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Interview: Tom Curley, CEO, Associated Press; Portals, Local Content — ‘The Mother of all Battles’

image In a speech last month, AP CEO Tom Curley declared that news is a growth industry and that it was high time to kick ‘despair’ to the curb. At the same time, he seemingly despaired about the balance of power that exists online, between the portals and the creators of original content. The solution: fairer deals to ensure that creators aren’t giving away the house, along with a willingness to adapt to the changing ways readers consume the news.

Last week, Curley spoke out again, this time as part of a consortium seeking changes from search engines. I interviewed him later that day about a range on subjects, including how to interpret that first speech, the role of the AP, and what it can do to help its 1,500 member newspapers profit from the transition to digital. One thing is clear: Curley has taken his ‘do not despair’ maxim to heart: “We believe that breaking news is worth more these days than it ever was. So breaking news is a premium business.

Still he’s pragmatic, knowing that nobody will simply start handing the AP money. Even if breaking news is growing more valuable all the time, the game is to adapt and capture that value: “I think there are a couple of clear trends. One is that you really have to embrace the web 2.0 free distribution that goes beyond a site; I’ve been saying that for years. The other aspect is that everybody’s business model is in a different place… and there needs to be a lot of experimentation and a lot of innovation on these business models… pretty clearly, ad targeting and CPM (cost per thousand) revenue streams around behavioral advertising have a lot of appeal… when you’re an AP without any footprint in the advertising world, we need to get some tools or some associations. Where I’m coming from is that we must go forward with Web 2.0 — all aspects of it — which is that our content should float. It should go where people want it, and we should get compensated for it and the way to [get] compensation is different than the way it’s been for 162 years.Much more after the jump.

Portal deals: One way the AP is adapting is by making deals directly with the portals, such as the recent agreement with Google (NSDQ: GOOG) that came under some criticism: “We’ve monitored the traffic pretty carefully and it’s not affecting anybody’s world.… I think we’re over the first blush of worries, if not criticism, from late August.”

But deals with Google and Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) to furnish national and international content are secondary to what Curley calls “the mother of all battles” — local content. Here is where the AP believes it can offer newspapers a significant leg up, as the major portals attempt to invade that turf: “If you’re running one of these local papers, you want to be the portal for the area — you want to be the gateway to the important content that people value in a particular area. We can do that pretty well, and actually, with our new database approach and the new things that we’re offering, people will have access to all the breaking news content within AP for the first time.”

AP as local news aggregator: This new approach is based on AP’s new “digital cooperative,” an attempt to facilitate better horizontal news sharing between members via the establishment of common technological standards, such as the new search exclusion protocols unveiled last week: “If they join the digital cooperative and participate in the news map, the metadata, the fingerprinting, the RSS feeds and the exclusion protocols… yeah, then we think we would be able to be a large aggregator and provide a valuable service.” The intended result is a richer experience for readers and fresh profit opportunities for papers: “The joy is not in searching, the joy is finding the content that you want. Well, we think we can make that much better and also that sets up a lot of possibilities in terms of revenue, especially around behavioral advertising.” For example, an article can be identified as referring to a flood in New Jersey or a flood in Bangladesh. Fifty papers are participating in the program already, and the AP will be offering a 5 percent rebate to participants in hopes of ramping towards 3,600 over the next year.

The changing AP structure: Curley compared this to AP’s old structure, which hindered sharing between papers: “[Previously] we organized our content around state lines. The only way to get content from another state was to purchase it by another wire… We used to be one way: we threw a whole lot of stuff at them. In the new world, they [the papers] can program and get it, determine what they want, and they can do it by desk — a sports desk can operate differently from a national desk, etc. That’s how we expect to be more relevant.” (AP said this week that it is changing some of the editorial structurel; details at NYT.)

Proper use of AP content: “If you want our content, we expect to be paid for it … this nonsense that you can just take the first paragraph or use the picture small doesn’t really fly with us. People die trying to take those pictures.” The co-op’s only solution, in many instances, is to file cease & desists followed by lawsuits, although Curley acknowledged that this is only marginally useful. In the Moreoever case, it was deemed worthwhile, since they “were so egregious.” The pending lawsuit kept Curley from a detailed discussion.

Yahoo consortium: At the moment, AP isn’t involved, but it could be if it became more about content going forward. “We need at AP to be prepared for these things — we want to enable them to do business the way they want; we don’t want to get in the way of it.”

Changing news consumption patterns: I asked about my sense that “sophisticated newsreaders” might spend a little time getting the basic facts of a story from a wire story, but then get the majority of value from vertical news sites or blogs with in-depth expertise. Curley would have none of that: “The truly sophisticated understand: an accurate source and timely source of content is more valuable today than ever, given all the nonsense that’s out there electronically… you may spend more time on something else that was related to the original break, but it’s like being a little bit pregnant — where was the news and who can you trust? And more and more, hopefully the answer is AP.”

