Changing of the Guard at AP

By: Lucia Moses

With its breezy style and colorful graphics, USA Today quickly became an undeniable force in American newspapering after it burst onto the scene in 1982. But even with its deep resources, the country’s biggest national newspaper can’t do without The Associated Press — or escape its influence. When AP started disseminating news via commercial Web portals such as Yahoo!, for example, USA Today realized it could never again publish its usual way. As President and Publisher Tom Curley recalls, people saw “we have to provide unique content they can’t get anywhere else.”

When the publisher of America’s youngest major daily takes over the nation’s oldest news cooperative this spring, succeeding retiring CEO and President Louis D. Boccardi, it’s Curley who will be making the decisions affecting many newspapers’ print and online strategies. His challenge will be to adapt AP — and its 1,700 U.S. member newspapers — to an evolving media landscape and still preserve its position as the bedrock of the news media. He also must build on the strong financial foundation left him by his predecessor.

“Under Lou’s leadership, the AP’s in a very sound financial position,” says Burl Osborne, chairman of AP and publisher emeritus of The Dallas Morning News. “We’re very pleased with the progress we’ve made there.” Still, he says, AP would like to boost the share of revenue coming from nontraditional sources. He has faith in Curley’s ability to do that, even as he protects AP’s core news values, which he calls “job one.”

Those who are eager to hear Curley’s vision for AP will have to wait, however. Curley, who takes over June 1, offers no specific plans except to say he’ll begin by doing a lot of listening. “I did not campaign on a platform and do not have a platform,” he tells E&P.

Still, he says he’s excited about AP’s status as the ultimate content provider and the chance to take it deeper into the electronic era. Curley, whose pre-USA Today career included an editing stint at the Norwich (Conn.) Bulletin, knows firsthand that papers large and small depend heavily on AP, if for different things. AP has always provided superior content and accurate information, he says — and “I will do everything I can to continue that tradition and make the mission as vital as ever.”

Many people who worked under Curley at USA Today describe him as bright, energetic, and competitive — whether he was pitching for the paper’s softball team or pitching to sell more ads. “He was always looking for another way to construct the newspaper that would make more money without obstructing the editorial integrity,” recalls Jim Gath, former vice president and director of ad sales. As publisher, Curley stayed interested in news operations, sometimes directly involving himself in hiring decisions. He had a serious side, and expounded on everything from consumer confidence to the interplay of world currencies, but equally relished the chance to get in on a practical joke, such as publishing a fake edition of the paper for an advertising client.

Boccardi says that business acumen is indeed essential in his successor, but “it’s important for the leader of the AP to be able to articulate [its core news] values and protect them and defend them. … It’s not just enough to find someone with a first-rate business record.”

Everybody wants a piece of pie

Curley will take over in a media world that’s changed dramatically over the last two decades. There’s more competition, for one thing. Although most of its revenue comes from the financial-services industry, Reuters has become a bigger news-gathering force since it went public in 1984, and Bloomberg LLP has carved out a niche covering financial news, with an army of 1,200 reporters worldwide. Agence France-Presse and Getty Images just struck a deal aimed at increasing their market penetration here and abroad to compete better with AP in photo services. And the likes of News Corp.’s Stats Inc. and Pinnacor Inc. are making places for themselves by selling sports and stock-market data to papers’ online operations.

Even as editors rely on AP for round-the-clock breaking news online and the bread-and-butter news from outside their circulation areas that they can’t cover themselves, papers such as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel increasingly are using stories from other news services.

None of these competitors may pose a serious threat to AP’s dominance — but they are nibbling around the edges. Last year, AP responded by buying one of them, Capitol Wire, a 5-year-old subscription-based Web news service covering statehouse news in five states.

New delivery platforms also have changed the way news is consumed. People at AP like to call their operation the world’s first Internet, but the sprouting of nonstop news everywhere, from cable TV to personal digital assistants, has undermined the value of its daily newspaper report and reduced breaking news — AP’s raison d’?tre — to a commodity. Meanwhile, with members demanding ever more specialty reporting to satisfy readers, covering the basics is no longer enough.

