A story in The New York Times reveals a number of U.S. newspapers are in the process of giving Associated Press notice that they wish to terminate their relationship. For the Columbus Dispatch, which recently announced the move, the down economy is a significant factor as the deal between the paper and AP costs the Ohio daily more than $800,000 a year. The Tribune Company, which owns the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times (among other papers) and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, a daily under sever economic pressure, followed suit with similar notifications to the association stating its AP membership was one of its single largest expenses. Under contract rules, an AP customer must give two years notice, so these terminations may be just warning shots fired at the 162-year old association. However, some newspapers are planning legal challenges to void the two-year notice stipulation hoping for immediate economic relief.
AP, which is a cooperative news agency owned by member newspapers, radio and TV stations in the U.S., has been trying to come up with a way to serve its members current and future needs while maintaining its own product portfolio direction with such new services as Mobile News Network, an application for mobile phones, and an online TV network. And despite declining revenue from at major newspapers, the A.P., a nonprofit company, is healthy; last year its profit rose 81 percent, to $24 million, on revenue of $710 million, according to a financial statement issued to its members. That said, it’s incumbent for the AP to take a leadership position in working with its members as it will not be able to collect fees from newspapers that go dark.
Newspapers are imagining a world without AP membership. Some newspapers are talking about creating regional cooperatives while others are looking to sites such as Politico.com, a company that as built a content-sharing arrangement with numerous newspapers in which Politico provides content in exchange for the right to sell ads that are placed with that content. Politico and the paper split the ad revenues. In early September, the financially troubled Newark Star-Ledger published one daily edition sans AP content as either a protest or a test to see if it could actually produce a newspaper without AP’s contribution.
The Associated Press says it has been working to revise its rate schedule and to work with member papers to better serve its members’ needs. Among those needs include more local content and perhaps a way to act as a clearinghouse for citizen media and other third-party content sources. Turning its new mobile news project into a platform that could be utilized by member newspapers should be high on the priority list if not already. It seems to this reporter, AP needs to become the CableLabs of the media world, acting as an often blue sky research and development arm to trial new technologies and productize them for their constituents (as well as for its own benefit). If there is one thing the newspaper world needs today, its solidarity and visionary leadership. AP could step up to the plate and take on that role or continue to watch its members struggle. Seems like an easy choice.