By Paul Smart
With all the questions surrounding journalism these days, including the spurious charges about “fake news,” many are wondering what the Associated Press is. Turns out that, historically speaking, what’s now known as the AP — the world’s largest news-gathering outfit, and a non-profit unincorporated cooperative — was started in reaction to technological changes and worries that the rising world of journalism would succumb to its own competitiveness.
Back in the 1840s, newspapers used whatever it took — fast horses and hijacking boats included — to rush what news they could catch to waiting writers, editors and presses. But then the telegraph was invented. The Associated Press was founded when six New York-based newspapers got together to hear one of their publishers argue that, without a cooperative effort, the future of news dissemination would end up in the hands of the huge new tech companies (one that would later become known as AT&T). Despite some grumbling, all agreed that such an effort would be for “the good of the people” by making national and world news more easily available for all.
Following in the AP’s example, other “wire services” were built in the ensuing years. And then started shrinking over the past two decades. What remains at Agence France-Press, the BBC and Reuters, and former competitors such as UPI and INS, still dominates much of our international news coverage, and do so by allowing their agency-generated stories, created by well-trained reporters and editors, to be shared by subscribing publications, websites and radio/television stations. Which entities also share stories through the agencies.
Problems have plagued this protocol in recent years, though. Social media allows for sharing of news faster, and less reliably, than older formats. Hand-held devices force people into “consuming” news in faster bits and bites, and “bubbles,” all of a narrower cast than what newspapers and news broadcasts, or more deeply-researched and analytically-driven magazine pieces or documentaries, once provided.
Fortunately, a number of new alternative cooperatives have started taking shape to challenge the AP and other news agencies, while building off their basic structures. There are news collectives springing forth based on agit-prop ideas as well as entrepreneurial internet dreams of riches.
Look up the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, a partnership of five media outlets reporting on “the city’s future after bankruptcy,” the Emerson and Bello collectives, Latin America’s Avispa Midia, and the Philadelphia area’s new non-profit collective working with that city’s traditional newspapers, radio and television outlets. Pacifica, a loose collective of grassroots radio stations, has been sharing stories for decades now. The National Writers Union is pushing crowdsourcing means of giving reporters longer deadlines for more in-depth stories.
Which all leads one to the big question any mention of the Associated Press and current state of journalism should lead to: Why are our bigger news entities not reaching out to create new associations and cooperatives to save not just national and world news, but all that’s local, too? The small guys can only do so much, after all.
The future of democracy is based on the health, and innate knowledge, of its news, as well as all its communities.