From AJR, October 1997 issue
Following the lead of its newspaper members, the Associated Press, long the bastion of hard news leads and for-the-record coverage, is emphasizing enterprise reporting and stylish writing.
By Charlotte Grimes
Charlotte Grimes teaches journalism at Syracuse University. She is on leave from the Washington bureau of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
W HEN JIM DRINKARD ARRIVED IN WASHINGTON, D.C. in 1981 to cover Missouri and Kansas news for the Associated Press, his work was the traditional routine of the wire service's regional reporters.
He dogged the two states' congressional delegations. He kept meticulous track of their voting records, the bills they introduced, their speeches, press releases, screwups and successes. He hunkered down through dull committee hearings, sometimes as the last lonely reporter at the press table. He dashed out to file new leads, rewrites and updates. He slogged step-by-step through the passage of the farm bill, from drafting to subcommittee wrangling to committee revisions to floor votes.
When he became a national AP reporter in 1985, his horizon broadened, but the routine was much the same. ``I used to write every day," Drinkard says.
These days, Drinkard cultivates a different approach to covering Congress. His fertile field of news? A beat on lobbyists and their money. Sometimes he invests weeks in only a couple of stories. Sometimes he goes days without writing a word. This way of covering Congress, he says, takes ``you behind the overt events we used to cover incrementally and lets you tell descriptively what goes on behind the scenes." Adds Drinkard, ``Getting a glimpse behind the curtains is worth more than watching what's going on up on the stage."
Meet the latest ``evolution"--as its creators call it--of the venerable Associated Press. Going into its 150th year, the wire service, born of ruthless 19th-century competition to get the most news the fastest, is changing its ways.
Sure, insist AP managers, it still will deliver the farm reports, the sports scores, the tornado warnings, the spot story on breaking news from Beijing to Butte, Montana.
T ``50 ROCK," AP'S HEADQUARTERS at 50 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, Trahant's views would not be--so to speak--news. They are a familiar summary of the forces reshaping the overall news industry in what AP President and CEO Louis D. Boccardi describes as a ``rapidly changing environment."
Media mergers and alliances. New technologies. Audiences disappearing into the Internet and cable TV. Common problems for the AP and its 1,550 member newspapers and 6,000 broadcasters.
But the way some AP members are responding to the new realities creates other wrinkles for the wire service. The cost of newsprint and pressures for profits have shrunk the newsholes at many newspapers. The economy and technology, like the Internet, are going global. But, like Trahant, editors of many small- and medium-sized newspapers are taking their news heavily local.
The AP's former arch rival, United Press International, is no longer a factor (see Free Press, September), superseded by Reuters. But editors graze a glutton's smorgasbord of supplemental wires including Knight-Ridder, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post.
Consider this statistic: Two-thirds of those responding to a survey by the Associated Press Managing Editors in 1994 said they also take supplemental wires. The AP was still top-rated for timeliness, and 81 percent considered it a ``good value." But they turned to the supplementals, the editors said, for special expertise, enterprise reporting and--in a jab that hits a nerve at the AP--writing style.
Against that backdrop, says AP Vice President and Executive Editor William E. Ahearn, ``We just have to be more compelling to earn our space in a newspaper." Adds Boccardi, ``We want to make sure we're relevant to this new climate. In a time of change like this, the surest formula for getting run over is just to stand there and do nothing."
T FHE AP TODAY IS A FAR CRY FROM ITS founding in 1848 by six New York newspaper publishers whose fierce competition was driving them into bankruptcy. Until they hit on a novel cost-cutting concept: Cooperation. The not-for-profit cooperative quickly began enlarging its job description.
The AP is now the world's largest news agency, with a projected budget for 1997 of $472.9 million and an audience of billions. Its intricate communications network is the industry's ganglia, transmitting words, photos, graphics and video to 15,000 outlets in 112 countries.
Its correspondents are the press' shock troops and rear guard--expected to be the first to show up at a breaking news event and the last to leave the boring government meeting. And the AP also has become something of the storehouse of journalism's cumulative wisdom, the steward of traditions that define good practice. Its Stylebook is the profession's bible.
