US newspapers have recently begun working together on content sharing deals on an unprecedented scale. There has been much speculation that the driving force behind these agreements is dissatisfaction with the recent changes at AP. The most recent announcement came from five papers in the Tri-State area of the US last week.
Content sharing deals vary and although many are just starting, a group of three papers in Florida - the Sun Sentinel, Palm Beach Post and Miami Herald - started content sharing about three months ago. However, there is one group of five papers in New Hampshire who have had an agreement in place for the past 15 years.
In an effort to understand the inner workings of content sharing, how it will affect the future of newspapers and journalism, and if these deals are related to AP's actions, the Editors Weblog spoke with Dave Solomon, the vice president of The Telegraph of Nashua in New Hampshire, and Anders Gyllenhaal, senior vice president/executive editor of the Miami Herald.
The Florida Method
Three months ago the Palm Beach Post, Sun Sentinel and Miami Herald began to share content. What is most striking about this deal is the complete shift in mentality that has accompanied it. These three papers have been fierce competitors for the past 100-years and now they find themselves posting each other's stories. According to Gyllenhaal at the Miami Herald, the shift is not designed to change the competitive relationship between the three, but it has changed the way they work together.
What was the trigger for such a change after so many years? Gyllenhaal believes that the increasingly challenging newspaper market has necessitated a more mutually supportive relationship. For the Herald, it began on the business side, "with a distribution agreement. In the case of the Herald and the Sun Sentinel, the Sun was circulating the Herald in its prime territory, and we were circulating their paper." After this, "the newsrooms began to talk, and we have come up with the initial step, a way of trading routine content between the three papers."
The papers follow a strict guideline of what content they can and cannot use. Gyllenhaal believes that "websites are where the news competition exists" so in an effort to preserve this, "you cannot pick up a story from another website and put it on your website but you can put in the paper the next day." Gyllenhaal goes on to say, "It's a defined group of stories, which are events that happened in the last 24 hours or are about to happen, and as a rule we are picking up a couple of items a day from each others websites."
Gyllenhaal reports, "What we can't pick up are things that kind of define an individual paper - in the sense of their franchise elements, their personality elements, you can't pick up columnists, major investigative pieces the things that define, the more important pieces." This aspect of the agreement maintains the competition, therefore Gyllenhaal does not see this changing anytime soon.
What next for the Florida method?
As for the future, Gyllenhaal confirmed plans for individual departments to start working with each other across the three titles for specific stories. He gave the example of when a sports department cannot make it to a game; they will make arrangements to get the story from one of the other papers who would be at the game.
When asked about the possibility of expanding partnerships statewide or across the nation, Gyllenhaal believes that it is possible, but complicated. He notes that in order to grow such a partnership it would require a different system than they have put in place. However, there are plans to extend the content-sharing deal to two papers north of Palm Beach, but he confirmed that it is probably as far as they will go for now.
The New Hampshire model
The Nashua Telegraph has been content sharing with five of their neighbor newspapers since 1993. The deal here is different to Flordia's method as the papers are not in direct competition with each other. However, their approach does provide some insight into how such a system can work for a sustained period of time.
According to Solomon at The Telegraph of Nashua the system started as a means, "to get feature stories and in-depth stories from the other papers for our then-new Sunday editions that we were struggling to fill state copy."
Unlike the Florida papers, "anything and everything is available for reuse," whether on the website or in the print edition, a routine story or an in-depth investigative piece as long as they credit the newspaper of origin.
The five papers involved in the deal extended the agreement to two other papers in the state that are not part of the full open-content sharing deal.
As for their readers, Solomon believes that they, "appreciate the better reporting." He gave the example of a hypothetical airport accident in a near-by town, Concord. If it were to happen, the "Concord Monitor is going to write a very thorough story. They are going to give it to AP and AP is going to flatten out the language, neutralize the tone and convert it to about eight inches. I think our readers are better served by the Concorde Monitor coverage."
Are these agreements a reaction to the changes at AP?
Such content sharing deals seem to be becoming increasingly popular just at a time when a growing chorus is criticising AP: are the two related?
Gyllenhaal said that the Miami Herald's agreement had, "nothing to do with AP. We are taking a different route than those other papers, so this is unrelated to that."
The Telegraph filed a termination notice with the AP in April, so between now and 2010 the Telegraph is looking for alternative vendors.
Solomon explained that the Telegraph's reason for terminating their AP contract was monetary, it spends around $130,000 a year on AP copy. However, this expenditure does not correlate with the amount of syndicated material that they actually use since they are so, "intensely local."
In addition to the AP, the Telegraph spends another $30,000 on syndicated copy from Scripps Howard, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. Soloman is, "convinced a newspaper our size should only be paying half of that or less given the amount of syndicated material we use. So unless I see a package where we can get AP and combo of other syndicates for half as much as what we are currently paying, I don't see any alternative but to move forward. I don't expect that by canceling AP we will have a net savings of 130k, but expect to come out of it spending about half as much."
For Solomon, the AP is a "great institution that does remarkable work." However, he believes that "there has been a deterioration in state report over the years. Through no fault of AP personel, but through the continued reductions in staffing at the state offices."
Solomon believes that the AP has, "demonetized world and national news because they give it to the pure play sites like Google and Yahoo."
Solomon also pointed out that the daily news reports from most AP bureaus are 50 percent member contribution and 50 percent AP staff generated. Solomon further highlighted that this "is certainly not the case in New England, I would estimate its 80 percent member generated and 20 percent AP staff generated." So for the Telegraph, this is another reason why the AP is not a vital contributor to its news operation.
Where will these newspapers get additional content from?
Since the Telegraph has been content sharing for the last 15 years, it is nothing new to them; however, now that they have terminated their contract with the AP, things are going to change for them.
Solomon emphasized his hope that the Washington Post and LA Times will "seize the opportunity and become more aggressive in realizing breaking news, where they are certainly not comparable to AP at this point. But they have the capabilities to do it."
The Telegraph will also have to find sources for sports news, photos, world and nation coverage, Nielsen ratings, top ten movie releases and so forth. In order to do so, Solomon said the Telegraph is looking into other options that can provide content for them and even expanding upon "the state-wide cooperative that has been in existence for so long."
What can other newspapers learn from the Miami Herald the Telegraph?
The two models for content sharing demonstrate that anything is possible when it comes to expanding a newspaper's coverage capabilities.
For some newspapers the AP will continue to be an essential part of their operation, but for others this relationship will end or significantly change. According to Solomon, the AP must not see content sharing as a threat, but what happens if this system grows?
Whether AP sees content sharing as a threat or not, it is certainly an innovative and positive step for newspapers in the US. These newspapers are demonstrating a willingness to break down old rivalries in pursuit of more comprehensive coverage; content sharing may well be a key step on the long and difficult road to restructuring the industry for the changing industry-wide and global economic climate.