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Six months in to AP’s nonprofit distribution project, not a lot of picked-up stories to show for it

This summer the Associated Press made a surprise announcement at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Baltimore. As part of a six-month pilot project, the wire service was going to begin distributing content from four top nonprofit news outlets: ProPublica, Center for Public Integrity, Center for Investigative Reporting, and the Investigative Reporting Workshop. It looked like a win all around: Newspapers could run in-depth content from well respected outlets, and nonprofits could broaden their audience.

“This pathbreaking agreement will make an enormous difference in helping us reach the largest possible audience and maximizing the impact of our work,” Robert Rosenthal, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s executive director, said in a statement at the time. “We are deeply appreciative of AP’s commitment to public interest journalism.”

So how did AP’s experiment go? In conversations with some of the nonprofit participants and the AP, it appears that AP members have used little if any nonprofit content.

“We wish it had gone better,” Bill Buzenberg, executive director of Center for Public Integrity, told me. “They announced it with great fanfare at the IRE conference. They haven’t done the technical backup work to really make it work…They haven’t made it a priority.”

Buzenberg said he wanted to temper his criticism. “This is a good idea. I’d like it to work,” he said. “The potential of this remains.”

Mike Webb, ProPublica’s director of communications, said they hadn’t seen many of its stories picked up by AP members either. “We’re not seeing that many reprints and we’re not really sure why,” he said. “We don’t know what it is.”

“It’s early yet — we’re only six months into it,” said John Raess, AP’s San Francisco bureau chief, who was involved in the project proposal. “I think it’s gone not as hugely successful as we’d like.”

The AP hasn’t surveyed its members, but it appears the delivery platform AP uses to share the stories could be part of the problem.

Here’s how it works now: The four nonprofits load their work into a web delivery platform called AP Exchange, which includes massive amounts of material produced by AP and its members. Editors around the country can find stories in Exchange by searching the database by keyword — topics like “water pollution” or “stimulus spending,” for example. As AP’s original announcement of the project put it: “Exchange users will have the option of routinely displaying the nonprofit journalism in their news searches.” Nonprofit stories are also available in a section of the site called “Marketplace,” where an editor can click through to the nonprofit section to see what’s there.

However, there’s no alert system to notify editors when something new has been added. Nonprofits’ stories are not distributed over the AP’s main wire services, as a major AP investigation would.

“It’s very hard to find this material,” Buzenberg told me. “The consequence is it’s not getting used.”

Three people I spoke with at the AP acknowledged that there are technical hurdles at play. Sue Cross, senior vice president for global new media & U.S. media markets — who launched the nonprofit partnership — said the issue stems from a larger effort to transition AP members from pulling content off of the satellite wire to AP Exchange, which is a web-based system. The web has advantages, Cross explained, because it allows newspapers to carry over links and metadata into their own systems.

“It’s a little bit of chicken and egg with the technology right now,” she said. “Most papers are still in that transition. Over the course of 2010, we’re working with a lot of newspapers and their CMS vendors to to enable them technically, and train them to use web interfaces to get the third-party content.”

In the meantime, the nonprofits’ stories on AP Exchange are found only if someone goes hunting for them. One wire editor at a regional newspaper (he didn’t want to be named) told me he wasn’t aware the nonprofits’ content was available, even though he uses AP Exchange daily. (Any other wire editors out there have experiences, good or bad, with seeing nonprofits’ stories on Exchange?)

Raess, the AP bureau chief, said he thinks getting the word out about new content could help increase pickup. “We have suggested [nonprofits] might want to put out their own digest [to AP members]. I would like to find a way to help them do that.” (Raess noted, for full disclosure, that he sits on the advisory board of California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting.)

The six-month “pilot project” was set to expire on Jan. 1, but the nonprofits’ stories are still being shared on AP Exchange. Cross said there’s been no talk of canceling the project — though no talk of expanding it either. Cross mentioned that she’s received dozens of calls from nonprofit outlets and potential startups about participating in the distribution program.

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  • Jennifer Deseo

    What a shame that investigative reporting should be held up because of a clumsy distribution system. I hope AP works that out.

  • Francine Polsky

    AP may not be with the progam, but these intiatives have had stories picked up all over the country in newspapers and online, blogs,etc.
    Sounds like AP is slow to the starting gun. What a shame. They are missing out on putting out some top rate investigative journlism on the wire. Get with it AP. Stories are being tweeted, fb, etc. And in Chicago Trib, LA Times, and several Cal. papers and other national news sources. St.Pete etc.

  • Lee Barnes

    AP Exchange is not easy to use. Most members of my newspaper staff have never used it, preferring the simplicity of the integrated wires within our computer system. AP needs to treat these stories as it would Member Exchange stories, so that we’ll actually see them.

  • John Raess

    Laura, glad to see that the story is out, it may raise the awareness of editors to what is available to them. One comment: The line “the nonprofits’ stories on AP Exchange are found only if someone goes hunting for them,” needs a little clarification. As you note, stories from nonprofits will show up in the subject searches. So if an editor searches on a topic, related AP stories, pieces from other wires and nonprofit stories will all come back in the same results list — no hunting required. If you want to scroll through just the nonprofit offerings, they have a separate content category (@Lee Barnes – in the Market Place section in the left nav bar). And, @Jennifer Deseo and @Francine Polsky, I would argue that The AP isn’t behind on this idea, it is ahead. I think — obviously I am invested — that at worst we’re waiting for technology to catch up with the concept.

  • Kathy Best

    AP Exchange is clunky, but I would also like to suggest another factor that may be at play here. Newspapers are shrinking and, with few exceptions, emphasizing their geographic roots. Finding newshole to accommodate national investigative projects, when that space is at a premium even for local investigative work, is extremely difficult.

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  • Joe Shea

    The AP, where content goes to die. Seriously, it’s ludicrous at the botoom of this to think that the AP is going to spend much time or money on propagating stuff from outside its bureaus. I think for a number of years now its leaden formula journalism has gained a reputation for leaving its member newspapers dead on the floor. It’s not where you would go to improve circulation. But the AP would have no trouble folding the project into its vast fleshy maws and sucking all the goodwill and juicy public interest publicity out of it and then letting it strangle on its own. They don’t call AP stuff “vaporware” for nothing.

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  • Tom Foremski

    Why should the non-profit stories be specially labelled? Shouldn’t they compete on their own merits with all the other news stories? If the non-profit content can’t stand on its own without special labels and pushing and prodding, then it has no place in the news economy.

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