Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Open letter to AP staffers

Open letter to the AP staffers who are withholding their bylines to protest the latest contract offer to the Newspaper Guild, the union representing them:

Dear AP staffers:

You don’t get it. You really, really don’t.

You do great work. Your journalism is top-notch. You come out of one of the proudest traditions in journalism. But your union’s stand on current contract negotiations with the Associated Press is wrong-headed and more likely to result in a quicker demise of the AP than might otherwise occur.

Linda Deutsch, the AP’s most notable courts and crime writer, is a Facebook friend of my wife. I sent her this note via Facebook today:
Linda: I appreciate the frustration felt by AP staffers and their reaction to the latest contract proposal. It might be helpful for you to see it from the perspective of a member publisher.

I just sent the AP my two-year cancellation notice, the second I've sent in the past four years (the first resulted in a new, more acceptable contract). In the past three years, the Post Register has had to reduce its newsroom by 25 percent, cut pay, institute furloughs and increase the cost of benefits shared by employees. 

I have been a vocal and frequent critic of the AP in recent years as it has been slow to change to accommodate the needs of its members. One reason for the slowness of change, I fear, has been the Guild's reluctance to accept the reality of what's going on. If it doesn't become more flexible it risks killing the AP entirely.
You have a new competitor -- Thomson-Reuters. If the Guild doesn't think the Reuters threat is real, it is mistaken. What member newspapers need from the AP has changed drastically. The Guild and the AP's board and managers still don't get that.
Highest regards,
Roger Plothow
Editor and Publisher
Post Register
Idaho Falls, Idaho
An AP staffer called me after receiving my latest cancellation notice and among her questions was whether the quality of the AP’s work was a concern. I told her, “It’s too good. We need just good enough.”

We’re a local paper. We need the AP to fill in around the edges, to provide a sense of global happenings. I told AP managers eight years ago the same thing I tell them today: “I need 25 percent of the content you now give me for 50 percent of the cost.” That’s it.

It appears that Reuters is ready to do that. One of Thomson-Reuters' mucky-mucks is Jim Smith, a really good guy who was my boss for a time at Thomson. Jim is a former newspaper publisher. He gets it.

The AP, unfortunately, still does not.

26 comments:

  1. Funny how when unions want money, the response is "don't get it." When executives want money, the response is "we must pay whatever it takes to keep this talented individual."
    I can't wait for his economy to turn around and watch peopl flee these sweat shops for a better job.

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  2. Roger, your open letter demonstrates a laughably outdated belief that the needs, desires and motivations of newspaper publishers should be a central consideration of Associated Press management, let along Associated Press employees.

    The AP derives an increasingly shrinking share of its revenue from increasingly shrinking newspapers. Its future and its revenue growth is on the Internet where - thankfully - there is an appreciation for the kind of depth and quality that the AP provides.

    You want them to cut costs, provide less content and charge proportionally more money?

    Of course you do - you're a newspaper publisher! That's the business plan you and your fellow publishers have been following for at least five years now.

    Guess what? It's killing your industry.

    Jim Carty

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  3. Thanks for confirming the management saw that "good enough" is the new standard for what used to be excellence in journalism and newsrooms.

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  4. We need the AP to fill in around the edges, to provide a sense of global happenings!!!

    A sense of global happenings? That's why you guys confuse Beirut with Bayreuth and think that Brussels is (only) a vegetable Can you please locate Belgium on the map? (Not to be confused with Bell pepper or Bellagio). Please.

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  5. Don't be an ass. There are dozens of places readers can go for global and national news, and exactly one for news about eastern Idaho. You know that, but you choose to make specious arguments. I'm happy to geo-quiz with you any time. Please.

    RP

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  6. By the way, Roger, would you mind sharing what financial sacrifices you've personally made since the recession started?

    Has your pension been eliminated?

    Have you taken a pay cut or furloughs?

    Have you agreed to a 40 percent rise in your healthcare costs?

    It seems only fair for you to share, since you're calling on others to accept such cuts in the interest of the "new reality."

    Jim

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  7. I took a 20 percent pay cut. I have no pension other than my own savings and an ESOP plan that has lost 80 percent of its value, and our 401(k) match has been halted. I would love to have seen no more than a 40 percent increase in my insurance premiums. This is what it's like in the real world, even among big-time executives like me.

    RP

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  8. Thanks for sharing Roger.

    You don't need to tell me about the real world, though, I worked at The Ann Arbor News, which was folded in large part to shed its salaries and benefits and allow the founding of a "new" publication with lower costs. I still have plenty of former co-workers who are unemployed from that little corporate restructuring.

    The AP is not a newspaper, however.

    Despite falling revenue last year (and likely this year) it has large growth areas in broadcast and Internet. Given those growth areas, your analogy about the "new reality" really doesn't hold up. The AP's reality may only be a small dip over a two-year period before it continues growing.

