Every other year, The Associated Press holds a summit to analyze pressing issues facing the company—culminating in an executive strategy session in Lake Placid, N.Y. The most recent Lake Placid process focused on, per AP managing editor Kristin Gazlay, “two planks of enormous import to AP journalists—how our content gets used (and, painfully, does NOT get used), and how the details on usage must impact how we create and package our content going forward.”

Below, then, is the full text of a memo, sent yesterday from senior managing editor John Daniszewski to AP staff, exploring the key usage/packaging findings of studies done for Lake Placid retreat—the conclusion here being that, essentially, “the best of what we do accounts for an overwhelming share of what our clients use in all media formats,” and that “we still produce a lot of content that few of our clients value.” These are findings that will now, apparently, be guiding AP’s newsgathering process: since “too often,” Daniszewski writes, “we expend precious time and scarce resources on work that does not excite and does not get used”—going forward, AP journalists need to “focus on what gets used and eliminate the leftovers.”

Much of the memo’s recommendations to AP writers and editors—don’t be redundant; trim the fat; organize limited resources for maximum impact; etc.—is eminently practical during a time that finds the narrative and newsgathering aspects of journalism shaken up nearly as much as its business model. And, sure, what’s the point of writing stories that aren’t getting used? Then again, the AP is still a standard-bearer for journalism as a profession; it serves the public, ostensibly, even as it serves its member organizations. And some elements of its new strategy smack of pandering rather than pluck—and of vaguely Darwinian desperation. Remember that memo that Mike Allen sent to Politico staff earlier this year (“People are not looking for MORE to read. They need to NEED and WANT each individual story….”)? If the ideas below are any indication, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell where Politico ends and the AP begins.


From: Gazlay, Kristin
Sent: Thursday, October 15, 2009 11:09 AM
To: News - Chiefs of Bureaus (COBs) - USA; News - Editors USA; News - Domestic Correspondents; News - International COBs; News - International News Editors; News - International Regional Editors
Subject: AP Knows, Vol. 45: The Best of What We Do


PLEASE POST AND/OR FORWARD FOR YOUR STAFFS

Dear Colleagues:

Among the initiatives pursued as part of the recent Lake Placid strategic process were two planks of enormous import to AP journalists — how our content gets used (and, painfully, does NOT get used), and how the details on usage must impact how we create and package our content going forward.

Senior Managing Editor John Daniszewski led the group that delved into the latter, keying off the findings that the very top tier of our coverage across formats and platforms gets the lion’s share of usage, with a steep dropoff after that. Here, John lays out how what it means for you.

Kristin

P.S. A reminder to visit the Virtual Newsroom (http://inside.ap.org/21646.htm) and Storytelling Matters (http://sp.ap.org/news/StoryTelling/default.aspx)

The biweekly AP Knows newsletter seeks to involve all AP journalists in a global give-and-take on training-related issues. E-mail your suggestions and questions to training@ap.org. You can find all previous editions of AP Knows and all other editorial training updates and information at http://inside.ap.org/News/training.htm.


To FUEL our way to the top: focus on what gets used and eliminate the leftovers

OK, the “fuel” thing is a bit contrived, but there is an important message underneath it: Too often, we expend precious time and scarce resources on work that does not excite and does not get used.

For the AP to succeed, we need to keep our journalists out on the front line of the news — asking tough questions and looking at all the angles for fresh information relevant to large numbers of customers.

It won’t happen if we are too busy dishing out dull second-day helpings or larding our report with sidebars and light features, or toiling away on columns and fixtures that no longer have a following.

Studies done for the AP’s Lake Placid strategic retreat showed conclusively that customers go for important breaking news and news-driven enterprise, and that the best of what we do accounts for an overwhelming share of what our clients use in all media formats. The studies also show that we still produce a lot of content that few of our clients value.

