Ken Dale, senior vice president and chief financial officer of the AP, says that the problem with the counter-proposal was that it did not provide the same level of financial certainty as the AP’s plan. “What the Guild has proposed—which is another way of doing a defined benefits plan—provides certain income guarantees [for employees], or certain return guarantees, that a defined contribution plan that we’re offering does not,” he explained during a phone call Monday. With the AP’s plan, he says, the company can say for sure that when it puts its money out, that is the limit of what it will put out and there will be a certain liability in the future. “Unfortunately, right now with the defined benefit plan, the liability is unknown.”
And certainty is a valuable commodity at the AP these days.
As the Guild points out frequently in its literature and in conversations, the AP has suffered less than many other media outlets during the downturn. Newspapers are hurting and the trickle-down effect is felt at the newswire, but newspaper contracts with the AP account for only 25 percent of its revenue. Money comes in from online clients like Yahoo and Google, sales to government agencies and political campaigns, the resale of photographs, and elsewhere. But the diversified revenue stream has not made the AP completely immune to damage. “It does cushion the blow,” says Dale, “but it’s still a blow.”
How big is that blow? Revenue fell from $748 million in 2008 to $676 million in 2009. Net income fell 65 percent between 2008 and 2009, from $25.1 million to $8.8 million, and the AP would have posted a loss in 2009 had it not sold its German-language news service for $13.2 million. Dale says we can expect that the company’s annual Consolidated Financial Statements, released on April 13, will show revenue has fallen further, to around $630 million.
If that happens, the AP has reported it will be the first time the news wire has had consecutive annual revenue declines since 1932-1933. “If you compare our revenue dropping by about 16 percent in two years against the rest of the media world declines—in arrange of about 25-30 percent, particularly among print publishers—it’s pretty respectable for us,” says Dale. “Unfortunately, we’re living in a shrinking media environment right now with respect to where money is being spent, particularly for news content. We’re all kind of struggling to take share of the fewer dollars that are out there.”
Standing in the rain on Manhattan’s west side on Tuesday, you get the feeling staffers aren’t going to give up much more to that struggle. “We have not had a raise in two years,” said Johnson. “We made sacrifices on the health care plan in the last contract and the staff has been greatly reduced. You have a significantly smaller number doing much more work. We’ve already made a lot of sacrifices.”
Another AP worker who asked not to be named said: “My impression is that the company is trying to take advantage of the environment.” Another repeats a quote he once heard that he particularly likes: “Work long enough for the AP and you lose money.”
Staffers have given up a lot to make their voices heard in the contract negotiations. As well as the tough-negotiation staples—rallying, withholding use of their personal cars when reporting stories, and, in a new media twist, refusing to Tweet and re-Tweet AP stories—they have held three byline boycotts, twice for two days and once for a week. “It’s a huge protest,” said Johnson. “People are very proud of their work and for them to take their name off of their work is like a huge scream: we’re really angry.”
So far, the protests have not really damaged the AP’s image. The news wire’s director of media relations, Paul Colford, was probably right when he wrote in an e-mail to CJR, “AP is a strong brand, with a distinguished history. I believe this is not the first time that contract negotiations took time.”