    It's worth noting that the AP hasn't had decreasing revenues over a two-year period since the depression. That's both an illustration of an extremely profitable business and the depth of our recent economic troubles.

    Given that past success, the continued growth in areas outside of print, and signs that the economy is improving, there's every reason for AP employees to fight for their salaries and benefits.

    Your suggestion that they just roll over and accept management-dictated cuts as part of a new reality is (understandably) the perspective of a for-profit manager who wants a cheaper AP to increase his company's profits or decrease its losses.

    Jim

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  9. I followed the Ann Arbor fiasco with sadness. It didn't need to happen. However, what you and AP staffers seem to forget is that a large portion of AP's content comes not from original AP reporting but as part of a story-sharing mandate that comes with AP membership. The AP is staffed with many fine journalists and I wish them no ill. And, yes, newspaper revenue is now a fraction of the AP's total. But take member newspapers' contributions of content out of the mix and the AP is a shell of itself.

    My larger point is this -- the AP has long been able to force its will on its members because there has been no alternative. That is now no longer the case. News-sharing arrangements exist in every part of the country that circumvent the AP (and do it better). Reuters potentially offers an equally professional but less voluminous (and, yes, cheaper) alternative to the AP. If the AP doesn't react quicker to the changing demands of newspapers and its readers, it'll become unnecessary to the newspapers who founded it. The Guild needs to wrap its head around that.

    RP

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  10. Fair points, Roger, but I'll ask you this: What if the AP has concluded that its mission is better served not by seeking to compete with a cheap alternative, but to serve the portion of its membership that desires quality and is willing to pay for it?

    After all, I see a lot of papers threaten to drop the AP, but very few (if any) actually drop it.

    In any event, I thank you for the conversation and polite disagreement.

    Jim

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  11. So it's Thomson Reuters that's the great threat to the AP, huh? I thought it was the CNN wire, that everyone was making a big deal about in 2008? Yeah, that really gets talked about now?

    Last I checked, the AP was debt-free and has been able to diversify cash flow by selling its content to websites like Yahoo! News and developing cool mobile apps. Predictions of the AP's demise, eminent or otherwise, seem specious. I'd predict the AP will be around a lot longer than the Post Register will.

    It's also worth noting that it's not like the guild has this great power to thwart AP restructuring. It just negotiates pay and benefits, like any other union does, but couldn't stop the AP from laying off more than 70 staffers last year. (Full disclosure: I was one of them).

    It's hard to keep everyone happy... if publishers really think the AP isn't a good value, more of them should put their money where their mouth is and actually cancel their service. I'd love to see them try and put out a quality newspaper the next time a big U.s. story breaks without the AP.

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  12. The AP loses money on services to newspapers and effectively subsidizes those offerings with more profitable lines of business.

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  13. As a reporter at a mid-size metropolitan city newspaper, I have to echo Roger's comments. The AP guild needs to take a glance at the public's reaction to similar temper tantrums by police and fire unions upset that they're not getting their usual 5 percent annual raise.
    And don't tell me that AP is cranking out journalism that is oh so better than what's being produced by the newspaper. I'm not going to be so kind. The quality has fallen off quite a bit - and nobody is really interested in the commentary mix being thrown out by unknown AP writers thinking they are the next George Will. Bad news guys; the party is over. Get ready for the same stark reality we've been enjoying in the real world for the past four years.
    As for your byline boycott - nobody cares.

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  14. Has it occurred to you, Mr. Plothow, that the reason your paper is struggling is because you are only striving for "good enough". If I can get my information nearly anywhere, you've got to give me an incentive to come to you for it. "Good enough" doesn't cut it. Seems like you don't want to spend money to make money. Well, I spend my dollars where I feel like I get the best value. And clearly, in two years, by your own admission, it won't be at the Post Register. You see it as a step to save the paper, I see it as a step closer to it's demise. That's sad.

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  15. It's important to keep in mind that these are labor negotiations. Both sides make extreme proposals with the expectation of eventually settling somewhere in the middle. So not even management expects the Guild to accept the company's offer. Likewise, the Guild doesn't expect management to concede on all points. The whole thing is a game, and ultimately neither management nor the union will accept a compromise that's inherently destructive to its own goals.

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  16. I thought AP dropped rates for newspapers in the last few years.

    I thought that limited service offered what you said you wanted: 25 percent of the content for about 50 percent of the cost. So I would suggest that the AP has met your requirements for remaining part of its membership.

    As for the union, no one cares about its boycott. Nobody uses their bylines anyway. AP workers have labored for years in obscurity. But these days, they're laboring in fantasy-land if they think they can exist apart from the grim economic realities of the news business.

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  17. Some thoughts on a chilly morning in Idaho:

    1. "Just good enough." It's a phrase with which I thought a lot of people were familiar, but I used it too loosely. I don't use 90 percent of what the AP sends me I'm tired of paying for it -- I'd rather hire local reporters with that money. Let me select what I want to use and pay only for that -- like nearly every other business on the planet.

