The Venerable AP Is Mulling New Curley Cues

News service's CEO seeks to 'transform' the organization from 'the telegraph era to the database era'


The Curley File

By definition, wire services are supposed to the Johnnies-on-the-spot of the journalism world. To Associated Press President and CEO Tom Curley, though, just being there isn't good enough anymore. In the electronic age, not only does AP have to be everywhere its clients need it, but the news service has to start moving copy, audio and video at warp speed in any form.

So, in the future, look for a speedier, more enterprising, more entrepreneurial Associated Press. Curley, the former president and publisher of Gannett's USA Today, says he's going to make it happen.

In its hunt for new revenues, AP is considering the possible launch of a TV news cooperative, akin to what it already operates on the print side. That's just one of number of new services that AP is exploring.

Curley took over the helm of The Associated Press in June, but he is moving quickly, as he puts it, to "transform" the venerated news organization "from the telegraph era to the database era."

The key task ahead, he says, is to reorganize the wire service in a way that enables faster transmission of news stories across various media—print, radio, TV and even new media—simultaneously. To accomplish that, AP will be spending millions in the next couple of years merging co-located operations around the globe.

In 2004, AP will move its New York headquarters to a new building with far more technologically advanced facilities than its current Rockefeller Plaza digs. That's the place with its famous Noguchi relief sculpture outside showing AP reporters taking notes with, of all things, pencils. The sculpture will remain behind.

Currently housed in several locations around the city, all the New York operations will be consolidated in the new location next year.

According to Curley, the plan is for AP operations in cities elsewhere to undergo similar consolidations. It's the only way he'll succeed in transforming the news agency from a platform-centric (TV, radio, print, Internet) to a content-centric outfit.

And what does that mean? To Curley, it's a service that blasts news through different media pipes essentially at the same time. That sounds basic enough, but it's a change in AP's style.

"Hopefully, this will drive a lot of productivity," he says, "and enable us to get the stories out faster. It's about speed to market and enterprise. For instance, in London, TV news and text are located in separate buildings The text people really want access to AP video" and vice versa, "so this consolidation is something we want to do worldwide."

Other key goals include generating new revenue streams, such as the aggressive marketing of AP's vast library of images and sound bites. Another possibility, although clearly in the formative stages, is the cooperative service. Although the existing APTN news service provides local news video to stations, the cooperative would, as seen in its infancy, form a tighter bond with stations so that they could swap information among themselves more easily.

AP's transformation is well under way. Curley has reorganized the staff structure so that one editor—Kathleen Carroll—is now in charge of all editorial operations at the news agency. Print, radio, TV and Internet units all report to her.

Separately, the top business-side executives overseeing the different media (including Jim Williams of AP Broadcast) continue to report directly to Curley.

Curley, Carroll and staff will have some help sorting through all the content issues as they go forward. At a recent retreat of AP's board of directors and management, they formed a permanent content committee to review all of the news agency's product, from print to radio to television to digital. It's chaired by AP board member David Westin, president of ABC News. The committee will take a look at what's there (and what isn't) and pinpoint ways to improve.

For his part, Westin says there are a lot of untapped opportunities that AP should and will consider going forward. Among those is the idea of a broadcast-news cooperative. "It's an interesting question that AP needs to pursue, and we can help them do that."

The fundamental question is the same for any new venture that AP might consider, Westin explains, and that is, would it help clients cover and distribute the news better? If the answer is yes, "then AP should be pursuing that alternative."

Another business opportunity he thinks AP ought to consider is producing more packaged stories for its TV clients as opposed to supplying the unassembled parts, such as raw video and audio. He notes that ABC's own affiliate news-feed service, NewsOne, started out primarily as a supplier of raw video. But now, he says, "a fair amount of our work is in produced pieces for our affiliates. Maybe there is a parallel expansion for AP."

Both Curley and Westin said in separate interviews that new media may be where AP's biggest growth opportunities exist.

Of the more than $500 million in revenue that the not-for-profit service generates annually, most comes from the print and broadcast operations.

"Print is still slightly ahead of broadcast, but I think the real gain going forward is in new media rather than either print or broadcast," says Curley, citing the Internet and wireless services as to two key opportunities. "A good portion of the money AP generates today is from sources that didn't exist in 1985." Indeed, the organization didn't make a major push into the TV business until the early 1990s with the launch of APTV.

"The new world is going to be one in which news organizations provide news to people how and when they want it over a wide variety of different media, some of which we haven't even seen yet," says Westin. "Our challenge is making sure that we do everything we can to make the news available for all of those different forms of media. So the focus is content, because a good story is a good story whether it ends up in print, radio, TV or streaming video."

Much of the new-media opportunities revolve around the idea of on-demand communications services. Where there's a need, AP will want to fill it, says Curley. "In this world of relentless commoditization, there are opportunities to customize."

That way clients have the ability "to go in and get what they need and have it served to them when they want it and have it organized the way that they want it." A lot of that boils down to computer-server issues and "fast-file formats," says Curley. But it's also about figuring out how to exploit the available technology in a way that makes good business sense. "We will pursue that vigorously," he adds.

Indeed, much of AP's mission to date has revolved around downloading mass quantities of words (20 million a day) and images (1,000 daily) to clients via print, radio and TV services and letting clients manipulate them as they see fit.

The question becomes, are there business opportunities for AP in massaging that data first? If so, what are they? The answer to the first, says Curley, is yes. The answer to the second is, stay tuned.