24 Responses to “Interview: Tom Curley, CEO, Associated Press; Portals, Local Content — ‘The Mother of all Battles’”

  1. Heidi Valentine -Oatway

    Hi Tom

    I met you and your Family in December 2000 at the Homeranch in Clark,Colorado. You wrote a lovely message to my then boyfriend,James( now husband) who was just starting his career as a Pressphotographer in South Africa. He is now an award winning photographer working at the Sundaytimes in Johannesburg. He still get the postcard out and read your motivational words.Many thanks

    Heidi

  2. The AP cannibalized our copy for months when we had the only real pro on scene at the April 19, 1995, Oklahoma City bombing. We were the first online daily with original content to start on the Internet (on April 10, 1995), and we had Bill Johnson's expertise. Bill was in OKC that day and had already started writing for us the dayn we started publishing )on April 10.) His work scooped the AP a lot of times, and you could read his reworked stuff in their wire copy. It's no wonder – he was the AP Bureau Chief in Memphis and their top reporter for three years on the MLK assassination story, and had retired due to illness from their OKC bureau two months earlier. So when we started up as an online daily and wire service, and had his copy from da 1 of the bombing, the AP freaked out. Now it's time for them to freak out. We always called their very unoriginal stuff "vaporware," and they killed us for it. They started badmouthing all the original online content, warning all their members about it and making life tough for us, and then published that piece of lying crap a about US soldiers killing all those innocent civilians under a bridge in S Korea. People who think the world want's to read the AP's formulaic crap belong in the dark ages of the Internet. Let them get honest first.

  3. Curley says … "– Proper use of AP content: ”If you want our content, we expect to be paid for it … this nonsense that you can just take the first paragraph or use the picture small doesn’t really fly with us. People die trying to take those pictures.”

    While some people are saying "Curley doesn't mean (bloggers) when he says this," that's not at all apparent from his statements. He also seems to gloss over the whole topic of "Fair Use," which – last I checked – was still a section in the U.S. Copyright code.

    On the one hand, he's saying content should be floating all over the place, but on the other, he says everyone should pay them for their content. Well, it's really difficult to have it both ways.

  4. LoveEmHateEm

    I believe that through time, various job titles must run their course of usefulness as controlled by supply and demand, ie: archers, philosophers, alchemists, sign painters, blacksmiths, etc.

    Occupations that once thrived [as late as the mid 70's — sign painting] are all but a quaint sideline, if not already completely vanished from the face of the earth — thanks to technology and the desire to do things quicker and better.

    Soon others will follow.

    Speaking of news gathering and news reporting, just remember who is behind most of the current day's breaking news or exposes: The Citizenry — comprised of bloggers, phone camera wielders, videographers and the like. Ask Dan and Rodney and Kramer and a host of others.

    Onward and upward. Or live in antiquity.

  5. I do agree that journalists should be paid for their work. There are some hard working, honest, ethical ones left out there and they do struggle.

    However, the "mighty" AP has for years been taking journalists' stories, rewriting them and then selling them to their "members" without the courtsey of at least giving credit to the reporters who did the work in the first place. The original reporters never receive a dime from AP for THEIR work.

    Also, I wish the AP would come clean and fess up that the "news" they peddle is only what is bought and paid for from media outlets that subscribe to their service. If non-members report important news stories, the AP will not pick those up and rewrite them but, instead the AP will just ignore real news. To me that is such a disservice to the very people that are supposed to be served by journalists.

    To tout themselves as a "news" organization is just a crock of you know what.

  6. I work for a media company who has been recently delving into internet media. You would not believe how long it took to convince some of our publishers that posting content online was a good thing.

    They were afraid they would "scoop themselves" by posting content before the newspaper was published or released. What they don't seem to understand is that the demographic that actually purchases newspapers is slowly dying off.

    Within the next 10-20 years, there will probably be less than 10% of the population buying newspapers. So it's time to post things online and find your revenue from a different source, or give up on reporting news altogether.

  7. @ Tom

    *chuckle* Yep, there are a few of us old school types who can move past obvious flaming and baiting and engage in a little honest debate and questioning to find common ground and agreement ;)

    Or you could just blame it on me being Canadian *grin*

  8. @ Tremaine

    After I read your comments I had to make sure that I was still connected to the regular internet and not some alternate "bizzaro internet" where people are actually polite :)

    I agree with you completely that many problems can be traced back to advertising and, if you look at it from a certain point of view, blame can be laid at the "corporatization" of America. A local paper I worked for had to shift from selling ads to locally owned and operated companies to courting large corporate entities because so many of the small businesses were closing their doors. The big companies don't care about a small paper with modest circulation when they can instead deal with a large news organization that owns a bunch of small papers across a large area and will push out advertisements uniformly.

