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Features Posted May 20, 1999
Is Reliance on the AP Draining the Life from Online News?
By Matt Welch, OJR Staff Writer and Columnist

Print version
When the Minnesota Twins beat the New York Yankees 8-5 on May 4, three of the four most popular sports sites on the Internet had the same lead:
 
"MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Mike Lincoln played off his first major league win as calmly as he handled the New York Yankees lineup."
 
In addition to SportsLine, CNN/SI.com and ESPN.com (not to mention Total Sports), the same Associated Press story showed up in the Rochester Post-Bulletin and the Duluth News -- two daily newspapers in the state of Minnesota, where the game was played and where the Twins are the hometown favorites in every city.
 
The Web's other top sports site, AOL's sports channel, bought its account from the Sports Ticker wire service, which also provided game news for the sites of the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and numerous other news organizations.
 
Running wire copy -- especially about non-vital events taking place a round-trip plane ticket away -- is a no-brainer. Pricing for the Sports Ticker wire begins at $200 per month compared to the thousands of dollars it would cost to send a reporter from, say, Chicago to Minneapolis for a four-game series.
 
But top-flight news sites are depending on AP for far more than the occasional sports score. Newspaper sites lean on AP and Reuters to fill the gaps between 24-hour news cycles. TV networks and search engines include batches of wire stories as a basic commodity-style offering.
 
As the same article gets posted on 20 different brand-name news sites, the differentiation between those brand names becomes smaller. And as two or three wire services emerge as dominant content providers to news organizations that don't want to spend money on bureaus and travel, Internet readers are cheated out of different, more lively versions of events.
 
For instance, wouldn't some readers would have preferred this early version of the New York Times' lead about the Minnesota game?
 
"MINNEAPOLIS -- The Yankees are playing bad baseball these days, even when they win and especially when they lose, as they did in an 8-5 stinker against the Minnesota Twins Tuesday night, despite two home runs from Bernie Williams."
 
'Dull as an Old Penny'
 
The Associated Press is a heroic and honorable organization, a nonprofit co-op committed to bringing the news from the far corners of the earth back to its 1,550 member papers in the United States and to more than a billion potential readers worldwide each day. AP staffers have won 45 Pulitzer prizes and perfected the rapid-fire, no-nonsense news delivery that forms the root basis of newspaper style.
 
Still, the agency is criticized for being a bit on the bland side.
 
"AP -- by design -- squeezes the life out of nearly every story so as to make it palatable to everybody," said G.L. Marshall, a 16-year news veteran (11 with UPI) who now designs web sites, publishes a monthly magazine and runs a consulting business. "Considering more papers are running more and more wire copy for economic reasons, it means a greater percentage of our daily news is as dull as an old penny."
 
Like Marshall, ex-newspaper staffers who take the online plunge frequently criticize the industry they left behind as being homogenous and flat-out boring.
 
[A]s two or three wire services emerge as dominant content providers to news organizations that don't want to spend money on bureaus and travel, Internet readers are cheated out of different, more lively versions of events.
"I look around, and they're all the same kind of design format, editorial content," Salon Editor David Talbot told me last year. "And they're losing readers and advertisers."
 
Even old-school newspaper iconoclasts like Pete Hamill -- who writes for Digital City New York -- have defected to the Internet.
 
Said Doug Thompson, a former newspaperman who now edits and publishes the daily Washington, D.C., political news site Capitol Hill Blue: "I spent 11 years in newspapers and had a city editor who once told me we were doing a good job if a stranger stayed in our town for a week and got a good feel for the city from reading our rag.
 
"I spend a lot of time on the road nowadays and can't get a feel from any place I stay from reading the papers. And if I try to get an advance feel by reading their Web sites, it's even worse."
 
The personality deficits plaguing newspapers are much more pronounced online. For starters, newspapers run far more AP copy on their Web versions than in print, mostly to give the impression that they are covering news 24 hours a day. This dilutes the percentage of original content and personality on the site -- while at the same time increasing the similarity to the site's direct competitors.
 
Almost 50% of a newspaper Web site's readers do not live within the paper's circulation zone, according to research completed earlier this year by NewsLink. For a newspaper in Los Angeles to attract a reader from Oklahoma, it has to offer that reader something unique and different than absolutely every other content-providing Web site in the world.
 
Since television networks such as Fox rely on AP for their Web content even more than newspapers do, and since many search engines couldn't pretend to offer news if not for the wire services, it is not uncommon for many of the top 50 news sites to be running the same stories and headlines at the same time.
 
