Associated Press Embarks on Changes That Will Sound Familiar to Communication Professionals

Consider how the media differentiates itself.

By being first.

By being the only media property with a particular story.

Storytelling.

Analysis that makes sense of an event.

For wire services such as Associated Press, we associate success with breaking news.

That’s why the recent memo from Michael Oreskes, senior managing editor at the Associated Press, caught my attention.

I think it’s fair to say that the Associated Press wants to round out its game

Here’s the memo—

Coming out of our strategic process this year, we are committing ourselves to focus on something I want to share with you today — something that has, with changing user behavior online, become crucial to the way we do news and do business.

Let’s start with something that’s obvious but worth laying out plainly: That “next cycle” we speak of so often in The Associated Press is now. Not 12 hours from the first breaking news, not even six hours, but one, maybe two hours from it — and maybe even faster than that.

This is hardly something that we’re just waking up to. But it is accelerating by the week. As we look around the media landscape in recent months, over and over we’re seeing the same thing. AP wins when news breaks, but after an hour or two we’re often replaced by a piece of content from someone else who has executed something more thoughtful or more innovative. Often it’s someone who has taken what we do (sometimes our reporting itself) and pushed it to the next level of content: journalism that’s more analytical, maybe a fresh and immediate entry point, a move away from text, a multimedia mashup or a different story form that speaks more directly to users.

In short, breaking news has been commoditized.

More than ever, we need to infuse that sensibility into our daily process of news and planning. We need to institutionalize it. And we need to do it everywhere in the AP — across geographies, across formats, across subject matter. We can’t let other people win by cannibalizing our content. We need to do it ourselves each day, to parlay our reporting into work with a longer shelf life.

I get the feeling Mr. Oreskes won’t be sending a holiday card to the Huffington Post and other like media.

We’re calling this The New Distinctiveness. Here’s an initial and by-no-means complete glimpse into what it means:

Fast Response. The moment news breaks, we’re going to be talking not only about coverage in the moment, but the longer arc. We’re going to be thinking about two hours on, about what we do 12 hours ahead, and even, sometimes, about what we do weeks or months ahead.

Looks like the new Associated Press will be asking reporters to tell stories beyond the standard “who, what, where, when, and why” which puts a premium on storytelling.

Thematic Thinking. We’re going to be much more aggressive in identifying themes off the news — angles the world is thinking about — and digging deeper. Unique and compelling entry points to stories are key here, and those can’t be done on breaking-news autopilot. Many of these new approaches will be infused into the main story on a news event across platforms; that’s as important as creating new stories to stand alone.

Zero in on two words, “unique” and “compelling.” That’s at the heart of the fight.

Multiple Story Forms. We’re going to be finding unusual ways of telling stories and alternative story forms. We’ve already done this in many ways — photoblogging, data visualization, video (even data visualization in video), text on major events — but it needs to be mainstream and part of our fundamental foundations.

Yep, visuals help people consume stories.

Journalism With Voice. We’re going to be pushing hard on journalism with voice, with context, with more interpretation. This does not mean that we’re sacrificing any of our deep commitment to unbiased, fair journalism. It does not mean that we’re venturing into opinion, either. It does mean that we need to be looking for ways to be more distinctive and stand out in the field — something our customers need and want. The why and the how of the news are as crucial as the who, what, when and where.

Let’s see how this one plays out. To cultivate a distinctive voice with more interpretation, but remain completely unbiased sounds like a magic trick.

Recurring containers. We are going to establish a running “container” that can be used anywhere, tentatively called “:Why it Matters.” It will focus our daily journalism on relevance without sacrificing depth. Other containers will follow. These will be done based on the news and what it needs — they’ll come into existence when they’re useful and not be forced when they’re not.

I’m not quite sure what this means.

Rethinking the Planning Process. We are beginning a fundamental rethink of our daily news meetings and planning procedures, one that will increase the substantive discussion and reduce the recitation of story lists. More to come on this soon.

