The AP headed to mediocrity: the difference between “the” and “a.:

I spent 23 years working for The Associated Press, first as a reporter in Atlanta, then as a business writer, news editor and assistant chief of bureau in Dallas, before being named chief of bureau in Charleston, WV, in November, 1997. I was proud to be a part of “the world’s oldest and largest newsgathering organization,” a phrase which rolled out of my mouth often and with ease.

All that ended in November, 2005, when I was told that the AP no longer had need of a bureau chief in West Virginia, and that the entire operation would henceforth be managed out of Richmond. Nothing personal, I was told. You did a great job, they said. It’s just business, you see. The world’s changing, you know, and we just can’t justify your job anymore. Good luck.

It took me a while — we had come to love West Virginia and did not want to leave Almost Heaven — but I’m OK now, happily working forWest Virginia University, helping tell the story of what is a truly fine flagship, research university that is making a difference in the lives of the people of this state, and indeed, the world.

My dismissal in 2005 was just one of many over the years that have whittled away the AP’s ability to do what it has always done best, and that is support the news outlets of a particular state.

We served members, not customers, and we kept close ties with them, visiting each one at least twice a year. Now, members have been turned into clients — and guess what, the AP is viewed in newsrooms across the country as just another vendor. The special relationship that existed is evaporating, if it’s not gone altogether already.

This post is sparked by the latest departure of a member of the West Virginia news staff that I had assembled and that I submit was the best in the state. When I was fired — you can put a fancy name on it, but that doesn’t change the reality — there was a staff of about 13 in West Virginia; today, there aren’t even that many in Virginia and West Virginia combined. There are three people in West Virginia, but only one — count it, one — full-time news reporter; the other two employees divide their time between rewriting , reporting and editing. Will the departing staffer be replaced? Maybe, although recent practice suggests that’s not a given. But even a replacement will be numerical only, and won’t come close to replacing the expertise, contacts and abilities of the leaving staffer — because the AP won’t pay what it takes to do that, and is even trying to pay less. (See AP’s latest contract offer.)

But this is not just about West Virginia. This is about the entire country, as reporter after reporter has left, not to be replaced, or has been laid off, as bureaus have been consolidated and as states have been relegated to backwaters, inferior in the eyes of the powers that be at New York headquarters (although they’ll argue differently).

This really has nothing to do with the changes in the news industry landscape, although that is certainly a part of it.

A list of bureau chiefs is now gone from the AP’s website, probably because it would be embarrassingly short, and first one and then another state operation has been folded into another — whether they had anything in common other than a border or not. (An aside: You’ll find many of those former bureau chiefs in academia — either as professors or communicators. It’s a natural fit for many of us.)

All that exists on the web is a list of AP’s physical sites — for which you have to search, there’s not an obvious link — and this discussion of its state efforts:

No other news service can provide the depth and range of state and local news that The Associated Press offers. The AP has bureaus in every capital, with award-winning reporters and photographers covering all the major stories in breaking news, government, sports, features, business and politics

Its annual report also boasts of its state reach. But all that is hollow.

In a way, it can all be traced back to the naming of Lou Boccardi as the AP’s president and chief executive officer in 1985, two years after I joined the staff in Atlanta.

To be clear, the AP thrived under LDB (his initials could strike fear in every single staffer), and I don’t mean this as a criticism of him. He was a no-nonsense journalist, a hard taskmaster, a First Amendment champion and a take-no-prisoners manager. He stood up to Congress and terrorists (see Terry Anderson).

The AP grew and prospered under his leadership — as did, to be honest, my career.

But Lou was the first AP president who had never worked in a line bureau. He came right into AP headquarters — then at 50 Rockefeller Plaza — in 1967 after eight years spent at New York newspapers. He held several high level editing positions before being named president. That didn’t seem to be a big deal at the time, although it did receive comment: I heard more than one person say, “He has never worked night broadcast.”

The real change came at Lou’s retirement in 2003 (frankly, it was never really clear whether he was entirely ready to retire, but you’d have to ask Lou). His replacement was Tom Curley, who came directly to the presidency from being president and publisher of USAToday — he had been a life-long Gannettoid.

