By: Joe Strupp
A recent dispute between numerous newspaper editors and the Associated Press over rate structures and other practices erupted again Wednesday morning during a heated session of the Capital Conference media convention here.
Following an appearance by AP President and CEO Tom Curley, who discussed the controversial new rate structure and overall AP economic issues, several editors spoke up in opposition to the plan, claiming it unfairly charges member papers and includes too many services they do not want.
?I think you vastly underestimate the resentment and anger in this room,? Editor David Shribman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette told Curley during a Q&A session that followed, comparing Curley to ?the secretary general of the Politburo.?
Ron Royhab of The Blade in Toledo, Ohio, told Curley that AP officials have not been listening to newspaper complaints that date back several months. ?I think there is real serious communications problem,? he added. ?As you put this [rate] package together, I would remind you that it is newspapers that put this cooperative together.?
Susan Goldberg, editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, also cited the lack of response to editors? concerns. ?As of even late last night, we were turned down flat,? she said. ?We do want to understand what each other is paying.?
Martin Baron, editor of The Boston Globe and the first to speak up at the meeting today, said ?you need to cut our rates 30%. If you want to do that, that would make us happy.?
Several editors also resented AP officials who have said newspapers make up only 30% of the news cooperative?s revenue, failing to note that newspapers are still the single largest group of customers.
?It isn?t fair to say, ?You contribute 30% and everyone else contributes 70%,'” Royhab told Curley.
Baron and others also demanded to know more about specific charges and how other news outlets were being billed. ?They can?t tell us how we are going to save money,? he said later. ?It is just appalling that they are unwilling to tell us how. It reminds me of when I see on 14th Street in New York, the Three-Card Monte.?
Curley said AP policy does not allow specific charges for each member to be revealed. ?We have never revealed what an individual entity pays,? he added. ?We will not, it is the board?s policy. The board knows and the board looks through those things very carefully.?
Shribman further criticized the AP distribution system that includes what he believes is too much enterprise content, some of it going between competitors. ?What angers me every week is the weekly enterprise memo that you produce that we don?t want and don?t need,? he said. ?We don?t feel you have addressed this in any way.?
The editors? anger dates back to mid-2007 when AP announced a rate structure realignment for 2009 that many members opposed. Under the current AP rate structure, each paper is sold a package of stories created by AP based on the paper’s location and size. That package usually includes breaking news, sports business and other national, international and regional news relevant to the market, including its state AP wire.
With the new structure, AP member newspapers would receive all breaking news worldwide, including that from other state wires, as well as breaking sports, business, and entertainment stories. Five other non-breaking news categories of sports, entertainment, business, lifestyle and analysis would be available at an additional cost on an a la carte basis.
A group of editors in Ohio, which included Royhab and Goldberg, sent an angry letter to AP on Dec. 21, 2007, that contends both rates and news practices were unacceptable to them, declaring, “We pay nearly $4 million annually to the AP. That’s a hefty sum even during the best of times — and we all would certainly agree that these are not the best of times.”
Later, on Jan. 2, 2008, another group of eight newsroom leaders at major newspapers, ranging from the Boston Globe to the San Diego Union-Tribune, sent a letter to Curley and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll that took issue with the AP rates and the recent new structure plan.
“The failure of Associated Press to cut its rates is especially mystifying given that AP itself seems to be expanding, most recently adding to its already robust, admirably strong foreign coverage, even as its newspaper members undergo rigorous and continuous belt-tightening,” the letter stated in part. “Editors would have welcomed consultation, in the traditional spirit of partnership between AP and member newspapers, on whether foreign coverage was more important to them than a rate cut.”
The major Ohio papers recently took their concerns a step further, agreeing to share content on nearly all local and regional coverage.
AP has responded to the complaints with meetings at local member offices, as well as an announcement on Monday that the rates would be cut further. ?The reality is the cuts will be about $21 million, it will be about 10%, that is where we are headed, that is going to happen,? Curley said during the Q&A. [An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Curley said 20%.]
In an online chat today, Washington Post business columnist Steve Pearlstein was asked about the issue, and replied:
“What really disturbs me, however, is to hear, as I did this morning at the American Socienty of Newspaper Editors’ conference here in Washington, editors saying they have to cut back on their national and international reporting and then complaining about how much they are paying to the Associated Press. They can’t have it both ways. They need to understand that some of the savings that comes from closing Washington or overseas bureaus has to be plowed back into ‘buying’ the news they used to ‘make’ less efficiently in-house. The problem with AP isn’t that it is charging too much — it is that it is charging too little!”