Over a four-month period studied for Lake Placid, the AP created an astounding 2.3 million items of text, 800,000 photo items and 16,000 video items. (Note this count is all-inclusive – every write-through, every version, every service.) But when usage was studied, it quickly became clear that only a small fraction of this avalanche is actually winning favor in newspapers, on television or on the Web.

On Hosted News, one-third of all daily page views came from just the top 10 stories. In broadcast video, 15 percent of the content accounted for half the usage. In a survey of 86 U.S. newspapers over a one-week period, only 3 percent of the 4,000 stories that appeared were in as many as 20 papers. Three-quarters were in three or fewer papers. And an uncounted number appeared no place at all.

We also learned that stories have a “flight path.” Interest ramps up quickly and then dies off quickly.

Look at this:

[image]

As you can see from this chart on the Somali Pirates story, our production of content often continues to coast along well after the public’s interest flags. Yes, we produce a lot of copy when usage is at its highest, which should be our aim. But our production remains stubbornly high, even after usage plummets. That’s wastage.

The other important aspect of the flight path is that new developments can revive usage. In this chart, there’s an uptick at the end, representing the first interview with the captain of the ship. When our follow-ups are perfunctory, they don’t get used. When our follow-ups break news, they do.

Data like this underscores that there is no time to waste in launching a defined, coordinated effort across all formats and in all news units to focus production on the stories that our clients value most and use, and to stop doing much of what they don’t.

All of this will result in us giving our very top attention and treatment to our very top news. If we do fewer lower-tier stories that command little usage, we have more staff resources to devote to the big stuff, which is what all of our customers want and use.

The same is true of sidebars: Rather than doing four sidebars, we need to be sure to enrich our main story with that material.

So, we want to change our report in important ways. Where do we start?

As a rule of thumb, let’s look hard at the dull underbelly of our text, photo and video reports and put that time and those resources to better use. Think of the most marginal 10 percent of your report – you should know it when you see it.

Below you will find some standards to apply, regardless of the intended audience: state, national or global. They are intended to help AP staff focus on the kind of content that our clients (and our readers/listeners/viewers) consider important. Think of it as a checklist or as a rule-of-thumb that you can use when trying to determine whether to devote resources to a story.

Regional and vertical leaders should use these standards to lead their editorial teams, in part by eliminating content that represents a poor use of resources. But a better approach is for every AP staffer to apply this screening process when conceiving a story and thus avoid wasting time on low-value content.


News that gets used (and should be continued and expanded):
· Top-Tier Breaking News: Stories that could make a front page or section front of a newspaper, a top-story list online or a headline story on a television bulletin. Stories that are relevant to a significant part of the intended audience.
· News we break: News that comes about through hard reporting by AP staff and is exclusive to the AP.
· Significant folos: A development, reversal or turn in a previously reported breaking news story that advances the story in an important manner.
· Hard-edged enterprise: Enterprise that breaks news, is close to the news or that will be a topic for going viral.

What doesn’t get used (and should be dropped):
· Content that does not significantly advance the story since the last time AP visited the topic; almost all sidebars except for one or two on the very top stories of the day; “process” and “for the record” stories; soft features with little relevance to current events.
· A large share of breaking or general news that is of limited importance, affects few people and where nothing very unexpected occurs.
· Folos that just babysit a story until something new happens.

Checklist: When conceiving a story, ask yourself these questions:
1. Does this story break major, significant news that will be of interest to a large segment of the audience?
2. Would this work as an APNewsNow, so we get the news out quickly and can move on to the top stories of the day?
3. Does the story have a visual or interactive element that will draw interest from a broader audience?
4. In ongoing coverage, does the proposed content significantly advance the story?
5. On a package of stories: What is our main story? What are the one or two best elements to make into sidebars? Have you ensured the rest have been jettisoned and/or teed up as important reporting threads to inform the core coverage?

Efforts like this will lead to a better overall news report by concentrating our effort on material valued by customers. It will free staff time to devote to exciting new journalism where we see opportunities for innovation, including visual storytelling and direct engagement with people accessing us online or via mobile devices.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.