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Why and how we use the Associated Press

Frequently, critics of The News take no issue with our local stories or writers. They have a problem with the Associated Press, the wire service we use for statewide, national, and international news.

I’ve learned a few things from that criticism, especially through some in-depth conversations with conservatives as part of The News’ partnership with Trusting News, a national effort to better understand why conservatives no longer trust the media and help newspapers develop best practices to earn back that trust.

I’ve learned, for example, that some folks are genuinely curious about why we use the AP and how we choose which AP stories to print.

So, I thought I’d use this space not to defend our use of the AP, but to give a straightforward accounting of why and how we use them.

First, few wire services exist, and all publish similar content. Visit APNews.com, Reuters.com, and UPI.com on any given day, and you’ll notice very similar takes on mostly the same stories.

Almost everybody uses the AP. Gannett, with its nearly 600 daily and weekly papers across the U.S., uses them. Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC all use them. The Epoch Times and the New York Times both use the AP, as do some 15,000 other news outlets and businesses around the globe.

And Ogden Newspapers — the Wheeling, West Virginia-based company that owns The News — uses the AP at all its papers.

Newspapers everywhere buy AP content for the same reason so many towns have McDonald’s restaurants: The AP has a long track record of providing reliable services (as in, providing stories), and they offer a lot of bang for the buck.

Founded in 1846, the AP has more than 3,000 employees in nearly 250 countries, including all 50 state capitals and every major U.S. city. It also shares news through what’s called Member Exchange, in which the AP shares stories written by its member newspapers (such as The News) with its other member newspapers. No individual newspaper — especially not local dailies like The News — could afford to offer that kind of reach.

Each day, the number of pages and the amount of space available on those pages is determined by the number and size of the ads sold for that edition.

Local stories take priority. We aim to fill up each day’s front page, City/State (3A), Lifestyles (usually 5A or 7A), and sports front (1B) with local stories. Commentary takes up 4A. Sometimes, but rarely, an especially relevant, important, or historic AP story (especially out of Michigan) takes precedence over even local stories for the front page.

Then things get tricky.

We try to pick AP stories that affect the most of our readers most directly or most immediately, or the stories that have the greatest historical significance. Those with the greatest impact get the biggest headlines and the most prominent placement in the paper.

For the past year, COVID-19 stories have mostly taken those spots.

With 1A taken up by local stories, one might think we would place the biggest wire stories on 2A, but there’s a hitch.

One, we use 2A for the jumps (the ends of stories that don’t fit on a page) from 1A. Then we have to save space for obituaries, but, until the 8 p.m. deadline for obit submissions, we never know how many obits we’ll have or how much space they’ll take up. Sometimes, obits take up all of 2A and part of another page.

To make our press deadline, we can’t hold all pages until after 8 p.m.

So, if we want to make sure an important AP story makes it into the paper, 6A is actually the first page on which we can guarantee an AP story will appear, so that’s where we end up putting the wire stories we think will most engage readers.

Another important point: We usually do not run AP stories in their entirety, because they don’t fit in the available space.

News reporters try to write stories with the most important information on top. That’s partly so page designers can cut from the bottom up to get a story to fit on the page without losing key details.

Ditto for AP headlines, which the AP writes but we often trim to fit into the space we have.

That’s the process.

Some parts can’t change, but other parts — especially the parts in which we make subjective decisions about story choices — can.

And I am listening to see if we need to change things to better engage with all our readers here in Northeast Michigan.

I’m always open to suggestions and will always answer questions from readers. Give me a call or shoot me an email.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-354-3112 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.

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