Change began quickly, for Curley and the folks he brought in never understood the role or importance state operations played in making AP the institution it had become. And the change from “members” to “customers/partners” began. In fact, there is little or no recognition to be found on the website today of “members.” There used to be a vice president of membership, now it is “Business Development & Partner Relations.”

That was a fundamental shift, and, I submit, will be a disastrous one.

But Curley never would have been hired had not the board of directors changed from being run by top executives committed to journalism to top executives known more for cutting payrolls and increasing profits than for running stellar news organizations. (And, to be fair, that’s a major reason for the decline of the industry overall. See Knight-Ridder’s demise.)

That decline of the industry was tied to shrinking profits — although they were still sinfully high when compared to most industries— and the members kept demanding lower and lower AP assessments, forcing the cooperative to look elsewhere for money to keep the lights on.

I remember one conversation in Curley’s office when he almost angrily pointed out that less than 30 percent of AP’s revenues came from newspapers and it was going no where but down. So in some ways, the AP today is a result of exactly what its owners — the nation’s newspaper industry — are willing to pay for.

But one of the reasons the AP has not been able to challenge, or withstand, the tight-fistedness of newspaper publishers is that the relationships that were once in place in every newsroom in the country have vanished. Of course, the local newspaper editors have had their own issues as more and more of their autonomy, both financial and journalistically, has been swallowed up by corporate bureaucrats.

Prior to the new regime, all the CoBs (as we were known) technically reported directly to the president. In reality, we dealt with the vice presidents on the particular issues in their areas — membership, human resources, news, budgets. But there was always that direct connection to the president.

And we ran our state operations for the benefit and betterment of the state journalism community. I was proud to say that my first responsibility as an AP bureau chief was to see that the state members (there’s that word again) had all the news they needed, regardless of where it came from — the state capitol, the local high school, across the world. My job was to serve the members — we were, after all, a wire service (emphasis added).

But Curley saw that organizational chart and said, “I can’t have 50-something direct reports” so he created a bunch of intermediary positions, removing the CoBs further down the chain and further diminishing the importance of states.

But even more, a bureau chief’s job changed from journalism to sales. Before, a bureau chief could walk into any newsroom in their state — broadcast or print — and be received as a colleague in journalism. Yes, there was always an element of sales to the job, but the goal was to help provide the organization with tools to better serve its readers/viewers.

The new mantra was sell, sell, sell. It didn’t matter if it was a service or tool that was more than a small newspaper or broadcaster needed or could use, we were supposed to get ’em to buy it. And that’s how we started being judged.

State news operations were castrated. Editing was centralized in regional desks, removing almost any sense of local flavor or knowledge from the state reports. (For those with long memories, this was the path UPI went down decades ago. You know how well that worked out.)

News judgment has been replaced with quotas, more and more is demanded of fewer and fewer staffers.

Here’s an example of the kind of interaction bureau chiefs started experiencing:

Under the new structure, I reported to a regional vice president who would sometimes go along on a visit to larger members, especially chain headquarters. In preparation for one such visit, I had been instructed to develop an agenda for issues to discuss and products to push.

When we arrived, the executives at this particular newspaper had a different agenda and didn’t want to talk about anything on the vice president’s agenda.

It was, simply, the second worst day of my AP life, capped only by April 19, 1993, when I was writing and filing news alerts on the end of the Branch Davidian siege in Waco, all the while knowing children were being burned alive.

I was chewed out by the vice president for not “preparing” the member for our visit. And I was told by the newspaper executives that, next time, don’t bring that person with you.

The AP has always faced a challenging task: its customers are its owners are its competitors. Such is the life of a not-for-profit, member-owned cooperative.

But for more than 150 years, the AP succeeded at that task in large part because of the relationships built up through the years by dedicated journalists at the state level.

The state reports were the crown jewel of the AP. The national and international reports were important, certainly, and may have been the shiniest asset, but the state reports and operations were the AP’s real face to most of the industry, and they were what separated it from the pack.

