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Dropping the AP

Soon after Andrew Prutsok joined Ohio’s Norwalk Reflector as publisher in 2007, he gave the paper’s two-year notice to the Associated Press. He hadn’t decided whether he wanted to do away with the storied news service, but he wanted the option.

Under AP membership agreement, members must notify the service of their intentions to end a contract two years in advance. When 2009 rolled around, Prutsok decided the small, daily paper could operate just fine without the wire service. Ultimately, the decision saved the paper just under $50,000 a year. Today, Prutsok is happy using McClatchy/Tribune News Service, which he said has a good state report, as well as all the national and world news he needs.

For an 8,000-circulation paper like the Reflector, which mostly used the service for some sports agate and content filler, it wasn’t a big deal to drop AP news. But when a large, metro daily decides to terminate an agreement with the AP, the issue becomes a little dicier. In December, it was reported that Tribune papers, including the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Hartford Courant, Morning Call and Daily Press of Newport News, would be dropping the AP as their wire service in favor of using Thompson Reuters to fill the national and international news gap. Under a separate agreement, the Los Angeles Tribune will stay an AP member.

But Tribune isn’t the only publisher who recently announced a potential divorce from the AP. The Las Vegas Review gave its two-year notice with plans to end the service on Dec. 31, 2014.

Although the Tribune papers seem to be a done deal, it’s not unheard of for publishers to file a notice and then rescind it. In 2008, the AP announced it would raise its prices, resulting in several newspaper publishers announcing their intentions to also end membership with the service. This included the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Bakersfield Californian, Yakima Herald-Republic, Wenatchee World and the Post-Register of Idaho Falls, Idaho. To date, all the papers still host AP articles on their websites, so it goes without saying they didn’t end up terminating their contracts.

But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t if something better came along. At least that’s the case for Roger Plothow, Idaho’s Post Register publisher, who said he hasn’t dropped the service because he has yet to find a suitable alternative. Fortunately, he was able to work with the AP and get on a year-to-year contract. “We looked high and low and really couldn’t find a service that would adequately provide us with the supplementary services that we needed, particularly in sports and sports agate,” he said. “I fully expect at some point we’ll find an alternative that works and drop the AP.”

Plothow’s main beef with the service has nothing to do with the quality of journalism, which he says continues to be “an excellent journalistic operation.” Instead, he said the pricing schedule doesn’t work, particularly for smaller newspapers. Newspapers pay for a news package based on circulation and location, but Plowthow said he receives 10 times more material than he needs and would like to be charged for what he actually uses. “It’s a very slow organization, they move very slowly, and they also have such a wide variety of clients its impossible to make us all happy, and I understand that,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean he’s a happy camper. As well as providing national and international news to its members, the AP is also in the game of sharing stories. But Plothow believes the practice is outdated. The Post Register has partnerships with many other papers in Idaho and shares stories amongst each other. They’re also of better quality too, he explained, noting that the AP’s formulaic way of repackaging the articles makes them bland.

“If they focused on just doing original journalism in key areas, they could be providing just enough for most of their members to be important and relevant,” he said. “One thing has been hard for me; we’ve all had to re-imagine our business. There is not a newsroom in the country that is the same size it was a few years ago. I know the AP has gotten smaller, but it’s still clinging to an old way of doing things.”

Lou Ureneck, director of the Business and Economics Journalism Program at Boston University,  agrees that there is not a suitable alternative to the AP currently available. And, because the AP is a news cooperative, anytime it loses members it diminishes the organization. But he believes it hurts the newspaper more. “The AP provides a very broad news report, it’s nearly impossible to duplicate. For a newspaper that decides to forego the AP, it has one of two decisions. It can decide not to include foreign news reporting. Or it can look for alternatives. If it chooses the former, if it chooses to basically eliminate the international news report, then it’s making a decision to be a hyperlocal newspaper.”

The common trend has been for newspapers to move away from international reporting and to direct resources to local and regional news reporting, he noted. In the first wave of reductions when the economy was at its worst, many newspaper bureaus closed up shop. As a result, he said the AP broadened its membership base to include news organizations like Yahoo, realizing its vulnerability as newspapers continue to try to cut costs. But it’s a worrisome trend. “The AP can withstand it, but it’s not a good thing. It’s not a good thing for these newspapers and most importantly it’s not a good thing for readers and news consumers,” he said.

But for Plothow, the international/national news coverage the AP provides isn’t what’s invaluable. It’s the sports agate. As a 24,000-circ paper, readers are generally looking to read more regional and local-oriented content. Despite this, his audience still expects to see all the major sports and college sports news and box scores, he noted. What he doesn’t need is the excess “tidbits.”

“The moment that I have a legitimate alternative, I’m gone. Unless they re-imagine their business, re-imagine their model and update it for what’s going on in today’s world. I do think part of the problem is that AP tends to cater to its larger members, which I understand. But I’m not sure that the board has always been a representative as it needs to be of its membership.”

–Katrina M. Mendolera


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