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The Associated Press ups involvement with readership: improving the news search experience and protecting content

The Associated Press ups involvement with readership: improving the news search experience and protecting content

The Associated Press' recent announcement of its intention to crack down on misappropriation of its content online and to create new search "landing pages" has been met with much commentary and criticism, with many interpreting it as a direct attack on search engines, Google in particular. The not-for-profit cooperative, whose ownership base is US daily newspapers and which has recently been faced with warnings from members that want to drop the service, also announced rate cuts at its annual meeting in San Diego but these did not attract nearly as much interest. The Editors Weblog spoke to the AP's director of strategic planning Jim Kennedy to find out more clearly what the AP's plans entail and what their implications are.

Search landing pages: creating a map that will direct readers to local sources

There are two main aspects to the AP's current new strategy. One is to start creating pages of aggregated content based around news stories and topics, which would allow readers to find the most authoritative local sources for the news they are searching for. The pages will contain some content and links to other stories from both the AP and its member newspapers, and although it will not actually be a 'wiki,' (a source of information that can be updated by users), Kennedy explained that Wikipedia's design is a "rough model for it," with pages driven by topics or keywords. Such a page will be a "map for the user to access other links," commented Kennedy.

He emphasised that the plan is all about giving the user "an improved news experience," as the AP believes that currently, the mechanisms provided to consumers for news searching are inadequate. Kennedy asserted that "people are using search as a remote control for news and it's not working," as it is like a device with only "a couple of buttons; it's a remote with directional arrows and no channels." If a user does not find the information they want on their first search, they usually reach a dead end and just go back to the search homepage and try again. Also, he asserted, search engines "point people indiscriminately" towards sources, rather than towards the news' local paper which should have the most authoritative article. The AP hopes instead to offer more of a guide to a topic, with sources that are more intelligently chosen.

Pages will be largely automatically produced, a necessary tactic as the organisation plans to have hundreds, even thousands of them, but there will be a certain degree of human editing for big stories. They will have URLs so that they can be 'tweeted' or linked to on social networking sites but they will not be a destination in themselves: "This is a distribution strategy, not a destination strategy," Kennedy confirmed.

Tracking content to stop misappropriation

The second aspect is the AP's mission to "keep up the fight to protect content from misappropriation and protecting it from those who don't pay." He clarified that the he was not talking about "small time bloggers who post a link to a story," rather "people and entities who come along and scrape content systematically and have no intention of licensing it." He claimed that the AP has already been fighting this successfully for many years, and this new strategy is a continuation of that in conjunction with its members. The new mechanisms that the AP plans to put in place include new formats for news content which would carry rights information, and tracking services that follow each piece of content. "Ultimately," Kennedy explained, "we'll get better and better at tracking where the content goes, and that will help us enforce the terms and conditions of its use."

So how will this affect its relationship with Google and other aggregators?

Kennedy was clear that these moves are not being made as an attack on Google or any other specific aggregator, despite widespread reports to the contrary. He said that the AP will continue to license its content to Google, Yahoo and others, but that it wants to "introduce new ideas into the relationships over time and try to influence their search mechanisms, in particular to help us point to authoritative sources." Essentially, the AP wants to discuss search optimisation in order to know how to ensure that their landing pages appear high up on users' search results, and "may want to talk to them about having some kind of advertising relationship." The organisation has accepted that widespread use of portals and is not hoping to turn the clocks back, he clarified, rather the AP's goal is to "harness the traffic that goes through them and use the portals to move traffic to more in-depth coverage."

Selling content to open portals is old news

American Journalism Review's Paul Farhi recently argued that the AP may well be partly to blame for the industry's current difficulties in finding a way to charge for online content, as by selling its content to portals such as Yahoo, the organisation helped to make news a commodity. Kennedy responded that the decision to sell content to commercial websites was justifiable from a competitive and financial point of view, as the AP was being "outpaced by Reuters in the Internet space" and "we weren't realising any significant new revenue from the web." The board of directors hired the Boston Consulting Group to assess the situation, and it was concluded that licensing some AP content, national and international coverage rather than local, to commercial customers on the web would be an appropriate response to both issues. And indeed, it has "accomplished both goals," Kennedy affirmed: "it has put us in the position of major news wire service on the web and it has brought in hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue over the course of that decade." That has meant that the members have had to pay less to support the cooperative's newsgathering, and that the AP has been able to increase its presence worldwide, "grow our video operation and expand employment around the world."

The future of news: mobile and paid-for premiums?

Currently, Kennedy insists, the AP is not trying to dramatically alter the news landscape. "This doesn't affect the current eco-system at all, it adds to it," he stressed. But he believes that the situation will be different in the future, and that "many different models will evolve," as well as the current ad-supported model which has dominated media across the board for so long. He suggested that in the future, the AP will definitely be looking to charge consumers for some services, but not all, explaining that this is what CEO Tom Curley meant when he said that "Free is not a business model." Rather than being defeatist about the way that the Internet has changed news, Kennedy insisted that "we believe that there is still a frontier and there is still opportunity to create new models, new experiences and attract new advertising and new spending from the consumer because we can offer them something that they want."

"We are not going to put up pay walls around existing content but we are going to go forward and try to look at opportunities for premium content," he explained. "It's about creating something new:" words that echoed advice given by Wall Street Journal Online executive editor Alan Murray to papers considering charging online. "We are trying to look for new ways to build our revenue base beyond strict licensing," added Kennedy.

He cited the AP's mobile efforts as an example of moves that the organisation has been taking to diversify its revenue streams. The AP created a free application for the iPhone, which aggregates its own and its members' content and organises it by postal code, so Americans have an efficient, accessible source of local news. The iPhone app is ad-supported, with local ads sold by the members and national sold by hired agencies, and a Blackberry application was recently launched, which phone owners must pay to download. "It's really a model for the kind of activity we want to do in the future," he explained, "where as an industry we aggregate our content and put it where the users are, and build a model around it."

Kennedy was clear that the two projects will be pursued "very urgently" and that both efforts will be launching within the next three to four months. With its new search pages, the AP is trying to take a far more active role in a consumer's news reading experience, a big step for a news organisation which, due to its lack of a commercial website, has always been somewhat distanced from its audience. It is proposing a solution which it feels will benefit the reader, and which will evidently benefit the AP and its members, if they have more control over directing traffic and can make extra advertising revenue on these pages. The intellectual property initiative seems to be similarly motivated: becoming more directly involved with where and how readers find AP news, while seeking further income to which the cooperative feels it is entitled, as the producer of such ubiquitous news content. Regardless of motivation, any effort to address the discrepancies in the relationship between content generators and search engines will be closely followed by the rest of the industry in light of recently growing controversy, and any initiative that does indeed improve the news reading experience should be welcomed.


Links

Author

Emma Goodman

Date

2009-04-20 11:34

The World Editors Forum is the organization within the World Association of Newspapers devoted to newspaper editors worldwide. The Editors Weblog (www.editorsweblog.org), launched in January 2004, is a WEF initiative designed to facilitate the diffusion of information relevant to newspapers and their editors.


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