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Aug. 12, 2009, 1:58 p.m.

Why The Associated Press plans to hold some web content off the wire

In a break with tradition, The Associated Press plans to prevent members and customers from publishing some AP content on their websites. Instead, those news organizations would link to the content on a central AP website — a move that could upend the consortium’s traditional notions of syndication.

That’s one revelation from a document we obtained (labeled “AP CONFIDENTIAL — NOT FOR DISTRIBUTION”) that offers new insight into how the AP is planning to reinvent itself on the Internet.

The seven-page briefing, entitled “Protect, Point, Pay — An Associated Press Plan for Reclaiming News Content Online,” was distributed to AP members late last month. It provides greater detail about the tracking device that will be attached to AP content and describes their plans to create topic pages around news stories to rival Wikipedia and major aggregation sites. And in an hour-long interview last night, the AP’s general counsel, Srinandan Kasi, also shed light on how the consortium views reuse of its material across the Internet.

I’ll be wading through the document and what we’ve found in a series of posts beginning today. (You can subscribe to our RSS feed or follow us on Twitter if you don’t want to miss anything.) We’ll eventually post the full document, too. And as we go, feel free to comment and ask questions so we can flesh this out. I think you’ll find this stuff applies to all news organizations, not just the 1,500 newspapers that own the AP.

“Utility” vs. “unique” news

There are several intertwined issues to address, but the first bit of news that caught my attention was this passage, which refers to a previously described program they’re calling “AP Protect, Point and Pay,” or AP3P:

The AP3P plan involves segmenting AP’s online products to broaden redistribution of what we call “utility” content, i.e., the type and amount of news that is quickly and easily available from other sources, to limit or prevent redistribution of the kinds of information AP provides uniquely to ensure that hypersyndication does not drive down its value, and to create a “news guide” in the form of landing pages to serve as a focal point for discovery of authoritative sources of news.

That distinction between utility and unique content immediately made me think of fair use. The AP’s position on copyright has recently been the subject of heated debate — get a flavor for it here — and this seemed like a new wrinkle in their thinking about the issue than hadn’t been previously voiced.

So was that a fair read of the passage? No, said Kasi, the AP’s general counsel, “it’s not to suggest that there’s a legal distinction.” (Though the AP has generally stopped granting interviews about their copyright stance and wouldn’t speak to me about it last month, Kasi got on the phone after I informed them we were writing about this document.) It’s less about law than search engine optimization and the link economy.

Keeping “unique” content in one place

Utility content, Kasi told me, might be your traditional breaking-news story: “So a headline item that says, ‘Mid-air collision outside of New York and tourists die,’ let’s say. You can imagine, in the New York area, there are lots of media covering that story.” The AP would treat that content as it always has, putting it on the wire for members and customers to publish on their own sites. But other pieces of content — say, an infographic or a sidebar documenting the history of similar collisions — would be held off the wire and published only on a central AP site, Kasi said.

The plain-vanilla wire story, meanwhile, would point to the more in-depth material in the form of a link. He explained: “We have unique pieces of data, maybe, or we have a unique visual narrative, a graphic. We have unique photos, a photo gallery, and so on. How can you use some pieces of content to drive traffic to other pieces of content? That’s really what’s being addressed here.”

I should note that this has nothing to do with the AP’s print offerings, and the AP has various online feeds for customers that could see different changes. It’s a work in progress, and the document notes, “We are now in the process of defining a new online product set segmented for different customers and licensed uses.” Paul Colford, director of media relations, told me today that the state wires would not be affected.

The link economy

Plenty of people have observed — and the AP surely understands — that the consortium’s 163-year-old, print-centric methods of syndication don’t really make sense online, where a link can do the work of distributing content. That sounds like the impetus for this rethinking, but it will surely raise hackles among AP members accustomed to publishing that wire content on their own sites (not to mention selling ads against it). Kasi said members will appreciate the change because keeping unique content in one place will, among other benefits, improve its position in search results and maximize traffic. Here’s the key part of our conversation:

…the ability now to be able to make a decision that says, this is not something we want to generically put on the wire and send to everyone to publish everywhere. We instead think this would be useful for people to use as supplemental, to enrich their storytelling. But it’s available for them to be able to point to. And the reason to do that is, then you have a bunch of links that point to a particular piece of content. You have better search outcomes. You have better exploitation of the link value, if you will, to that piece of content. So there’s an ability to think of that piece of content differently because you’re trying to maximize traffic as compared to other content where the benefit is really about getting the initial engagement.

Well, that’s fascinating, and “link value” is exactly the term here. The AP would essentially be relying on its vast network of members to provide search engine optimization for its most unique content. (I’ll have more on that in the next post about the AP’s plans for standalone topic pages.) The plan is much more in the spirit of the web than traditional AP syndication, but I wonder how members will react. If you’re an AP member reading this, I’d love to hear your thoughts — in the comments, by email, or at (617) 496-6595.

It also raises the question of what a wire service should like 200 years after the invention of the telegraph. As Kasi told me:

Publication is not in isolation. It’s in the context of a vibrant ecosystem, platforms that are evovling all the time, consumptive patterns that are being defined and redefined dynamically…So utility content is simply saying there are forms of content or pieces of content whose utility would be to be able to drive pointing value, meaning directional value, to say, here’s a deeper story that has more of the story. It could be a link, it could be a tweet.

Clearly, the AP’s plans for fitting into that ecosystem are still a work in progress, so here’s your chance to offer feedback. And as I’ve been saying, more to come.

POSTED     Aug. 12, 2009, 1:58 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     AP’s online strategy
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