Victoria Smith Ekstrand. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publication. 2009.
The Associated Press (AP) is a not-for-profit news cooperative in which “members” of the cooperative are required to contribute and share news with the AP for mutual benefit. The AP serves as a central clearinghouse for that contributed member news. It also reports, writes, and produces news of its own for its members. The AP serves approximately 1,500 U.S. daily newspaper members, who are the primary stakeholders in the cooperative and who, through an elected board of directors from member news organizations, oversee the AP’s organization, policy, and strategy. It also serves 5,000 radio and television broadcasters in the United States.
The AP also serves news organizations in more than 120 countries in five languages, and delivers news in multiple media formats for newspapers, radio stations, television stations, and online and wireless services. In 2007, more than 4,000 employees staffed more than 240 AP bureaus in 97 countries, making AP’s reach and news dominance nearly unparalleled.
News delivered by the AP is normally marked with the AP dateline or “AP bug”: (AP). The dateline is an indication of the story’s origin, such as “New York (AP)—.” AP correspondent names are included with AP produced reports, but are not required to be included in member-produced media. Thus, much of AP’s staff is unknown to the public, leaving the AP as one of the last media organizations mostly untouched by the impact of celebrity journalism.
AP’s dominance, traditions of objectivity, and speed in news gathering are well documented. Particularly in the United States, AP is a leading agenda setter for news, creating daily digests or lists of “top news items” in each state and for the nation and world that news editors use to determine the day’s top stories. Because so much of the AP news report contains member-contributed news and because the AP serves so many diverse news organizations, AP editors strive to produce an unbiased news report that reflects the multiple viewpoints each story might require and that would appeal to the most members. Through an elaborate network of computers and satellites that reach both its bureaus and the news organizations it serves, the AP is able to receive breaking news within moments and redistribute that news to the globe. Thus, the story on a plane crash in a remote section of the United States might be reported by a small local member newspaper, shared with the Associated Press and sent worldwide within minutes, and even seconds. Because of its reputation for speed and reliability, news organizations around the world are often known to confidently attribute news to AP, particularly breaking news, with phrases such as, “According to the Associated Press …,” “The AP reports today …,” or “This just in from the Associated Press….”
The concept of cooperative news sharing did not originate with the AP, but the AP was among the first news organizations to perfect the idea. Prior to the 1840s, the flow of news between Europe and the United States and within the United States was subject to the ability to deliver news by foot, pony express and sailing ships. The sources of news came from other news publications, in addition to firsthand accounts of travelers from other regions. Beginning in 1840, Cunard (and soon other) steamships delivered passengers and European news to Boston and Halifax, and later to New York City. Representatives from the local U.S. coastal papers in these areas raced in smaller boats to meet those steamships, sometimes as far as 200 miles from shore, often engaging in bitter battles on the waters and devising tactics to outwit their competitors to meet the incoming steamships. The competition was particularly fierce and strenuous. Harry Blake, who gathered news in Boston for Boston’s New England Palladium and the Boston Courier would often venture out in a boat “in darkness, storm and tempest,” said historian Joseph Buckingham. He adds that Blake’s rugged lifestyle led “to indulgences not justified by strict requirements of temperance” (Schwarzlose 1989, 13-14). The historical record is replete with fantastic tales of brave correspondents racing to meet the sources of news and then racing to deliver the information to various news outlets, often risking their lives in the process. The action-packed stories of correspondent news gathering at that time are tales that encouraged further interest in the speed of news delivery as well as interest in the romance and thrill of the profession itself.
Both the fierce and growing competition in news delivery and the arrival of the electric telegraph after 1844 led six competitive New York City newspapers to consider the benefits of news sharing, particularly political and business news from overseas. The six New York City papers included: the Courier & Enquirer, the Express, the Journal of Commerce, the Sun, the Herald, and the Tribune. They first established a cooperative harbor news organization that coordinated news arriving from overseas. They also hired AP’s first general agent, Alexander Jones (1802-63), who gathered that news and wrote a single one-to-two column daily news dispatch that was shared among the six papers. By 1851, Jones hired agents in Baltimore, Buffalo, New Orleans, Boston, Albany, Cincinnati, Norfolk, Montreal, and Toronto, and the AP was well on its way to establishing its reach and dominance in the United States. The AP model in New York would soon be copied by other regions and led to the formation of five other regional APs, including those in New England, New York State, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and the Southern AP.