AP has responded by making itself ubiquitous, extending its content to radio and TV. Under Boccardi, AP modernized its operation, including the digitization of its photo services. In 1997, AP launched its online breaking-news service, The Wire, followed later by its CustomWire.

AP continues to gauge how reader habits are shifting, both in format and content, so as to better serve them, says Jonathan P. Wolman, senior vice president and executive editor. “What’s attractive on the traditional wire may not be attractive for The Columbus Dispatch readers who may be reading on their Palm Pilot,” he says.

To better its content, AP has added staff in recent years to bolster its statehouse coverage, making sure statewide stories often are written to satisfy a growing appetite for news about regional, not just local, issues. AP also has expanded its number of bureaus, assigning more reporters to cover youth, technology, family issues, business, and arts and entertainment — usually by shifting people on general news beats. Last year, it launched a Spanish-language online service, and now it is looking at the possibility of a Hispanic-interest news service.

Boccardi’s task was to find the wherewithal to pay for all these news-gathering and technological enhancements without raising members’ rates faster than the inflation rate. Under him, AP continued a process of diversifying its revenue sources. Probably the one with the biggest growth potential is the electronic ad-delivery and processing unit, AP AdVantage, whose roots date to 1994. Others are AP Digital, which sells content to commercial sites, and AP Wide World Photos, the commercial photo service. During Boccardi’s reign, total budgeted annual revenue rose from $200 million in 1985 to more than $500 million last year. Some 23% of AP’s revenue now comes from commercial sources, more than double the 10% in 1985.

“What I hope people will say about this time,” Boccardi says, “is that we achieved this diversification and modernization, and created a new economic base, while preserving all the things that got us here.”

Tom Curley’s sporting life

Although Boccardi rose to AP’s top spot via journalism, Curley, 54, straddles both the business and the editorial worlds.

Curley started out on the journalism side, covering high-school basketball, as a high-schooler himself, for his hometown paper, then the Easton (Pa.) Express. He continued writing for papers throughout his college years. His first job after college was in 1972 as suburban/night city editor at the now-defunct Rochester (N.Y.) Times-Union, where he encountered, among other rising stars in the Gannett Co. Inc. firmament: Phil Currie, now its senior vice president for news; John Quinn, the first editor of USA Today; and Allen H. Neuharth, who went on not only to become Gannett’s chairman and CEO but also to found USA Today.

In 1979, Neuharth tapped his prot?g? to work on the project that would lead to the creation of that newspaper. Curley eventually worked in every department at USA Today, becoming president in 1986 and publisher in 1991.

Under Curley, USA Today became solidly profitable, with 2.23 million copies in weekday circulation. He is credited with helping USA Today shake off its “McPaper” epithet by encouraging investigative and foreign reporting and writing with depth. He “wanted USA Today to be something that was not only a marketing success but a journalistic success,” says Carolyn Bivens, the former Carolyn Vesper, who was Curley’s associate publisher.

One reason Curley appears to be a good fit for his new job is this: Like AP, USA Today strives for the middle ground. Its editorials are juxtaposed with opinion pieces that take opposing views. Most recently, its coverage of the run-up to the Iraq invasion, and the war itself, was both wide-ranging and relatively evenhanded.

Curley believed that, in a converged media future, being strong in print wasn’t enough for the paper to be a true national brand. To that end, he brought USA Today quickly to the Net and to TV, with the launch of USAToday.com and USA Today Live, a daily newscast for Gannett’s TV stations that showcases enterprise stories in the paper. Stations also can go live to USA Today newsrooms. He’s fond of calling the paper a “network” that feeds information to various platforms in an inevitable move toward convergence of newspapers, TV, and the Net.

USAToday.com is in the red as a result of the drop-off in dot-com advertising, but Curley sees this as a temporary state, as losses are being cut and advertising is growing “dramatically.”

