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 for West 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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