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.”
And the ralliers agree with his assessment of the brand—the reason they all say they’ve sacrificed so far is because they love their work and believe in the AP. The day before leading the “Cheap, Cheap” chant, Johnson told me that while the AP has its problems, “I like a lot of things about working for AP, the most important being that I work with some phenomenal people. We have some just brilliant, talented, dedicated people. I enjoy that. And when you work for AP you get to help set news agenda, for the world.” Derella, taking a moment between chants, said, “The reason you work here is the people you work with. I’ve made friends around the world, been able to travel. AP has been good for us.”
The news wire has its annual meeting Thursday and negotiators are hoping to reach a deal soon.
Update: AP this morning forwarded me a summary of Tuesday’s negotiations sent late last night to the news wire’s news leaders and department heads by AP’s director for global labor and employee relations Michelle Ehrlich. The key points are that the Guild, according to the summary, conceded that the current defined benefits scheme is unsustainable and presented another counterproposal to AP’s negotiators. AP looks unlikely to accept it. From the summary:
Today [Tuesday], the News Media Guild took an important step and acknowledged that the old pension, a defined benefit plan which most other companies in our industry have phased out, was no longer sustainable if the AP is to remain competitive. The Guild presented a counterproposal which provides a freeze of the defined benefit plan and replaces it with a defined contribution plan.
Astonishingly, the cost of the Guild’s defined contribution plan—estimated to be $30.8 million over five years—is twice the cost of the company’s proposal. The Guild’s counterproposal further impedes resolution because its costs would only continue to grow beyond the initial five years, which is when AP’s plan would show the most savings. Since January the AP has explained that those savings would be used to stabilize and grow its position in the marketplace.