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From AJR,   February/March 2009  issue

Down on the Wire   

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

In order to save money, some newspapers are terminating contracts with the Associated Press, a move that once would have been considered unimaginable.

Dozens of publications, from smaller papers like the Post Register in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and Maine's Lewiston Sun-Journal to larger papers such as Ohio's Columbus Dispatch and Minneapolis' Star Tribune, have given the required two-years' notice to drop the AP. For the Dispatch, this would mean an annual savings of more than $800,000; the Star Tribune would keep $1 million in its coffers.

In October, Tribune Co. gave notice that its nine dailies, which include the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, were dropping the AP to cut costs. Tribune, which filed for bankruptcy in December, is one of the country's largest newspaper chains.

According to the AP, about 7 percent of the news service's 1,500 members cancelled contracts in 2008. That number has averaged 4 percent in recent years.

In addition to the financial considerations, the trend toward hyperlocal news at many papers makes the wire service package no longer sacrosanct.

Paul Colford, the AP's director of media relations, noted that many papers historically have given notice and then withdrawn it before the requisite two years is up. It's not clear how many will actually drop the AP.

The grumbling among editors has not been lost on AP's top boss. "We fully understand the pain and the challenges of our members, and we have worked to address these concerns," AP President and CEO Tom Curley said following an October board meeting at which the AP suspended plans for a new pricing structure that had been highly criticized by many member newspapers.

At the meeting, the board approved new rate reductions and voted to review the two-year notice required for leaving. Creating different classes of membership and services also is under consideration for 2009.

The AP started 163 years ago when five New York newspapers agreed to share the costs of covering the Mexican War. It operates as a not-for-profit cooperative and is owned by its roughly 1,500 U.S. daily newspaper members.

The wire service recently has promoted AP Exchange, a Web-based content access service that allows easier retrieval of information relevant to local markets. In January 2008, Randy Picht, the AP's Missouri and Kansas bureau chief, was tapped to direct a SWAT team, as he calls it, to help members incorporate the program into their information management systems.

"Our job was to show what this brings to the table and how to make the most of it," says Picht, who has been with the AP for 25 years.

AP Exchange allows newspapers to set up their own member-to-member content sharing. Since it is Web-based, "Editors can use it wherever they are, at home, in the newsroom, at Starbucks, or at the beach, wherever they can get on the Internet," Picht says.

Is AP Exchange a hedge against newspapers jumping ship and forming their own news cooperatives? "It could help newspapers accomplish the [content-sharing] path they've already started and get them down the road faster," Picht says. "It would take one of the big pieces out of the mix a lot of the infrastructure is taken care of."

--Sherry Ricchiardi