SBJ/20081117/Media

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  • Needed more than ever, wire service finds itself at crossroads

    Things are changing at such breakneck speed in the media world you almost wish you could take a timeout, assess the conditions on the field and send in a few plays that might keep the game from getting out of hand.

    I had one of those moments recently while reading a BusinessWeek article about changes looming at The Associated Press as a result of the newspaper industry’s financial woes. In the piece, BusinessWeek media writer Jon Fine writes about the “delicate juncture” at which the 162-year-old wire service finds itself. In Fine’s view, the AP “is poised to loom larger than ever as a news entity, given how American newspapers are slashing staff. [If] the very factors that could enable its rise don’t destroy it first.”

    The AP employs about 3,000 journalists in 97 countries. It serves 1,700 U.S. newspapers, 5,000 radio and TV stations, and thousands of online sites. A cooperative owned by about 1,500 newspapers, the AP actually makes money. As Fine reports, the AP gets 17 percent of its revenue from Web sites, 17 percent from broadcast, and 27 percent from newspapers. The AP is known and respected for breaking real news, trusted for reporting that gets to the point and gets it right, and counted on to cover stories other news outlets can’t or won’t anymore — everything from state legislative or city council hearings to games at Division III schools.

    When it comes to sports, the AP drives daily coverage more than the average fan may realize. Take a quick scan of the lead stories on the top sports sites. ESPN.com, SI.com, SportingNews.com, Yahoo! Sports, to name just a few, all rely on AP coverage for many of their daily stories. In print, the AP brings game stories and team news beyond the reach of pro or college teams’ hometown dailies.

    An AP reporter told the Patriots-Bills story
    in Pats strongholds like Manchester, N.H.

    Take, for example, the New England Patriots’ Nov. 9 win over the Buffalo Bills. Fans in Boston were able to read coverage from the Globe and Herald, but Pats fans in places like Portland, Maine; Manchester, N.H.: Rutland, Vt.; and Pittsfield, Mass., all read the same game story written by the AP’s Howard Ullman in their local papers.

    Sure, all pro sports game accounts are available to anyone, anywhere through team and league Web sites, national sports sites or online sports sections of major metro daily papers. But there is something about having an AP story and photo on the front of that local sports page that brings the team and its relevance closer to home. The same is true in any regional market for any sport. And when it comes to Opinion Nation, what would cable sports stations, blogs, sports radio and others talk about if the AP didn’t bring us the water cooler stories that get us going every day? For the incredible range of media outlets that it serves, the AP is like oxygen: You won’t miss it until it’s gone.

    Which brings us back to Fine’s opening question. As newspapers increasingly become the Incredible Shrinking News Medium, are they going to bring the AP down with them? When the Tribune Co. gave its two-year notice to the AP that it planned to drop the service for all its nine dailies, Editor & Publisher ran the story under the header: “Shocker.” But the Trib is not alone. All newspapers are combing their budgets for savings, and an AP subscription no doubt is a big line item.

    However, newspapers that drop the AP in a bid to burnish their bottom lines will only hasten their demise, in this news hound’s opinion. As one friend in the business said, “Newspapers are cutting their own editorial positions at record numbers. If you don’t have a robust news staff or a trusted wire service, how can you be a news source anymore?” Or, as another put it, “If the papers are cutting things that actually make them newspapers, then it’s over.”

    The irony is that all this is happening at a time when the AP would seem optimally positioned to be the top news gatherer in a world ravenous for every bit of hard information it can get, and where “new media” competitors are focused more on analysis, opinion and commentary. Fine reaches this troubling conclusion: “The AP is faced with reinventing what it can, mollifying its big customers, and like them, is confronted with a future where it is paid less. A world with a weakened AP is not one I’d like to consider: Its news service would never be replicated.”

    Hardly a day goes by without a story about a newspaper cutting staff and reining in its editorial reach. As newspaper executives start making increasingly panicked financial decisions, we should hope that the AP, a vital element of our common media infrastructure, does not become — in Fine’s words — “collateral damage.” For online sites, having to replace the AP’s news-gathering resources would put a serious crimp in their business models. More than that, giving up on the AP now would mean one more giant leap into a world of increasingly biased coverage, more unsubstantiated items on unaccountable Web pages, and fewer reporters trained in the craft of writing and reporting good, old-fashioned, straightforward news.

    To borrow a phrase from a different sport, is that a change we really need? This game is about to get out of hand. Who’s going to call timeout?

    Steve Bilafer is founding editor of SportsBusiness Daily. He can be reached at stevebilafer@comcast.net.

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