But it's not just high-powered media executives who get to enjoy the benefits of AP economics. Hundreds if not thousands of one-man Internet editor/publishers, including Matt Drudge, whom "mainstream" journalists look down upon, happily use headlines and stories from the same international wire services.
 
"As an independent operator who subscribes to AP, Reuters, Scripps-Howard and the L.A. Times news services, I could match most big dailies on coverage because I'm using the same wire sources they are -- and it shouldn't be that easy," Thompson said. "Even the Washington Post uses AP wire coverage for Washington news, both in print and on their Web site."
 
HoustonChronicle.com Content Director Jim Townsend counters that newspapers have a solemn duty to give their online readers a selection of breaking news, whether or not it is generated in-house.
 
[N]ewspapers run far more AP copy on their Web versions than in print, mostly to give the impression that they are covering news 24 hours a day. This dilutes the percentage of original content and personality on the site -- while at the same time increasing the similarity to the other site's direct competitors.
"It would be arrogant of me to ignore major events simply because I can't staff them," Townsend said via e-mail. "Arrogant and stupid. Online consumers expect news to be there for them -- when they want it and not when it's convenient for us to deliver it -- and as long as they perceive it to be reliable, the byline is largely irrelevant."
 
"Does this homogenize us?" Townsend continued. "There's still plenty of latitude for uniqueness. What brings people back to our Web site is the same reason that brings people back to our printed newspaper: We are there for them. It's a combination of trust, familiarity, and convenience, niche and general purpose."
 
Bruce Oakley, editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's Web site, says his company is reluctant to use outside content.
 
"We think folks can get world and national news from all over the Internet, and although it's a nice idea to give readers everything at one's own site, that's an impossible goal anyway," Oakley said via e-mail. "We want folks to come to our site for what they can find here and nowhere else: news and information about Arkansas and Arkansans."
 
Owen Youngman, director of Interactive Media for the Web-savvy Chicago Tribune, rejects the notion that news organizations are battling each other using the same weapons.
 
"We're not competing with other online newspapers with our use of AP; by selecting some to post -- and, in cases where warranted, more than some -- we're providing an additional service for users who come to us for our differentiated content, particularly in the area of local news," Youngman said via e-mail.
 
'Suburban Sprawl' from Kosovo
 
A trusted brand and a web of business relationships obviously have much to do with building an Internet audience. Teenage boys go to ESPN.com because teenage boys like sports, and ESPN's Sportscenter is cooler than CNN/SI's telecast. Millions of people look at AOL's news, sports, entertainment and computing channels every month -- because millions of people have AOL accounts and it's easy to point and click.
 
But elite news organizations have far more to offer than Matt Drudge, AOL or most any other new Web publisher: namely, hundreds and hundreds of content-producing employees, millions of dollars, and a branded history of providing trustworthy news. What could go wrong?
 
The Tribune Co., which started out publishing the Chicago Tribune and now owns other newspapers, cable television stations, the Chicago Cubs and a hefty chunk of the search engine Excite (among numerous other new media investments), is widely seen as a newspaper that "gets" the Internet.
 
So how has the Tribune, America's seventh-largest newspaper, leveraged its 600 editorial staff and its "synergy"-touting strategists into developing its own distinct identity on the Web?
 
On the afternoon of May 5, a click on the site's front page story about NATO bombing led to an AP story. In the left-hand column next to the AP story, under the heading "Complete Coverage," there were nine Kosovo-related articles -- all written by the Associated Press. A reader spending 30 minutes going through the whole package could easily get the impression that the Tribune has no more reporters in the Balkans than the Drudge Report.
 
A more thorough search through the site's "Web Specials," however, reveals an impressive amount of original, intelligent coverage in a "Conflict of Kosovo" section. From May 1 to May 5 there were 16 Tribune staff articles, three with Balkan datelines ... and not a single dispatch from AP.
 
"It would be arrogant of me to ignore major events simply because I can't staff them. Arrogant and stupid."
-- Jim Townsend, HoustonChronicle.com content director
Nothing about the headlines or presentation anywhere on the site says "hey, this is a Chicago Tribune story, better pay attention!" or "hey, this is from our very own correspondent in Belgrade," or "hey, this is an AP story, just like the kind you read everywhere else."
 
Youngman explained the Tribune's usage of AP online:
 
"We carefully select the AP content that we choose to post on any given story, deciding case by case whether it will add to a reader's understanding," he said. "We have never made the open wire available to chicagotribune.com users, because the newspaper brand stands for considered judgment and filtering of all the information that is available."
 
