Hey AP! How About Running A Real News Web Site?

Dear AP:

Now that everyone has screamed back-and-forth over your “rules” about fair use, I wanted to jump in with a few suggestions of my own. They’ve been on my mind, and I missed all the fireworks, but hitting your site today got me all riled up again.

I’m not sure you’re familiar with this thing called the web. It’s a publishing platform that came out a few years ago, and it has been proving pretty popular. To get the most out of it, you need to learn a few basic rules. Get them down, and the web is your oyster.

Step one is that you want to have a web site. It’s this place where people go that you own and operate. They come to find compelling content. You have a lot of this — AP stories, video and so on. But damn if anyone can find it on your site.

Check this out:

The Associated Press Home Page

That’s the home page of your  web site. Where’s the news? Where are the articles? Where’s the FRONT PAGE!!! You know, like a newspaper front page that shows me the top articles of the day. Surely you’ve heard of front pages of this style. Here’s how they look for a real news site, on the web:

The New York Times Home Page

See how I can easily see the top articles of the day?

To find anything remotely like this, on your site, I have to click on the RSS link waaaaaaay down there in the bottom right corner. The typical news consumer is not expecting to have to hunt for your real front page using the RSS link. When I do that, then I get a new page where if I’m lucky, I’ll notice “Top Stories” in the right-hand navigation. And voila — I get closer to a real front page.

Fair to say, you’re running a terrible news site. But I suspect part of that is due to the balancing act the AP struggles with. You’re not supposed to be competing with your members, so running your own site might pull away from some of them.

Instead, the AP is mainly focused on getting people to distribute its news — licensing it. And if they don’t cut a deal, there’s always the threat of a lawsuit to even whip people like Google into shape.

Look, charging people to carry your content in the pre-web days might have been fine. But you need a new model. You especially need a new model if you’re still going to stick to the mistaken assumption that listing the headline of a story and a summary of what it is about constitutes copyright infringement. I mean, you put out a feed (one of many) that has exactly this in it. What’s going through your mind by doing so?

OK, so in the feed you say:

This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Um, remember that whole web thing? In order to read your feed, people need something to publish it in. Things like Google Reader or Bloglines or Netvibes. Hey, maybe your deal with Google Reader gets them off the hook. But the point is what are you freaking out about? Links are good things. The more your links are out there, the more people come to your site, where you make money off ads and other things you can sell visitors.

Oh, yeah. You don’t have ads. That entire conflict with your members thing, right? Well, wake up call. You need a new model. Really. Or you’re going to die.

The AP should have a news portal. You should take in content from your members, put it up in an easy-to-find way and generate the ad dollars to be redistributed back to your members. Like do it now, before since the entire licensing thing ain’t going to live that long. I’m not saying it’s going to disappear overnight. I think in the offline world, lots of print publications are still going to use it. But that’s not the way of the online world. And even offline, things are changing. Maybe you’re afraid that your members will abandon you (see here, here, here and here and especially here). But maybe you can offer them something new, especially in terms of helping to organize some of the smaller ones to get money off stories seen by a wider audience.

To get back to the bloggers, let me point out a key problem you have. Your stories appear everywhere, like weeds. Then they die, unlike weeds. Like they disappear after roughly 30 days. This was an issue I pointed out when the Google deal was struck.

When your story is everywhere — on Google, on Yahoo, on newspapers around the world, everyone who wants to link to that story doesn’t know the “main” one to point at. That means the traffic gets divided up. If you had a decent news site, we’d point at you. And by doing so, you’d have a huge explosion of traffic. And if you convince your members to block AP stories from being indexed (except from the member publication that contributed it), then you don’t have to threaten the search engines or screw around with things like ACAP to “solve” your problem.

Why would the members do this? They gain more by pointing at you. Build the AP site into a general news hub, and they get back money for what they contribute over there. United you stand stronger and all that. You’ll work it out — if you want to.

Give bloggers (and anyone) one place to point, and they’ll shower you with traffic rather than ridicule you as a dinosaur. And keep the articles going, so you can enjoy the fruits of long-tail traffic. When you yank it down, it just means people are more inclined to quote or entirely reprint stories. Unless you want to hunt down thousands of infringers, some of whom know no better, change the model.