TRICKLE TURNS TO FLOOD OF AP CANCELLED CONTRACTS Columbus Dispatch, Tribune Co. just latest to say they'll quit.What started as a trickle of cancellations now appears to be something of a flood as The Associated Press finds that according to some editors, it is no longer meeting the needs of newspapers large and small. The main complaint is that the service charges too much in an era of ever-tightening newsroom budgets.
On Thursday, Tribune Co. said that it and its eight dailies nationwide are planning to quit the news cooperative effective October 2010, while on Friday Ohio's Columbus Dispatch said it would no longer require the services of the wire service as of Jan. 17, 2011.
"The changes to AP's rate structure were not as substantial as we were led to believe or that we need to maintain our service," Benjamin Marrison, editor of the Dispatch, said in a letter he sent to The AP, posted on the paper's web site on Friday. "Given the choice of maintaining our staff or AP's service, it's in the best interests of our operation to maintain our local reporting staff."
Other papers seeking to end their relationship with the non-profit organization include the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, the Bakersfield Californian, the Post Register of Idaho Falls, Idaho, The Telegraph of Nashua, N.H., and a spate of papers in Washington state, including The Spokesman-Review of Spokane, the Yakima Herald-Republic and the Wenatchee World.
It has also been reported that the newspaper division of The E.W. Scripps Co. -- which owns 17 dailies including the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and the Commercial Appeal of Memphis and the Knoxville News-Sentinel, both in Tennessee -- may also cancel its contracts with The AP.
The news cooperative requires that publishers file a two-year notice to get out of its contracts, and the recent announcements of service cancellation may never come to fruition. The AP's web site notes that the two-year rule is in place specifically because, "Many papers file notice protectively, and then lift them before services are actually stopped."
The unrest among editors about The AP first came to a head earlier this year at the annual meeting of various newspaper trade groups held in April in Washington. While the biggest beef is pricing -- it's said that a metro daily pays about $1 million a year for AP services -- many editors have also been frustrated by a variety of AP tactics, including pulling back on so-called meat-and-potatoes coverage, such as covering legislative hearings and breaking news like traffic accidents.
Tom Curley, the AP's chief executive, took on a phalanx of newspaper editors at the April conference meeting, defending the news cooperative against what some described as something akin to an angry mob.
During that April presentation, Curley leaned heavily on the news cooperative's new pricing plan, called "Member Choice," which theoretically allows newspaper editors the opportunity to pick-and-choose what services they'd want. Unfortunately, the new plan isn't giving a lot of editors much relief.
David Solomon, the vice president for news of the Nasuha, N.H., Telegraph, said in a column he wrote this month for the New England Newspaper Publishers Association that under the old pricing plan, The Telegraph has been paying $131,000 per year. Under the Member Choice offering, he could pay $129,000 a year and "get less than what we are now getting," or pay $134,000 "and get much more than we use now, and much more than we'll ever need."
Solomon said the paper is using "the top two or three world/nation stories of the day," a group of nation/world briefs, "two or three business stories, a small stock listing, coverage of professional sports, lottery results and some celebrity news." He admits that more is used in the Sunday paper, "especially in technology, travel and educational sections."
Perhaps to prove the same point, on Sept. 10, the Star Ledger of Newark, N.J., published an entire edition without a single AP story. The paper wouldn't comment on its rationale for the experiment.
In a previous life I was known in the industry as something of an AP critic (it had to do with picture desks, an obscure way-station in the evolution to all-digital newspaper production). In that experience I learned three things: The AP is a monopoly, it isn't a monopoly (it has a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to prove it) and the board of directors of The AP (made up of top newspaper executives) more often than not cares more about the news cooperative than they do their own papers. So about all an editor can do to get the AP's attention is to vote with his or her dollars. This is a pissing match that is far from over.