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Strib tells AP: we’re canceling

The Star Tribune has informed the Associated Press it’s cancelling its contract as of 2010, though an editor says a split is far from final.
By David Brauer

It’s hard to imagine: the Star Tribune without the Associated Press.

But that’s what could happen in 2010; the region’s biggest news source recently sent the nation’s most prominent wire service the required two years’ cancellation notice, an AP spokesman confirms.

If a split comes to pass, Strib readers will notice changes from the biggest international headlines to the smallest sports agate type. Just this morning, I counted at least 18 AP stories or photos in the Strib’s news sections; a wire-service credit was attached to nearly all the national sports news and briefs, plus a half-dozen business and Variety items.

Strib managing editor Rene Sanchez insists the situation is less dramatic than it seems. “We have the utmost respect for AP; this is not a hostile gesture by any means,” he says, somewhat counterintuitively. “It’s the beginning of an assessment of our business model, not the end.”

Retaining financial flexibility
As with so many things in the newspaper business these days, it begins with money.

Earlier this year, Strib editor Nancy Barnes was one of eight big-city newspaper editors who co-signed a letter that criticized AP’s rate structure and urged price cuts.

“Editors of newspapers are not getting meaningful help from AP when they need it most,” the letter stated. “They need help now. Without relief from AP, the organization’s members must make even more drastic cuts in their own newsroom staffs. Essential coverage is sacrificed.”

According to the trade publication Editor & Publisher, newspaper executives felt AP’s 2009 revisions kept newspaper costs “constant or near constant.” They instead want bigger savings — which, of course, would pay down debt as well as forestall newsroom layoffs.

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Even giving notice now, the Strib is locked in until fall 2010, but at least the clock has started ticking.

(Cynical types within 425 Portland think this is another example of Strib owner Avista Capital Partners trying to get out of a long-term contract to make a paper sale more attractive. I’d be more into that theory if the Strib wasn’t one of several papers nationwide giving notice right now. The list includes the New York Daily News; Dow Jones Newswire has withdrawn from an AP partnership.)

Strib poohbahs are also trying to ratchet down competitors’ ability to use newsroom-generated stuff.

In February, Barnes demanded AP block all local competitors (within 30 miles) from using rewritten Strib dispatches. Now, the Strib has told AP it can’t pick up any “enterprise” story (non-breaking-news reporters ferret out on their own), putting them off limits for everyone.

“We really want to own our content,” Sanchez says.

The Strib has not completely cut off local competitors who work with it directly. WCCO-TV News Director Scott Libin says he’s gone that route since the February blackout, and relations have been good.

But these days, newspapers see their future as local and distinctive. Following that logic, it makes sense to hoard their unique content and pay less for wire-service dispatches that are now plastered everywhere on the web.

A hole to be filled
But the Strib without AP? Seriously?

It’s hard to imagine a functioning Strib — with its one- or two-person Washington bureau and no international desk — without some national and world coverage. Editors could presumably turn to AP competitors such as Reuters, Agence France-Press and UPI, and on other services the paper uses, including the New York Times, McClatchy and Bloomberg.

Sanchez insists whatever happens, the Strib will still feature national and international reports. “There’s not a scenario now, or years from now, where any [wire-service] choice diminishes access our readers have to national or international news. That is and will be our commitment,” he says.

(Yes, skeptics, the print Strib does run less of this stuff than ever, but Sanchez is saying the particular wire service won’t affect the mix.)

One area where Reuters, AFP and the big-chain news services are inferior to AP is local coverage. No wire has a bigger Twin Cities bureau, and AP reporters aren’t just rewrite gals and guys; they contribute original reporting at crucial beats like the Capitol. Still, the Strib doesn’t feature that work as prominently as, say, the PiPress.

(Media News’ Dean Singleton, whose company owns the Pioneer Press, is a big honcho on AP’s board. Look at any small-town Media News paper and you’ll see what an AP-dependent paper is really like.)

A weakened media ecosystem
If AP gets less cash and copy from the Strib and cuts its local presence, Minnesota’s news ecosystem could take a big hit. The wire service’s copy fleshes out local papers big and small; a diminished AP weakens a key line of defense for cash-strapped newsrooms.

Then again, non-metro editors around the nation were among the first to give AP notice; most said they’d rather save the coin for their own staffers (even as their publishers were thinking cash flow).

Locals are devising AP alternatives. In Ohio, state media outlets have formed their own content-sharing service that bypasses AP and its fee structure. However, no single paper dominates there like the Strib does here, so the big dog would either need to get paid or the smaller fry would need to achieve critical mass.

AP has seen this all coming; according to a June Wall Street Journal story, web portals such as Google and Yahoo are now among the wire’s biggest customers. Roughly 1,500 papers still own the service, but account for only 27 percent of the revenue; in the mid-‘80s, it was over half.

Reporter Russell Adams notes that the very things AP has invested in — international news and global business, for example — are things newspapers no longer value as much. As AP shifts resources toward content that global aggregators like Google lap up, newspapers are gradually “disaggregating” — de-emphasizing non-local stuff. In other words, the longtime partners are going in different directions. (Editor and Publisher has a good primer on AP rates here.)

Given AP’s rather odious notice requirement, this thing could just be a giant stare-down, begging someone to blink before 2010. But the Strib is definitely not acting alone, and it won’t be the last to cancel.