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From AP to . . . something else?

This may be one of the biggest news stories of the month in the Northwest that you never see or hear of through the mass media – because it concerns the key news pipeline of the mass media, the Associated Press.

Editor and Publisher (the newspaper industry’s trade publication) reports that the Idaho Falls Post-Register has given notice to the AP that it will drop the service in two years, in August 2010. Anyone familiar with how the mews media actually work will know this to be a shocker, and maybe an indicator of one of the places where newspapers are going in years to come. The Post-Register is independently and locally owned, which on one hand mean its financial pressures (still quite real) probably are less than at many chain newspapers. But it also means the paper is more flexible, and may be looking at options still burbling through some chain bureaucracies.

Most of what you see in most daily newspapers comes by way of the AP, a news cooperative; the newspapers share content between themselves (are contractually obligated to) and also get material generated by AP writers and editors, which work at offices in all larger cities and cover statewide and regional matters as well. The AP has offices in such places as Seattle, Olympia, Spokane, Portland and Boise. Years ago, it had serious competition from another wire service, United Press International, but UPI’s local and regional coverage essentially has disappeared. The AP has become, for American newspapers, an obligatory monopoly.

Or is it obligatory? Post-Register Publisher Roger Plothow seemed to indicate in his letter that a different rate plan, that more closely reflects the specific services his paper uses from AP, might persuade him to stay. (The dropout letter comes on the heels of a new rate plan that would cost the paper $114,000 next year.) But if he carries through on his stated intent to drop AP service, he will be exploring new territory in terms of coverage – even reinventing what a local newspaper does, and how.

From his letter to AP President Tom Curley: “I’ll put my cards on the table – I’m not sure how we’re going to pull this off. While the AP’s value to us has been severely diminished over the years, it still does provide a handful of services that we haven’t been able to find elsewhere – yet. I’m betting, however, that it’s only a matter of time. More likely, we’ll use that time to become essentially 100 percent local, which is probably where we’re headed eventually anyway. . . . Of course, my greatest fear is that 24 months from now I’ll have found no antidote to the AP and come crawling back to you, and you’ll either send me away or offer me an even worse deal. On the other hand, this might be just the motivation we need to really come up with a workable alternative.”

Up close and personal with the newspaper industry, as it’s going through its time or troubles, and re-evaluation.

FOUR MORE Three more papers in the Northwest (and a California paper at Bakersfield) also say they will drop out: The Spokane Spokesman-Review, the Yakima Herald-Republic and the Wenatchee World. Spokesman editor Steve Smith is indicating that his attorneys think that paper may not have to wait two years to drop service.

This is an enormously big deal – the transformation of newspapers and news as we have known them. What that will mean, we all have yet to find out.

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