Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Are you willing to pay for Prepare to be asked before year’s end
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
March 10, 2009, 2:13 p.m.

AP responds to Royhab (and NJL)

Paul Colford, the AP’s director of media relations, has asked to respond to the interview I did with The Toledo Blade’s Ron Royhab about the Ohio News Organization (OHNO), the news-sharing cooperative formed by the state’s eight biggest newspapers.

First, he says Ron’s memory is faulty: “AP CEO Tom Curley did not attend the meeting with AP executives, despite Mr. Royhab’s recollection.” (Update: Ron just confirmed that he meant to say Tom Brettingen, a different AP exec whom he mentioned a few seconds later in our interview.)

But he also called something I said in my last question to Ron “misleading.” Here’s what I said (this’ll make more sense if you’ve listened to or read the interview):

The brilliance of the AP model, in some ways, is that they were able to get all this content from all its member newspapers and then turn around and sell it — to web sites, to TV, to other people. Have you given any consideration to, in some ways, following their model? Because you have that great content that is of use to all eight newspapers, and it’s great that you’re able to share it. But has there been thought saying, well, also we might be able to sell that as an Ohio wire service to other people?

Paul responds:

A tiny fraction (less than 2 percent) of the AP news content licensed “to web sites, to TV, to other people” (your words) comes from AP member papers — typically scoops attributed to the papers that generated them. The rest of the AP news that you see on Web sites, the portals, etc. is reported and written by AP staffers. The state wires — in Ohio, New York, etc. — contain a higher percentage of member contributions, but these state wires are not and never have been licensed to Web sites and other commercial customers.

I appreciate Paul clarifying that — and it should be duly noted that AP does not sell the state wires to web sites or commercial customers.

(Although I would point out that, even if newspapers generate only 2% of the national wire, that’s typically among the most valuable content those newspapers have to offer — the exclusives, the enterprise, the investigations.)

But it’s important to note that we’re dealing with two different levels of AP’s work — and two different definitions of what it means to “sell” content. (Or to “license” content, to use official terminology.) To recap:

— The main AP wire — heavy on national and international news — is 98% the journalistic product of AP staffers. It then gets licensed to a variety of other sources.

— The state AP wires — which is what the Ohio News Organization is trying to emulate — are much less AP-produced and much more newspaper-produced. But they aren’t licensed to web sites.

(How much of the state wires are produced by member newspapers? That isn’t clear. Last year, Alan Mutter did a sampling of a few state wires that found 1/3 of stories were AP-produced, versus 2/3 that had their origin in a member newspaper. Paul, in a comment on that post, said an internal AP study showed a 45/55 split in the other direction.)

Part of this is a debate over what it means to “sell.” There are AP members — like smaller newspapers and broadcast affiliates — who don’t contribute much if any original material to the state wire. But they use a substantial amount from it. Those members pay for the privilege — they get access to the state wire by becoming an AP member, and that costs money. But that doesn’t count as “selling” in AP’s eyes because those outlets are members instead of “commercial customers.”

Nothing wrong with that! But the net effect is awfully similar to selling: AP gets paid to redistribute the largely newspaper-produced state wire.

Let’s look at an example. Here’s a list of Montana’s AP members. You’ll notice there are 44 radio stations that are AP members, versus 10 newspapers. I don’t know much about Montana radio, but if it’s anything like radio in the places I’ve lived, there might be — what, 10 total reporters among those 44 stations? At best? At least some of those stations aren’t contributing anything to the state wire.

But they’re using the Montana state wire. And they pay for the privilege. The same is true of TV stations or small newspapers — although it’s perhaps more likely in their case that they’d be contributing something to the state wire.

Again: Nothing wrong with that! I’ve got no problem with AP making money and providing a service. But let’s not pretend AP membership isn’t, for lots of outlets, a chance to “buy” the state wire, not a chance to contribute to the cooperative as a whole. Anyone who’s worked for a decent-sized newspaper has heard his story repeated, without credit, on local radio or TV stations. And while sometimes that’s just a straight rip-and-read from the newspaper, other times it’s an AP version of the newspaper’s story — delivered to a local competitor who paid AP for the privilege to do so.

In any event, I thank Paul for clarifying AP policy on this point. As Ron put it in our interview, this isn’t a hate-the-AP campaign — just a growing concern by newspapers that the age-old bargain between AP and its members may not work as well in the current environment. AP is a tremendous news organization on its own, and maybe it really doesn’t need newspapers. Newspapers are in dire straits and are working out new non-AP sharing arrangements all the time — a new one launched in Tennessee just last week. Maybe this is the kind of marriage where a peaceful divorce is the best solution for both sides. We’ll see.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     March 10, 2009, 2:13 p.m.
Show tags
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Are you willing to pay for Prepare to be asked before year’s end
The cable news network plans to launch a new subscription product — details TBD — by the end of 2024. Will Mark Thompson repeat his New York Times success, or is CNN too different a brand to get people spending?
Errol Morris on whether you should be afraid of generative AI in documentaries
“Our task is to get back to the real world, to the extent that it is recoverable.”
In the world’s tech capital, Gazetteer SF is staying off platforms to produce good local journalism
“Thank goodness that the mandate will never be to look what’s getting the most Twitter likes.”