NEW YORK -- The Associated Press has been getting it first and getting it right for the past 165 years.
But as traditional rivals like Bloomberg and Reuters ramp up opinion and analysis -- and as competition increased from the rest of the web -- AP executives realized the organization needed to provide more smart and immediate analysis, video, and interactive features that expand upon the day's news. So during September's executive retreat in Lake Placid, N.Y., top news and business staffers hashed out a strategy that senior managing editor Michael Oreskes presented Tuesday in a memo to 3,000 AP staffers worldwide. It's called "The New Distinctiveness."
In the memo, Oreskes wrote that the "AP wins when news breaks, but after an hour or two we're often replaced by a piece of content from someone else who has executed something more thoughtful or more innovative." Going forward, AP executives want editors and reporters to immediately think how to advance on a breaking story with everything from a video mash-up to an original take. Such rapid follow-up is commonplace on the web but hasn't been instituted to this degree before at the AP. Oreskes hopes the directive helps change that.
"We're really best in the business at being the fastest and most accurate on breaking news," Oreskes said in an interview with The Huffington Post. "But what we've seen, and it's more and more true every day, is to remain dominant on these big stories, you have to move very quickly into the stories that used to be reserved for the second day or the weekend -- the different take, the look behind-the-scenes, the why behind what's happening."
In the memo, Oreskes wrote that the AP is also "going to be pushing hard on journalism with voice, with context, with more interpretation." But that doesn't mean the organization plans to venture into opinion journalism, as Bloomberg and Reuters did this year in hopes of expanding their global influence while providing another news product for paying clients. There was a discussion at the Lake Placid retreat of doing opinion journalism, but Oreskes said executives "decided it's not what the AP does."
Oreskes argues that "what people crave is the clarity of the statements," which can be found just as much in sharp, analytical takes as in opinion columns. "What we're going to strive for is clarity of statement -- putting the dots together, adding two plus two and saying it equals four."
This isn't the first time the AP has re-calibrated itself in order to better compete in a media environment bursting with opinion and analysis. In 2008, former AP Washington bureau chief and current National Journal editor-in-chief Ron Fournier tried to sharpen reporters' tone in analytical pieces. He also sought to stress accountability journalism that would "cut through the clutter" of traditional newspeak. The increasingly assertive tone reporters adopted under Fournier struck some as innovative. Others, perhaps more accustomed to the AP's traditional style, were less taken with it.
But the "New Distinctiveness" memo goes a step further in trying to "institutionalize" this way of thinking in bureaus around the world. In a nod to the strategy's name, Oreskes said that "the really crucial thing in journalism now is that it's very important to be distinct."
"You have to make your journalism stand out," he added.
READ THE FULL AP MEMO:
Coming out of our strategic process this year, we are committing ourselves to focus on something I want to share with you today -- something that has, with changing user behavior online, become crucial to the way we do news and do business.
Let's start with something that’s obvious but worth laying out plainly: That "next cycle" we speak of so often in The Associated Press is now. Not 12 hours from the first breaking news, not even six hours, but one, maybe two hours from it -- and maybe even faster than that.
This is hardly something that we’re just waking up to. But it is accelerating by the week. As we look around the media landscape in recent months, over and over we’re seeing the same thing. AP wins when news breaks, but after an hour or two we're often replaced by a piece of content from someone else who has executed something more thoughtful or more innovative. Often it's someone who has taken what we do (sometimes our reporting itself) and pushed it to the next level of content: journalism that's more analytical, maybe a fresh and immediate entry point, a move away from text, a multimedia mashup or a different story form that speaks more directly to users.
More than ever, we need to infuse that sensibility into our daily process of news and planning. We need to institutionalize it. And we need to do it everywhere in the AP -- across geographies, across formats, across subject matter. We can’t let other people win by cannibalizing our content. We need to do it ourselves each day, to parlay our reporting into work with a longer shelf life.
We're calling this The New Distinctiveness. Here's an initial and by-no-means complete glimpse into what it means:
Fast Response. The moment news breaks, we're going to be talking not only about coverage in the moment, but the longer arc. We’re going to be thinking about two hours on, about what we do 12 hours ahead, and even, sometimes, about what we do weeks or months ahead.
Thematic Thinking. We're going to be much more aggressive in identifying themes off the news -- angles the world is thinking about -- and digging deeper. Unique and compelling entry points to stories are key here, and those can’t be done on breaking-news autopilot. Many of these new approaches will be infused into the main story on a news event across platforms; that’s as important as creating new stories to stand alone.
Multiple Story Forms. We're going to be finding unusual ways of telling stories and alternative story forms. We've already done this in many ways -- photoblogging, data visualization, video (even data visualization in video), text on major events -- but it needs to be mainstream and part of our fundamental foundations.
Journalism With Voice. We're going to be pushing hard on journalism with voice, with context, with more interpretation. This does not mean that we’re sacrificing any of our deep commitment to unbiased, fair journalism. It does not mean that we're venturing into opinion, either. It does mean that we need to be looking for ways to be more distinctive and stand out in the field -- something our customers need and want. The why and the how of the news are as crucial as the who, what, when and where.
Recurring containers. We are going to establish a running “container” that can be used anywhere, tentatively called ":Why it Matters." It will focus our daily journalism on relevance without sacrificing depth. Other containers will follow. These will be done based on the news and what it needs -- they’ll come into existence when they’re useful and not be forced when they’re not.
Rethinking the Planning Process. We are beginning a fundamental rethink of our daily news meetings and planning procedures, one that will increase the substantive discussion and reduce the recitation of story lists. More to come on this soon.
In coming weeks, you'll see the beginnings of various projects to support this way of thinking. We're establishing several "test kitchens" in different parts of the News Department to work on this and figure things out. And we're going to push conversations that focus not only on what the news is and how to get it, but what it MEANS as well. The four test kitchens are Health and Science (led by Kit Frieden and Kevin Roach), Economics and Politics (Hal Ritter and Sally Buzbee), Tourism (Beth Harpaz) and how we work around the clock around the world on big stories (John Mancini and Brian Carovillano).
The test kitchens are a place to try things out and report back to the rest of us. But they aren't meant to be the only place we are pushing forward. Many of you are already doing this kind of journalism and doing it well across the AP. More than ever before, our reporters and editors are branching out into new ways of thinking and trying new things with customers and audiences in mind. This initiative will be an opportunity to amplify that best work, make it more mainstream and, most importantly, institutionalize it.
Resources, of course, are an issue. And as we lay out our plans to do this, we are mindful of all of the responsibilities that people have. We do not intend this to be yet another thing to add to your already formidable list of things to do. A great deal of this is not mainly about filing more content; it’s about refining our thinking and slightly resequencing our journalistic DNA to understand that sometimes, with good journalism behind it, sharp thinking can differentiate the AP in a very competitive field. (And to reiterate, nothing about this should take our eye off the ball of dominating breaking news. The goal here is to extend our dominance of breaking news by outreporting and outhinking the competition.)
An important note: This isn't a product. It's an ever-growing toolbox of approaches to harness our thinking -- to make our core news report stronger, more insightful, more appealing and more relevant to the people who buy it and the people who see it. And it's something you'll help shape.
We have a group of people from around the AP who will be the steering committee on this, led by myself and Assistant Managing Editor Ted Anthony. And we'll be elaborating on this in an AP Knows at the beginning of next year. If you have questions, or just want to kick around something you would like to try, get in touch with me or Ted.
This is a key way we can thrive in today’s landscape by using our own news and thinking chops -- the smarts we already have -- to take things forward. And, not incidentally, it’s going to be a lot of fun,too.