As more newspapers drop the AP, we'll all get more stupid

The New York Times today reported that growing number of big newspapers have decided to get rid of their subscriptions with the Associated Press. That could be quite a savings for troubled papers, which reportedly pay more than $800,000 a year to supplement its own articles and photographs with stuff created by the AP.

Among the publications that want out are the Columbus Dispatch, Minneapolis' Star Tribune, and all the outlets by one of America's most widespread paper publishers, the Tribune Company. That means by 2010, papers like the Chicago Tribune, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and the Los Angeles Times would be free of AP stories.

If newspapers jettison their wire copy, it presents a dire coverage problem, because papers already rely too heavily on AP stories. For the past decade, as ad sales dwindle and sections are made smaller, teams of career experts have been dismissed in favor of simply running off-the-shelf stories retrieved off the AP. If the AP goes, what's left?

Not that the AP is perfect. Newspapers' recent reliance on wire copy has already decimated good journalism. Persistent staff cuts have nibbled away at newspapers' original international reporting, arts reviews and features, financial reporting, and travel, and in its place, you get generic AP articles that appeal to mass culture, but not specifically to you or your city. AP stories are often published as-is, and in that way, millions of people end up reading the same story with the same angle and the same faults, with very few alternative perspectives.

When it comes to time-consuming investigative articles, like ones that expose child labor in Asia or the abuses of a privatized water company in South America, there's no longer anyone on staff to fly out and get the facts straight or be the first to write about an important story. If the wire services don't have that story in its inventory, it won't get covered. If there's no wire story in your paper at all, as could happen by 2010, nothing gets covered if it didn't happen outside your doorstep.

Worse, by turning their back on time-consuming reporting techniques and simply outsourcing the work to a centralized service, editors are more likely to end up with domestic stories that have been shaped by the public relations industry and not well researched or double-checked by their own experts.

If you don't believe me about the dangers of a news organ that caters to every possible taste, read USA Today carefully. You'll notice that many stories past the front news section have something to do with a new product available for purchase, be it a movie, a fancy hotel, or a study released by a company that has something to gain from publicizing the results. A nationwide news angle breeds stories about consumerism.

Newspapers' contracts with the AP stipulate that any cancellation be given two years' notice, so even those publications that are throwing in the towel now still have the option of patching things up by 2010. More than a few industry observers suspect that the newspapers are simply using the cancellation notification to barter for better rates. If enough editors balk (and losing the Tribune Company would be a terrible blow to the 162-year-old news service), then the AP will be forced to hack its rates to keep business. That would make sense, and the AP has already floated a 10% price cut starting in January. But readers can already find AP stories (and those of Reuters and UPI, the other major wire services) all over the web for free, so it must be a little galling for editors to have to spend so much of their budgets on them.

There's no telling what a price cut would do to the AP's budget, either, but it won't be able to afford to fund the investigation of as many major stories. For all its faults, the AP is still one of the few American journalism organs that makes an effort to be on the ground and cover the planet beyond our borders. Who will be reporting these stories if the AP isn't? Will international coverage turn into a blog-based game of gossip? It could happen. It's already happening.

The newspapers haven't yet explained how they would replace the international and cultural coverage if AP gets the heave-ho in 2010. They obviously can't pay for staff increases themselves. Potentially, American newspapers could purchase stories written by other papers abroad, where investigative journalism is more prized. This is a time of upheaval in the newspaper industry, though, and many are radically re-conceiving their mandates and brainstorming ways to become more web-centric. It's likely that many papers now assume that its readers can find those stories elsewhere, so they will simply concentrate on chasing fire trucks and attending city hearings at home. Less international coverage in an increasingly global world? That scares me.

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