    2. "I thought the AP dropped rates ..." Yes, but not enough. And, it bought the one sports information provider that threatened it.

    3. "... grim economic realities of the news business." Let's not forget, nearly every business faces grim economic realities just now.

    RP

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  18. I want to reply to "anonymous" who claimed we were whining about wanting our 5% raise like fire fighters and police officers. Your ad hominem attack is duly noted. For the record, we've never gotten a 5% raise. Not in the time I've been here.
    So take your bitterness elsewhere. We work hard for our money. We give you damned good product. Maybe the publisher who launched this string should bargain for ala carte service.

    Yours truly,


    Just another byline the apparently you all could care less about, but whose reporting you use in your copy....

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  19. If I may offer my two cents as a part of the generation those technology addiction is slowly killing the news business (my, my!):

    I get the same national headlines that appear in the newspaper a day in advance, as they happen in real time. While I like having the stories in the paper (to contextualize, something that my generation is still capable of, despite constantly being told that we are not), I don't need every little story. I already got those the day before, as they developed, on the Internet. And, I was able to link to the video, the user comments, the commentary, etc.

    So I'm kind of with my dad on this one (by the way, I am in no way involved with the newspaper business or the Post Register). We don't need national headlines, we need the basics, then more in-depth coverage of local news. By canceling the AP, it's not a step toward killing the news business, it's a step toward remaking it for the times in which we live.

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  20. "I'd rather hire local reporters with that money." and "There are dozens of places readers can go for global and national news, and exactly one for news about eastern Idaho."

    I was born and raised in Blackfoot and am very familiar with the regional newspapers (Poky, I.F., Blackfoot -- so much for your assertion that there's only one newspaper for news about Eastern Idaho). And I have to say I'm appalled by the quality of all. I hate reading them when I come back to visit family. It takes me about 130 seconds to zip through the entire toilet roll you call a newspaper.

    So, in regard to your first point here, could you hire better local reporters, please? Or provide a higher level of editing? And in regard to the second point, could you actually provide news articles rather than gossip, quilting bees and barn raisings?

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  21. I am sorry that it appears you have not been able to read a copy of the Post Register recently. We like a good barn raising as much as the next redneck newspapers, but they are few and far between nowadays. The Blackfoot Morning News does a nice job covering Blackfoot, but we pick up all the major news coming out of there. Same for Rexburg and the Standard-Journal (we have a story-sharing agreement with Rexburg, Pocatello and Driggs). We consider Pocatello southeast Idaho and not part of our market. So, I stand by my claim -- you want to know what's happening in eastern Idaho, the PR is the only place to go. You want just Blackfoot, Rexburg or sound bites, you have options.

    RP

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  22. what you need is News for Idiots: The World in 80 Words. AP will provide it to you for free.

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  23. That would be perfect! On a more serious note, the last thing any of us needs to be doing is holding fast to what we've always done. This, more or less, has been the AP's approach when it comes to its newspaper members.

    RP

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  24. Roger, I remember you well from my days as a day editor at AP in Salt Lake City (1982-98). Been with a metro daily since then, so I see your points -- and the Guild's. Back in the day, abusive management practices prompted a lot of us to join the Guild. But the AP is not what it used to be in quality, quantity or commitment to members, based on my experiences on the other end of the cooperative. This byline boycott, like a couple I was involved in, will mean nothing. No one can resist the black hole journalism is falling into -- except by firing up the trans-warp engines and heading into a new dimension, new media, new ways of thinking about presentation and reporting.

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  25. "I don't use 90 percent of what the AP sends me I'm tired of paying for it -- I'd rather hire local reporters with that money. Let me select what I want to use and pay only for that -- like nearly every other business on the planet"

    But the AP isn't like every other business ... it's a cooperative. Realistically of course you don't use news from the Maine state wire, and the members in Maine don't use Idaho news. But you both cross-subsidize each other.

    It's very hard to imagine how à la carte pricing would work. The AP would what, send you the all the stories... and then just trust that you'd report the ones you used accurately? I think realistically the AP would need a staff to scrutinize each printed newspaper each day.

    And there's always AP Member Choice Limited that does offer a very tight selection of AP content. -ex-ap staffer

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  26. To RP,

    Seems to me YOU don't get it...the workers at the AP have been sacrificing for the last several years. The AP has pushed out hundreds of its experienced people, a number of them illegally in violation of law, union contract and company policy. The workers have not gotten a decent raise since well before the 2008 recession and their benefits have taken a hit The AP is functioning like a for profit company, but masquerading as a legal not-for-profit. Last time I looked, the AP was still making lots of money...but the profits are NOT going to its employees. Curley's bloated and overcompensated middle management costs a lot of money, but they are not being pressured to take cuts. The quality of AP's product has declined as well, particularly over the last two years. Maybe you should look at Thomson Reuters or ask for a rate reduction like all the other newspaper members have-and have gotten.

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