Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Right Tree, Wrong Bark? AP's Cross-Platform Initiatives Offer Mild Hopes

Lately it's a rare day when there's good news for the newspaper industry, but paidContent.org notes that the recent board meeting of the Associated Press held out an intriguing glimmer of hope for beleaguered news providers. It would seem that the AP intends to offer what amounts to centralized business development for its member newspapers and, it would appear, even for non-members seeking to get a more fair shake from an increasingly fragmented marketplace for news.

While AP members continue to distribute and consume news via AP's subscription feeds, increasingly they focus on the placement of their own content and links on Web sites and mobile information services. This is somewhat good news for these news organizations, but not as good as they might hope. With typically limited business development teams and labyrinthine hoops put up by their legal departments through which to jump, the typical news organization is not very effective at extracting revenues from Web and mobile platforms.

Enter the AP, which hopes to offer a more industry-wide approach to negotiating with mobile and Web platform providers. Already tracking where and how AP content from members is used around the Web, AP is potentially in a good position to help news publishers to use their collective clout to do unto Web sites large and small in collective negotiations what the AP has done fairly successfully with major targets like Google. In other words, if AP's distribution technologies are no longer a key market advantage for its members, its sales force and its ability to manage various business models across a wide range of news consumers cost-effectively might be a good way for it to find a place in news' future.

In a general sense it appears as if the AP is locking in on the right target - delivering a scalable business model for news monetization that's more in sync with today's content technologies. It's an approach that's particularly important as mobile platforms begin to proliferate, especially since so many mobile technology and services providers are eager to take a healthy cut of revenues for the right to their "exclusive" platforms. Mobile markets are rife with artificial scarcity, and overdue for a "content cop" like AP to come in and lay down the law for how news content can and should be licensed in a Web-aware era. The main question, though, is how well the AP will be able to define unique value propositions to mobile and Web news outlets.

This leads towards the other key leg of the cross-platform initiative that the AP is planning. While intentionally vague at this point, AP Chairman Dean Singleton noted that "We need one voice, not only to work on business relationships but also new products that we might do together and also application frameworks so we decided AP should speak for the industry and work for the industry." In other words, AP seems to be moving towards the concept of "journalism as a platform," a combination of technologies and business development services that can enable traditional news outlets to compete more cost-effectively by building more powerful licensing networks and audiences in a Web-scaled world of content distribution.

If the technologies developed by the AP are targeted towards mostly towards effective cross-platform licensing and user profile management, I think that this might be the right bark coming from the right dog under the right tree. There are far too many platforms emerging for any one news organization to approach effectively on its own, so collective bargaining with the proper leadership could prove to be very advantageous. But in staying "hands off" with initiatives such as Press+ and at the same time mentioning "new products," I am concerned that AP may try to overreach its targeted goals with cumbersome centralized technology development efforts not in tune with today's news world.

You can go after all the platform providers that you want for content licensing, but it won't change the fact that billions of people around the world can set up a blog or a Facebook page for free in no time flat and become influential news publishers in their own right, AP Stylebook be damned. Yes, journalism quality matters, but the quality of technologies specific to news production are very hard to define as market advantages today. Short of a massive rethinking of how the news industry develops and deploys news-generating technologies, I don't hold out much hope at this point for the "products" focus in AP's vision.

But a year is a long time on the Web - though it may not prove to be long enough for many struggling news providers. Here's hoping that AP can nail down both the right business development techniques and the right technology tools quickly enough to help ensure a lasting presence of quality journalism in electronic markets.
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