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So What Do You Do, Tom Curley, President and CEO of The Associated Press?

The brains behind USA Today's inception discusses his new challenge: transitioning the AP into the digital age

By Kate Dailey - August 1, 2007
Name: Tom Curley
Position: President and CEO, the Associated Press
Education: B.A., Political Science, La Salle University, Philadelphia; MBA, Rochester Institute of Technology
Hometown: Easton, Pa.
First job: Intern reporter, Evening News, Perth Amboy, N.J.
Last 3 jobs: President and publisher, USA Today; director of information, Gannett; night city/suburban editor, The Times-Union
Birthdate: July 6, 1948
Marital status: Married to Marsha Stanley
Favorite TV show: The Wire
Last book read: Leading the Revolution by Gary Hamel

You were director of information for Gannett. How did you wind up in that position, and what were your responsibilities?
Gannett was embarking on major expansion and was looking to coordinate several corporate functions.

Can you talk about what you were doing prior to landing that position, and why you pursued it? Which corporate functions were they looking to coordinate?
I had been night city/suburban editor for Gannett's then-largest newspaper, The Times-Union. The functions that were lumped in included investor relations, corporate communications, and news research.

As director of information, you coordinated several newspaper research projects. In the end, the project yielded 50,000 interviews on media use. What did you learn about how people use the news, and the role that news plays in people's lives?
The critical finding was the extraordinary importance of hard news and people's dependence on the daily newspaper. Additionally, we discovered considerable variability in media consumption patterns from city to city.

Those interviews took place in the late 1970s. Thirty years later, has there been another project as ambitious as that? How do you now assess how people use media?
Several of the large media organizations collect local as well as national data, so it's highly likely that the same basic information is being gathered. Media consumption has changed dramatically. Younger and older readers exhibit major differences in how they get news. The Internet is having a revolutionary effect. The markets for news are growing, but people are not waiting for it to arrive in a newspaper or evening newscast.

You were the original news staffer on the project that led to the creation of USA Today. What was your responsibility, and how did that project evolve into USA Today?
The role was to understand what content would draw a national audience and how content could be different from what people already were receiving.

You came to the AP as an outsider, having spent most of your career at Gannett. What were the benefits of coming in with a fresh perspective? How did you integrate your new ideas and direction without disrespecting the culture that had previously been a part of the AP?
Celebrating AP was easy to do. AP journalists demonstrate courage and commitment every day. The challenge at AP and every media organization is to adapt to the digital era. AP has existed for 161 years, and everyone at AP is hell-bent to make certain it transitions with its mission and values in place.

USA Today was originally seen as a radical departure from how news was usually produced and presented. Now, of course, many other papers have copied USA Today's structure and components. Did you know at the time that the design of USA Today would be so controversial?
Certainly. The design had to be distinctive. If it weren't different, nobody would have read it a second time. We knew we had to push the envelope. That's what innovation is about. No apologies.

How has the adoption of USA Today-like graphics and style in papers across the country validated your judgment as a journalist?
USA Today arrived at the same time personal computers, color printing techniques, and graphics packages entered a new era. The newspaper embraced those technologies. Other newspapers quickly adopted them as well. That's the nature of competition.

USA Today was a newspaper designed for a generation of TV watchers, hence the shorter stories and graphics-heavy copy. How should current newspapers adapt to appeal to a generation of Internet users and new media aficionados?
Storytelling is still about balance and appropriateness. One size doesn't fit all. Happily, the new technologies allow for customization. Those who are satisfied with headlines can get their fix. Others may want depth and sophisticated multimedia graphics packages. The critical element is personal choice. In many ways, our goal is to enable people to choose.

"History has taught us that we will have our fill of war coverage, calamities and the powerful trying to exploit opportunities. Journalists at AP and elsewhere are targeted as never before. I would hope that eases, but I fear our sacrifices will be even greater in the years ahead."

