Thursday, April 9, 2009

Sorting Out the AP Moves: What Will Really Work for Its Members?

The Associated Press Building in New York City...

There's been a whirlwind of announcements, commentary and downright bad blood beginning to steam up around the Associated Press' moves to position news content from its own reporters and its member organizations more effectively in the online environment. The latest developments in the war for news organization survival were kicked off by the AP board's announcement that it would be moving aggressively to identify and to challenge Web site publishers that were using unlicensed AP content illegally. The "why" of this move, largely ignored by media reports, is contained in the rest of the announcement: AP is introducing a new schedule of lower fees for its member news organizations that will make it easier for them to participate in AP distribution and news use. Faced with having to respond to the revenue crunches experienced by most news organizations this year, AP has no choice but to ensure that their online revenue streams from organizations consuming AP content can be captured as effectively as possible.

From the perspective of public relations, any constructive aspects of the latest AP moves appear to have been lost in a sea of furor rising up from bloggers, Twitters and other online voices. TechCrunch viewed AP's moves as being akin to the RIAA's moves to prosecute consumers for downloading relatively meager quantitites of music on to their PCs - legal moves that have backfired in many ways both from a legal and public relations perspective for the music pubishing industry. TechCrunch also highlighted a cease-and-desist order sent by AP to a Web site using AP-posted video from YouTube in an embedded video player. Of course YouTube videos are made for embedding in other Web sites, and the site that happened to be using it was that of WTNQ-FM, already an AP affiliate member. Google CEO Eric Schmidt commented in the wake of these PR fiascos by AP that it's a good idea not to "piss off your customers"- especially those who are doing their very best to abide by fair use policies for the reuse of copyrighted content. AP could certainly take some lessons from Google's efforts to get publishers to swallow some of their own bitter pills with much kinder and gentler approaches to public and professional-level communications.

The question is, though, what is really the most effective path towards revenue growth for AP at this time - and are they handling the rollout of new strategies in a way that will help those new revenue streams to materialize? From the looks of things, AP is still struggling to find answers to that question. Certainly pursuing legal enforcement against blatant content pirates is one possible route, and it's not without its merits. Data published by Attributor indicates that nearly half of the Web sites taking content from major publishers are copying more than 90 pecent of the original text of articles. Knocking out parasite Web sites that copy unattributed content strictly for the purpose of sucking up ad revenues that would go otherwise to the original publishers would do the bottom lines of all online publishers a great favor. It's a shame that AP's initial efforts along this vein have resulted in embarassing misfires - it's an important goal that should not be sidelined by a mishandling of the policies built on top of the underlying copy detection technologies.

But the larger concern is whether AP is really "getting" how to make money in the online publishing environment. The AP board announcement included a statement indicating AP's intent to build a search portal that would feature only content from "authoritative" news sources. While this is a constructive goal of sorts, we've had such search engines for years already. The Topix search engine focuses primarily on traditional media sources, and, for that matter, Yahoo! News and other major portal news services have focused on aggregating and searching mainstream news even longer. Both are good efforts in their own ways, but they're not floating the boat for most online news publishing revenues and they're not growing in any significant way. Why would yet another search portal wind up being the solution to news publishers' concerns?

The future that AP needs to embrace can be summed up in a fairly simple phrase: get news content that people really want to read to where it can make money. In broad concept that's pretty much what AP's mission has been all along, but in insisting that that mission cannot be expanded or altered significantly in light of how news is created today is holding back both AP and its member organizations from surviving and thriving in online news markets. Media organizations need to become better at aggregating sources of news more agnostically: if someone is streaming live video via Qik from their mobile phone at the site of a plane crash, then AP should be the natural source to which news organizations would turn to find such content as breaking news, not "i-reports." The idea of "authoritative" news need not always be synonymous with editorial and news-gathering methods that grew up in the era of printing presses. With today's publishing technologies editorial values can be implemented in many ways that can expedite the most compelling information getting to the right audiences at the right time.

This recognition that its own members need better agnostic aggregation of news sources is key to AP supporting the economic performance of those news organizations. Thomson Reuters CEO noted recently at a conference, "Why does The New York Times need to have 600-700 journalists? Why not 30 journalists with 30 apprentices?" In other words, if the economics of news have shifted permanently, why try to justify subsidizing jobs that need to move elsewhere in the news economy simply because you want only specific people in specific organizations producing news a specific way? With billions of people around the world equipped with real-time news publishing tools, including increasingly successful independent journalists, the world's attention span has permanently embraced this "Content Nation" as a source of information that they trust. That's a fact that will simply never go away. Trying to make it go away is about at pointless as anyone who tried to sift the tea thrown overboard in Boston Harbor back in 1775. Even if you could do it, who would want to drink it?

Instead of arguing with people who are both consumers and sources of news, AP needs to take a deep breath and think about how they can power the profits of today's news organizations using whatever content - news, metadata, links, video, anything - will help them to make money. In some instances this may mean new members and approaches to membership, in other instances it may mean playing a very different role with existing members and in how they participate in its editorial efforts. This can be a hard thing for any organization with a venerated history as rich as AP's to do, and I know that they are trying their best to move in that direction. But if they were able to leave the confines of Rockefeller Center behind to set up shop in dot-com West Side digs, one would hope that AP could help to carry both its traditions of excellence and of innovation to new levels of performance in the news industry that take it in directions that others have yet to dare to imagine. The time to dream a new dream at AP has come. I do hope that they start to envision and to realize that dream aggressively some time soon, both for its own sake and for the sake of its members.
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