“As a businessman, I think he’s extremely sensitive to the editorial side, and as a journalist, I think he understood the need to make money,” says Keith Cutler, whom Curley hired as publisher of USA Today‘s only print spinoff, Baseball Weekly, since renamed Sports Weekly.

Says AP Chairman Osborne, “The fact that he has presided over a period when the newspaper has grown circulation steadily as the rest of the industry is shrinking [and that] he has grown revenue dramatically … is [the] proof in the pudding.”

Curley’s ascent at Gannett was no surprise to people who have worked with him. At the Times-Union, he already was taking business classes at night, recalls Jack Marsh, then a suburban reporter working under him. “Despite his relatively young age and limited experience, he had a lot of wisdom,” says Marsh, who now directs the Freedom Forum’s Neuharth Center at the University of South Dakota.

Curley’s long associations with USA Today and Gannett made his decision to leave all the more surprising to people who know him. At one time at least, some saw him destined to run the company, as his brother, former CEO John Curley, once did. But some observers now believe there was tension between Tom Curley and Chairman, CEO, and President Douglas H. McCorkindale that made this scenario unlikely.

Striking a balance at AP

When Curley takes over AP, he can expect newspaper members to continue pressing the cooperative for direction in boosting their print readership and setting their multimedia strategy even as they themselves are uncertain how to make their Web sites viable without hurting their print editions.

“AP will need to be a pacesetter,” says Caesar Andrews, editor of Gannett News Service and past president of the Associated Press Managing Editors (APME).

“Every editor’s thinking: ‘What should we do about sports agate, stock tables, TV listings?'” says Ron Martin, senior editor of Cox Newspapers Inc. (and a former editor of USA Today).

Members give AP credit for improving its technology and online services. Thanks to modernization of photo delivery, editors no longer feel the frustration they did during the first Persian Gulf War, when images appeared on CNN long before photos arrived over the wires, says Stuart Wilk, vice president of APME and managing editor of The Dallas Morning News.

AP now lets newspapers co-brand its online breaking news and sell ads in the space surrounding text to a greater extent than before, says Patrick Stiegman, vice president and editor of Journal Interactive, the online division of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “They’re starting to understand the capabilities of this medium instead of just treating it as a repurposed medium.” CustomWire still can lag the traditional wire in posting stories, though, and Stiegman would like the standard packages to have more bells and whistles.

As papers spread themselves even more fully onto TV as well as the Net, they’ll also look to AP to bring compatibility to the cross-platform publishing process, says Gil Thelen, executive editor and senior vice president of The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune, a pioneer in convergence. Now, he says, “it’s not as easy as anybody would like.”

More basically, Curley will have to figure out how to divvy up AP’s limited resources when technology and news demand them. No one wants AP to abandon breaking news, but members expect more than nuts-and-bolts coverage. “[AP] can’t just sit there and say we’re going to serve the news to our members,” Martin says.

Members are not AP’s only clients anymore, and Curley will have to make sure the interests of its new customers don’t collide with those of its owner-members. Boccardi tells E&P the issue isn’t how much AP relies on nontraditional sources financially, though. “There’s a point it should not go beyond,” he says. “It’s not a number. It should not go beyond a point where the AP loses its focus.”

A tough act to follow

Similar pronouncements about AP’s commitment have helped elevate Boccardi to a revered position in the industry. Boccardi, 65, who has logged 35 years with AP, including 18 as president, also has been a well-regarded industry voice for a free press, credibility, and accuracy.

During the 2000 presidential elections, AP stood out by calling the election count incomplete while TV networks declared George W. Bush the winner. After the 9/11 terror attacks, Boccardi spoke of the dangers facing journalists in undemocratic regions and the difficulties in reporting the news when access to information at home is curtailed. He now says the press must be vigilant against such limits in the name of national security — but report responsibly: “We should hold to the values that are fundamental to the country, but bear in mind there are security issues that are vital to this country.” In what he acknowledges is now a convention-speech clich

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