Still, most "Crisis in Kosovo" Web packages posted on newspaper or television sites look nearly identical. While the Los Angeles Times quickly began emphasizing star reporter Paul Watson's stunning dispatches from Kosovo, few other news sites differentiated wire stories from staff-on-the-ground reports.
 
The Houston Chronicle, for example, has been posting about eight stories a day on its section since the crisis began, five of which have come from wire and other outside sources. There is nothing guiding the reader toward the originally created content, and there is virtually no way of knowing that the paper's own Philip Smucker wrote a dozen stories from the region from March 20 to April 13.
 
HoustonChronicle.com's Townsend explains:
 
"Certainly, we're proud of our ability to cover the war with our own journalists. So why don't we distinguish between staff and wire in this section? In this chronology, the story is more important than who reported it," he said.
 
"But [that's] only half the issue. The other half is, simply, we are bumping up against the ceiling of our operational capability. That these stories are there at all is a combination of semi-automation and brute force. Special treatment is a time luxury."
 
Limited resources also affect the choices at Arkansas Online, Oakley said.
 
"Besides the philosophical emphasis on things Arkansas, there are practical considerations -- with a Web staff of three (one editorial, one advertising, one technical) we are certainly not equipped to be a 24-7 global news organization and so do not plan to try," he said.
 
Most news organizations, of course, have long since slashed their foreign bureaus in favor of saving money and running AP content. (See "Kosovo Highlights Journalism's Failings".) And readers haven't exactly beaten down newsroom doors demanding first-hand reportage.
 
"The public is as much at fault for the situation as are the publishers," said PC Magazine columnist John C. Dvorak, who wrote a widely circulated obituary on the newspaper industry last month. "Half the country can't find Chicago on a map."
 
But nearly half the country is online now, enjoying a rich selection of brand new sources of information, and they're reading newspapers and watching television news less than ever before. As news consumption switches to the bountiful Internet, it remains to be seen how long news providers can get away with posting the exact same commodified news from the exact same sources.
 
"There's a new generation out there, the wired generation, that would readily accept a new way of handling news, and they are not being served," Marshall said. "As a culture, we're praising diversity, but in our journalism, we're producing more sameness. Wire copy is the suburban sprawl of the news business."
 
What do you think? Tell us on the OJR Forums.

 


Matt Welch Matt Welch is an OJR Staff Writer and Columnist. His work is archived at mattwelch.com.


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Copyright 1999 Online Journalism Review
riginally created content, and there is virtually no way of knowing that the paper's own Philip Smucker wrote a dozen stories from the region from March 20 to April 13.
 
HoustonChronicle.com's Townsend explains:
 
"Certainly, we're proud of our ability to cover the war with our own journalists. So why don't we distinguish between staff and wire in this section? In this chronology, the story is more important than who reported it," he said.
 
"But [that's] only half the issue. The other half is, simply, we are bumping up against the ceiling of our operational capability. That these stories are there at all is a combination of semi-automation and brute force. Special treatment is a time luxury."
 
Limited resources also affect the choices at Arkansas Online, Oakley said.
 
"Besides the philosophical emphasis on things Arkansas, there are practical considerations -- with a Web staff of three (one editorial, one advertising, one technical) we are certainly not equipped to be a 24-7 global news organization and so do not plan to try," he said.
 
Most news organizations, of course, have long since slashed their foreign bureaus in favor of saving money and running AP content. (See "Kosovo Highlights Journalism's Failings".) And readers haven't exactly beaten down newsroom doors demanding first-hand reportage.
 
"The public is as much at fault for the situation as are the publishers," said PC Magazine columnist John C. Dvorak, who wrote a widely circulated obituary on the newspaper industry last month. "Half the country can't find Chicago on a map."
 
But nearly half the country is online now, enjoying a rich selection of brand new sources of information, and they're reading newspapers and watching television news less than ever before. As news consumption switches to the bountiful Internet, it remains to be seen how long news providers can get away with posting the exact same commodified news from the exact same sources.
 
"There's a new generation out there, the wired generation, that would readily accept a new way of handling news, and they are not being served," Marshall said. "As a culture, we're praising diversity, but in our journalism, we're producing more sameness. Wire copy is the suburban sprawl of the news business."
 
What do you think? Tell us on the OJR Forums.
 


Matt Welch Matt Welch is an OJR Staff Writer and Columnist. His work is archived at mattwelch.com.


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Copyright 1999 Online Journalism Review