    I can't see the AP going after individual bloggers – it just wouldn't make sense and I'm fairly certain that the way most people would use AP stories would be well within "fair use" – but if they do then trust me I'll be the first to condemn the practice :)

  9. @ Tom

    All good and fair points. I think you and I are pretty much on the same page. The number of pro bloggers out there who actually take their publishing as seriously as a journalist worth their salt are far and few between. The vast majority of blogs, assuming they're even kept current, are … well, blogs ;)

    I think more journalists than not do actually take their career and work seriously, as well as their obligations. Most of the weakness I see in news these days (regardless of format) is the result of upper management and ownership bias, and the need/desire to appease or attract advertisers.

    All of that said, I hope you're right about who AP will go after when seeking compensation for their content.

  10. @ Tremaine

    True, some bloggers are at the same level of good journalists and plenty of journalists are producing poor quality product. The thing is, though, that by and large bloggers are people who sit at home and spew their own agenda whereas most journalists need to act professionally because they rely on their skill to pay the bills.

    Fox isn't a good representation of the news media. Fox News is an entertainment channel and anyone who looks at them with any perspective will agree on that. The majority of the television news organizations are primarily about entertainment rather then news and that people choose to get their news from those sources speaks more to the consumers of media then to the news media itself.

    I agree with you that there were great stories that were broken by bloggers and bloggers certainly showed their importance in the news sphere, but bloggers are still and always will be working without some of the "burdens" that professional journalists have. It's those burdens – the burden of verifying multiple sources, the burden of maintaining as unbiased a perspective as possible, the burden of seriously reporting on subjects that hold no interest for you – that separate journalists from bloggers and that pay journalists' bills.

    Journalists fall from their ideals, certainly, and bloggers can rise far above the general mass of voices but by and large there is a reason why journalists are paid to report the news and bloggers are not.

    Also, I'm fairly certain that he's not suggesting that bloggers need to pay to run excerpts from AP stories but he is saying that groups that make money through running large clips from AP stories and large-format pictures need to pay for that content and that's fair. If somebody ran a large-format version of one of my pictures on their website without my permission I would be very angry. People forget that there is someone behind the lens and there is somebody holding the pen and they deserve compensation for their work.

    Being a journalist is not easy, glamorous or particularly rewarding these days. Suggesting that their work should just be freely available "just because" is insulting.

  11. @ Tom:

    There are without a doubt some fine journalists out there, but your implication is that bloggers are somehow less than journalists. There are certainly enough cases where a blogger is just someone who sits at home or is spewing their own agenda.

    But don't give the news media and journalists more credit than they deserve… I'd argue that Fox is the best funded blog on the planet that is guilty of extreme bias and poor journalism.

    It's every readers responsibility to look at the source of their news and judge it's integrity, among other things. Plenty of great stories in the last few years have been courtesy of bloggers who dug deeper and harder than journalists did.

    In short, quit generalizing ;)

  12. LoveEmHateEm

    Great comment by Mark Sturgis!
    And Curley, don't let the door hit ya in the ass on the way out the door … nyuk, nyuk, nyuk. I'd rather read tablets scored with a rock than your papers which contain nothing but drivel. The only good part of your rags are the bloggers' commentaries and their firsthand accounts. The rest is all advertising for the politically correct world of deceit. So Curley, don't go away mad, just go away … and take your lawyers with you, douchebag.

  13. Stimpy Stemplestein

    OK… so… let me get this straight.

    A paper (let's say the Chicago Tribune) publishes a story with AP content in it.

    They pay quite handsomely for the privilege. One might say an ungodly amount.

    AP wants to be paid AGAIN if someone links to it with a thumbnail and paragraph? And again and again and again if others link it?

    On what planet does this make sense?

  14. It looks like AP hasn't learned the valuable lesson of the RIAA and MPAA et al.

    I'm one of those bloggers that will snag a key point in the story, in obvious blockquoted text, and link back to the original article. I may add commentary or not after the initial quote, and I suspect if anything I drive traffic to these sites *and* I'm not compensated for driving that traffic. I'm free advertising, and I don't profit from my blog in any way.

    AP needs to recognize the difference

  15. Yeah, I love that "accountability" and "integrity" of the ol' mainstream media. I had to read the scrolling ticker yesterday for any real news because all the damned reporters would talk about was somebody's ass.

  16. News producers, photographers and writers deserve to be paid for the work that they do. He's not being unreasonable.

    If people think that news should be free and produced for free then say goodbye to accountability, integrity, sources, breaking news – all that good stuff. See how good the quality of news is when you get it from bloggers rather then reporters.