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News Digs for a New Century.

Near the 14th-floor elevators in a New York office building, the carpeting spells out "AP" -- in Morse code. Yes, we're in the new headquarters of The Associated Press, but one can imagine those famous initials also standing for three other things: "altered proximity" (formerly separated departments now work closer to each other), "awfully pleased" (staffers love the new space), and "actual progress" (execs feel the relocation symbolizes how the 156-year-old news service is remaking itself in the new century.)

E&P toured AP's sprawling new Manhattan digs and interviewed two dozen people during an almost 11-hour visit on Aug. 2. That was the day the last of nearly 1,000 New York staffers arrived at 450 W. 33rd St. -- completing the move, without interruption of client service, during the insanely busy period after the Democratic National Convention, before the Olympic Summer Games, and not much in advance of the Republican National Convention just a couple of blocks east at Madison Square Garden.

"Those were the cards we were dealt," AP President/CEO Tom Curley says of the timing, noting that the lease was up at 50 Rockefeller Plaza -- where the news service was headquartered for 66 years. But he adds that AP staffers are experts at doing several things at once, and that the frenetic relocation period was worth it because -- in this age of media convergence -- "it was absolutely essential to link the desks."

APers now working in the new, 292,000-square-foot space were previously scattered at "50 Rock" and three other Manhattan locales totaling 210,000 square feet. They were also scattered on various floors at 50 Rock, because that office didn't have a wide enough horizontal configuration. Not a problem now: The new 14th-floor newsroom is the size of two football fields.

Staff input was essential

The newsroom was designed by Deputy Managing Editor/News Services Tom Kent, the first person E&P interviews just after 7:30 a.m. But the 32-year AP veteran emphasizes that he didn't handle the layout alone. "There was a huge amount of staff input," says Kent.

The result? A room with sightlines everywhere, despite the permanent white pillars and temporary stacks of white moving boxes dotting the landscape. Cubicle walls are low, and offices are mostly glass-enclosed. Many editors have "patio" arrangements, featuring a desk out in the open -- where they spend much of their time -- along with an inside area where they can close the door.

Hanging from the ceiling are digital boards showing the time in various parts of the U.S. as well as London, Baghdad, Beijing, and Tokyo. Thinking both nationally and globally makes sense for a news service that operates 242 bureaus worldwide and serves a customer base that includes about 1,700 U.S newspapers, 5,000 radio and TV outlets, and 8,500 international clients.

The newsroom also features numerous turned-on televisions hanging above the scene. And editorial staffers can get TV feeds on their double-monitored, flat-screen computers -- all of which are new and powerful. But, for Kent, the best thing about the space is that it's big enough to bring together print, photo, graphics, Web, TV, and radio. "We've finally gotten everybody in one room," he says with satisfaction.

Kent walks around showing how various departments abut each other in various ways, including by subject. For instance, those handling national stories are near those handling national photos, and those producing written entertainment copy are near AP's TV entertainment unit. All of this facilitates sharing of content across media.

Newsroom staffers can also interact with non-editorial employees by climbing stairways to the 15th, 16th, and 16th-mezzanine floors. Those three levels include a conference center that can accommodate about 300 people, senior executive offices, the Services & Technology department, human resources, an eating area, a fitness center, and other facilities.

Another way of facilitating staff interaction is the new policy that everybody wear name tags. They're two-sided, so people still know who you are even if the cord twists around. But there are moments when people need to be alone, so there are private rooms where staffers can use a phone to work on a sensitive story (or call their doctor).

And if staffers want to confirm that they're working in a city of eight million people, they need only look out the windows. To the east, the Empire State Building looms. To the South, the Statue of Liberty stands in the distance. To the West, the Hudson River flows.

Tenants sharing the building with AP include the New York Daily News, U.S. News & World Report, and the WNET-TV public-broadcasting station.

After returning to his office, Kent is visited by Sally Jacobsen and Lew Wheaton, both of whom also joined the news service in the 1970s. Like Kent and others, Jacobsen and Wheaton helped with the moving process while also doing their regular jobs. Each offers updates on how things are going. "Arts and entertainment have faxes up and running," reports Jacobsen, deputy managing editor for operations and projects. Adds Wheaton, administrative director for AP Photos, "We haven't heard a negative comment on the space."

More space for the buck

Now it's time to move to the 16th-floor mezzanine for a talk with AP President and CEO Tom Curley.

How does a not-for-profit cooperative handle an expensive move? Curley replies that AP will make its money back in several years because the new space -- way west rather than in the heart of Manhattan -- is about half the rent. "We really got a terrific deal here," he says, adding that even if AP had stayed at 50 Rock, it would have had to buy new computers and other equipment.