As the state reports have diminished, so has the AP’s reach and importance. The erosion, even elimination, of local relationships has left the AP with little goodwill to fall back on as other news sources have proliferated, and the ability to share news has become easier and easier, both for the industry and the individual.

The AP will be with us for a long time, to be sure, and will be an important player for a long time. Its journalists remain among the best and most dedicated on the planet (and should be celebrated everyday for the stellar job they do in spite of the machinations of their corporate minders).

But where it used to be the bellwether news organization and at the head of the pack, it is now destined to be just another news source.

And that’s in large part because of the arrogance and lack of understanding of a handful of people.

That is a tragedy.

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10 Responses to The AP headed to mediocrity: the difference between “the” and “a.:

  1. Pingback: Ohio Newspaper Association | Is the AP headed to mediocrity?

  2. Wally Hindes says:

    John,
    A great synopsis. I spent 21 very good years at AP, and one that I’d rather forget. I had the privilege and honor of working for, and with the best in the business. I am proud of those days, and proud of what we accomplished. We didn’t work FOR AP, we WERE AP. We did a lot, with a little. Margins were always razor thin, but, through it all, the journalism was front and center. The focus changed in the mid 2000’s. It was time to go. I miss those days.

  3. Ed Tobias says:

    Hi John –

    Interesting thread, with good points made by all. Your original post hits the nail on the head; the member relationship is gone, excellent people have left, institutional memory is just a memory and the organization is a shadow of what it once was.

    The AP was good to me, even when it wasn’t. When my job was in my boss’ “cross-hairs,” to quote another manager, I was allowed to re-invent myself. I continued to be useful to the organization until I felt the time was right to retire; which did at the end of last year.

    Thirty-one good, proud years with few complaints and lots of very good memories of people, places, stories and great journalism. But, I’m very glad to be gone.

  4. dw says:

    “‘I heard more than one person say, “He has never worked night broadcast.’”… Ah, good ol’ night supe!

    I felt compelled to write as someone who worked at AP for five years, starting in RIC in spring of ’05; I don’t remember you, but I was so busy trying to get my bearings about me, I’m sure I wouldn’t.

    AP is in survival mode, plain and tall. They say otherwise, but it’s not true and hasn’t been for about three years now I reckon.

    The regionalization, the transformation of COBs into hardcore salesmen, on and on – it’s pretty clear. Has the quality suffered? I’d say the quality suffered more due to them shifting to an emphasis on cooking up “breaking news” at all costs. I call it the Primetime-ization (I don’t think you were there for “primetimers” but think overnight wib with jazz hands…) The argument that the physical bureaus have improved doesn’t hold water: I have it on good intel that people in a certain Southern bureau have to request staples by the row. NOT. KIDDING. Also that there was a move to track who was printing what – though I don’t know if that took off…

    AP was a good place to be when I joined. When I left in 2010, I felt like it was in the same type of shape as the newspapers, just throwing things at the wall to see what will stick. Sadly, I also felt like I saw the politics for what they were and I’ve heard far too many stories of people who felt like they were used and abused by AP.

    I personally left after I felt I was being managed out (I could say sooooo much more about it – but I would encourage you to talk to some of the folks at CNN and ask them how they ended up across the street from ATG…) and have left the industry entirely. I think AP is weakened but not fatally so. I do not think it will ever be what it once was – but in all fairness, which publication will be?

    If it’s any solace – and you may already know this – they pushed Jean out of RIC as well and Terri, who was on broadcast.

  5. JB says:

    Along those lines, read the New York Times Magazine piece this weekend on the Boston Bombing misidentification and the role “something some guy said” played. It’s distrubing.

  6. Stan Miller says:

    John, well stated. It’s very sad, but I think in a few years I may look back at my “separation” and decide I got out just in time.

    George, I wish I shared your optimism that the demand for *reliable* information is high. It seems to me that only a small and diminishing (read: dying) segment of the populace knows how to distinguish reliable information from “something some guy said”, or cares.

