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AP 2.0: Ultimately our mirror, for better or worse

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As the season known as The Most Important Presidential Election Ever nears its apogee (or nadir, depending on your opinion of politics), news organizations ought to putting as much time, treasure, and talent as possible covering the non-horse race aspects of the campaign — important stuff beyond “who’s gonna be veep,” such as whom the candidates would appoint to what, legislative initiatives they’ll champion, Supreme Court litmus tests, energy and tax policies and the like.

The stakes in this election, pundits say, are the highest ever. (I heard that when Richard Nixon first ran for president.) So what does the Associated Press do to reliably keep us informed of the ins and outs of the really important stuff in presidential politics?

It creates a division of “Entertainment Content,” hires a director and up to 21 positions to push more celebrity news through video, audio, photo and text formats. Even celebrity writers such as Nikki Fine of Deadline Hollywood Daily find that disquieting. “At a time when major media organizations are cutting back on the most vital news coverage,” wrote Ms. Fine, “how discomforting to know that some are increasing their celebrity reporting instead.”

There’s two reasons for this: Money. (You expected a second reason? Okay: more money.) From an internal Q&A (obtained by Ms. Fine) with the AP’s new director of entertainment content, Daniel Becker (based in Los Angeles, of course):

There is overwhelming demand from customers and members for coverage of celebrity, movies and music. According to PQ Media, the market for outsourced entertainment news content is set to rise by 77% by 2011 to $960 million. So, increasing our entertainment coverage provides an opportunity to give them more of the content they want and to increase revenue at the same time. [emphasis added]

In that same memo, Mr. Becker promises that “[t]he entertainment vertical is not about gossip, unnamed sources and innuendo or about ‘peephole’ journalism with AP photographers becoming paparazzi.” (That’s apparently not the attitude of Frank Baker, the Los Angeles assistant bureau chief, who said in a January memo to staffers, “Now and for the foreseeable future, virtually everything involving Britney is a big deal.” Ms. Spears had just been released from a hospital.)

So, perhaps, the AP has some ‘splaining to do. But this decision to bulk up celebrity snoopiness instead of political coverage, as well as the raucous flap over the AP’s attempt to impose “license” fees on bloggers to protect its content, misses a far more significant issue: More and more, the AP, like all “journalistic” media, reflects the wants of its members and consumers far more than editors’ timely and sober consideration of their needs.

Technology, revenue desires, and the need for speed have driven the AP to decisions unthinkable perhaps just a decade ago in creating what it calls “AP 2.0.” (How original, eh?) And it’s not entirely the AP’s fault as a wholesaler of news and other information. At the retail level, we — that’s you and me, folks — are demanding little more than the fast-food equivalent of news.

The AP has made several structural changes in how it operates designed to focus on speed: It has instituted “1-2-3-filing” and regional consolidation of editing functions to increase the speed at which members receive AP’s touted “premium” content. But speed does not always equal accuracy and thoroughness — or even newsworthiness. (“Consolidation” is a word journalists these days read as “layoffs.” AP promises none. We’ll see.)

This moves are designed to “rev up our journalism,” says Kathleen Carroll, the AP’s executive editor. That would be believable if at AP’s April 14 annual meeting William Dean Singleton (see earlier post) did not ascend to chairman of the AP’s board of directors, and Rupert Murdoch of News Corp. and Sam Zell of the Tribune Co. were not elected to sit with him. These folks are in the business of maximizing shareholder income by slashing expenses. They will bring these well-documented financial sensibilities to AP’s governance.

And these guys smell money in Apple’s iPhone. AP has created a “Mobile News Network.” From an April 14 press release:

AP is working with mobile phone manufacturers and carriers to develop the best user interface for this comprehensive collection of news stories, photos and video from the news industry. The network will be optimized for the richest multimedia experience the new wireless devices will allow.

I breathlessly await details on the AP’s interpretation of the words working with, best, comprehensive, news, optimized, experience, and richest.

