The changing foundation of news syndication

As I told Regent Ducas’s class at the University of Texas Arlington this week, it’s very hard to judge history when you’re right in the middle of it. But if we’re to prepare ourselves for what’s around the corner, we need to be making such judgments today and not waiting until they’re already in the textbooks.

Such is the case, I think, with the way the news industry distributes information for its own consumption and subsequent distribution to others. Anybody who’s reading this already knows that technology is rendering old ways of doing things irrelevant every day, and nowhere is this truer than in the world of journalism. There are three events in the news this week that, when taken together, project an image of tomorrow that we ought to consider.

Bloomberg NewsThe first is the strange case of how the business wire service Bloomberg News erroneously reported that United Airlines had again filed for bankruptcy, sending its stock into the toilet (down 75%). It’s a terribly serious matter that could’ve been avoided, had somebody at Bloomberg not made an assumption about Google News. Google’s aggregator sniffed out an old story about United, as explained in the Google Blog by Josh Cohen:

On Saturday, September 6th at 10:36PM Pacific, the Google crawler discovered a new link on the Florida Sun-Sentinel website in a section of the most viewed stories labeled “Popular Stories: Business.” The link appeared in that section sometime after Googlebot’s last crawl at 10:17PM; because the crawler saw this new link appear, it followed it to an article titled “UAL Files for Bankruptcy.”

In its “Popular Stories” widget, the Sun Sentinel doesn’t date stamp the stories, so Google’s robot just assumed it was current. On a slow news day, it’s possible that just one person reading an old, archived story can make the “popular stories” column. That Google ran it was damaging, but nothing compared to what happened when Bloomberg picked it up and ran with it. As I noted in my blog, Google is not the AP, and Bloomberg had a duty to vet the story before running it.

Associated PressThe story is a stunning reminder of the downside of a connected world, and it’s why we need to pay attention to the second of the three stories: continued talk about media companies cancelling their AP contracts.

Tim McGuire of the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State wrote that history suggests these cancellations are merely negotiation tactics and not representative of anything bigger. I couldn’t disagree more. What McGuire fails to consider is that technology makes options available to media companies today that history never had. It’s what’s allowing Ohio papers to create their own network to share stories. Add to that the reality that newspapers are in dire need of cost reduction, and the handwriting on the wall is pretty clear.

But if the AP is damaged, won’t we be running into more Bloomberg moments? Good question, but again, the responsibility for what goes in one’s own paper (or whatever) is with the publisher, not a distant provider.

PoliticoThe third story is news that the online Washington D.C. news service Politico is making itself available to media companies anywhere based on a revenue share. Revenue shares are common in the Web world, because the amount of money that changes hands is based entirely on performance, so both sides must make it happen. Politico loses nothing by making its content available. The media companies gain content from the nation’s capital, and the only cost is a share of revenue they make based on that content. The AP could never live with such a concept.

On the announcement, Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman made an astute observation:

Hmmm, so drop AP, form a regional exchange and use Politico for DC coverage? Interesting.

Interesting, indeed, and also highly prescient.

So these three events combine to reveal major changes afoot in old systems of moving stories around in a connected world, and it doesn’t take a genius to see the general drift. The future challenge to media companies is to assume more responsibility in an aggregated, connected world, but that’s something we can control. It also reveals to me continued shaking of the foundation that is the AP, and that’s something that impacts everybody.

I’m reminded of that chilling 2004 statement from then FCC Chairman Michael Powell in a candid discussion on the campus of Stanford University:

“I have no problem if a big and venerable company no longer exists tomorrow, as long as that value is transferred somewhere else in the economy.”

Powell’s view is also the Web’s view, and one of the harsh realities of capitalism. We’re in the middle of historic changes in media and beyond, and we need to be paying attention like never before.

(Jeff Jarvis sees the handwriting on the wall for the AP)

Originally posted in AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel newsletter.

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