February 17, 2012

Long before there was Twitter, there was the Associated Press. For more than 160 years, sometimes in snippets even shorter than 140 characters, AP news bulletins have gone out via couriers and telegraph, wire and teletype, satellites and Internet to thousands of newsrooms, which relay the news to readers, listeners and viewers in all corners of the globe.

Indeed, AP, and other news services such as Reuters and Agence France-Press, act, as AP says, as the “backbone” of the world’s information system. None of us in this business could do our jobs properly without them.

From time to time I get comments from readers who say something like, “The Post didn’t adequately cover this crisis or that event. All you had was a wire report and a wire photo, and I had to hunt for that online or find it deep on an inside pages of the paper.”

Well, with The Post continuing to downsize, you’ll be seeing more stories and photos from the wire services, especially from AP, which is The Post’s biggest wire partner, in addition to Bloomberg, Reuters and others.

But it would be wrong for readers to dismiss wire stories, photos, videos and graphics as of lesser quality than what The Post’s journalists produce. Many Post staffers worked at AP before coming here, and the AP bureau in Washington has Post veterans working in it today.

AP and other services employ great reporters and photographers, and they are daily breaking important stories and fighting to get information out of reluctant governments, whether American or foreign.

Last week, for example, it was AP that broke the story that in the Honduras jail fire — perhaps the deadliest prison fire ever with 355 killed — the majority of the inmates hadn’t ever been charged with a crime, much less convicted. The story was based on an internal Honduran government report that AP obtained.

On the pop end of the scale, AP broke the story of Whitney Houston’s death and obtained the exclusive right to live stream her funeral this weekend. That news helped AP garner 100,000 new Twitter followers last week, by the way.

As a young reporter in Annapolis in the 1980s, I learned many of my basic reporting skills, and rigor for open-mindedness and fairness to all political parties, at the shoulder of AP’s longest-serving state house bureau chief, Tom Stuckey, who retired in 2006. Stuckey frequently scooped all of us, even Post reporters of the era.

I worked alongside veteran AP and Reuters reporters in the Pentagon. At the daily briefings in the five-sided building, Charles Aldinger of Reuters fired some of the toughest questions at admirals and generals during his 20-plus years in that beat.

AP has won 30 Pulitzer Prizes for its journalism and photography. Its ethics standards are some of the toughest in the industry. And AP, a not-for-profit cooperative owned by its member newspapers and broadcast stations, keeps itself modern. Its photographers can now edit and transmit photographs from their cameras by wire to a computer and then to the Internet. It takes seconds.

Michel du Cille, The Post’s director of photography, says he relies on wire photographs from AP, Reuters, Getty Images and AFP for most of The Post’s breaking news photography outside of Washington.

“It’s not your father’s wire service anymore,” he said of AP. “They are very cutting edge, they are like our staff photographers — top-notch people who shoot in the style that we do.”

And, he says, “they’re not just there to do meat and potatoes — they do the full complement of photography,” including dramatic feature photography and video.

Kathleen Carroll, AP’s executive editor, told me that there will “always be more stories than journalists” and that AP’s corps of 2,500 journalists, working in more than 100 languages in 100 countries, and in all 50 U.S. state houses, is there to supplement and support its members with the best content possible to help people understand their world.

AP news gatherers “feel that their work is a sacred trust,” she said. “They feel that people should know that when they see a picture or video or read a story from AP that it is fair and accurate and reliable.”

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For updates, read the omblog at www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/omblog.