AP considers itself a “Digital Cooperative.” Bob Benz and Mike Phillips, writing for the Online Journalism Review, signaled this “new” AP in 2005 and suggested ideas for maximizing its potential:

AP started as a cooperative. Today, it is a cooperative in name only. It’s time to take a lesson from music swappers and invent the new AP – a digital cooperative, a Napsterized news service.

But, the two suggest, AP has dropped the ball on their idea:

If AP had its collective head firmly inside the 21st Century, it already would be moving at least parts of its services in the Napster direction. But AP is like any business confronted with a disruptive technology. Its first inclination is self-preservation, not cannibalization. [emphasis added]

At AP’s 2008 annual meeting, President and CEO Tom Curley couched the AP’s strategic changes with this message to end users — “get local content from brands they trust” — and pointed to what AP will increasingly define as “premium” news:

As AP steps up efforts for more and faster breaking news coverage, it also is diving deeper into key areas to provide members and customers with premium content that goes beyond what AP provides in its core report. The initial vertical or subject coverage will provide rich offerings – from in-depth beat reporting and analysis to video and archive packages – in three high demand areas: sports, entertainment and financial news. [emphasis added]

That kind of content is not particularly local. But that’s what news members of this non-profit cooperative want AP to provide. Oh, don’t be so shocked. Glued to the tube for the U.S. Open? Tiger Woods on a broken leg? Wondering how your stocks are doing as the price of oil bubbles ever upward? Still titillated by news of both entertainment and political celebrities, et. al?

Collectively, this is what end users — that’s you and me, folks — of “news” and “information” have signaled they want. AP is reacting as a principal distributor of such “premium” content. With Mr. Singleton, Mr. Murdoch, and Mr. Zell at the helm, why be surprised that the AP would seek to capitalize on our predilections? And why be surprised the AP would act to protect its content to maximize its revenue? (The AP signaled its intent to do this, but buried it in the last graf of its 2008 annual report.)

In a nation collectively riveted to reality (or truTV’s “actuality”) television programs, “American Idol” and its imitators, and the liberal vs. conservative “NewsLite®” programming of CNN and Fox News, the information business has responded, and the AP is part of that business. The information biz, once known as the journalism biz, is easily slurping off the cream that we collectively lust for instead of giving us our daily ration of healthier milk. Hence the AP enlarges its entertainment coverage rather than seriously bolster political coverage of this Most Important Election Ever.

That’s sad. The AP at its finest is one of the best newsgathering operations on the planet, partly because of the financial diminution of other contenders. But its own financial stresses — and our collective indication of what we wish news organizations to provide — has eroded the AP’s brilliance bred through a century and a half. “News you can use — or at least be amused by” — is the new focus of the info industry. That includes the AP. And we just let it happen because we have not collectively demanded a better product.

When a president of the future decides to sell us a war with information either inexpertly produced or deceitfully presented, don’t wonder why the “press” doesn’t ask more forceful, probing, analytical questions. It’s been too busy covering sports, entertainment and personal finance tips and hastening to get them to your iPhone 160 characters at a time.

In his forward to Pete Dexter’s “Paper Trails,” Pete Hamill wrote:

Journalism, as all journalists know, is an imperfect craft that can sometimes become art. The ambition is always the same: to make marks on the walls of the cave that will help other members of the tribe understand what lies within. The journalist cannot say dragons are deep within if they are not. But he cannot describe a place that is benign and tranquil if he has not gone deep enough to see and smell and hear the dragon. The life of the tribe itself can depend on him.

Over time, the folks who deliver infotainment news by iPhone will increasingly be unable to detect that dragon. Those skills — that art — will wither. And part of the reason is we collectively ignore that such dragons exist, and we don’t demand that the news business find them and tell us about them — even if we’d rather they didn’t.

xpost: Scholars and Rogues

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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

June 19, 2008 at 5:53 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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