The AP Empire Strikes Back

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Now it’s AP’s turn to be a dumb media dinosaur.

I can’t help thinking that history is going to look back at the last decade in utter disbelief at the way one company after another — retailers, entertainment corporations, but most of all media enterprises — not only misread the implications of the Internet age, but as time went on failed to learn from the mistakes of others.

It never ends; just when you think that old-line companies finally get it that the rules have changed and they have to change with them & one of them suddenly pops up and tries to reset the rules to circa 1985.

The general reaction is dismay, amusement and sometimes anger (don’t those clowns understand?), but before everything there is astonishment. As marketing guru Tom Hayes describes it, “Just when you think the Thanksgiving dinner is going well, Grandpa suddenly wets himself.”

So many sectors of society and business have now moved on to the Web 1.0, even Web 2.0, world, that when some leftover from the Industrial Age tries a trick out of the old playbook you can only marvel & then step back so you’re not hit by shrapnel from the blow-back.

As you may have read, a few days ago the Associated Press, that venerable (162-year-old) wire service that provides news and feature stories to media outlets all over the world, suddenly decided to go on the warpath against the blogosphere. It chose an unlikely target — the Drudge Retort, a leftist news portal that (as its name suggests) was created in counterpoint to the much-larger and more famous Drudge Report.

Last week, AP wrote to the owner of the Retort, Rogers Cadenhead, demanding that it “expeditiously” take down five stories and one user comment — all of which contained extracts from AP stories — because they constituted violation of AP’s copyrights.

Those extracts, Cadenhead confirmed later, amounted to just 33 to 79 words. Moreover, each offered a link to the original story, thus driving the traffic of interested readers to AP itself.

So, what’s the problem? That’s what everybody wanted to know. Everybody but AP. Apparently some bozo inside the operation had a flash of inspiration that the company could, you know, make money by charging those Internet guys for quoting from AP articles.

How much? There’s basically a sliding scale, based on the number of words used, but the number being bandied about the Web is as much as $2.50 per word at the five-word minimum. Given that 99 percent of the bloggers out there have never seen a penny of profit, running even one AP story would essentially put them out of business.

As you imagine, this has created a gigantic blog storm. Even the mainstream media, always wary of criticizing its peers, has picked up on the story both here and in the United Kingdom.

With the exception of the New York Times — I will get to that in a minute — everyone seems to be generally appalled. No one objects in principle to the not-for-profit AP making money, it’s just that the way it has suddenly decided to do so seems so out of phase with the times, so ultimately self-defeating, and (not least) in clear violation of the standards of fair use.

Strictly speaking, AP has every right, if it can prove violation of fair usage, to demand that blogs and other Web sites pay for the right to reprint its stories. But even if we assume that these violations have occasionally occurred, the question is why AP would choose this tactic now.

For one thing, the precedent is really murky on this. I’m an old newspaperman, and for 30 years I’ve watched papers take an AP story from their first edition, add some negligible local quote, and suddenly transform the story into a by-lined piece by an in-house reporter, with a line at the end of the story also crediting “wire services.” Why didn’t AP go after them?

Meanwhile, how many of us bloggers, columnists and magazine editors (and I’ve been all three) have seen our stories lifted by AP or Reuters, edited slightly, and turned into their stories. Should we sue back?

No, of course not. The mistake AP is making — which Metallica and the music industry made before it — is to try to assert old rules on a new zeitgeist. And what is most appalling about this is that AP seems to have learned nothing from those mistaken strategies, even though AP reporters themselves wrote dozens of stories about them. Doesn’t AP read its own stuff?

What makes this all the more tragic is that the Associated Press was in the best position to survive the collapse of the newspaper industry.

As the purveyor of raw news stories, AP should have embarked on a strategy of slowly moving away from its newspaper clients and converting itself into a pure online news service — i.e., the uber-Web newspaper for the World. It could have then sold advertising on its site (or, in a more clever wrinkle, required anyone who reprinted an AP story to carry embedded advertising with it) and likely made a lot more money than it makes now.

But that would have required AP to actually understand the changed world it is ostensibly reporting upon. Instead, it has chosen the path of its member newspapers — not what you would call an enlightened business strategy — towards irrelevance.

AP even appears to be following its members in the suicidal direction of ever-increasing editorial bias: Both the right (on Iraq) and the left (on Hillary Clinton) have made strong cases in the last few months that AP is suffering a crisis of integrity.

Isn’t the toxic combination of abandoning its editorial principles, clinging to an old business model, and attacking the Web world precisely what has nearly killed the traditional newspaper business?

Though no one else is surprised, AP now appears to be shocked by the vehemence of the response from the blogosphere  angry columns, calls for boycotts of all AP stories, sites like the Daily Kos challenging AP to sue them  and has begun to backpedal. But even its new moves seem suspiciously orchestrated.

In particular, the Associated Press has now announced that it will meet with an organization called the “Media Bloggers Association” to hash out “guidelines” for bloggers using AP stories.

Leaving aside the fact that those guidelines are already delineated by copyright law, it appears that nobody has ever heard of the Media Bloggers Association, which presumes to speak for those 50-plus million bloggers out there. As Robert X. Cringely of InfoWorld asked, “Can anyone join? Do they have jackets?”

As I noted earlier, the one media outfit that seems to be backing AP is the New York Times, where in-house blogger Saul Hansell has already written three stories on the subject, all in support of AP’s position. This has led Michael (TechCrunch) Arrington to ominously suggest, in the Washington Post, that there is some kind of conspiracy in this AP/New York Times/MBA “love fest.”

I doubt it, if only because I don’t think the Times and AP are sufficiently Web-savvy these days to think that far ahead. I also don’t think the calls to boycott AP will succeed.

That said, the smartest thing the Associated Press can do right now is to pull a Facebook (remember Beacon?) and back away from everything it has just done, apologizing as it goes.

But even on the slim chance of that happening, I for one will always think twice about linking to an AP story. And I’m sure I’m not alone.

In trying to make a quick buck, AP likely just closed the door on the metamorphosis to the Web that would have made it billions — and perhaps kept it alive for another 162 years. Instead, this is the last time that grandpa gets trusted with a knife to carve the turkey.