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Boycotting the AP? A shortsighted idea

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Short-sighted bloggers are calling for a boycott of the Associated Press because it deigned to define for bloggers with an overly heavy hand clear standards as to how much of its content they can excerpt without infringing on the AP’s copyright.

Such boycott talk misunderstands the AP and its journalistic breadth if not depth, and amounts, frankly, to pure hissyfits ’cause some bloggers can’t have their way.

How, exactly, does one boycott the almost omnipresent AP? And what would replace it? Reuters? Hardly.

Many of AP’s critics do not understand what the AP is: a non-profit cooperative. It is owned by its 1,500 member newspapers and has historically been credited with the emergence of “objective” journalism after the Civil War (or the disappearance of “subjective” journalism, depending on your POV).

Is the AP the “best” newsgathering and disseminating organization in the world? Could be, depending on how “best” is defined. It’s certainly among the most broad-based. After the budget cuts of the ‘80s killed the newsgathering reputations of the network news shows, particularly CBS, AP drove competitor United Press International into virtual extinction.

From the late ‘90s to now, revenue declines in the newspaper business drove it to ax most overseas bureaus, leaving the AP as the journalistic big kahuna worldwide. If broadest is best, AP wins, with (it claims) more than 240 bureaus worldwide. The AP serves 550 international broadcasters who receive AP’s global video news and other services. The AP serves thousands of newspapers in 121 countries.

On quality, the AP — as a worldwide newsgathering cooperative — has won 49 Pulitzers. (Yes, definitions of quality are subjective.)

Reuters, another large newsgathering and disseminating company, is decidedly not non-profit. Prior to its sale to Thomson for $17 billion last year, Reuters employed about 16,000 in 94 countries. But its strength has primarily been financial news. That’s why Thomson bought it — to compete directly with Bloomberg News on an equal footing.

The AP has a much greater presence in the United States for general news than Reuters. Newspapers, which have been cutting staffs and therefore local news holes, have enlarged the use of AP copy and photos. It’s simply cheaper than producing locally generated stories. Reuters, with a lesser American presence, has not capitalized on that and is unlikely to. Because …

The context provided by The New York Times for Reuters’ sale is telling:

The deal also comes in the middle of an information revolution as easy distribution over the Internet has turned news and data into a commodity. Media companies, including newspapers, cable companies and financial publishers, are all struggling to turn their content into new services that their customers are willing to pay for. [emphasis added]

Any argument for boycotting the AP and favoring Reuters is short-sighted. Thomson’s interest in Reuters is in its financial-reporting strength. The Times reports that Thomson considers Reuters’ general news service for newspapers, broadcasters and Web publishers to be baggage, not buoyancy. Look for Reuters’ role in general news to diminish slowly over time. Nature abhors a vacuum. The AP is the only news organization with the international resources to fill it.

Now, the AP is not without its own measure of stupidity in unleashing its legions of lawyers on the Drudge Retort, demanding it yank a few items containing quotes from AP stories ranging from 39 to 79 words. The AP has fired the first shot in a war that’s going to last (at least online) for a very long time, and it’s going to sully the AP’s image more than it can imagine. It’s also going to be expensive for both sides when lawyers really get involved. And the AP ought to realize that links from blogs to AP content benefits the AP by giving its content exposure to a wider audience.

Let the lawyers proffer advice on what to do here and parse what is or is not a copyright and what is or is not fair use. This flap is decidedly about money. The AP is run by a board of directors headed by … William Dean Singleton (gasp!), vice chairman and CEO of Media News General in Denver, Colo. This legal frontal assault on bloggers’ use of AP copy smells like his handiwork:

In 1995 he shuttered the Houston Post, throwing well over a thousand people out of work and killing a publication that had served the community since 1885. Nor is Singleton known for graceful entrances. When he purchased The Berkshire Eagle in 1995, reporters were given a sheet of paper describing their job status and new salaries. “People were expected to read the paper and put their initials next to the words ‘accept’ or ‘reject’ on the spot,” Stephen Simurda wrote in CJR. “There were virtually no negotiations. This was day one of the Singleton era.”

Mr. Singleton, who is single-minded about profit, understands a critical fact. From The Times story of Reuters’ sale:

In the information age, content may be king. But the real power lies in what you can do with it.

Loss of control equals loss of revenue, thinks the AP. That’s why the AP doesn’t like what bloggers do with its content. Bloggers have grown up lazy: Of the 100-plus million blogs tracked by Technorati, how many actually do their own reporting? The AP reports; the vast majority of blogs rip ‘n’ read and then rant. (And ripping AP at length and then ranting doesn’t always produce readable copy. Paraphrasing is a lost art online.)

Without stories from the AP — or Reuters or The New York Times or the Asahi Shimbun or the tiny Podunk Times — bloggers would have far fewer facts on which to opine. The AP is a principal information feeder of the Vast Blog Opinion Machine.

When a critical mass of bloggers raises the money and develops its own, independent, broadly based, worldwide newsgathering and disseminating cooperative, you can bet your bottom dollar it will be the first to howl “copyright infringement!” when someone posts one of the blogger co-op’s stories.

In the meantime, bloggers ought to treat information provided by others, especially professional news organizations that spent money developing it, with far more respect by at minimum crediting the source, linking to the original story and minimizing direct lifted copy. I don’t know the legalities of all this, but I know a lack of common courtesy when I see it.

The best advice for the AP and bloggers alike I’ve seen so far has come from the very sharp mind of a friend:

The AP ought to tell blogs that it welcomes minimal use of excerpts if accompanied by links to the AP or to the news organization buying the AP story. The AP should tell bloggers, and bloggers ought to understand, that except in fair-use cases of criticism, parody, and the like, the AP cannot allow blogs to use significant excerpts or entire stories for free that other news organizations have paid for. 

Bloggers should have known that this day would come. The AP’s poorly executed crackdown, soon to be followed by other equally mercenary news organizations, reflects the enormous economic dislocations in the news business worldwide. Did bloggers believe they’d be exempt from it?

Blogging’s chance to improve its amateur standing is at hand. Either pony up to repair blogging’s wretched reputation for uneven writing and its widespread lack of original reporting — or back off on threats to boycott the AP.

xpost: Scholars and Rogues

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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

June 17, 2008 at 4:42 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. In the meantime, bloggers ought to treat information provided by others, especially professional news organizations that spent money developing it, with far more respect by at minimum crediting the source, linking to the original story and minimizing direct lifted copy. I don’t know the legalities of all this, but I know a lack of common courtesy when I see it.
    That pretty much says it all, Denny. Send this one off to Greg Mitchell.

    felixwas

    June 18, 2008 at 12:10 am

  2. Nice.
    Denny, you’re still my favorite. 🙂 And your posts are great — keep ’em coming!
    Lisa B

    Anonymous

    June 19, 2008 at 7:07 pm


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