For years, historians and the AP itself agreed that the first meeting of the six New York City papers was in the spring of 1848, in a meeting led by James Gordon Bennett, the flamboyant publisher of the New York Herald. But new evidence indicates that the discussions to form the cooperative may have taken place two years earlier, in 1846. Documents obtained in 2007 from the great-great-grandson of Moses Yale Beach (1800-68), the second owner-publisher of the original New York Sun, indicate that the sharing of news took place at Beach’s urging, when the Sun agreed to share news it gathered from the U.S. war with Mexico with the other five papers. In an interview in the New York World of January 20, 1884, Moses Sperry Beach (1822-92) said the Mexican War “was the beginning of The Associated Press. It all grew out of this.” Given the fierce competition and ego of the six founding members, it is not at all surprising that the date of AP’s origin has been a source of considerable debate since its founding. Such member debates would be common throughout AP’s history, as members made peace with the “necessary evil” of cooperating and sharing news with their competitors to make maximum use of the new technology and the demand for current news.
In 1851, the New York AP replaced General Manager Alexander Jones with Daniel Craig (1814-95), who had a long history of running pigeons carrying news from Halifax to U.S. East Coast destinations. Craig set out to expand the cooperative and became a shrewd negotiator with Western Union, primary operator of the telegraphic wires, working to secure the best rates for the cooperative. In doing so, and in securing control of news off the Cunard steamships, Craig began establishing AP’s dominance over the flow of news.
AP’s rise after 1860 was interrupted by the Civil War, leaving the cooperative and Craig mostly with only official dispatches. AP’s news was heavily censored. Midwestern papers were particularly unsatisfied with AP’s war coverage and placed their own agent in New York to gather more news independently. In March 1865, these papers formed the Western Associated Press, headquartered in Chicago, and emerged as a major power in cooperative news gathering. Their growing influence would later fuel a showdown with the New York AP toward the turn of the century.
AP’s bylaws restricted its membership. Local newspapers with existing franchises retained their exclusivity to publish AP reports while competing papers were effectively denied access to those reports. This exclusivity opened up room for competitors, and in 1882, the United Press (UP) appeared, offering non-AP newspapers access to shared news and giving AP its first substantial competition. By this time, both the New York AP and Western AP were singularly managed from New York. To protect AP’s dominance, AP general manager William Henry Smith (1833-96) covertly arranged with the UP to divide up the country. The AP and UP signed two trust agreements to limit competition between them in 1885 and 1887. Under the agreement, UP stock was sold to AP members in exchange for the delivery of AP news to UP members. When the secret stock pool arrangement was discovered by a new generation of Western AP members, the Western AP broke ties with the New York AP and formed a singular Associated Press in Illinois under the leadership of General Manager Melville Stone (1848-1929). Members of the New York AP joined what remained of the first United Press, but that organization folded in 1896. The new Associated Press, formed by the former Western AP members, created a singular national AP, removing all the regional AP structure and centralizing the operation. Historian Richard Schwarzlose wrote that the elimination of the regional AP structure created a national dominance that placed an even stronger emphasis on local publisher rights to the AP report and greater protections for it than had existed under the New York AP.
Such dominance did not go unchallenged. Between 1888 and 1914, AP’s bylaws were challenged in more than a dozen court cases around the country. Challengers claimed the AP’s bylaws restrained trade and violated the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act, with which Congress sought to prevent trusts from creating restraints on trade or commerce and reducing competition. The AP won nearly all these cases. The courts found that as a private business, the AP wasn’t obligated to provide news service to all organizations seeking its service.
But in 1900, in Inter-Ocean Publishing Co. v. AP the Illinois Supreme Court disagreed. The court determined that because AP’s business involved the telegraph and its news was “of vast importance to the public,” it was a public utility with a public interest and could therefore be regulated. The court found that AP’s bylaws restricted competition and created a monopoly. As a result of the Inter-Ocean decision, the AP moved its headquarters in 1900 from Chicago to New York, where a new corporation was formed, and the AP became a not-for-profit cooperative. The AP reworked its bylaws to address Inter-Ocean concerns, but the decision to exclude nonmembers remained. Excluding nonmembers from using the AP report was left up to the board of directors, and the board continued to exclude those that threatened the strength of its existing membership.
