have to have continual conversations about this stuff and you have to foster an environment of conversation in which somebody who brings something like this up, doesn’t feel like they are being a nattering nabob. As long as we are designed to be this forward guard of multimedia, we are going to do it within the ethical and journalistic boundaries that the AP is still espousing after all these years.

OJR: Can you tell me about the qualities you are seeking in journalists to tell stories in alternative ways?

Anthony: We hired 27 journalists by the time we were done hiring. We went in with the thought that we would hire about 70 percent from outside the AP and about 30 percent from inside the AP because we wanted something really dramatically fresh. But as we got to the hiring we realized that virtually the opposite was true. We ended up hiring about 40 percent from outside and about 60 percent from the AP, because we recognized that if we really wanted to try these new things and do them with “oomph” and do them with credibility, that we would need some real AP experience embedded in there.

We were looking for people who were flexible in their storytelling–and by that I mean people who wouldn’t say, we don’t do things that way. Too many news organizations in today’s world are populated with many people who say, we don’t do things that way. Those people are not going to be doing things at all if they keep up that attitude. We have to be willing to acknowledge that there is a certain core group of values and skills that we have, but that beyond that we are in this brave new world and we have to be able to think critically about how a story should be told and whether a story will resonate, will echo if it’s told in the best way.

I really was aiming to hire people who are willing to say, “okay, we will not be bound by convention.”

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.