AUSTRALIAN ASSOCIATED PRESS
Australia’s national news agency, Australian Associated Press (AAP), began in June 1935 with a staff of 12. Based in Melbourne, its first international bureaux were established in London and New York. AAP was created out of an amalgamation of the two existing agencies at the time: the Australian Press Association (APA), run by John Fairfax & Sons and the Melbourne Argus, and the Sun Herald Cable Service, from the Herald and Weekly Times and Sydney’s Associated Newspapers Ltd, which merged to form a non-profit cooperative. The primary purpose of the merger was to pool resources and cut costs associated with bringing overseas news to Australia.
AAP was established ‘for the benefit of its fourteen newspapers’, with the HWT’s Sir Keith Murdoch as chairman. AAP adopted a cooperative model, similar to that already established by the US agency Associated Press (AP). AAP’s original objective, stated in its memorandum of association, was to supply ‘the most accurate and most searching information of all the world’s activities and thought without any tendency toward or opportunity for the exercise of political partisanship or bias’.
In the early years, most of Australia’s international news was drawn from the large international agencies, Reuters and AP, as well as from the ‘blacks’ (carbon copies of reporters’ stories) of British and American dailies, largely rewritten with an Australian angle. In its first financial year, AAP transmitted 1.1 million words, covering major events like the Berlin Olympics, the Spanish Civil War and the Davis Cup, but its continued reliance on British cables coloured Australian perceptions. In her work on Australian wartime journalism in the Asia-Pacific, Somewhere in Asia (2000), Prue Torney-Parlicki reports that in 1936–37, AAP cabled an average of between 27,000 and 28,000 words a week to Australia; ‘of these approximately 85 per cent emanated from London, 12 per cent from New York and 3 per cent from the rest of the world’.
Around this time, AAP produced a service manual designed to minimise wordage when every word sent cost money. Under this cablese system, words were dropped or combined to cut costs. AAP continues to use words (rather than stories) to describe its level of productivity.
During World War II, almost all Australian news about the Pacific War was supplied by AAP or smaller supplementary cable services from particular mastheads. Torney-Parlicki reports one surprise exception to this: the Australian, which did not subscribe to AAP but relied on United Press International for its agency news.
AAP’s in-house history of the organisation, On the Wire (2010), published to celebrate the company’s 75th anniversary, noted that after the war AAP partnered with (rather than subscribed to) Reuters to form a joint news service, AAP-Reuters, which intended to prioritise Asia-Pacific news for the Australian audience. This partnership saw Reuters’ senior journalist Duncan Hooper appointed as editor (1949) and later managing editor (1956). AAP divested its shareholding in Reuters in 1988.
In its formative years, AAP’s news dominance was clear: Torney-Parlicki’s findings show that ‘AAP news alone and AAP in combination with other sources, accounted for over a third to a half of the total war coverage in all except the Sun during the Pacific War and the Daily Telegraph during Vietnam’. By the 1970s, AAP had established itself as a fully fledged national news organisation. Demand from regional media resulted in rapid expansion of staffing levels, resulting in a five-fold increase in size between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s.
Meanwhile, a restructure in 1983 saw the company evolve from a non-profit cooperative into a private profit-and-loss group of companies. AAP-Reuters formed AAP Reuters Communications in 1984 to distribute information via the newly launched AUSSAT satellite, and the split between the two news services in 1988 saw the establishment of the telecommunications carrier AAPT (AAP Telecommunications) in 1990. Also during the 1980s, AAP established its media release service MediaNet, which delivers news releases to journalists via a dedicated public relations wire. This media distribution service enabled PR agencies—clients of AAP— to target different media types. In 2003, this was expanded to include MEDIAtlas, ‘a fully searchable online directory of ... media intelligence’. The following decades saw the company move beyond its role as a wire service to become a large and diverse media provider. Its status as an oligopoly, owned and controlled by the major media groups, has been the subject of ongoing critique, as it does not fit the tradition of an ‘independent’ wire service.
In 2002, AAP acquired Pagemasters, which provides page-ready material and editing and production services to major newspapers. In 2011, AAP announced that it had been contract- ed by Fairfax Media to sub-edit general news, business and sport for the Sydney Morning Herald, the Sun-Herald, the Age and the Sunday Age, causing significant industry debate after more than 80 Fairfax staff in editorial production were made redundant. In 2007, AAP acquired Melbourne-based media-monitoring company the Media Research Group (MRG), expanding its already established Newscentre, which tracks media coverage using smart software.
Tony Gillies was appointed editor-in-chief in 2003, succeeding Tony Vermeer who had filled the position for eight years and had spent a total of 19 years with AAP. Vermeer steered AAP through the early challenging years of the growth of the internet, noting that, ‘People have often seen the web as an alternative news source, but in fact it is an alternative market for agency copy’—and indeed recent studies of AAP copy indicate that most major news websites’ ‘Breaking News’ sections are almost entirely AAP copy (sometimes combined with Agence France-Presse or AP). In January 2010, veteran journalist Bruce Davidson was appointed chief executive officer. Davidson established Pagemasters in 1991, and was its managing director until AAP took it over in 2002. Previous long-serving staff include Harry Gordon, who began with AAP in 1951 as a sports reporter and became a director and chairman in the 1980s.
In September 2011, AAP expanded its news service base to New Zealand following the closure of the 132-year-old New Zealand Press Association (NZPA). At the end of 2012, AAP was owned by the three media groups that produce the majority of Australia’s newspapers: Fairfax Media owns about 47 per cent, News Corp Australia about 45 per cent and West Australian Newspapers (now part of the Seven West Media group) has an 8 per cent share. It employs more than 800 people, including 220 journalists, with reporters and photographers in 15 locations worldwide, bureaux in all Australian capital cities and offices in selected international locations.
While the news operation of AAP operates at a loss, its commercial profit-making ventures— Pagemasters, the media-monitoring service Newscentre and its media release distribution service MediaNet—all operate at a profit and subsidise the newsroom costs. In October 2013, AAP announced plans to sell Newscentre to Australian company iSentia (formerly known as Media Monitors Australia).
REFs: J. Johnston and S. Forde, ‘Not Wrong for Long: The Role and Penetration of News Wire Agencies in the 24/7 News Landscape’, Global Media Jnl, 3(2) (2010) and ‘The Silent Partner: News Agencies and 21st Century News’, International Jnl of Communication, 5 (2011).
SUSAN FORDE and JANE JOHNSTON