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Oct. 9, 2009, 1 p.m.

What The Associated Press is saying to Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo

“I’m not saying Google’s an enemy, all right?” the chief executive of The Associated Press, Tom Curley, was telling a few people in Hong Kong on Tuesday. “I’m saying they were brilliant, and we didn’t, collectively, license as aggressively as we could have. So now there’s this moment, and the two of them are competing.” He meant Google and Microsoft. “So where does that take us?”

Where, indeed. Since its annual meeting in April, the AP has been vocal, if not precise, about taking a harder line and negotiating better terms with unnamed “portals” that pay to distribute the consortium’s content. He made a similarly vague reference in a speech today at the Xinhua Beijing Media Summit. But in comments earlier this week, Curley was far more specific than ever before about the portals AP is talking to, the nature of those negotiations, and what he really thinks about Google.

“I think we stand at an enviable moment where Microsoft and Google have decided to go to war, and we who produce content can start to figure out whether there’s an opportunity for us to help that sharing in a way that reverses the outflow of money from media and takes it back,” he told an audience of journalists at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong. That much has been reported.

But afterwards, chatting with a few attendees, Curley said he was negotiating a new partnership with Microsoft under conditions more favorable to the AP and its members. It was all captured in an audio recording provided to me by a reader. Here’s Curley:

We are only going to work with those who use our principles. We are not going to work with everybody. So if you don’t agree to our protocols, if you don’t agree to give us real-time metrics, we aren’t going to work with you. So when I sat down in the portal negotiations, you know, I said, this time is different. You have got to be able to give us the metrics. This is not about money. We’ll get to the money part of the conversation later. If you want our content, these are the things you have to do. And that’s what I outlined. If you can’t do that, or if you won’t do that, let’s not waste time. And so far, everybody’s doing technical due diligence, including us.

One of those “principles” to which Curley referred is privileging the original source of news over outlets that merely report what’s being reported elsewhere. (It’s worth noting the AP does a lot of aggregation itself, but the point here would be to include its members and point readers to wherever the story originated.) In addition to “real-time metrics,” they’re also expecting partners to support the AP’s system for tracking use of its content along with other “protocols” I wrote about at length in August.

Someone asked Curley if Microsoft was willing to accept the AP’s demands. “They have said very strongly that they would,” Curley responded. A bit earlier, he said of Microsoft, “They know how to have a conversation.” And what about Google? “I’m not talking about Google,” he said. “We haven’t talked. We haven’t talked. We haven’t talked with them in any serious way.”

That was a bit of a stunner for those of us who have assumed the AP was actively renegotiating its contract with Google, which has a license to publish AP stories. It was also notable because Curley and other AP executives had previously gone out of their way to avoid naming names. Not so in Hong Kong.

“The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of the late ’90s came and basically enabled Google and the Google wannabes to do what they are doing,” he told the audience, speaking without a prepared text, “and it’s time for us to take back the night.” (That was an unfortunate, though I’m sure unintentional, reference.) He also said this:

If you go on to Google, normally the top 10, of the top 10 items appearing on Google, 9 of the top 10 will be part of a Google self-referring network. Everything in there is linked to some other part of Google. It’s really a brilliant business approach, and God bless them. And all that money has come to them, all 22 billion. Folks, they can share.

Curely didn’t explain what he meant by Google’s “self-referring network,” but he made repeated reference to it and said the AP was planning “our own self-referring network.” That could have something to do with the AP’s plans for topic pages to rival Wikipedia in search results. After his speech, Curley added, “The programs that we’re undertaking, we expect Google to have a directly competitive response.”

As for Microsoft, Curley repeatedly insinuated a looming partnership that would extend beyond the existing license to distribute AP content. He teased a new Microsoft product (other hints here) that might be part of the deal:

The search war is going to be fought on a qualitative dimension. So Google famously has the ten blue lines, and then everybody else is going toward more visual and what they believe is more accurate. So EveryZing is all visual, all right, and Microsoft this month has some new technology that it’s unveiling that will be much more visually dramatic than anything you’ve seen before. Multimedia in ways you haven’t thought about yet. We’ve seen it, we’ve seen the technology.

If Microsoft and the AP come to terms, it could have huge implications for consumers and publishers, affecting some of the biggest news sites on the web: MSN and, given their search partnership, Yahoo News. (Curley had nice things to say about the AP’s experimental partnership with Yahoo for its coverage of Justice Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings.) This is the search engine — or, really, search partnership — that AP executives have been hinting at, the one that would privilege “the original source or the most authoritative source” of news. At AP, it’s called the News Registry.

Google, for what it’s worth, says that it already favors original sources, but it’s hard to imagine they’d agree to make any adjustments to search results specifically for the AP and its members. That could lead to some brinksmanship in which the AP hitches its wagon to Microsoft and hopes the company is successful in its renewed competition with Google. Or the AP and Google could finally start talking.

I’m still putting together the transcript of Curley’s remarks and will share that with some of the audio when it’s ready. (I made a call to the AP’s press office shortly before posting this and will update if there’s anything to add. UPDATE, 1:58 p.m.: Paul Colford, director of media relations for the AP, said he would let Curley’s presentation “speak for itself” but gave me this statement for context: “As discussed this week by AP President and CEO Tom Curley in Hong Kong, the AP news registry, announced in April and now in development, will greatly improve and quicken the discovery of authoritative news produced by the AP and its member news organizations and empower them to better serve their readers and customers.”)

These are just clues, and Curley was intentionally vague at points, but they’re bigger and clearer clues than we’ve previously heard from the AP.

POSTED     Oct. 9, 2009, 1 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     AP’s online strategy
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