Once upon a time — and this is not a fairy tale — there was a Golden Age of journalism.
I was fortunate during that Golden Age to work for three profitable daily newspapers, five bureaus of The Associated Press, and own and edit a weekly newspaper.
Today, times are tough for most journalists, as we’ve all seen.
Of particular concern to me is The Associated Press — arguably the most important news organization in the world.
A media bias chart (produced by Ad Fontes) rates the AP as the best news media company in terms of most original reporting and least (or balanced) bias. That’s a lofty achievement in today’s badly fractured media and political environment where viewers of MSNBC see news presented in an opposite fashion from Fox News — i.e., Rachel Maddow’s worldview vs. Sean Hannity’s.
Despite cutbacks in budgets and staffing — and reduced support from its original owners, newspapers — the AP continues great work.
But not as great as it once did.
In its latest annual report, AP CEO Gary Pruitt and AP Chairman Steven Swartz note proudly: “In an unprecedented performance for the AP, five of our reporting efforts were finalists for Pulitzer Prizes this past year, and one of those — our coverage of the Yemen civil war — won the 2018 prize for international reporting.”
Newspapers were once the bedrock of support for the AP, but as the newspaper industry has struggled mightily — so has the AP.
The noble struggle now is to keep the AP alive and viable, which means selling AP’s content to virtually anyone capable of paying for it.
The AP ran up a $25.6 million deficit in 2012 on revenues of over $622 million. The AP narrowed its losses to 2013 to $8.2 million, and has broken even or better ever since (and has paid off all debts).
Total revenues have fallen from $622 million in 2012 to $518.4 million in 2018 (according to the AP’s annual report, published in early May.)
In the 36 years since I left the AP, much has changed at the news cooperative.
During the “Golden Age,” journalists ran the AP. Most states had bureau chiefs who’d risen through the news ranks.The bureau chief was in charge of member relations (i.e., sales to newspapers and broadcasters) but was also in charge of the news report.
Today, there are no more AP bureau chiefs.
In the last decade, the AP reorganized, laid off many of its veteran bureau chiefs and replaced them with regional directors who have no responsibility or authority over the news content. The six regional directors rarely visit newspapers anymore as few local newspaper executives have buying authority.
The concept of a member-owned news cooperative also has diminished. In its heyday, AP members ruled the roost.Today, far less than half of AP’s revenue comes from member-owned newspapers, and AP executives talk about “our customers” and not “our members.”
Instead of having well-staffed bureaus in many states, the AP has centralized its editing functions to 10 hubs. In some smaller states, the only AP news staffer is a statehouse reporter. Senior newspaper editors tell me that the AP’s once-famous state report is almost nonexistent, except for statehouse coverage.
When I worked for the AP, the news staff worked devoutly to develop and nourish a stringer network that bolstered the state (and sometimes) national AP report. In 2012, for example, the AP paid out $367 million in payments to stringers.The AP no longer reports stringer payments, but my sources tell me that the stringer expense has been almost eliminated.
Editors grumble that while award-winning AP stories about Yemen are great, they no longer get full or timely coverage of important state and regional news. They also complain that AP news stories often aren’t well edited, and that bias leaks into more and more stories.
To be fair, most staff-starved newspapers (and radio andTV news departments) produce far less news that could be shared with the AP and its other members/clients.
Pruitt and Swartz’s annual letter states, “AP’s greatest strength remains the power of our objective reporting and the credibility that comes with it. Our reporting has advanced the truth since our founding in 1846, and with another big news year in full swing, we are working every day to provide the content and services our customers need and the leadership they expect from AP as journalism’s one true north.”
I’m not crazy about many of the changes at the AP, but I congratulate the dogged efforts to remain journalism’s reliable “true north.”
Marc Wilson founded TownNews 30 years ago. He is now the company’s chairman emeritus. He’s also author of the recently published book "Kidnapped by Columbus," published
by Floricanto Press.