CNN, in the afterglow of an election season of record ratings for cable news, is elbowing in on a new line of business: catering to financially strained newspapers looking for an alternative to The Associated Press.
For nearly a month, a trial version of CNN’s wire service has been on display in some newspapers. But this week editors from about 30 papers will visit Atlanta to hear CNN’s plans to broaden a service to provide coverage of big national and international events — and maybe local ones — on a smaller scale and at a lower cost than The A.P.
“The reality is we don’t have a lot of relationships with newspapers,” said Jim Walton, president of CNN Worldwide. “We have relationships with TV stations around the world.” Mr. Walton said the meeting this week, which CNN has billed the “CNN Newspaper Summit,” is “kind of a get-to-know-you.”
With its CNN Wire, the company is going up against the largest news-gathering operation in the world in The A.P., and it must convince editors that it can offer something that is well outside its broadcast expertise — which may not be a tough task given the dire circumstances newspapers face. In addition, a number of newspapers are unhappy with the cost of The A.P., a nonprofit corporation that is owned by the 1,400 papers that are its members. Some newspapers have even given notice that they intend to leave The A.P.
“I’m very interested in hearing what they have to present,” said Benjamin J. Marrison, the editor of The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio, which is among the papers that have said they will drop The A.P. because of its cost. “It has a lot of potential. We just need to understand it better.”
“Mainly, we’re going to listen to what it is they have to offer, and what their plans are for expanding their news-gathering operation,” Mr. Marrison added. “They say they have more than 3,000 journalists worldwide, and that’s a formidable group, and we want to see how they intend to deploy those resources, how in tune they are with the needs of newspapers and their Web sites, and what kind of cooperative they intend to build.”
The project has several implications for the news business.
For CNN it amounts to another expansion of its operations at a time of severe cutbacks across the media industry, especially at newspapers, which are facing the wrenching circumstances of both a faltering economy and the continuing flight of advertising dollars out of print and onto the Internet. And for The Associated Press, it represents a competitive threat, while some client newspapers already are leaving the service because of financial pressure. (CNN Wire would also compete with other services, like Bloomberg News and Thomson Reuters.)
On Nov. 20, Tom Curley, the president and chief executive of The A.P., spoke to employees in New York City and by Webcast to groups around the world — a recording of which was heard by The New York Times — about the state of its business. He outlined three main challenges: the economic downturn, the financial problems of newspapers, and what he described as customers becoming competitors, specifically CNN.
Of those three challenges, he said he was most worried about the last one.
“On the competitive side, CNN volunteered to be the first, but any number of people could have pulled the trigger,” Mr. Curley told employees. “They’re coming off a very strong election cycle, they have extra money and they’re going to do it because they can.”
Mr. Walton, of CNN, says that the network already runs an internal wire service for its bureaus and CNN.com, and that taking it outside is a logical step. The breadth of the service that CNN will ultimately offer is unclear, and partly depends on the demands of newspapers. CNN Wire could offer columns written by some of its high-profile personalities, like Anderson Cooper. It also plans to offer text versions of its major investigative pieces for television.
“The CNN system is set up so we use content across all our networks and platforms,” Mr. Walton said. “It’s not unusual for Anderson Cooper to appear online or on CNN International.”
And local coverage could be in the offing. In August, CNN said it was dispatching journalists to 10 cities in the United States, but in a bare-bones fashion: the correspondents will be laptop- and camera-toting one-person bands, rather than workers in expensive bureaus.
“This is obviously a national wire service,” said Susan Goldberg, the editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, which has already published some stories from CNN’s wire service. “They’re not opening up shop here in Ohio necessarily. We would like to see them put out accurate, informative, entertaining news and information. We would also love to see them produce content that works really well on the Web. Shorter stories, because all of us are dealing with shrinking space in our print edition.” (An editor from The Plain Dealer will attend the CNN meetings.)
A number of newspaper editors say the component of A.P. service that would be hardest to replace is still photography. CNN said it did not plan to offer photography but would offer streaming Web video for newspapers’ sites.
Mr. Walton declined to say how many journalists CNN was looking to hire, but job ads have been appearing online. One recent posting sought journalists to staff bureaus in Atlanta, Washington and Los Angeles.
The help-wanted ad described the service like this: “The CNN Wire is on CNN’s editorial front line, editing and vetting the work of correspondents and producers worldwide and doing original reporting for use across CNN’s networks and Web pages.”
In an interview, Mr. Curley of The A.P. said that given the state of the news industry, “we should rejoice that someone has millions of dollars to spend on breaking news.”
“Breaking news is very, very expensive and if they have the resources to spend on it, we welcome them to the game,” he added.
But in his conference with employees, Mr. Curley suggested that the CNN wire service needed major improvement before it could play at The A.P.’s level.
“You really don’t want to put quotes up there that could end up on locker room walls,” Mr. Curley said, before doing just that.
“The current CNN wire, if you look at it truly is still, and remarkably, abysmally written,” he said. “However, they’re interviewing A.P. people, we know, and that can be transformed. And if you have enough money and you have enough ego and enough desire, you can fix that in a hurry.”
Last year CNN said it was dropping Reuters’ wire service. The move saved the network more than $3 million annually, but it was not a cost-cutting decision, executives said. Instead, it was part of CNN’s strategy of relying less on outside media outlets for news coverage. In that vein, CNN plans to drop The A.P. for CNN.com in January. (CNN the television network will continue to use The A.P.)
“Look at the history of CNN,” Mr. Walton said. “We launched as one network in 1980. Today CNN is more than just one network. We have a huge radio business. A huge online business. We’re about content.”
“We want to own more of our own content and reporting. We felt we had to look at our business as more than television,” he added.
The Associated Press is more than 150 years old and is the world’s largest news-gathering operation, with more than 3,000 journalists in over 100 countries.
“I think the crucial question is whether CNN is going to try to really go head-to-head with The A.P., or offer something that’s a lot more selective,” said Jack Driscoll, the former editor of The Boston Globe and editor in residence at the M.I.T.Media Laboratory. “Newspapers are hurting so much that they could be willing to get less for less.”
In that case, Mr. Driscoll said, there is probably room for a new competitor.
“But if CNN is going to try to do something close to the range and quality of The Associated Press, that’s awfully hard to do, and it’s a huge financial undertaking.”
Some newspapers that have long relied on The A.P. have said they would drop the service because of its cost, which varies — The Columbus Dispatch, for example, paid more than $800,000 a year. Others, including The Star Tribune of Minneapolis and the Tribune Company, one of the largest newspaper chains, have also given notice that they plan to drop out of the service. The A.P., in response, announced in October that it would reduce prices, which will result in a cumulative savings of $30 million annually for its member newspapers.
This stands in contrast to the current financial fortunes of CNN.
In October, CNN said it was hiring nearly 30 people to staff a news hub in Abu Dhabi, and has made other international expansion moves. And Mr. Walton said the network was on track for its fifth consecutive year of double-digit profit growth, a first for CNN.
“One of the good things is that when you are profitable, you can reinvest,” Mr. Walton said.