Now That We Have the Web, Do We Need Associated Press?

Media analyst Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, says that the list of things that the Internet has killed — or is in the process of killing — includes media syndication of the kind that the Associated Press and other newswires are built on. In a look at what 2011 will bring for media, written for the Nieman Journalism Lab, Shirky says this process, which is “a key part of the economic structure of the news business,” is next in line for widespread disruption, because it no longer makes sense in the age of the Internet, when anyone can syndicate content by pushing a button.

In fact, as Shirky himself admits, the kind of distribution that a newswire engages in has been in decline for some time now. Newspapers still push content to The Associated Press, hoping to get the benefit of the syndication it offers, but the only ones getting any benefit are tiny newspapers and websites who rely on the wire because they can’t produce enough content by themselves. While the web and RSS and other digital syndication models are not perfect, the need to have a combination one-stop shop for content and Big Brother-style copyright cop is dwindling. Says Shirky:

Put simply, syndication makes little sense in a world with URLs. When news outlets were segmented by geography, having live human beings sitting around in ten thousand separate markets deciding which stories to pull off the wire was a service. Now it’s just a cost.

Even the newswire itself realizes this, of course, and it has been trying desperately for the past year or two to find some way of shoring up the crumbling walls of its former gatekeeper status. It has railed against Google News (with whom it recently renegotiated an agreement) and threatened to file claims against everyone from the web giant to individual bloggers because of the use of even tiny excerpts of its content. The AP has also been talking for some time about changing the nature of its relationship with member papers, and keeping some of its content to itself — requiring members to link to that content on the AP website, rather than running it on their own sites.

One interesting sub-plot is that Google is working on developing better attribution for content that appears in Google News, according to a recent blog post entitled “Credit where credit is due.” The idea is that publishers will tag their content with special tags so that the search engine can recognize who originally created a story — and presumably use this as a way of determining which of the dozens of carbon-copy versions of a story it should highlight in Google News. Shirky is right that this could improve things for users, but make things substantially worse for newspapers and wire services:

Giving credit where credit is due will reward original work, whether scoops, hot news, or unique analysis or perspective. This will be great for readers. It may not, however, be so great for newspapers, or at least not for their revenues, because most of what shows up in a newspaper isn’t original or unique. It’s the first four grafs of something ripped off the wire and lightly re-written, a process repeated countless times a day with no new value being added to the story.

The AP isn’t completely dead yet, mind you. The service has its own news staff, who generate their own stories, just as Reuters and Bloomberg and other wire services do. Google’s pending change to attribution rules could actually help the AP when it comes to these internally produced stories — but they could also do substantial damage to the service at the same time, by shifting the spotlight to member papers who create the original stories AP normally gets credit for. But the real question is: In a world where the power to syndicate is available to all, does anyone want what AP is selling?

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Post and thumbnails courtesy of Flickr user Rochelle Hartman