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The End of the Wire Service Commons?

For some time, Brett Frischmann, Kathy Strandburg and I have been working on a framework for studying what we call cultural commons:  collaborative institutions that structure the production, distribution, and storage of knowledge.  (Here is the first paper of what we hope will be a long series.)  There is no single, right, rigorous definition of commons, which sometimes makes explaining the subject matter of our project a little challenging.  No two commons are precisely alike.  That is exactly the point:  We are interested in what makes some commons go, what makes other commons fail, and what makes still other commons go in some regards and fail in others.

The upshot is that we are always on the lookout for commons challenges, and the other day’s New York Times featured one:  “Some Papers in Financial Trouble Are Leaving the A.P. to Cut Costs.” 

The Associated Press, like other wire services for news media, may be conceptualized as a kind of knowledge commons:  Member institutions contribute content to the pool; member institutions get to appropriate content from the pool.  The pool itself is stocked not only with member-generated content, but also with content generated by employees of the pool.  Membership fees get paid to fund commons operations. 

Different wire services handle their governance functions differently, for a variety of interesting reasons that don’t concern me here.  (A.P. is member-owned, unlike United Press; different fee structures of the two enterprises meant that the A.P. had some financial flexibility that U.P.I. lacked.  U.P.I. is no longer a meaningful competitor.)  Most commons, however, face some typical challenges:  Maintaining the integrity of the content of the pool, managing competition between the pool and members, and keeping a lid on defections from the pool. 

In the case of the A.P., all of those things seem to be at work.  As just about every literate person knows, daily print journalism is all but dead.  Costs remain high; circulation and revenue are falling.  Metropolitan daily newspapers, most of whom are A.P. members, are understandably reluctant to give up the ghost, but they are largely bereft of ideas when it comes to competing in today’s multi-modal information environment.  To cut costs, some are dropping their A.P. memberships, and they justify the move on the ground that the A.P.’s pool of content is not what it once was.  The A.P., it is said, is competing with local writers on features and other “non-news” content; the A.P., it is said, is competing on the Internet with the papers’ own online content.

Can this commons be saved?  My initial intuition here is that the local dailies who opt out of the A.P. are cutting off their noses to spite their faces.  But it also looks like the A.P. is due for a commons overhaul.