McGuire on Media

The AP/Google Alliance sends bad signals to newspapers

Alan Mutter’s piece on AP and Google is a must read.  I am tempted to say, “What he said!'”

Mutter beautifully describes the decision by Google to divert traffic  away from publishers and broadcasters by linking directly to news of AP, AFP, UK Press Association and Canadian press.  Consumers will no longer follow an AP story to the Bighorn Bugle.

Mutter does a great job of explaining the banner ad implications of the move and he correctly points out how papers like the Bugle have never netted  huge traffic from AP stories.  And, he is spot-on when he describes the way too many newspapers are shying away from original content on their sites and relying on wire copy.

I think there are some interesting historical and future implications of this story. I am fascinated by the fact that save for Mutter and a New York Times mention this story seems to be doing the “Labor Day shuffle’ and is not getting much attention. This move says volumes about newspapers, AP and lost opportunities. 

Let’s start with the basic fact of life that was force-fed to me by countless AP bureau chiefs in the sober confines of my office and the not-so-sober late afternoon meetings in the pub: “Hey, we’re in this together. You own us! These rate increases aren’t really rate increases, they’re your part of the partnership fee!”

That AP-as-cooperative stuff was part of the AP mantra from the time the bureau chief stepped out of his car until the time he called to yell at you about your failure to file a dandy photo the AP wanted to distribute to your competition.  You “owed” AP the big rate increase and you “owed” AP that news scoop, or the great photo because we were all one big happy family.

I think there’s some domestic abuse going on here.

AP has always argued that newspaper interests matter most and that seemed obvious because so many important newspaper executives were on the AP board.  The boards of NAA and AP were often indistinguishable.  That makes the evolving situation we’ve seen the last few years harder to figure out.  It sure appears that AP’s lusty glances are being directed toward Yahoo and Google and not newspapers.

That’s curious on a number of fronts,  The first question is how much money is at stake here?  I’m guessing newspapers still provide a LOT more of APs revenues than do partners like Yahoo and Google. Which leads to the second question, where are the angry newspaper people with their fiery pitchforks and nooses?  I’m more than a little surprised newspaper executives aren’t up in arms over this partnership. 

Newspaper and AP insiders will tell you that the emphasis on cooperation has declined significantly over the last several years and the AP state reports are shadows of what they once were.  In its place, AP seems to be putting more of an emphasis on original national and international content–content that will be more attractive to somebody like Yahoo or Google. 

Now, the normal business response to this might be, “well it makes sense for AP to enhance its own brand and to find its own way in the brutal media landscape.”

Well, yeah, but then you have that nasty ownership problem. If AP is a newspaper cooperative does it make sense for AP to be forging its own way and leaving newspapers  woundee and dying on the side of the road?” And, what exactly are the newspaper folks on the AP board thinking as they allow AP to forge this new identity?

And, that allows us to arrive back at the lost opportunity point.  Through the years countless newspaper executives and web visionaries have stood up at meetings with AP executives and argued, cajoled, suggested and screamed that AP could and should be the aggregating force that brings all original newspaper content together in a powerful way. Vague promises of a “digital solution” from AP usually followed those exhortations, but that solution is still hiding.

Had AP, or a viable upstart, done something like that a few years ago the exhortations last year of my friend Tom Mohr.  who argued for newspapers to join together to fight the online battle would not have seemed like such a stretch. 

Newspapers need to figure out a way to band together to play powerful content music. AP once offered the potential and promise of being the conductor of that orchestra, but now it appears AP has found new, trendier partners for its music.  I think that means inevitable sour notes are coming for both AP and newspapers.

Categories: Business of journalism, Leadership and Management,

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