Killed ASAP (which means October)

Much as I dislike seeing 24 journalists lose their jobs or be reassigned, I’m glad to hear that the Associated Press’s ASAP service will cease in October. During the nearly two years since its launch, I’ve been tempted to write something about it, but hadn’t been able to think of anything kind to write about it.

I’ve never understood why the AP or any newspaper needs a new service whose “original content will be provocative, smart, relevant and immediate.” The AP or any newspapers’s existing service should already be all those things.

If the AP’s writing in general isn’t provocative, smart, relevant, and immediate, then the AP needs to reëxamine itself. Unfortunately, the AP’s writing is best defined as unprovocative, as smart and immediate as a small claim’s court transcript, relevant only to 50 year-old Caucasian male editors, but at least immediate. I suppose one out of four isn’t too bad, but it isn’t good either. News can be provocative, smart, and accurate (hint: go read The Economist). Provocative needn’t mean subjective: evocative writing is provocative and objective.

Moreover, why should the AP or any newspaper start a new service aimed at an audience who are age 18 to 34? If its service in general isn’t attractive to them—the single largest segment of the American population—then the AP or that newspaper needs to revamp itself in general.

What the Associate Press should instead be doing is revamping itself. I’ve got some friends who tell me that the ASAP might have been its experiment about that, but I think the wire service should have made its main courses provocative, smart, relevant, and immediate, rather than just a side dish.

While I’m on the subject of the Associated Press, let’s point out’s the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ of that organization. Before newspapers and the public gained access to the Internet, the AP had two main values for news organizations: (1) The AP’s worldwide staff of journalists produced a very valuable news product. And (2) the AP communications network was the integral system linking together American newspapers, broadcasters, and syndicates who wanted to sell or share stories.

Newspapers’ access to the Internet eliminated that second main value of the AP. Sure, most news syndicates (New York Times News Service, King Features, and other companies even more hidebound than the newspapers) still use the AP’s network to deliver stories to newspapers. Yes, the AP shares its member newspapers’ stories with other member newspapes (AP ‘electronic carbon’). But all that can just as easily done nowadays by the newspapers and syndicate themselves via the Internet. The Internet makes the AP communications network redundant. The AP’s main value is reduced to the work of its correspondents.

Despite its second main value becoming an inexpensive commodity in the news marketplace, the AP has never reduced the rates it charges newspapers, broadcasters, or syndicates. Economic would indicate that this situation cannot sustain.

What’s buoyed the AP and has kept it from collapsing is that it doesn’t have any functional competition. United Press International functionally went out of business during the 1980s. Reuters could have stepped into the domestic U.S. news market, but decided that the cost of staffing news bureaus in each U.S. State was prohibitive.

Atop of that problem, the AP—an organization chartered under New York State’s fish & game club laws during the 1800s —is constrained by its ownership. They are the newspapers it serves, who refused to let it serve broadcasters until the broadcasters sued the AP in the 1940s and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the broadcasters. The AP’s newspaper members/owners have similarly been very reluctant to let the AP serve ‘pure-play’ new-media companies (such as Yahoo! and Google) that compete with the newspapers online.

So, where does the AP find new revenues to offset rising costs? It’s already got a nearly 100 percent market share of the American newspaper market (the AP would have a 100 percent share had not the daily in Willimantic, Connecticut, a newspaper owned by a certain Crosbie family, not dropped the AP and found it could publish quite fine daily for years). The AP has been losing broadcast business ever since the 1980s when the U.S. Federal Communications Commission begtan permitting licensed broadcasters the option to operate without news programs. And the AP’s ownership won’t readily permit it to pursue ‘pure-play’ Internet businesses. The only thing the AP can do is to keep raising the rates of its existing customers each year.

Something has got to give or break. I think the Associated Press had better fix its problems before what breaks is the AP itself.

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