AP in the Twentieth Century
By the turn of the twentieth century, the AP had more than 900 newspaper members, and AP General Manager Melville Stone had firm control of the operation. But competition remained a great concern for Stone, and when publishers E. W. Scripps (1854-1926) and William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) were unable to obtain AP memberships for their papers, they formed their own wire services. Scripps’ new United Press (UP) was formed in 1897 and Hearst’s International News Service (INS) began operation in 1909. Both were privately owned companies and proved to be significant competitors for the AP.
With increasing competition, AP’s leadership grew increasingly protective of its report. In the late 1800s, news piracy grew rampant, a byproduct of the increasingly competitive nature of the news business. The AP was particularly vulnerable. Historian Barbara Cloud’s research indicates that one-half of the news distributed by other news agencies during the latter half of the nineteenth century was stolen from the AP.
General Manager Stone set out to protect AP’s news-gathering investment, but unsuccessfully lobbied Congress for a statute to protect “hot news” from theft. When INS began pilfering AP dispatches from the front during World War I, the AP sued for misappropriation, and the case ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In INS v. AP, the Court ruled for the AP and established a limited property right in news that lasted as long as the “hot news” had value. This common law right gave AP—as well as other news organizations—an additional weapon from which to protect its product from competitors.
The 1920s saw the end of Melville Stone’s reign at the AP and the beginning of Kent Cooper’s (1880-1965) leadership. Cooper, who was AP’s chief of the traffic department and thus responsible for delivery of AP news, quickly rose to the top. While Stone is remembered as the modern AP’s founder, Cooper is often credited with advancing AP’s technology and guiding the cooperative through the golden age of newspaper journalism and the advent of broadcasting. Cooper began the practice of adding bylines to AP stories, eliminating the anonymity of those who produced the report, and he expanded the report by adding human interest stories and expanding other features, such as sports and entertainment. He oversaw the transition from telegraphy to Teletype that moved AP copy at 60 words per minute in 1933, and he helped to support development of technology to move photos by wire in 1935.
Despite lawsuits and fierce competition, AP’s dominance continued, and the AP board maintained the right to refuse memberships to those who sought them. The debate came to a head in 1942, when the Chicago Tribune, a longtime AP member, prevented the new Chicago Sun from obtaining AP membership. The government sued the AP for antitrust violations and this time, in a 1945 decision handed down by the Supreme Court, the AP lost and was compelled to open up its membership. Writing for the district court, which ruled against the AP (and was upheld by the high court), Judge Learned Hand wrote that AP
… serves one of the most vital of all general interests: the dissemination of news from as many different sources, and with as many different facets and colors as possible. That interest is closely akin to, if indeed it is not the same as, the interest protected by the First Amendment; it presupposes that right conclusions are more likely to be gathered out of a multitude of tongues than through any kind of authoritative selection. To many this is, and always will be, folly; but we have staked upon it our all. [111 U.S. 53, 55 (1884)]
Following the decision, AP membership was opened to all, and many more newspapers sought to join. Ironically, the Supreme Court’s decision thus helped to boost AP’s reach and dominance, forcing its competitors to combine, which in 1958, the UP and INS did. The new organization became United Press International, under the leadership of the Scripps organization, and strongly challenged AP’s dominance.
The Supreme Court’s decision also ended the debate about whether radio broadcasters would be permitted to join the cooperative. After several years of denying use of its report by radio stations, the AP formed a separate organization, the Press Association, Inc., in 1941, to deliver AP news to broadcasters. AP broadcasters eventually gained the title of “associate members” and became part of the AP in 1947. Today, broadcasters hold two seats on AP’s board of directors, but the majority of seats—22—belong to newspaper members, and thus they continue to determine the cooperative’s future.
In the latter part of the twentieth century, the corporate story of the AP was primarily one of technological change. In the 1960s, AP began to computerize its operations and move away from Teletype transmission. This began with the computerization of stock listings in 1962. By 1970, the AP began to transmit news by computer. Two years later AP introduced its high-speed computer service, “Datastream,” with which news was delivered at 1,200 words a minute, up from 66 words a minute on the Teletype. Under the leadership of President Louis D. Boccardi (1938-), the AP began to rely on satellites for connecting AP bureaus and member news organizations in the 1980s.
