Monday, October 20, 2008

Fading AP Contracts: Old-School Distribution Struggles to Find a Market Model

Editor & Publisher notes along with many others the announcement by the Tribune Company that it has given its two-year notice to discontinue receiving content from the Associated Press. The E&P article cites the recent rate hikes from AP as a key factor in its decision, but other accounts also highlight concerns raised by other newspapers subscribing to the service regarding AP's cutting back on local coverage and its efforts to create a more competitive position for its own content through non-newspaper outlets that compete directly or indirectly with member outlets. Whatever the exact reasons in these instances, the pullout echoes sentiments surfacing in some of Shore's private research that indicates a growing dissatisfaction with AP as a source of content.

Although some of the growing rebellion against AP services no doubt is fired by cost, content and competition from the membership-driven service, there is another key factor that is driving newspapers to reconsider AP as a source of content: the marketplace. In local newspapers and media outlets there is a dwindling interest in national news as a revenue driver, as 24x7 online and broadcast sources diminish the need of local residents to turn to their hometown papers for this view of the world. There is more money to be had by many of these papers by building up deeper and more engaged local content and by building special interest sections for holidays and other event-driven interests that will attract local advertisers more effectively. Put simply, with dwindling budgets to cover world and national events many papers are making the choice to rally their limited resources around locally focused content and advertisers.

The other key factor in the challenge to AP, though, is that there is an increasing reservoir of options for media outlets that want high-quality editorial to insert into their publications. Link exchanges, content swaps and other cooperative online publishing options enable the online editions of local papers to insert content from other newspapers and media outlets into their own sites and to host their own content elsewhere at partner sites. In other words, when revenue isn't all about what happens on your own Web site but also about driving more traffic to inventory from relationships with online publishing partners there are more options for local publishers to drive up both page inventory and audience engagement. AP delivers content inventory, but not the kind of inventory that's most likely to engage the audiences that value a local newspaper brand in a way that will drive the highest revenues.

While some newspapers seem to question the refocusing of AP's content on more analysis and opinion pieces as an additional point of concern, in general the real issue for most publishers confronting their rising AP charges is that as good as AP news can be it's not what will drive their profits moving forward in most instances. While AP has spent a great deal of legal and marketing effort to shore up the value of the AP brand through copyright protection and brand positioning, it has in many ways failed to identify how a cooperative news distribution service can help its members to generate more revenues cost-effectively. With their members cutting their own collaborative content deals left and right, oftentimes with providers of unique online sources of content, the power of the Web to make these deals work without AP's infrastructure is the chief challenge to AP's future.

All of this argues for a selloff of AP in the next couple of years to an owner that can take advantage of its extensive network of reporters and stringers to package its core assets more effectively to a broader base of clients beyond dwindling newspaper properties. News Corp would be the most likely taker, in part because of Rupert Murdoch's designs already in place to provide better global marketing for Dow Jones resources (already aligned closely with AP in financial markets), though others such as Google continue to be bandied about. The missed opportunity in this, of course, is the opportunity to redefine AP as a new kind of distribution channel for high-quality content based on a new generation of news producers and to enable it to include a cross-platform network of news enthusiasts who will add value to its brand based on their enthusiasm for commenting on news content. If everyone wants to do content swaps and link exchanges, for example, why isn't AP positioned as a channel designed to make that easier?

On this note I think that one of the great missed opportunities for AP has been its failure to adopt a strategy for embracing social media more effectively. While an acquisition of a player such as Newsvine would not have stanched the bleeding based on its core asset issues it would have at least started to position AP as a service that could center communities around key news assets. If audience engagement is the key to online publishing profits, catchy headlines and great ledes are not necessarily going to help your members as much as giving people a good reason to stay on a page - something that good social media can help to do very effectively.

AP's pricing will help to define for its members what AP needs to do to cover costs for existing editorial operations, but that's little more than an opening argument when AP members are looking for concluding remarks as to how AP will help them to drive revenues more effectively. It's probably best at this time for AP to seek a parent aggressively that will help them to maintain their core editorial assets while enabling them to invest in a broader array of content assets and services that will bolster their value over time. By all indications current AP members will not be the ones to sponsor that investment, so it's most definitely time to go find buyers to make those investments while there's still a good opportunity to do so.
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