Thursday, March 30, 2006

Vermont Paper Threatens To Hit the AP Where It Hurts To Protest Bureau Chief Firing

But Is Threat To Cancel Service A Lot Of Barking Without The Bite?

Give a lot of credit to the St. Albans Messenger in Vermont, the daily that covers the state's Northeast Kingdom hard by the border with Quebec.
Like other Vermont newspapers, it's bewildered and more than a little angry that the Associated Press canned longtime Vermont bureau chief Christopher Graff and then refused to explain why, other than hiding behind the mealy-mouthed pronouncements that it was a "personnel matter."
Graff is something of a rock star in Vermont journalism, widely respected for his knowledge and fairness by both the news organizations that are AP members, along with the politicians he made a living writing about, to the point that Vermont's governor and Congressional delegation jointly penned a letter asking for his reinstatement.

That was followed by a letter from Messenger editor and publisher Emerson Lynn to AP Chairman Tom Curley:

We are asking that you restore our trust in the Associated Press. We are asking for a full and satisfactory explanation as to what prompted Mr. Graff 's dismissal. Failing that, please forward us the information regarding our need to cancel our AP memberships.

Ah, but there's a rub. There always is, as Lynn concedes. Small papers like his rely "disproportionately" on the AP to provide them with news. They are less likely to subscribe to a supplemental news service, like the one offered by The New York Times or Knight Ridder. And, absent its own network of stringers statewide, no other organization is in a position to supply news from all other Vermont let alone the rest of the world.
So, the Messenger is stuck between a stubborn wire service that refuses to let the sunshine in and the hard facts that without the wire, the slender paper becomes that much thinner.
If it's truly serious about giving the AP the heave-ho, rather than merely scolding it in print, perhaps the Messenger can enter into a cooperative arrangement with other newspapers of like mind to swap stories of statewide interest to help fill pages.
Of course, that would still raise serious coverage gaps that only the AP has the wherewithal to fill. That may have been different back in the days when UPI was still a growing concern, and the AP actually had to compete. But domestically it does not, as Reuters subscribers know all too well, and its members know that.
It creates a certain arrogance, a flip-the-bird approach to accountability for its actions, which in the Graff case are questionable at best.
Still, telling the AP to go take a hike is a foolhardy proposition for a newspaper that lacks a Plan B, and in this case would all but kill the Messenger.

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