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AT 150, AP IS LEADER IN GETTING OUT NEWS, NEW IDEAS-Cooperative can raise hackles as it innovates to keep charges down for a world of clients

As the Associated Press marks its 150th anniversary this year, it maintains its time-honored traditions -- to be first, fast and accurate -- while continuing to reach out to new markets in broadcasting, technology, advertising and cyberspace.

But, some editors and publishers ask, is the good old gray AP, the world's first wire service and the largest, venturing too far afield in its quest for more revenues and its concerns over the rapid changes in communications?

Not at all, say top AP executives such as President Louis Boccardi and William Ahearn, the cooperative's vice president and executive editor. The AP's fundamental mission is the same as it was at its founding in 1848, says Boccardi -- to provide "reliable, comprehensive, unbiased news of high quality."

Boccardi notes with pride that "today's AP is a half-billion-dollar international news and information company with more than a quarter of its revenue coming from activities outside the basic news charter and with a technological base that melds satellites, computers, land-line and the Internet in a globe-girdling web with more news outlets than any other organization in the world."

Says Ahearn: "News, particularly spot news, is still our No. 1 mission. Get it first, but get it right. We are as fast as ever, and we are putting more quality into everything we do. We are also doing more hard-edge journalism."

With more than 1300 stories transmitted daily to U.S. newspapers on the Datastream feed (national and international news, national features and sports), the AP offers a strong editorial mix of breaking news, financial wires, features, photos, graphics, photo archives and audiotext services. (The AP is the second-largest audiotext content provider in the country).

And what do newspaper editors, the AP's primary customers, have to say? Not surprisingly, most focus on what the AP produces for them, which is everything from generally speedy transmission of the big stories to the mundane-but-so-important high school basketball scores, weather reports and paginated stock market tables. Editors and publishers particularly like the AP's digital AdSEND display advertising delivery service, which has streamlined ad production and allowed advertisers to deliver their message closer to deadline.

Still, editors voice concern that the AP may be too enamored of matters far removed from the fast delivery of news and photos. Unlike their AdSEND experience, some news executives and publishers still bristle at the way the AP pushed the AP Leaf Picture Desk system on them in the early '90s, although the AP photo service is top-notch and AP photographers have won six Pulitzer Prizes since 1991.

Others wonder whether the AP is going too far afield with APTV, its worldwide video service. Boccardi says it is doing well, although it's not yet making money. Still other questions are raised about the AP spending time installing its Electronic News Production System at the offices of the British Broadcasting Corp. When completed, broadcast journalists will have access to text, audio and video on their desktops. Responds Boccardi: The AP will make money on the project and expects to sell the system to other television networks (one recent buyer is ESPN, the sports cable network).

"I'm concerned about some of these things," says Andrew Barnes, editor and publisher of the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, "particularly The WIRE giving the AP report directly to consumers on the Internet." Through The WIRE, the AP provides a portion of its breaking news and features content to members for on-line readers to access, free.

But concerns about the AP trying to do too much beyond its basic newsgathering and distribution charter are relatively few. For one thing, less than half of the AP's revenues come from papers, down from 70 percent 30 years ago. AdSEND makes money, one of several AP outreach efforts that has helped keep down the circulation-based assessments newspapers pay the AP.

And newspaper publishers retain control: 19 print executives and only three broadcasters make up AP's 22-person board of directors, which has solidly supported the new ventures. (Boccardi notes that several board members also have important broadcasting interests.)

At its heart, the AP remains the cooperative it was created to be. Just as 150 years ago, member papers share text, photos and resources with one another.

'YOU SIMPLY HAVE TO HAVE THEM' A 1996 AP survey of its member papers found that 40 percent of the 1000 editors and publishers who responded thought the value of AP services had increased in the previous five years. Eighty-three percent felt the AP was a good or excellent value.

Annual costs range from $70,000 for a paper with 25,000 circulation receiving an abbreviated report, to $700,000 for a paper of about 400,000-circulation getting practically everything the AP has to offer. Assessments for the nation's largest papers usually top $1 million.

Some editors and publishers argue that AP costs are too high. Stan Strick, executive editor of the 50,000-circulation Herald of Everett, Wash., is one. "But," acknowledges Strick, "you simply have to have them." Strick is not alone: The AP is everywhere. Its members comprise 99 percent of the 1550 dailies in the United States, as well as more than 6000 radio and television stations.

Around the world, the AP serves another 8500 news outlets in 112 countries. Its principal competitor abroad is the British news agency Reuters, founded in 1851. But in the United States, Reuters has only about 400 papers, representing 40 percent of total U.S. newspaper circulation. United Press International, once a serious AP competitor, has dwindled to practically nothing, with only about 30 U.S. newspapers left as customers.

In recent decades, news niches have been filled by supplemental feeds, such as the New York Times News Service and the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service -- news providers who are rated by Boccardi as real competition. But no matter how many supplemental services a paper receives, editors still want to know, "What does the AP say?" Even Cable News Network, considered by some as a serious competitor with its live coverage of big events, relies heavily on the AP.