In September 2005, the AP launched asap, a multimedia service that targets younger readers. How have members responded to that content, and how have younger readers responded?
Members have embraced the storytelling approach, which was a departure from AP classic. Members have found figuring out how to go to market with the content more of a challenge. Do they create new brands or do they try to capture young people with a medium that's got a distinctly older readership? These are not easy questions when advertising revenues are shrinking.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: After this interview was conducted, the AP announced that asap will be shuttering in October 2007. Though Mr. Curley was away and unable to comment for this interview, the AP's director of public relations directed to an AP article written about the decision. The article references an internal memo from executive editor Kathleen Carrol, in which she calls asap "terrific journalism success... Economic success, however, has proved more elusive."]

You're a classic newspaper man -- you started doing sports reporting for a local paper at age 15, then worked for Rochester (N.Y.) Times as night city/suburban editor before moving onto director of information at Gannett. But the AP isn't a newspaper -- the work your reporters produce includes both print and video, and the stories are printed in papers and Web sites all over the country. How does producing news for the AP compare to working for an outlet that produces all its news in one place for the same set of readers every day?
Nearly all media has become multimedia. Every newspaper is pursuing Web and broadcast storytelling. We're all there. That's part of the opportunity. Those of us who grew up in text certainly are learning from our electronic colleagues.

Is there a difference in creating and producing news for a well-defined audience -- that is, the readership of a certain city -- versus a readership as wide and diverse as the AP audience?
There is one huge difference. AP is global.

Is your job at the AP to serve the readers, or to serve the members who use your content in their papers?
Our job is the same as at every organization: to understand and serve customers. AP has a complicated, global client set. We sell to businesses who then sell to the public. We must anticipate the change in public appetites, so we stay current for our business customer set. We will remain a business-to-business provider.

With the Internet, local news is accessible to everyone -- for instance, during Hurricane Katrina, many people went to , the Times-Picayune site. Is this a threat to your business model? Have you found a way to compensate for this?
Everyone has to understand the extent to which the market for content is growing. There are more users than ever in more places than ever. They are seeking content more frequently than ever about more subjects than ever. The challenge is to adapt the business model to the emerging content markets. It's hard work, but we are seeing significant growth in revenues and customers.

In David Halberstam's introduction to the AP's new book, Breaking News: How the Associated Press Has Covered War, Peace, and Everything Else, he cites one of the problems with journalism as journalists "come to a story too late and then leave too early." In other words, the coverage is no longer as thorough and painstaking as it once was. Do you agree with this assessment? How does the AP fit into that description?
Certainly coverage can be too superficial or herd-like. The Duke lacrosse case is an example of a herd gone wrong. But generally coverage is better, deeper, and broader than ever. That's because we have access to more information than ever in seconds.

The AP, like many news organizations, has had to close a lot of foreign bureaus in the past few years. How can an organization live up to a mandate of covering international stories early and well when it's no longer cost effective to have reporters stationed overseas?
Wrong. AP has not closed foreign bureaus. It has added to its international coverage in important ways. Last year we opened a new bureau in North Korea -- the first western news organization to have one there -- and this year we expanded our bureau in Beijing. We see international coverage as a major opportunity.

My mistake. In fact, the AP has long had a practice of training and hiring locals to help staff international bureaus. How does this improve coverage?
They provide us cultural understanding, access, and insight we couldn't get otherwise on a real-time basis. They are every bit as committed to providing an accurate record of their country.

Can you give us an update on Bilal Hussein, the AP photographer held without charges by the US in Iraq?
The latest effort has been a direct appeal by me to Secretary of Defense Gates. I await a response.

Breaking News also covers a lot of the AP's "greatest hits" -- that is, stories you've broken, AP reporters who have faced down oppression or opposition from government agencies, and times you got the facts right, while everyone else was reporting misinformation. When Breaking News: Volume 2 comes out in sixty years, what are the big victories that will be highlighted from this era?
One can only guess at the news stories. My hope is that our contribution on general news remains as important as ever, and that our impact on financial and emerging content areas (such as health/medicine) is greater. History has taught us that we will have our fill of war coverage, calamities, and the powerful trying to exploit opportunities. Journalists at AP and elsewhere are targeted as never before. I would hope that eases, but I fear our sacrifices will be even greater in the years ahead.

Kate Dailey is a freelance writer in Philadelphia and former editor at Men's Health and Women's Health. She will attend Columbia graduate school in the fall.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This interview has been excerpted for length and clarity.]

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