  7. Will Lester says:

    Excellent take on John’s thoughtful writeup….

  8. I remember vividly the day I knew the AP was no longer the organization I had grown up with as a sports editor. Our newspaper in Harrisonburg, Va., did not subscribe to the West Virginia feed, so on those rare occasions that I wanted, say, a high school tournament story, I’d simply call Charleston, and the bureau would immediately send it to me. Then, one evening, the man or woman on the other end of the phone — sounding very embarrassed — told me that the AP no longer provided stories to members (or were we partners by then?) who did not pay for that particular feed. So much for “cooperative.” I do understand this is a dollars-and-cents business, but it’s also a common-sense business — and sharing stories (both ways) seemed mutually beneficial. (Our small West Virginia readership is in a sparsely populated part of the state — Pendleton and Hardy counties — far from Charleston, and I would think the AP would have wanted to foster a relationship that guaranteed it access to stories about those communities.)

    Fortunately, in Virginia, we not only still have an AP reporter assigned to sports, but we have one — Hank Kurz — who has been in Richmond a long time and knows the state inside-out, in part because of his strong relationship with the state’s sports editors and writers. If Hank needs something, we give it to him without question, and vice versa. That’s not only good for journalism, but it’s good for the AP’s image among its clients.

    The worst thing at the AP these days, by the way, is the editing. It’s amateurish. I don’t know if that’s because the AP copy desk is understaffed due to layoffs or because the AP has hired too many inexperienced (read: cheap) people. Until fairly recently, you could depend on AP stories being tight and savvy in tone. That’s no longer the case.

    Anyway, thanks for the post. Very interesting

    Chris Simmons

  9. JB says:

    George:

    Good to hear from you, and I don’t think I suggest that regional folks — indeed any of the working journalists — are not hard-working. Most are dedicated and continue to be among the best in the business. But they get little support from management, as best I can tell.

  10. George Tibbits says:

    John — Very well put. I’ve been away from the AP for two years now (disability — long story), but even so I share many of your feelings. I would disagree that everything has been in decline at AP — the physical quality of the bureaus has improved hugely, as has the quality of the newsgathering gear (I date from the era when you had to buy your own pen). But I also think AP has suffered from regionalization and a lack of emphasis on state reports. This is not the fault of the regional deskers, who work incredibly hard –try editing, supervising and for much of the day covering a dozen states, sometimes all by yourself. Rather, it’s as you say, the lack of connection at a state level and the gap between editors, managers and staffers. Before I left, a constant question was just who the hell was my boss.
    I think the cutting of COBs and their conversion into sales people has been disastrous, both because, being newspeople, they are lousy at sales, but more because of the huge loss of news expertise. Among the saddest experiences I’ve had is seeking guidance from a COB whose news judgement is impeccable and being told she can’t help me because she’s been told that’s no longer her job.
    To give Curley credit, he did keep the AP in good financial shape — there were years when we were virtually the only news organization to eke out a profit. And he also, along with Jim Kennedy, saw the Internet as the future and guided the AP (the original “content provider”) to a new version of a job we’d been doing for 160 years. This often occurred at odds to the members, many of whom still don’t understand how the Internet works and especially not how to make money with it (it baffles me that at a time when the demand for reliable information is so high that so few have figured out how to make a buck off that).
    A problem, though, is an old one: News gathering never has been and never will be a profit center. It’s a huge financial drain. And when you’re trying to cut costs, it’s the most tempting target. That’s why newspapers are gutting their newsrooms rather than the parts of the business that still bring in cash. Trouble is, of course, it’s hard to sell when you have no product. The AP is in better shape than almost any newspaper, but it also has been following the temptation to slash costs in the factory and endanger its only true asset.
    I hope the AP comes through the industry turmoil. But I also hope it never loses the old core value that everything is done “for the good of the report.”
    By the way, I’m very pleased to be reading John Bolt again. And I share your observation that academia is being flooded with former AP staffers. You guys ought to form an association.

    George Tibbits

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