What Benefit are Wire Services in a Well-Connected World?

As a former employee of The Associated Press, it’s been somewhat embarrassing to watch their plodding attempts to control data which has already escaped from their control. I recall some discussions with graphics and photo editors in 1996 or so about the feasibility of preventing unauthorized copying of images, while still allowing authorized copies. We were in the business of distributing the news, after all. The discussion eventually shifted to watermarking in order to identify material from the A.P.

(While you can make copies extremely expensive to produce, that itself is expensive — and thus not feasible for most. In case anyone is still wondering, not only is it not feasible to prevent copies, it’s not possible.)

The Associated Press began in the cooperation of several publishers in the task of quickly delivering news dispatches from the Mexican War:

an 1846 arrangement whereby Mexican war reports arriving at Mobile, Ala., by boat were rushed by special pony express to Montgomery, then 700 miles by U.S. mail stagecoach to the southern terminus of the telegraph near Richmond, Va. That express gave the [New York] Sun an edge of 24 hours or more on papers using the regular mail.

But Moses Yale Beach relinquished that advantage by inviting other New York publishers to join the Sun in a cooperative venture. Five papers joined in the agreement: the Sun, the Journal of Commerce, the Courier and Enquirer, the Herald and the Express.

….

Moses Yale Beach’s decision to share news with rivals was “neither altruistic nor cost-driven,” but recognized that “nothing could compete with the telegraph for speed, and all newspapers, rich or poor, would now be on a par,” historian Menahem Blondheim [author of News Over the Wires: the telegraph and the flow of public information in America, 1844-1897] said. [emphasis mine]

There are two aspects to the A.P.: gathering the news, and distributing it. The gathering of news involves the collection and analysis of data as well as the direct observation of events. For example, election returns are publicly available, but broadly distributed, disjointed, and officially slow. After the news is gathered, it is distributed. News gathering can be done by everybody, but there’s some sifting to be done to separate the wheat from the chaff. It is distributing the news that is most disrupted by the Internet.

When you can go directly to the source, what need is there for someone to bring the news to you?

The advantage of wire services has been time. The speedy delivery of information to a third-party, whether television, radio, or print, who can then bring it to you. That advantage is lost when the whole world is connected.

When you can find out now, why wait until tomorrow?

The Internet shortens time and shrinks space. And in that environment, any business that relies on the scarcity of either must find some other means to survive.

It is not that the cooperative did not recognize the threat and the promise of the Internet. Many of us there did. But like many long-lived organizations, there’s an institutional bias in favor of the status quo. How would A.P. serve its member organizations if it adapted to the changed environment?

Now it seems that the Associated Press will fill the role for newspapers that the R.I.A.A. and the M.P.A.A. have for their respective industries. I do not wish them luck.