By Jay Newton-Small
Sunday, October 26, 2008
Any young journalist covering a presidential campaign is likely to have read Timothy Crouse's classic book on the 1972 election, "The Boys on the Bus." In the first chapter, the author describes the pecking order of print journalists. At the top of the food chain are the wire-service reporters, particularly the reporters from the Associated Press, the oldest of news organizations -- those hard-bitten, vigilant correspondents who set the agenda for everybody else.
"Wire stories are usually bland, dry and overly cautious," Crouse wrote. "There is always an inverse proportion between the number of persons a reporter reaches and the amount he can say. The larger the audience the more inoffensive and inconclusive the article must be."
These days, Crouse would be in for a shock. Some of the most eyebrow-raising stories this presidential-election cycle have come from a surprising source: the stodgy old AP. And this new boldness is threatening not only the AP's standing as a neutral arbiter of the news but also challenging its relationship with its owners, thousands of struggling U.S. newspapers that are coming to see the AP as a monster of their own creation: a competitor that could hasten their demise.
A sampling of headlines and leads this year:
Just as the Internet is changing newspapers, so it is also changing the AP. In its efforts to survive the tectonic shifts destabilizing most daily newspapers and to brand itself online -- many of the above articles ran only on the Web as part of the new, edgier AP -- the wire service is evolving into the world's largest virtual newspaper and a direct competitor to the papers that own it. When the news organization entrusted with calling elections sets off down the slippery slope of news analysis, it's hard not to wonder: Is the journalism world losing its North Star, the one source that could be relied upon to provide "Just the facts, ma'am"?
Ron Fournier, the AP's new Washington bureau chief and the author of many of the above headlines, describes the organization's new track as "accountability journalism."
"Katrina made a believer out of me," he wrote in an internal memo just before he was named bureau chief in June. "I had always known that The Associated Press played a role in holding public officials accountable, but it took a killer hurricane and an incompetent, arrogant government response to make me realize this is no mere role. It's an obligation, a liberating one at that."
Fournier, however, has come under attack by liberal blogs for many of his stories this election season. Accusations of bias escalated after chummy e-mails between Fournier and former senior White House adviser Karl Rove surfaced in an unrelated congressional investigation and reports emerged that Fournier had been offered a job by Sen. John McCain's campaign. To many readers, there's a fine line between analysis and bias. But AP Executive Director Kathleen Carroll says this campaign season is not so different from any other. "My e-mail inbox has been, over the course of this campaign, filled with angry organized e-mails from people on the left who think we are too supportive of McCain and people on the right who think we've been too soft on Obama," she says.
One AP reporter described the new style more as "calling [expletive] when you see it." But many of the reporters I spoke with for this article were uncomfortable with doing the instant analysis now being demanded of them. In the old days, longer enterprise stories ran separately from breaking daily news and took hours, if not days, to complete. Now split-second analyses are expected as part of breaking news. "It's enough that we're expected to always be first, this incredible pressure to break the news," one AP political reporter told me. "But now we also have to magically find a brilliant and nifty lead, the unique angle, while still beating everyone else. I feel like I'm competing with Politico, the New York Times and Reuters simultaneously." And, indeed, they are.
"I worry that their strategy is too 2004 Web and not a 2008 approach to the Web," says Dick Keil, a former AP reporter who spent 20 years working for wire services before becoming a political consultant. "It's like New Coke -- it seems cool now, but just wait. It could bring down the whole company: They have a recognized, respected and trusted brand and identity, and they are moving in a radically new direction likely to make the vast majority of their subscribers uncomfortable."
Founded in 1846, the Associated Press is a nonprofit organization owned jointly by 1,500 U.S. newspapers, which realized that by pooling their resources, they could achieve far more than they could alone, such as setting up 243 AP bureaus in 97 countries. The idea behind the cooperative was to feed newsrooms nationwide a fire hose of raw data that their own writers and columnists could use to produce copy tailored to the local area. Over the years, the service was expanded to include photographs, then audio and finally television footage.
With the arrival of former USA Today president and publisher Tom Curley at its helm in 2003, the organization has undergone drastic changes. The shrinking pains hurting the newspaper industry, which still accounts for a quarter of AP's business, have also hurt the wire. But the measures taken to mitigate that impact have caused new, potentially more damaging, problems. As the industry has retracted, Curley has inked lucrative deals to distribute content directly to online news aggregators Google and Yahoo. But that move essentially cut out the newspaper Web sites as middlemen -- at the very moment when growing those sites is critical to the papers' survival.
"The Internet has become our new business environment," Curley told an Online News Association conference in 2004, "not just another medium for distribution." He has also restructured the AP's pricing system so that, starting next year, papers may no longer buy the services they need "cafeteria-style" but will be forced to buy packages. Two groups of angry editors wrote letters of protest.
"I think you vastly underestimate the resentment and anger in this room," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editor David Shribman told Curley at an American Society of Newspaper Editors conference in April. Echoed Ron Royhab of the Toledo Blade, "I would remind you that it is newspapers who put this cooperative together." The AP says the new structure should save papers $30 million annually and announced last week that they will be reviewing the rates.
Many members feel that the pricing changes, given the state of newspapers, are designed to help the AP more than them. Some have begun to explore opting out, and at least 16 have done so, including the Tribune Co. with its nine papers and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Last month, the Newark Star Ledger, the largest newspaper in New Jersey, ran an issue without AP copy to test whether it could survive without the service. The Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Wash., has refused to wait the two years required after giving notice and has announced plans to withdraw in January, a move that will probably force the AP to sue. "Obviously, we are concerned," says Carroll, who adds that many papers have demanded increased analysis. "We are obliged to serve all of our owners, and their appetites are vast and not unanimous."
Still, what was once minor griping is turning into a full-fledged revolt. The eight largest papers in Ohio have formed their own co-op and exchange stories with one another for free. This end run around the AP is being duplicated by newsrooms in Maine, Texas, Pennsylvania and Florida, says Benjamin Marrison, editor of the Columbus Dispatch, which earlier this month announced that it's also opting out of the service. The AP in Ohio "is doing a lot of the work that newspapers do, which is great if they want to be a competitor," Marrison says. "We would prefer that they cover the routine state legislature hearings and let us cover the analysis. They're now missing some of those kinds of hearings, forcing us to cover them. . . . [Some] think we've become the wire service to the wire service."
So far the changes have affected only the U.S. service. But Curley argues that this is the future of news. As he said in a 2004 speech that essentially heralded the end of newspapers, "Content will be more important than its container." People, he predicted, will get their news online in nuggets that they pick and choose, ignoring the rest. You like Barack Obama? Here's an RSS feed of everything being written about him -- and nothing about John McCain to give it context. Like Picasso? Here's everything we have on him, but you may miss the Renoir exhibit because you failed to sign up for Renoir alerts. For the AP, this future is potentially profitable because, with its new online partnerships, it can deliver tailored news directly to every reader's, viewer's and listener's inbox.
But in a world, and a Web, full of analysis, opinion and "accountability journalism," what's missing is a neutral referee. Which is a bit like living in a world with a North Pole and a South Pole but no equator. If there's no one to set the standard, how will we know when we've crossed the line?
Jay Newton-Small is a Washington correspondent for Time magazine. She worked for six years for wire services, including Bloomberg News, Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press.