In the uncertain 1960s, then-AP President Wes Gallagher reshuffled the wire service, creating a special team to cover the emerging civil rights movement, a ``mod squad" of reporters attuned to the music and moods of hippies and Vietnam War protesters, and a Washington group of investigative reporters.
So what makes AP's latest evolution different from earlier versions? Not much, say some mildly skeptical AP staffers. ``About every 10 years, the AP gets an itch to move the furniture around," says one senior writer.
IHugh A. Mulligan, legendary feature writer and 46-year AP veteran, suggests the current ``evolution" is simply a continuation of what started three decades ago. ``It's moving along with what Gallagher had begun," he says, ``when he put the emphasis on good writing, thorough reporting and on giving the reporter the time to do the stories."
IBut others see a fundamental shift away from a few stars at the top and toward the grassroots bureaus. The special teams once did most of the exclusive or creative stories, says Mike Hendricks, news editor in the Albany, New York, bureau. ``Now," says Hendricks, ``we're all expected to do it."
IBill Dedman, a Pulitzer Prize winner who helped the AP move into computer-assisted reporting, says the emphasis on the bureaus is meant to ``change the culture" at the wire service. ``Raising everybody's boat a half-inch is immensely harder than getting one person to sail off," says Dedman, who left the AP last spring and is now in Chicago writing under contract for the New York Times.
One vivid sign of the culture change is the mantra to be ``compelling"--an adjective invoked by Executive Editor Ahearn nine times in the first seven minutes of an interview. Ahearn, who is credited with engineering much of AP's recent change, explains the compulsion this way: ``We have to think like a newspaper." And in fact, many of the AP's approaches have been standard practice and conventional wisdom at many newspapers for several years.
Take the turn toward stylized writing. For decades, newspaper editors, confounded and threatened by declining circulation, have fretted over how to attract and keep readers. They've tried shorter stories, fewer stories, useful stories. Recently they've focused on ``compelling" stories. Fascinating stories. Narratives. Good yarns.
But how to get them from reporters? At the AP, enter Barbara King.
It is 1991. A grim, fearful year in the newspaper industry. The recession shrivels advertising revenue. Profits plunge. Editors are unnerved, desperate. At an annual conference, a consultant advises them that they can draw more readers with jazzier presentations and in-depth news coverage.
Following up on promises for better writing and more investigative reporting, Ahearn visits the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg. ``I was on the hunt for a writing coach," recalls Ahearn. He meets King, then a nun in a teaching order, a former principal, daughter of a publisher, a training director and coach for Ottaway Newspapers.
Ahearn is impressed. ``Not everyone can tell someone, `Hey, you're doing this wrong' in the right way," says Ahearn. ``Barbara can. She's just very good." King's official title is director of editorial training and, in a narrow definition, her job is to create a systematic training program for better writing and editing.
That alone would distinguish the AP's latest approach, say some of its veterans. When he was an AP novice, recalls Walter Mears, now a vice president, columnist and dean of the Washington bureau, ``They put you in a chair and said, `Write.' " Now, says Mears, ``the change, to me, is in the effort to train writers."
King and Rene ``Jack" Cappon, general news editor and longtime AP word wizard, write newsletters, orchestrate ``writers' circles," send out tip sheets. Occasionally King reviews copy from a selected bureau. She estimates that she spends 40 percent of her time on the road, visiting bureaus.
AP staffers are quick--and proud--to remind that the wire service has a tradition of great writing turned out by some of journalism's giants. Mulligan. Jules Loh. Saul Pett. Sid Moody. Hal Boyle. Both Pett and Boyle brought Pulitzer Prizes into the Poets' Corner. With Loh's retirement in June, only Mulligan, 72, is still writing for the AP.
Some at the AP suggest that, as the poets died, resigned or retired, lively writing faded into an occasional flicker on the wire. ``It clearly had declined," says Bruce DeSilva, former Hartford Courant writing coach and editor, who came to the AP in 1995 to head its reorganized Enterprise Department.
The department has a staff of 24 writers and editors. DeSilva also draws reporters from bureaus. To them all he preaches a passion for storytelling devices: First-person accounts. Chronological dramas. Cliff-hanger endings. ``So much of what happens in the world is absolutely bloody fascinating--until you read about it in the newspapers," DeSilva says.