AP also continued its dominance in news photography and transmission, pioneering much of the development of digital news photography. This began with the introduction of LaserPhoto in 1976, in which photos were laser-scanned for transmission, and with the first news electronic darkroom, in which computers not only delivered photos but also handled the tasks of a conventional darkroom. Color photos were first sent to members in 1982 and were first sent by satellite in 1987. In the 1990s, the AP introduced its LeafPicture Desks (AP’s first electronic picture desk and the first time news photos were on computer) into member newsrooms, effectively forcing newspapers—many then still operating traditional film darkrooms—into the computer handling of news photography. It was a significant investment on AP’s part, and AP bore the brunt of the cost and member grumbling about the change. But the move would keep newspaper members competitive amidst rapid technological changes in media.
By the late 1990s, the AP began experimenting with digital cameras and helped introduce digital equipment specifically designed for news photographers in the field. AP’s early digital cameras were initially criticized as not quite ready for serious news photography. Photographers criticized the cameras’ slow shutters, heavy weight, and short-lived batteries. But with later versions—and the emergence of the Internet—the plunge into digital photography was inevitable. By 2007, all AP photographers used high-end digital cameras.
Not surprisingly, the AP also made more significant investments in radio, television, and online transmission as the twenty-first century approached. In 1994, the AP launched a 24-hour radio news network, AP All News Radio, and also initiated AP Television (APTV), based in London. Later named Associated Press Television News (APTN), this video news operation quickly gained in popularity and challenged Reuters Television. By 2007, APTN had 550 international broadcast members and became a major supplier of international video to the world’s leading news broadcast and cable operations.
In 1996, the AP began a service for members with online news sites, and eventually made AP news available to online sites such as Yahoo! and AOL. This shift proved a sore point with many newspaper members, who felt their contributed news was offered to online operations which could then compete with their own content and without remuneration. As retired writer and former AP executive Walter Mears (1935-) described the dilemma for AP and its members, “it was a matter of getting on board or being rolled over.” “The audience is shifting to digital, on-demand platforms,” AP President Tom Curley (1948-) told some reluctant publishers in 2005. “Advertising is following the migrating eyeballs, and new distribution networks are requiring us to rethink how our content reaches the consumer” (Associated Press 2007).
Indeed, the state of the newspaper industry at the time was grim. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, newspaper revenues were flat and earnings fell in 2006. The price of newspaper stocks fell about 11 percent, after 20 percent declines the year before, precipitating layoffs, particularly at large metro dailies. AP, like many news organization at the time, was compelled to seek new revenue sources, mostly online, to adapt to the changing media landscape.
“The wire of the next century and a half,” wrote Jim Kennedy (1953-), vice president and director of strategic planning for the Associated Press, “will be plugged into a database that will be able to deliver almost any kind of news experience, from text headlines to rich images and sounds” (Kennedy 2006, 57-58). Though born of newspapers and the telegraph, the AP of twenty-first century will emerge as far more of an online, multimedia product. With newspapers still the major stakeholders in the running of the cooperative, however, the challenge will be how willingly and quickly those print monoliths will respond to the growing importance of content provided online.
Key Stories Covered
During its more than 160 years of existence, the AP has reported some of the most critical moments in world history, and often has been the first to document their occurrence. It has 49 Pulitzer Prizes to its credit, including 30 for photography. It has lost more than 30 correspondents in the line of duty. Some of AP’s notable stories include the following.
- 1863. AP stringer Joseph Ignatius Gilbert (1842-1924) is credited by historians with delivering the most accurate version of President Abraham Lincoln’s remarks at the dedication of the cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, November 19, 1863. Gilbert reportedly borrowed Lincoln’s handwritten text, copied it word, for word, and used that for his story.
- 1906. Paul Cowles (1867-1935), chief of the AP San Francisco bureau delivered first word of the San Francisco earthquake that killed thousands by relaying a news bulletin via Honolulu.
- 1912. In cooperation with its members, the AP delivered precinct-by-precinct, county-by-county votes in the U.S. presidential race between President Woodrow Wilson and Republican Charles Evans Hughes.
- 1932. AP’s Frank Jamieson (1904-60) won the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the kidnapped infant son of aviation hero Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh’s son was missing for 11 weeks and eventually found dead in Hopewell, New Jersey.
- 1943. Hal Boyle (1911-74), war correspondent and often known as AP’s first columnist, won a Pulitzer Prize for his stories from the North African and European war theaters during World War II. He began reporting the experiences of G.I.s at the front in 1943. After the war, Boyle filed stories with datelines from 66 countries on six continents, writing nearly 8,000 columns.