"It's like a public utility," says Matthew Wilson, executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Speed is still most important. Even though papers have far fewer deadlines and editions than in the halcyon days of extras and five-star finals, broadcasters are always on deadline with 24-hour programming -- and on-line sites are equally thirsty for breaking news.

When the AP is slow, it hurts. Dennis Ryerson, executive editor of the Des Moines Register, unhappily cites AP's coverage of Princess Diana's death. "It didn't respond well," Ryerson says. "We cleared a lot of extra space that night so we could use everything that came in, but we couldn't fill the space."

The most frequent complaint editors have concerns state and regional coverage, particularly state capital reports, despite the news cooperative's concerted efforts to improve those files in recent years. They also note that AP writing, much better than it used to be, needs more work (the agency now has a writing coach). And sometimes big stories developing in several places are not pulled together satisfactorily.

Many editors also feel the AP lags in investigative journalism and in explaining the meaning of news, also despite many improvements in these areas in recent years. "A lot of stories slugged 'analysis' go out of here," notes one veteran AP Washington reporter. "But often there is not much real analysis in them."

In countering such complaints, AP Executive Editor Ahearn cites a recent, widely used AP series on child labor in the United States as an example of the agency's investigative work, as well as stories out of Sacramento on violence in corrections institutions and misappropriation of state funds for California's 150th-anniversary celebration.

Analysis does present a particular problem for the AP, which has to serve many clients with different views of the world. In Oklahoma, for example, "some of our editors and readers consider AP left of center," says Ed Kelley, managing editor of the Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City. Other editors with a liberal outlook consider the service too conservative.

Notes H. Brandt Ayers, editor and publisher of the Anniston Star in Alabama, "AP originally neuterized the press, but now AP is our protection against the general tawdriness of the press. It keeps us straight and at least a little bit serious."

COST-CUTTING CREATES COOPERATIVE The AP began in 1848 when six editors in New York -- including James Gordon Bennett of the Herald, Horace Greeley of the Tribune and Henry Raymond, founder of the Times -- met and decided to beat the high cost of the new telegraph system by pooling their resources to finance a single telegraphic report that they could all publish.

The first AP bureau was in Nova Scotia, where a reporter got the news from Europe off incoming ships. Today, the AP has 144 bureaus in the United States and 93 in 71 other countries. The staff totals 3500, two-thirds of whom are journalists. Each day, 20 million words flow from AP worldwide.

Although cutting costs was the immediate objective of the AP's founders, the agency soon established a standard for straight, unbiased coverage because it had so many masters at a time when papers were often mouthpieces for political parties and particular views.

Where does the AP go from here? As the AP's surveys and talks with editors and publishers indicate, there is general satisfaction with the service and a belief that it will continue to keep up with the fast-changing world of communications.

"It's changed a lot in the last 20 years," says Jerry Ceppos, executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News, "and I think it will continue to keep up with things." Suggests Ted Natt, editor and publisher of the Daily News of Longview, Wash.: "I'd like to see more original reporting."

Boccardi -- who has been with the AP for 31 years, the last 13 as its president -- looks back on his stewardship as "a period in which we took a traditional organization and put it squarely into the digital age," at the same time improving the quality of its report and carrying out important innovations in technological areas, with more on the horizon.

Boccardi hopes that in 2010 or 2020, the AP will still be in the forefront of communications technology, at the center of the journalistic world -- "wherever that may be" -- and that editors will still be asking, "What does the AP say?"

"We have been doing a far better job of training and more enterprising news work," he adds, "and I hope that 10 years from now that we'll be doing more and more of that. I also hope that AP continues to be the single most important news resource for our members."

In reply to suggestions that the AP is venturing too far afield with its video newsgathering, broadcast newsroom systems and other ventures, Boccardi says: "Our core mission is not in any way being neglected. It continues to be to improve the content of the AP wire."

Like most editors, he wishes the AP had a larger staff, pointing out that "we are trying to do so much more" with only a modest increase in staff over recent years. He notes, however, that more than half of the AP's costs are "people costs." (Salaries are not great, but they are competitive with Newspaper Guild minimums, ranging up to $962 a week in New York and Washington. Many long-time reporters and editors make much more.)

Eugene Patterson, the retired editor and publisher of the St. Petersburg Times and a former UPI correspondent, once asked, "If UPI ever goes under, will AP still run to the phones?" Yes, says Boccardi, noting that the AP has more competition than ever before, and responds well to it.

"Editors see something on CNN," he says, "and they may be on the phone to us asking where our story is even as an event is still unfolding." At times like that, Boccardi adds, "AP is still very vigorous, very competitive."

Boccardi concludes, "We want to make it impossible for anybody to disparage anything we do with the old insult that it's just 'wire service journalism.'" That vision is not new. In 1906, Mark Twain addressed the AP's annual banquet, saying, "There are only two forces that can carry light to all corners of the globe -- the sun in the heavens and the Associated Press down here."

-- Julius Duscha
COPYRIGHT 1998 The Cole Group
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Apr 13, 1998
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