McGuire on Media

Associated Press cancellations, once common, are a good idea again

The Minneapolis Star Tribune got some press a week or so ago when it gave The Associated Press the required two year’s cancellation notice. The Star Tribune is at least the fifth and perhaps the biggest paper  to take this action.  Newspapers appear convinced newspapers are very low on AP’s priority list. Newspapers want lower prices and , more coverage. Nobody really says it, but I think newspapers around the country want more affection and/or respect too from AP.

The latest salvo in this battle is a contention from the Spokane Spokesman-Review that the two-year notice provision does not apply because AP’s new rate structure constitutes a new contract. The Spokesman-Review says the renewal deal deal offered by AP “represents a continued and material shift by the AP of separating services from the basic package so that some services will be available only by signing up for supplemental programs.” That argument maintains this is a new deal and not a renewal.  AP argues this is not a new deal, but rather a “service upgrade.” Precedent would seem to favor AP on this one.

I do not pretend to appreciate all the nuances of this current flap between smart editors of struggling newspapers and a reawakened Associated Press intent on changing its business model to survive.

What I do understand is some important AP history that is at the very least bemusing and possibly instructive.

I became a managing editor at the age of 24 in 1973 in Ypsilanti, Mich.  From the very beginning I canceled my Associated Press contract. I had countless mentors in those early days, and I have no idea who taught me this. It was before I went to work for my most beloved mentor, the crafty Gregory Favre, so I don’t think it was him even though it sounds like something he’d do! I learned very quickly  that: a) a two-year notice provision is so incredibly onerous it was just smart to protect yourself against unforeseen events and b) the AP bureau chiefs were much, much nicer to you when you had them under cancellation.

Now let’s be candid here and admit that in those days we had a “somewhat” viable, but declining alternative in United Press International. UPI was always coming around with deals and it only made sense to listen. That “openness” to alternatives made AP a much better partner. Because some of their evaluation was based on “rescuing cancellations,” bureau chiefs were more than accommodating to the needs of such customers.

Back in those early days, Rich Oppel (just retired from the Austin American Statesman) was the Detroit bureau chief. I called him the other day to check my memories.  He said that about 10 percent of editors filed what he called “protective cancellations.” Apparently I knew the entire 10 percent because I have talked to other people who remember it as a very common occurrence.

So is this entry anything more than a walk down memory lane? I hope so.

I applaud the editors who are submitting their two-year cancellation notices. I think it is the best way to find solutions to the obvious dysfunction. I think it is most premature for the press to assume that these actions will end up canceling the relationship between particular newspapers and the AP for three reasons.

I think the action recognizes that two years is a ridiculous cancellation procedure. (That fact, despite all the precedent, could cost AP in its argument with Spokane.)  That two-year notice is mighty close to what a judge might consider unreasonably onerous.  A wonderful result of this current dispute between editors and AP is that AP might be forced to change that clause.  Such a two year notice des not, nor has it ever, smacked of “partnership.” True partners should have a more accommodating way to end their relationship. Yes, I know AP has always said they need that commitment to secure loans, but I have always wondered whether they have the same two-year notice clauses with other “partners.”

Secondly, I think these cancellation notices, and I hope there are more of them, are the best way to open a genuine dialogue between editors and the AP. I personally believe the AP/editor partnership is the best option for the struggling future of newspapers, but that relationship cannot continue in its current strained state. Editors and the AP need to sit down and craft a future that works for the industry and for an ever-expanding AP.  Both are far better off as allies than enemies.  These cancellations can bring an urgency to those discussions that the subject deserves.

Finally, and here again history is our guide, these cancellations could  force editors to creatively examine alternatives.  There is no viable UPI these days, but perhaps a more powerful news report can be crafted from new alliances, from entrepreneurs and perhaps even from some of my old syndicate friends. Putting a clock on the newspaper/AP deals might result in the discovery of some substitute services which can transform what newspapers offer readers.

These AP cancellations repeat history, but if handled correctly they could build an important future for the industry and for AP.