Why the AP will change or die

Here’s a shocker: An Associated Press editor thinks it’s a bad idea for local news organizations to withdraw from the AP.

Really?

In an awfully one-sided report on E&P, AP’s Kathleen Carroll says that going through with the move will burden local news organizations and their web teams, who will be unable to replace the service, not just in print, but in its multimedia offerings as well. “We are moving an ocean of content,” she says.

That’s great, but that doesn’t address the chief complaint against the AP: that they charge their members (a lot) for the privilege of giving away their locally-unique content in exchange for access to commodity national and world news now available through other channels.

The Associated Press is a collective – owned by the member organizations (read: newspapers) that exists to facilitate the sharing of news across the borders of cities and countries. So far, so good. If it didn’t exist, bloggers would probably be agitating for something like it.

But the problem is two-fold:

1. It was created at a time where its greatest benefit was carriage. Getting a news story or photo from halfway around the world was nothing short of a miracle. In 1849, when it was formed. Today, in the age of instant communication on the internet, the AP’s primary function has been rendered moot.

2. It unfairly treats original reporting by (mainly) newspaper companies as a commodity, laundering stories wholesale so that they can be picked up by competing media outlets (television, radio, local and national internet competitors) easily and with a clean conscience. This means that a story that a local paper may invest a week of time reporting can be re-reported with no effort – and no attribution – by the local tv station.

And, for this privilege, the current contracts have the newspapers paying dearly.

In a time when local newspapers are struggling to convince their markets that they’re valuable, the fact that the entire front page is leading the noon broadcast on Action News doesn’t help make the case.

Ultimately, there is a crying need for news organizations to share content. I think, though, that moves like Tribune’s to withdraw from the collective will become much more common in the coming months, as news organizations rethink the value of the AP in reaching the goal of better and more efficient news coverage. Also, bolder moves, such as those described by Scott Karp in his discussion of the link economy, may emerge as viable – and much less expensive – alternatives.

No matter what, the AP as we’ve known it, will not live to see 2010.