I think he’s saying that everything moves so fast that it’s tough to plan so why bother.

In coming weeks, you’ll see the beginnings of various projects to support this way of thinking. We’re establishing several “test kitchens” in different parts of the News Department to work on this and figure things out. And we’re going to push conversations that focus not only on what the news is and how to get it, but what it MEANS as well. The four test kitchens are Health and Science (led by Kit Frieden and Kevin Roach), Economics and Politics (Hal Ritter and Sally Buzbee), Tourism (Beth Harpaz) and how we work around the clock around the world on big stories (John Mancini and Brian Carovillano).

The test kitchens are a place to try things out and report back to the rest of us. But they aren’t meant to be the only place we are pushing forward. Many of you are already doing this kind of journalism and doing it well across the AP. More than ever before, our reporters and editors are branching out into new ways of thinking and trying new things with customers and audiences in mind. This initiative will be an opportunity to amplify that best work, make it more mainstream and, most importantly, institutionalize it.

Good stuff. I might quibble with the name – expect to hear the impact of adding mini marshmallows to a chocolate chip cookie recipe – but everyone in the communications business needs to be experimenting.

Resources, of course, are an issue. And as we lay out our plans to do this, we are mindful of all of the responsibilities that people have. We do not intend this to be yet another thing to add to your already formidable list of things to do. A great deal of this is not mainly about filing more content; it’s about refining our thinking and slightly resequencing our journalistic DNA to understand that sometimes, with good journalism behind it, sharp thinking can differentiate the AP in a very competitive field. (And to reiterate, nothing about this should take our eye off the ball of dominating breaking news. The goal here is to extend our dominance of breaking news by outreporting and outhinking the competition.)

Like the phrase, “resequencing our journalistic DNA.” Obviously, AP doesn’t want to sacrifice facts in the name of compelling content. I do get the feeling though, that the quirky anecdote will moved up the value chain.

An important note: This isn’t a product. It’s an ever-growing toolbox of approaches to harness our thinking — to make our core news report stronger, more insightful, more appealing and more relevant to the people who buy it and the people who see it. And it’s something you’ll help shape.

We have a group of people from around the AP who will be the steering committee on this, led by myself and Assistant Managing Editor Ted Anthony. And we’ll be elaborating on this in an AP Knows at the beginning of next year. If you have questions, or just want to kick around something you would like to try, get in touch with me or Ted.

This is a key way we can thrive in today’s landscape by using our own news and thinking chops — the smarts we already have — to take things forward. And, not incidentally, it’s going to be a lot of fun,too.

Mike Oreskes

The close sounds similar to what communication professionals have been going through. It’s not enough to handle product announcements and other news releases. We need to build compelling content that fuels multifaceted storytelling and think through the myriad of choices in building a company’s brand.

And yes Michael, it has been fun.

Painful, as change often is, but fun.

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2 comments

2 Comments so far

  1. Tom Foremski December 15th, 2011 4:18 pm

    Interesting. My read is that AP wants to own more of the story and try to limit the traffic flowing to people merely “blogging” the story. This will be challenging to AP because of its culture, which is essentially: hack the news out onto the wires before Bloomberg does. It’s a *new* news driven culture that doesn’t encourage thoughtful analysis because that can take longer to write and publish.

    Also, other people quoting AP stories are publishing a take — and headline– that appeals to their particular industry sector. AP can’t write several versions of a story for different verticals.

    This AP memo reflects the old school of media where you try to own all of a news story so that competitors have nothing to add.

    The future of the news media should be seen as collaborative, allowing others from outside your organization build on your work, recognizing that many people working together can build and improve on the original story.

  2. Lou Hoffman December 15th, 2011 6:09 pm

    Thanks for weighing in on this Tom.

    I suppose it’s not just “challenging to AP because of its culture,” but also from a talent perspective.

    If a reporter has honed his/her game to beat Bloomberg, asking that same person for thoughtful analysis seems like a reach.

    Regardless, your point is well taken on the old-school mentality.

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