AP Business Desk's Pact with the DevilS

The Associated Press has said it's "mad as hell" at internet portals. Yet the wire service's pandering to one major online client is said to be severely taxing reporters and undermining editorial quality.

AP's contract with at least one major internet client obliges the business desk to hit a specific quota of daily stories, in the range of "several hundred," according to one insider. Staffers find this target all the more "ridiculous" and "a constant source of misery," the source said, because the quota has not changed since AP laid off 10 percent of its staff last year.

(Update: The client is Yahoo Finance and the quota is 500; more below.)

Apparently AP journalists can't be given individual quotas under their union contract. But that doesn't keep editors from making everyone aware of their collective obligation, especially when they fall behind, which we're told "is often."

The upshot is a torrent of crappy articles:

Often there just isn't enough news in the day to fill the quota. This is especially true during the summer when corporate announcements drop off. At these times, we scrape the bottom of the barrel by writing up two-line filler stories based on information nobody cares about. Sometimes the info is days old, even a week old. We produce a large number of worthless stories just to fill our quota.

This is yet another example of frenzied finance-wire reporters gaming their bosses' performance monitoring systems, a phenomenon we explored last week.

And it's yet another example of why AP Business staffers have signed a petition rebelling against their boss Hal Ritter, as we reported in that same post. Ritter and other managers initially promised that the collective business desk quota would either disappear or get reduced in 2010, according to the insider who first alerted us to the quota. Supposedly, the major online client in question was renewing its AP contract and no longer cared about story counts. But then, a few weeks ago, staffers were told the quota hadn't gone down at all.

Cue the anger:

What's most frustrating of all is management continues to demand this volume while also pressuring us to improve the quality. One day we will be told to dash off short, quick filler stories to increase our volume, the next we will be told to take the time to improve the quality by adding context and detail. By now I don't think there's a single staffer that hasn't become completely disgusted with management's mixed messages on this.

It's a little ironic: AP's top leaders seem to have spent so much time worrying that enemy websites would wreck their business from the outside, by leaching free content, that they failed to see the damage internet players inflicted from the inside, by paying.

Update Feb. 16: Multiple sources inform us it's Yahoo Finance whose contract with AP Business saddled AP writers with a "miserable" daily quota. One source said the collective quota was 500 stories per day; another indicated that Yahoo pays in excess of $1 million per year for this river of content, and that the money was seen as especially crucial after the Thomson-Reuters merger went through and AP Business lost its lucrative deal supplying Thomson. (An anonymous commenter below says the figure is more like $10 million.)

One source added in business desk chief Ritter's defense that the deal was in place well before his arrival and that it was the reason the desk was able to expand from around 6 reporters to well over 50.

Another provided further description of how the pressure to fill the Yahoo deal eroded AP's standards:

Basically, the only way to meet this was to not do journalism but basically rewrite press releases — adding barely any texture or insight to it. Stories written without calling to even verify information. Very sloppy journalism. They'd also use filler stories, like three sentence pieces based off SEC filings. They'd even turn weather stories into business stories. Anything to get something out. But, one of the editors would ring a bell on days in which story count was met — kind of a celebratory move that used to bug the shit out of people.

(Pic: AP's "mad as hell" chairman Dean Singleton. Getty Images.)