Now it's 10 a.m. In a 14th-floor conference room with plastic sheeting still hanging on one side, a news meeting begins. Little microphones poke through the big table, and APers from various bureaus (Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Boston, and others) participate via conference call.

Follow-up articles about the Bush administration's Aug. 1 terror alert are a big topic of conversation. Among other stories discussed are the Scott Peterson trial in California, the aftermath of a building collapse in Montana, Republican efforts to find a U.S. Senate candidate to oppose Barack Obama in Illinois, a John Kerry campaign appearance in Michigan, and a supermarket workers' strike in New England.

This was the first day of operation for the conference room's phone system, and AP staffers from Atlanta and Dallas couldn't get through. But after the short meeting breaks up, phone-system specialists fix the problem, and a bigger 10:30 a.m. national/international news meeting in the same room goes off without a hitch.

The terror alert also dominates the first part of this 10-minute meeting of various AP departments. Among other stories discussed: a follow-up on the Paraguay supermarket fire, coverage of the film Collateral (with Tom Cruise playing against type in a bad-guy role), and a feature on the improvement of baseball's Detroit Tigers.

AP is stepping up to the plate, too, says Kent, after returning to his office from the meeting. He notes, for instance, that the news service is offering more investigative stories and exclusives than before. "We've always been fast on reporting events, but now we're breaking more things," he says.

Kent adds that AP is doing more serial-narrative stories with cliffhanger endings, tracking which articles clients use the most, and conducting more sophisticated exit polls. Internally, AP introduced the Ready Wire, which enables staffers to share quotes and other "bits and pieces" of unfinished stories.

Wandering around the newsroom, E&P randomly picks two people to interview -- Tania Fuentez and Leanne Italie, editors on the National Desk.

Fuentez's opinion of the new office and equipment? "Definitely a much-needed improvement that pushes us into the 21st century," says the four-year AP staffer. Italie, as she edits a wrap-up of upcoming arts events, agrees that the place is great. But the 21-year AP veteran does feel some nostalgia for 50 Rock, one reason being that she met her husband, Hillel Italie -- an AP national writer specializing in books and the publishing industry -- at that office.

Italie isn't as nostalgic about the days before computers and cell phones became ubiquitous. She recalls "diving," along with 20 other reporters, for a single pay phone while covering a Tennessee prison riot in the 1980s. Italie is also happy about some non-tech changes at AP. "We do more rewriting now," she says. "We're not just copyediting." And, she adds, reporters are allowed to be more creative and less "formulaic."

A moving experience

It's time for lunch in the 15th-floor cafe, where E&P interviews three people who worked countless hours on the move: Jim Donna, senior vice president of human resources; Frances Pionegro, director of administrative services; and Madhu Krishnappa, who was in charge of the "Move Team." It's a rare few minutes of relaxation for the trio.

"This building was made for us," says Donna, and not just because the newsroom is so expansive. Pionegro explains that the flooring is strong enough to support things like AP's massive photo library, which holds about 10 million negatives and prints dating back a century. (The digital archive includes more than 1 million photos.) She adds that the ceilings are high enough to allow room to hide wiring under raised floors, and the 1967 building doesn't have the asbestos problems of older structures.

Donna says 23 trade unions were involved in the new-headquarters project -- with the lead architect Robert Heitzler, formerly of GHK Associates and currently of Applied Design Initiatives in New York. But AP staffers, as Kent had noted, were also heavily involved. Employees even sampled furniture before it was ordered. "We put a dozen different chairs in a room for people to sit in and test," Krishnappa recalls.

Just before the lunch ends at 1 p.m., Business Editor Kevin Noblet stops by to chat. He's had an especially busy day as his department covers the economic ramifications of the terror alert.

Meanwhile, Kent is in his office evaluating the day's AP News Digest prepared by Supervising Editor Sheila Norman-Culp. The terror alert is of course in the digest, which will move to clients at 1:30 p.m. There are also other news stories (such as one about a Turkish hostage killed in Iraq) as well as features.

A few yards away at AP Digital, Executive Producer Mark Cardwell and News Desk Supervisor Joe Persek are also ranking stories in order of importance -- something of interest to their Web, wireless, and other digital clients. Persek peers at six monitors fanned out at his work station. One screen shows an index of stories, another displays an article about an informant killed in the Mideast, and a third shows an AP piece posted on the New York Post site. CNN is seen on a fourth monitor.

AP Digital's stories are often combined with photos, audio, and/or video, says Senior Producer/Multimedia Jason Fields. "Content is 'plug and play,'" adds Cardwell. "You put it straight onto a Web site."

