Lately, the Associated Press (AP) has been the elephant in the newsroom. At face value, the AP seems like a good thing, allowing newspapers to pool their resources to keep costs of reporting non-local news low. But it has always been of questionable value to news consumers, reducing competition among newspapers. And while in the past, membership had its privileges, these days the AP is looking more and more like a competitor that is putting its members out of business.
The AP started out innocently enough, as a clever scheme that seemed like a win-win for newspapers and their readers. NY papers formed this not-for-profit to pool their resources to get news from Europe faster. Knowing that American-bound ships from Europe arrive earlier in more easterly Halifax than NY, the papers dispatched boats from nearby Boston to greet the ships there, collect European news from onboard newspapers and passengers, then telegraph it to NY.
Unfortunately, this benign-sounding scheme had a dark side — it transformed newspapers that had previously been competitors into collaborators. And it didn’t take long before they became colluders, working to snuff out non-member newspapers. The AP papers shrewdly signed an agreement giving telegraph-dominating Western Union exclusive rights to their telegraph business in exchange for higher fees for all other news providers. The AP also drafted bylaws that essentially gave its members veto power over admission of would-be competitors in their local markets.
One prominent American deeply concerned about the AP’s actions was E.W. Scripps, founder of the first newspaper chain. He said that the AP’s “plan was to establish a monopoly pure and simple,” and that it would “make it impossible for anyone else to start a newspaper in an AP member’s town.” He sought to counter it by creating his own competitive wire service, the United Press (now UPI). Later he said, “I believe the most valuable service I have rendered to my country has been that of thwarting the plans of greater, abler, and richer men than myself to establish a monopoly of news in the United States, and hence a dominating influence over all the newspapers of the country.” He said he formed the UPI “to secure freedom of the press in this country,” from an AP that sought to take it away. Despite early successes, the UPI struggled, did not break the AP’s monopoly, and collapsed in recent times with 7 different owners between 1992 and 2000. It is now a holding of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, which also owns the Washington Times.
Marshall Field III, grandson of the founder of the department store of the same name, also challenged the AP monopoly with mixed results. He tried to launch the Chicago Sun in 1941, but struggled because AP member Chicago Tribune blocked his membership, freezing him out of the ultra low-cost news available to members. Field took his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which found the AP in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The Court in its decision quoted legendary appellate judge Learned Hand, who wrote of the dangers of AP’s monopoly: “In the production of news every step involves the conscious intervention of some news gatherer, and two accounts of the same event will never be the same. … For these reasons it is impossible to treat two news services as interchangeable, and to deprive a paper of the benefit of any service of the first rating is to deprive the reading public of means of information which it should have; it is only by cross-lights from varying directions that full illumination can be secured.”
Unfortunately, the AP’s legal defeat led to no discernible increase in competition among newspapers. Not a single, financially viable paper has been launched in the more than 60 years since the decision.
But the real problem is not the number of newspapers we now have, but that they refuse to compete with each other, a symptom of the AP-created culture of collaboration over competition. For example, in any other business, if there were a highly successful paper in one city, it would be natural for it to expand to a nearby city to dethrone the leader. But as members of the same AP network, papers assume their cities belong to them, and no other member has the right to invade it. Even if a neighboring paper did invade, the AP network makes it nearly impossible for them to succeed through competition because all papers are essentially running the same stories anyway.
The end result of the AP network has been the creation of a news supply chain that reliably turns out monolithic, center-left news. Each evening, the New York Times and Washington Post coordinate their stories, creating what is erroneously referred to as the “national conversation,” but is really how the world looks to editors writing for audiences in the nation’s liberal centers of money and power. These stories are then slavishly followed by the TV networks, spread by the NY Times, Washington Post, and AP news services to metro papers, whose stories are, in turn, slavishly repeated by local TV stations.
This AP-supported journalism culture deprives Americans of their birthright as codified by the Founding Fathers. The purpose of the First Amendment was to establish a country with maximum free expression and debate — a multitude of voices competing in a freewheeling marketplace of ideas. Jefferson himself created a partisan paper to challenge Alexander Hamilton’s partisan Federalist newspaper. The concept of a single set of news stories and angles is the antithesis of the Founders’ vision.
But lately, the AP hasn’t been working so well for its members either. Before there was an Internet, AP member papers could freely share their stories amongst themselves without worrying that their readers could access them from other sources. Now that the Internet allows readers to find AP stories from many different sites, local papers are left with little content that appears to be exclusive, and thus little reason for their readers to subscribe.
Worse still, in a plot reminiscent of Dr. Frankenstein, the AP, which was created by its member papers, has turned on its masters in at least three ways. First, while its members’ businesses are shrinking, the AP has used their fees to mushroom into a huge, full-service news outlet with more than 4,000 employees working in more than 240 bureaus worldwide. Second, last September after AP members made the foolish complaint that Google News was not paying them for words in the brief synopses linking to their articles, the AP made a deal with Google News to feature the AP’s version of the story, and ignore similar stories at the members’ own sites — a move that, no doubt, has cost members a good deal of online traffic. And just recently, the AP launched a program to make its stories available on iPhones,
preempting its members’ necessary efforts to restore their ability to generate and deliver their own, valuable original content.
AP members are beginning to recognize these problems, most recently demonstrated by a network of Ohio
papers who are cutting the AP out of their statewide stories in favor of a collaboration of their own.
The members seem to have only two choices. Either they will allow the AP to emerge with monopoly-scale control of the big national and international stories, presumably supported by advertising in lieu of member fees, or they will use their board of director seats to take control of their creation and restructure it to meet their needs. But so far, the AP members seem willing to let sleeping elephants lie.
Steve Boriss blogs at The Future of News. He works for Washington University in St. Louis, where he is Associate Director of the Center for the Application of Information Technology (CAIT) and teaches a class called “The Future of News.”