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From AJR,   September 1998  issue

Ripping and Reading: A Rapid City Rumble   

By Kelly Heyboer
Kelly Heyboer is a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.      

In June, Rapid City Journal statehouse reporter Bob Mercer broke a story on financial and environmental problems at a Black Hills gold mine, complete with exclusive quotes from South Dakota's governor.

By afternoon, Mercer says, the substance of the piece was on all three local television stations. Each newscast reported what the governor had said, but none credited the Rapid City Journal with the scoop.

Mercer, a 12-year veteran of the South Dakota statehouse beat, shrugs the incident off as an inevitable part of life for a modern newspaper reporter. The same scene plays out daily around the country: Newspapers provide fodder for their electronic competition.

But Mercer's paper is fighting back--and challenging the 150-year-old Associated Press in the process. Earlier this year, the Journal, South Dakota's second-largest newspaper, cut the number of stories it sends the AP to limit the news radio and television stations pick up through the wire service's same-day broadcast wire. The move came after years of debate with the AP over how to keep stories from the electronic media in an era of fierce competition for readers and advertisers.

"I think the AP was designed to help... But, they're eroding our economic viability," says Rapid City Journal Publisher John VanStrydonck.

For years, the 32,000-circulation paper has "carboned" electronic copies of nearly every story each night to the AP's Sioux Falls bureau. But this year the paper went back to its $130,000 AP contract to determine exactly what it was obligated to provide.

Like all of AP's 1,550 member newspapers, the Journal is only required to submit spot news within a 30-mile radius of its newsroom. Everything else, from farm reports to investigative projects, is voluntary.

By knowing exactly what local radio and television stations are getting from the AP, the Journal can determine what is being picked up directly from the paper. Mercer's story about the gold mine was one not sent to the AP, so the paper knew television stations had probably lifted some information from its pages.

When stations report the Journal's stories without credit, the publisher's attorneys send off a letter warning the broadcasters against "ripping and reading," VanStrydonck says.

Tena Haraldson, chief of the AP's Dakotas bureau, says the Journal's cutback on copy has diminished news from the Black Hills in her daily state report.

The AP has no staffers and no bureaus in far western South Dakota, where the Journal dominates. The next largest paper providing the AP with daily copy is the Black Hills Pioneer, a 4,200-circulation evening paper in nearby Spearfish. Rapid City television stations and some radio stations also provide reports to the wire service.

From her Sioux Falls bureau, one time zone and 400 miles away from Rapid City, Haraldson isn't sure what news the AP is missing in the west. And she can only get the Journal by mail.

At the Journal, the new relationship with the AP has left reporters without the larger audience the wire provides.

"I guess I have mixed feelings about it," says Mercer. In Pierre, the state capital, the cooperative spirit among reporters has diminished, he says. In the past, the AP wouldn't cover some events if it knew Mercer's stories would be on the wire. That's not the case now.

But VanStrydonck says most of his reporters understand the paper is taking a stand for the good of the print industry.

While some dailies quietly gripe about a news shortage west of the Missouri River, other publishers sympathize with the Journal's effort to protect its franchise.

Noel Hamiel, publisher of the Daily Republic, a 12,250-circulation daily in Mitchell, west of Sioux Falls, understands the Journal's stance. "I was hearing [Daily Republic] stories on the radio at 6 or 7 in the morning..and we're not talking breaking news."

The AP's papers are "providing the broadcast report at the expense of its own members," Hamiel says. "We're shooting ourselves with our own bullets."

According to wire service historians, the debate over how much newspapers subscribing to the AP should turn over to broadcasters has been around since the 1920s. Radio and television stations now contribute stories as "associate members."

From time to time, newspapers in competitive markets take note of their contractual requirements, says AP spokeswoman Tori Smith. But for the most part, there's a high level of cooperation, she says.

Several solutions to the Journal/AP standoff have been proposed. One suggestion, that the AP hold non-breaking stories from the broadcast wire for 24 hours, has intrigued publishers. But AP frowns on the idea.

"Twenty-four-hour-old news doesn't sound like news to me," Haraldson says.

Meanwhile, the Rapid City Journal is floating the idea of starting its own cooperative, via a members-only Web site. Participating papers could share stories, while radio and television stations would be excluded.

"We're out to look at the best interest of this industry," says VanStrydonck. "The world has changed a lot."