Taking on the Associated Press
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
"To all general managers (not editors)," wrote George Sample, vice chairman of American Publishing Co., to the company's 98 daily newspapers, "the Associated Press is planning on screwing you."
With this eye-catching July memo, Sample, who is also editor of the 4,300-circulation Corry Journal in Pennsylvania, outlined how he believes the AP is abandoning small-town America now that it's the only game in town for many small-circulation morning and evening papers.
Sample was responding to the AP's newest wire for 412 small papers. Dubbed "AP Basic" and introduced last spring, it's gradually replacing the slowspeed wire that moves stories at 66 words a minute. With the new service, copy churns out at more than 9,000 words a minute. "The slowspeed wire was so jammed up that an awful lot of news never got there or got there too late," says Rick Spratling, the AP's project leader for the new service.
Sample doesn't care. All he sees is that the new technology is going to cost American Publishing Co., whose newspapers have a combined circulation of about 1 million, a lot more for the same material arriving faster – between $300,000 and $400,000 a year more. Sample was hoping for a greater variety of stories to balance the increase in cost, which is based on circulation.
"The AP doesn't understand that content sells papers. A faster wire only helps with getting to press on time," Sample wrote in the July memo.
With the decline of UPI, most small-town papers are now entirely dependent on the AP for state, national and international news. Sample believes AP Basic is a marketing ploy to defray the costs of faster technology.
The AP disagrees. "Content is absolutely important but the news has to be there to be usable," says Spratling. "Speed is of the essence in this business."
AP developed the slowspeed wire in the 1950s to combine international, national, state, sports and business news into one report for small papers.
AP Basic was created in response to complaints that papers weren't getting sports scores and stories in a timely fashion. In a 1992 column, Ned Frear, publisher of Pennsylvania's Bedford Gazette, answered readers complaints about the shortage of stock car racing stories with this explanation: "It's our wire service, which fails to deliver some key reports, apparently because we're the little guys and can't afford what's called 'high speed wire.' With the death of UPI, there's no alternative to AP, and we alone don't have much clout to correct the situation."
Frear, along with editors at other smaller papers, is now happier with the AP's service. At The Dalles Chronicle in Oregon, a Scripps League paper, editors are raving about the faster service. Since the paper switched to AP Basic, most of the AP copy is often waiting when the staff gets to work at 7 a.m. to put out the 6,000-daily afternoon paper. "We felt the difference with the latest Haiti story when we were on deadline," says Managing Editor Tom Stevenson. "Rather than have to wait for slowspeed, which would have taken forever, it was there."
David Nahan, editor and publisher of the Transcript in North Adams, Massachusetts, has decided not to switch just for speed. "Our choice is to live with it," says Nahan. "If I have to spend $29.10 a week more, I'd rather spend it on a local story."
Sometime in 1995, according to AP's Spratling, Nahan won't have a choice. The slowspeed will be history. "We get a little resentful with AP when they tell us here is a system upgrade that we have to have and here's a rate hike," says Steve Piatt, managing editor of American Publishing's Sayre, Pennsylvania, Evening Times. "We feel this is forced down our throat. There's a little bit of the only show in town. AP may not be in competition. But we are."