Bleeding at Both Ends
From the beginning, the AP was the primary provider of news for CompuServe, Prodigy, and Excite, and migrated to Yahoo, MSN, and the Huffington Post as the latter sites assumed the high traffic mantle. Most recently, news aggregating giant Google has gone so far as to integrate AP stories into its own template rather than linking to other sources.
While the AP has benefited from this digital explosion, the news organizations that have owned the nonprofit cooperative since 1846 have floundered, forced to compete directly with news aggregating portals powered by their own work.
Certainly, the AP is not solely to blame, as nearly all news organizations offered their content free of charge on their own web sites. This has bred an assumption shared among readers that "If you won't offer it to me for free, another site surely will."
Instead of boosting the prominence of its members' web sites from the outset, the AP orchestrated a coup de grace. In the aftermath, newspapers are ending their affiliation with the AP out of both disgust and a feeling that the content it provides for syndication is overly ubiquitous.
The AP and its member organizations essentially made news into a commodity, sacrificing pricing power, and leader to reader migration to the web without proportionate advertising revenues to finance the high costs of original reporting.
Farhi writes, "In a sense, the AP is now suffering from the business equivalent of an autoimmune disease, when the body turns on itself. The AP has been strengthened by customers from outside the newspaper circle. But those new customers have helped foster a competitive climate that has weakened the health of newspapers, which could threaten the newsgathering ecosystem that the AP brought into being 163 years ago."
The tourniquet to stop this proverbial bleeding is elusive, but may emerge from the very organization that punctured the skin. The AP is in the process of exploring a "cooperative passport program" where readers would pay a single price for universal access to online news content. My fear is that this would lead to further abandonment of news consumption altogether, the other piece of the multivariate equation that plagues newspapers.
Their salvation is not a predestined outcome, and the AP is now pursuing other defensive measures, including filing suit against aggregators who profit from the free dissemination of their content while hiding behind the "fair use" fortress.
Both paths may neutralize the most promising aspect of online news, namely its viral nature. Many of us now consume news through RSS feeds, links on social networking sites, or simple email forwards, abandoning the home page of news sites altogether. By tangling the web instead of enabling its infinite expansion, the AP and its constituent organizations may induce the premature death of an industry now wobbling uncontrollably through the web.