- 1945. AP war correspondent Joe Morton (1911-45) was executed by the Nazis along with nine American and four British officers. Morton is the only known journalist executed by the Axis powers during World War II. The same year, AP Paris bureau chief Edward Kennedy (1905-63) reported Germany’s surrender in violation of an Allied Headquarters news blackout. Kennedy was dismissed by the AP. And AP photographer Joe Rosenthal (1911-2006) captured what has been described as the most reproduced photo of alltime: the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. Rosenthal won the Pulitzer Prize for the shot, and the picture was used worldwide. Initially, it was adopted in a war fund-raising campaign and a decade later was recreated in the Marine Corps War Memorial statue in Washington, D.C.
- 1950. AP photographer Frank Noel (1906-66) won a Pulitzer Prize for his photos of a POW camp in North Korea during the Korean War. Noel secretly took the photos as a POW himself.
1961-75. During the Vietnam War, the Associated Press established a major presence in Saigon, winning five Pulitzer Prizes for its war coverage. AP’s Vietnam War correspondents, particularly Malcolm Browne (1931-), Peter Arnett (1934-), and George Esper (1932-), became familiar names at home. Several AP photos emerged as iconic images of the war including Browne’s photo of a Buddhist monk who lit himself on fire in protest of the Vietnamese government, Eddie Adams’ (1933-2004) photo of the execution of a Vietcong prisoner by Vietnamese soldiers, and the Nick Ut (1951-) photo of a young South Vietnamese girl running naked from a napalm attack. “They were very good, the men, and in time the women, of the [AP Saigon] bureau, both at the beginning and at the end,” wrote David Halberstam (1934-2007), who was a colleague. “And gradually people realized how good they were, that they were as good as those legendary journalistic figures from the past who had covered previous wars and from whose shadow they had emerged, until they were casting their own shadows” (Associated Press 2007). Esper was among the last correspondents in Saigon when the capital was overrun by North Vietnamese troops in 1975.
- 1984. On March 16, AP chief Middle East correspondent Terry Anderson (1947-) was kidnapped by Islamic militants in Beirut. He was held captive for six years and eight months, the longest held journalist captive in the Middle East.
- 2000. The AP won its first Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. The story involved allegations of a massacre by U.S. troops of South Korean refugees under a railway bridge at No Gun Ri a half century earlier. Using the Freedom of Information Act and other investigative methods, a team of journalists led by AP’s Charles J. Hanley (1947-) found evidence that as many as 300 were shot to death. In 2001, the U.S. Army issued a report that refuted key parts of the AP story. After the Pulitzer was awarded, one witness quoted in the story was found not to have been at No Gun Ri, raising more questions. Others did confirm the AP account, and most news media reviews of the series since its publication support the story, though there were continuing disputes about the number of casualties. In 2007, for example, AP uncovered evidence that the Army failed to release key documents in its 2001 investigation, and relatives of the No Gun Ri incident demanded a new investigation and an apology.
The Associated Press for more than 160 years has been a major contributor in the flow and distribution of news within the United States and throughout the world. Much of its business success can be attributed to three key factors: Its not-for-profit cooperative structure; its ability to adopt new technology for news delivery; and its global reach. The AP’s cooperative structure requires member participation and sharing of news without the pressure of meeting public stockholder demands for profitability. As a result, the AP is able to invest in technology and personnel to deliver news ahead of other concerns, and in the various formats that its subscribers demand. With bureaus and correspondents around the globe, the AP is also able to deliver breaking news within minutes. In creating an organization with such tremendous stability, reach, and versatility, however, the AP has also harnessed significant power in setting the world’s news agenda. Over the years, many have questioned AP’s domination of the wire services and of the news in general.
The advent of Internet journalism and the rise of citizen media present challenges to that dominance and AP’s future will depend on how it reacts to the changing media environment.
By the early 2000s, for example, a number of newspapers (including the large Chicago Tribune chain) announced plans to withdraw from AP membership (they must provide two years’ notice) because of their own declining revenues and because of growing unhappiness with some of the agency’s practices that compete with its member papers (such as selling news to Google and other websites). AP held its membership fees flat from 2005 through 2008 in the face of this concern. Nonmember clients provide about three-quarters of the agency’s revenue. But the message was clear—-even AP is being affected by the steady decline of American newspapers.