Increased integration

A few minutes later, Projects Editor Paula Froke talks about how she loves having digital, print, and various other departments in one big room. "It's a lot more cohesive," she says. "When you see everyone, you're a lot more likely to think of their needs." She adds that 50 Rock was a "very cool" building, but not that inspiring once an AP staffer walked inside.

Just before being interviewed, Froke was going over an early version of that day's advisory of stories of particular interest to readers under age 35 -- an advisory launched this March. She was also reviewing applications for editing positions on the National Desk. And, as the interview ends, Lisa Tolin, editor on the National Desk, informs Froke about a news conference that would announce the arrest of Mark Hacking in the death of his pregnant wife, Lori.

Meanwhile, Director of Photography Santiago Lyon is spending part of his day meeting with various AP bureau chiefs. He's also visited by David Guttenfelder, chief Asia photographer, to discuss AP's operation in that continent.

A few years after Lyon joined AP in 1991, the digital age brought big changes to a news service that's won 28 Pulitzer Prizes for photos. "The volume of photos has increased tremendously," he says, noting that images can be processed and transmitted much faster. AP now delivers more than 1,000 photos a day -- 10 times more than in the past. Among other changes: Lyon says AP is moving from Nikon to Canon cameras and instituting faster photo delivery via the ePix system.

Another visuals executive is thrilled with the new office and equipment. "It's what people need to be more productive," Director of Graphics Scott Johnson tells E&P. "At 50 Rock, people were sharing desks and computers. Everyone has their own work station here. And this building is wired. It's built for today's mass communications."

International Editor Debbie Seward agrees that the new office is "fantastic" compared to "gloomy" 50 Rock. For one thing, she finds it very helpful to be close to the photo desk and other departments. "This is the kind of space that makes you want to go to work in the morning," says the 16-year AP veteran, who served as Moscow bureau chief before assuming her current post last September.

Commenting on changes in the news business, Seward notes that stories are delivered faster and AP has more 24/7 competition. "The fundamental principles of being fast and accurate are the same as always," she observes. "But there's less time to decide what's true or not."

From Bangkok to b-ball

At 3 p.m., E&P visits John Keitt, AP's senior vice president for global business and general counsel. Keitt says one development has been to establish more regional hubs -- such as the Europe/Africa Desk in London and the Asia Desk in Bangkok -- so AP isn't as U.S.-centric. "If you're sitting in Bangkok, you've got to know a little more about what's going on in Asia," he says.

Kathleen Carroll, another senior vice president (as well as executive editor), praises the 14th-floor design. "AP journalists finally have a newsroom worthy of the work they do," she says. Carroll also notes changes in AP's coverage, including an increased emphasis on the next developments in the arc of a story.

During this day, Carroll had spent part of her time working on preparations for the Olympics and GOP convention.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Hastie, vice president for Services & Technology, is keeping a post-move eye on computers and other equipment APers need to do their work. "I'm spending most of the day making sure folks' tools -- PCs, phones, etc. -- are functioning properly," he says. Hastie adds that the new office is equipped with lots of backup battery and generator capacity, ensuring no repeat of that August 2003 day when a huge blackout left AP with barely enough power to continue operating.

After a 4:30 national/international news meeting -- much of which focuses on stories AP plans for the next day -- it's back upstairs to check out other floors.

John Kiernan, director of facilities for Services & Technology, shows a room with hundreds of miles of wiring for computers, phones, and other equipment. The "hum" of all this power is palpable. Then we inspect AP's many satellite dishes on the roof.

E&P also looks at AP's 15th-floor fitness center overlooking the Hudson River. It features state-of-the-art equipment -- including treadmills, bikes, and various other machines to work each part of the body -- along with a TV at every exercise station. There's also an aerobics room, locker rooms, and more at the facility, which operates from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. each day. AP staffers pay only $20 a month to use it.

The new headquarters even features a 16th-floor indoor basketball court left over from the previous tenant: DoubleClick.

The news never stops

Today's last stop is the 15th-floor corporate communications area -- which includes a room with old files, a teletype machine, and other vintage AP items. Jack Stokes, the director of media relations who guided E&P through much of the day, says Director of AP Corporate Archives Valerie Komor will be organizing this historic material.

Then it's on to that Morse-code carpet for a 6:10 p.m. departure. A look back at the newsroom shows plenty of people still working -- illustrating that AP was, is, and will always be 24/7. "When you can't be there, we are," says Director of Graphics Scott Johnson. Stokes adds: "That's the glory of news coverage -- it just never stops."

Meaning that AP's initials, with the help of the new headquarters, could also stand for "always producing."
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Author:Astor, Dave
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2004
Words:2792
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