AHis kind of stories? A two-month reconstruction of a Himalayan avalanche that killed 22 people. A first-person piece by an AP writer returning to the African village where she'd worked as a Peace Corps volunteer. A quirky look at two inventors of a machine designed to suck groundhogs out of their holes.
Then there's Martha Mendoza and the wild horses.
In a tour de force under the rotating writers' program, Mendoza, of the Albuquerque bureau, documented how wild horses were being shipped to slaughterhouses under a federal program meant to protect them. When she confronted horse buyers, an AP computer expert often sat beside her checking databases to contradict denials. The wild horses' fate drew attention from the Washington Post, the New York Times and the ``Fleecing of America" segment of ``The NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw." The government tightened the program.
Says Mendoza, ``It's just a real treat for a reporter to grow and be pushed."
U NTIL RECENTLY, THE AP, like many news organizations, generally kept colorful writing out of hard news. There, the five Ws--who, what, when, where, why--and how reigned supreme, stacked in the inverted pyramid.
Critics derided the wire as ``just-the-facts-ma'am" journalism. Even some AP staffers joked that too many of their colleagues were programmed with ``leadware." Now even its hard news is getting a makeover. ``We are trying to restore the art of storytelling to the AP news report," says Managing Editor Darrell Christian. Leads with a ``little zip and jazz," he adds, are preferred.
To prune ``clutter," AP managers question hard-news dogma about attribution in the lead. Says Deputy Managing Editor Mike Silverman, ``Does every government report we put on the wire have to say `The government announced today?' If unemployment rose two-tenths of a percent one month--then it did."
Should traditionalists shiver at that? ``It is a significant change--especially for the staid old AP," Christian says. But, he adds, ``even stewards occasionally have to revisit the gospel."br>
Chalk much of that up to training director Barbara King. Her arrival signaled something beyond how to use words at the AP. ``Rethinking," says King. ``Unless there's rethinking, everything else is cosmetic." King describes herself as ``the person with her only responsibility as keeping the momentum for change going."
With nudging, prodding, cajoling from her and others, rethinking and change have touched even the wire service's most basic premises and work. ``Take statehouses," says King. ``For years, we have covered subcommittees to committee to floor. We've done it diligently, faithfully, thoroughly. Now we're taking a look at whether members were using it."
Many, evidently, were not. So the AP is following another newspaper trend: Less ``process" coverage. More ``explanatory" coverage of a bill's potential effects on readers.
``Think `outside the dome,' " is the way Linda Leavell, day supervisor in the Dallas bureau, describes the mindset she credits to King. ``We try to think of what's the people story on this? What can we do that's outside the dome in Austin so people can know how it affects them?"
AP statehouse correspondents, like their newspaper counterparts, now often ditch for-the-record reporting on no-hope bills. Some stories are reduced to digests and summaries. Some developments are filed away in reporters' notebooks. Reporters await ``defining moments" to examine bills' effects and survival chances.
In Topeka, Kansas, Lew Ferguson, the AP's senior statehouse correspondent who has spent 27 years covering state legislatures, applauds the new approach. ``I think it elevates us to a higher level in keeping with the trends in newspapersÉto go beyond the routine, to try to explain things, to try to do it brighter, to try to make it more relevant," he says.
Says Martin C. Thompson, AP's director of state news: ``It is less likely today that we will write long stories about every committee hearing or that we'll transmit pictures of two guys in suits at the microphone. Our members tell them [statehouse bureaus] that they're not interested in that--and their readers tell them they're not interested."
From New York headquarters, Thompson oversees the work of the wire service's 144 domestic bureaus. He stresses the need for hard-edged investigative reporting, firing off a steady barrage of newsletters, phone calls, e-mail messages urging bureaus to dig for exclusives.
But squeezing investigative time out of an AP reporter's work life is no easy task. The sheer mass of routine chores can be crushing: zoned weather forecasts, pork belly prices, radio copy, the ``turnarounds"--rewrites--of stories produced by members.
