New Direction For The AP - InformationWeek

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New Direction For The AP

News agency upgrades technology infrastructure to foster collaboration among employees and deliver customized content

History is repeating itself at The Associated Press. Founded in 1848, the world's oldest and largest news organization began when six competing New York newspapers pooled resources: Rather than each sending a reporter via rowboat to gather dispatches from arriving ships, they sent one and shared the information.

Today, the AP is centralizing yet again, both physically and technologically. It's consolidating four Manhattan offices into a building at 450 W. 33rd St. At the same time, the news cooperative is implementing its eAP initiative, unveiled in October and expected to take 30 months to complete. The initiative reflects the AP's recognition that the news business operates in many media, from audio and video to words and pictures, but beneath them all lie bits.

The goal of The Associated Press' eAP initiative is to increase the amount of customized content the news service offers, says Reid, senior VP for services and technology.

Photo by Sacha Lecca
"The eAP effort is transforming the AP from its telegraph origins to interactive, network, and database," says John Reid, the company's senior VP for services and technology. The transformation happens not coincidentally as new president Tom Curley, formerly publisher and president of Gannett Co.'s USA Today, comes on board. "The goal is to offer a lot more customization to our customers than we are able to today," Reid says.

Along with the technological changes comes a structural reorientation. The AP, like many other media companies, has been organized mostly by media type: Separate groups serve broadcasters, newspapers, online, and customers outside the United States. Because of technical limitations, the production systems for each media type also were discrete: one for text, one for audio, one for video, one for photos, Reid says. "Partly because of business changes and partly because of technology opportunities, we're moving toward a much more horizontal structure. We're looking much more holistically at covering the total package when we cover a news event, not just having the best stories and the best photos and the best video but how that all ties together."

To realize its multimedia ambitions, the AP has taken several technology groups from across the company and consolidated them into a services and technology organization. In so doing, 40 IT employees lost their jobs in October. The AP employs about 3,700 people.

There have been new hires, too. The way Reid describes it, IT going forward will enhance the value of AP content as opposed to merely delivering it. "Obviously, there's an awful lot more software that's a part of that, so we've definitely added people in that area."

Just what will replace aging VAXs the AP currently uses? That's still being decided, although one upgraded system has already debuted: a photo-editorial system developed internally to run on Microsoft .Net. The AP has had two photo-editorial systems, one for the United States and one for overseas, says Jeffrey Hastie, deputy director of services and technology. The new platform lets journalists from both groups file to a single system, Hastie says.

January should see the debut of eAssign, one of the six cornerstone modules that comprise eAP. EAssign will help coordinate assignments so the company can take a story-centric approach to how it covers events. If the demand is there, AP will provide eAssign to its customers so they can see what AP is covering, Hastie says.

Still, not everyone's convinced that a more service-oriented AP will result in better journalism. Slate editor-at-large and media critic Jack Shafer notes via E-mail that while lack of details about the new system makes it difficult to evaluate, he's inclined to wonder whether journalism is better served by a system that makes it easier for editors to put together prefab packages from AP content. "Unless it's breaking news or backgrounders that buttress the news," Shafer writes, "journalism isn't better served with easy-to-assemble AP packages."

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