Feb 15, 2010

AP Business Desk's Pact with the Devil [Cubicle Culture]

The Associated Press has said it's "mad as hell" at internet portals. Yet the wire service's pandering to one major online client is said to be severely taxing reporters and undermining editorial quality.

AP's contract with at least one major internet client obliges the business desk to hit a specific quota of daily stories, in the range of "several hundred," according to one insider. Staffers find this target all the more "ridiculous" and "a constant source of misery," the source said, because the quota has not changed since AP laid off 10 percent of its staff last year.

Apparently AP journalists can't be given individual quotas under their union contract. But that doesn't keep editors from making everyone aware of their collective obligation, especially when they fall behind, which we're told "is often."

The upshot is a torrent of crappy articles:

Often there just isn't enough news in the day to fill the quota. This is especially true during the summer when corporate announcements drop off. At these times, we scrape the bottom of the barrel by writing up two-line filler stories based on information nobody cares about. Sometimes the info is days old, even a week old. We produce a large number of worthless stories just to fill our quota.

This is yet another example of frenzied finance-wire reporters gaming their bosses' performance monitoring systems, a phenomenon we explored last week.

And it's yet another example of why AP Business staffers have signed a petition rebelling against their boss Hal Ritter, as we reported in that same post. Ritter and other managers initially promised that the collective business desk quota would either disappear or get reduced in 2010, according to the insider who first alerted us to the quota. Supposedly, the major online client in question was renewing its AP contract and no longer cared about story counts. But then, a few weeks ago, staffers were told the quota hadn't gone down at all.

Cue the anger:

What's most frustrating of all is management continues to demand this volume while also pressuring us to improve the quality. One day we will be told to dash off short, quick filler stories to increase our volume, the next we will be told to take the time to improve the quality by adding context and detail. By now I don't think there's a single staffer that hasn't become completely disgusted with management's mixed messages on this.

It's a little ironic: AP's top leaders seem to have spent so much time worrying that enemy websites would wreck their business from the outside, by leaching free content, that they failed to see the damage internet players inflicted from the inside, by paying.

(Pic: AP's "mad as hell" chairman Dean Singleton. Getty Images.)

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