One AP staffer wryly recalled that his bureau used to schedule ``10 minutes a week" for enterprise reporting. But today bureaus have more license to drop seldom-published features. Computers now churn out features like weather forecasts and agriculture prices.
I N WHAT SOME STAFFERS AND MANAGERS consider their biggest change, computer-assisted reporting--CAR--has become a fixture in many bureaus. That gives the AP new ways to tempt newspaper editors with close-to-home exclusives.
In Dallas, Leavell juggled her regular duties around a six-month computer-analyzed survey of 238 Texas school districts to find that high school football coaches on average were paid 75 percent more than teachers. With easily localized packages, says Leavell, Texas newspapers and broadcasters ate it up.
In Michigan, AP reporters used computers to weigh the costs and benefits of casino gambling. In Kentucky, CAR helped nail truckers intentionally carrying overloads that added to highway damage and state costs. In Wisconsin, AP reporters used computers to document how a school-funding formula shifted millions of dollars away from poor districts and sent much of the money into richer districts.
Many AP staffers say they are delighted with the new tools, the extra time for ``real" reporting and the management support for original, in-depth work. But some resent what they see as the implied criticism in the demand for more ``hard-edged" stories. ``When they tell me `hard-edged,' I like to think that's what I've been doing all along," one reporter says.
AHow is all of this perceived outside of the AP? Among member newspapers, some are thrilled with the changes. Some haven't noticed them at all. Some aren't sure they want to.
At the Ledger in Lakeland, Florida (circulation 80,000), Managing Editor Hunter George has high praise for AP's enterprise reporting. ``The daily enterprise--responding to news events with background and a fresh approach--has stepped up," says George, who has better reason than many editors to be aware of AP's changes: His son is an AP correspondent in Washington state. But for depth and special expertise, he says, ``I'm still going to turn to the more specialized news services."
At the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (circulation 203,000), the quality of AP writing has been greeted with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
To Bob Schenet, the P-I's national and foreign editor, the wider variety of writing styles helps the AP compete with other wire services. ``There was a point not too many years ago when we would consider AP our basic, hard news, here's-the-facts, get-it-on-the-record wire," says Schenet. ``If we were looking for a good read, we'd go to one of our supplemental wires." Now, he says, AP sometimes gets a second look.
But Jeri Clausing, a former AP editor and until recently an assistant metro editor at the P-I, tempers praise for the wire service's attempts to revamp statehouse coverage with doubts about its pursuit of stylish writing. ``I thought sometimes it was at the expense of giving members a good daily report," says Clausing, now working for the New York Times' CyberTimes.
At the Sacramento Bee (circulation 283,000), editors say they see little difference in today's AP--nor are they looking for much. For a page one story, says Executive Editor Pam Dinsmore, she turns more often to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. ``I just like the writing better," she says.
Even on breaking stories, AP copy often ends up in an editing Cuisinart, blended with bits and pieces from other wires. Its exclusives are often merely the spark for the Bee to do its own stories.
At the Journal Times in Racine, Wisconsin (circulation 36,000), Editor Alan Buncher says paying more attention to writing quality and producing exclusive investigations is fine--``as long as they don't stop doing the meat and potatoes."
Buncher's insistence on such hearty fare is a reminder of the AP's distinctive place in journalism--and a cautionary note for the wire service. For example, take the AP's new approach to statehouse coverage. It's one thing for newspapers to back away from covering the legislative process, but another for the AP to follow the trend.
The AP, says Jim Naughton, head of the Poynter Institute, is ``something of a record-keeper." Many news organizations have the ``luxury" of turning away from process to focus on broader-picture reporting, he says, because AP filled that role. ``It is more of a concern," says Naughton, ``if we find that we don't have that record."
AP managers and reporters say they are not abandoning their record-keeper obligations nor ignoring process coverage--they are just doing it differently. ``We still intend to be at a lot of dull, dreary meetings," says Thompson, AP's state news director. ``But we don't intend to write dull, dreary stories."
In AP's Washington bureau, where he cultivates his beat on lobbyists, Jim Drinkard agrees. He reports, he says, on how alliances form in Congress, how lobbyists get used--and use members--and how influence works. ``My whole beat," says Drinkard, ``is about process."