Whither the AP

What has me most upset about the AP Affair is that I fear we are seeing the beginnings of its death throes. I value the AP and don’t want it to die. I want it to morph to a new model and a new future. But I am afraid that in its fights, we are seeing its inability to adapt (not all its own fault; I’ll bet blame goes to its board and member/owners). And in its current combatants, we see the preview of a day when the AP has no friends left: not its members, not us readers/writers. If it does die, it could be that these parties would shrug and not mourn. And that would be the tragedy.

As I blogged here, the AP’s members are beginning to revolt. They are sharing their stories directly and see value in no longer going through the AP mill. That is a shot across the service’s bow.

So let’s say that local newspapers enter into networks — with other papers and with local bloggers and perhaps even with local TV stations. Will they need the AP state wire anymore? Doesn’t look like it.

And let’s say that local newspapers become what I’ve predicted and urged: very local. They cover their areas on their own and with these new networks. They no longer try to cover the rest of the world. That could be where the AP comes in. But the AP is still expensive and papers are shrinking and complaining — that’s what the revolt is really about. So this could also be where link platforms such as Daylife (disclosure: I’m a partner there) or even a general-interest Digg arrive to provide links directly to coverage on any topic wherever it is covered. I’ve suggested that papers will be left with a links editor who handles anything beyond the local limits.

Now add the fact that the AP has fired a shot across the bow of bloggers, not realizing that their links are valuable (and their ire dangerous); see the post below. At its core, this is about the AP’s conflict with its clients in becoming a consumer brand. If the AP tried to become that consumer brand — able to monetize links from bloggers and fans — it would value links from bloggers; instead, it is desperate to monetize its ownership of content and can’t face the prospect that this model is dying. But the AP can’t become a consumer brand because that would put it in competition and conflict with its members/owners. As Brian Cubbison says in the comment here, the AP is a wholesaler trapped in a retail world. Reuters is dealing with that conflict because it’s not owned by its clients. The AP can’t.

So what does the world look like without the AP? It pains me to ask but it’s a possible universe. Local papers can get local content from their own networks and national, international, sports, business and other content via links. They can also enter into cooperatives — which is where the AP started — to cover other events, such as the Olympics (now that every paper can’t afford the ego trip of sending huge staffs to overcovered news). The AP’s other clients — TV stations and such — have sources of national and international coverage from Reuters and Agence France Presse. Readers get links directly to original journalism at its source. The sources of that journalism get more audience and more opportunity to monetize it and support their work. The world keeps going.

How could the AP survive? I think it needs to become a curator and distributor of original content — likely not in a syndication model but in a shared sponsorship network. It could continue to be a cooperative for bespoke coverage, but only on demand. It would be much smaller. Or it could be freed to build a consumer brand able to monetize audience like Reuters (though its board of members/owners would likely never go for that). In any case, it can’t stay stuck in the limbo it’s in now, getting in trouble with every side. That, I believe, is why it is acting like a trapped animal.

And that, you see, is why I am so concerned by the AP Affair. It’s about more than a few bloggers and links and lawyer letters. It’s about the future of the news business.

: LATER: Moments after I posted this, I see that Dorian Benkloil, writing at Silicon Alley Insider, agrees that the members are the problem.