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Associated Press becoming less local, less meaningful


Jack Willis December 3rd, 2009

The Associated Press is cutting staff, like most everybody else on the planet, and regionalizing its operations " and that's not good for Oklahoma news consumers. The not-for-profit news cooperativ...

The Associated Press is cutting staff, like most everybody else on the planet, and regionalizing its operations " and that's not good for Oklahoma news consumers.

The not-for-profit news cooperative, which has won 49 Pulitzer Prizes, has been the standard bearer of journalism for 163 years. It's an institution widely respected for its news coverage at home and abroad. And it's a victim of the double whammy " the economy and the Internet " experienced by its 1,500-plus member newspapers and broadcasters.

The AP said last month that it had laid off 90 employees worldwide to reach its yearlong 10 percent payroll reduction goal. Oklahoma's bureau lost its news editor, Rick Green, and an editorial assistant, Judi Boland.

Former Bureau Chief Lindel Hutson, along with about 100 of the company's 4,000 employees, participated in an early retirement package in July. The buyout took out a lot of people 60 and over, he said.

"A lot of institutional knowledge walked out the door," Hutson said.

Regionalization may hurt Oklahoma even more. Instead of bureaus being autonomous and tethered to a news desk in New York, they'll be part of a regional hub. Oklahoma City staffers will work under a news editor in Little Rock, Ark., and that editor will report to the Texas bureau chief in Dallas.

"I don't think that's good," Hutson said, "because it's reduced the responsibility of the state bureaus as far as helping their own papers."

He said the state report has been cut back in every state. And as it gets reduced, so does the number of staffers. AP's focus now is regional and national.

A statement from the AP's director of media relations, Paul Colford, sent to gawker.com, a Web site tracking industry layoffs, said, "Plans for the rollout of regional desks in the United States, which will provide deeper, more relevant coverage for our members, will continue, with hubs being developed in Chicago and Phoenix joining those already announced in Atlanta and Philadelphia."

With fewer staffers and bureaus, and fewer members to pay the bills, that "deeper, more relevant coverage" seems unrealistic.

"What does this mean for smaller newspapers, I don't know," Hutson said.

David Hale, managing editor of The Lawton Constitution, said, "I don't see how they're going to keep on going. Newspapers have lost their competitive advantage."

He said what the AP offers newspapers, by focusing on world and national news, does not give them that competitive advantage. The customer can find that anywhere.

"I look for our newspapers, like us and Muskogee and the others, to go back to being totally local," he said. "Instead of we being AP customers, the AP will be our customer. The AP will be buying local from us to sell. I think that's how it's all going to change."

Andy Rieger, managing editor of The Norman Transcript, said he wasn't surprised this has happened. He said it's happened with AP's overseas bureaus, and now it's coming down to the regional level.

"We want to make sure that Oklahoma news gets shared and that we don't start getting more regional news," Rieger said. "What we want from the Oklahoma bureau is shared Oklahoma stories and enterprise stories of Oklahoma interest."

A number of newspapers have renegotiated their service agreements with the AP. Gawker.com reported that several newspapers, including the entire Tribune Co., the nation's third largest newspaper publisher in terms of circulation, have announced plans to drop their AP membership.

Rieger said newspapers tend to realize they were buying a lot more than they were actually providing to their readers. Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., which owns The Transcript and 13 other Oklahoma dailies, leveraged its size and number of papers to renegotiate, as other groups have.

"I think that's caused AP some revenue issues," he said. "If we're paying less to them, that's less for them to staff their bureaus. In some instances, the papers are really responsible for a lot of those cuts."

Hale took issue with AP distributing its news on the Internet first and free.

"To me, they've undermined us. They took our customers away from us."

He said a person could read an AP story online in the afternoon before he could get it to them in the morning.

"Once we had a monopoly. If you wanted to read an AP story, you had to buy the newspaper. What were they thinking?"

Willis, a former Muskogee Phoenix managing editor, once served as faculty adviser for the student-run Oklahoma Daily at the University of Oklahoma.

 
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