In the spring of 1846, Moses Yale Beach, publisher of The New York Sun, established a horse-drawn carrier service to deliver news of the Mexican War to the nearest telegraph point at Richmond, Virginia. In selling an equal interest in the express venture to four New York City newspapers, Beach effectively created The Associated Press (AP), the first of the news wire agencies. The “wire” tag refers to the early use of telegraph technology—major 19th century powers were quick to see the potential of the telegraph not just for fighting wars but for peacetime news transmissions—whether it be for the stock market or for newspapers.
Many more countries created wire agencies but few flourished. By the 1960s, there was concern that international news flow was being facilitated by only five wire agencies. By 2000, it was effectively down to just two, the AP and British-owned Reuters. Today, a quick scan of the international pages of most English-language newspapers around the world would show AP or Reuters bylines dominating foreign news stories.
Media academic Chris Paterson has been looking at global news flows since 2001. His research initially concentrated on print and TV news, but his most recent paper explored online news in depth. He concluded, “Far from emerging as a democratizing force that alleviates ‘information poverty,’ the internet’s online news offerings, especially international news, consist mainly of unmediated, recycled stories from wire services, often despite claims of editorial independence.”
Tracking the News
Online news is characterized by three main types of content provider. The first group is traditional media outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post, which combine significant original reporting with a smaller amount of news-agency content. The second group is “disintermediated” producers of original news content, which bypass intermediaries. This group would include the new high-profile websites of news agencies such as the AP and Reuters delivering agency stories direct to news consumers.
The third group is comprised of intermediaries such as CNN Interactive and MSNBC, which, for international news at least, convey stories written by wire services with little or no editing. This group also includes news aggregator sites like AltaVista, Excite, Google, and Yahoo! where the AP and Reuters provide the lion’s share of the news, despite what Paterson calls an “audacious pretense at source diversity” where end users are “falling for a conjurer’s trick…duped by more brand labels on the same very limited news content.”
Yahoo! was the first aggregator to develop a strategic relationship with a wire agency when it linked up with Reuters in the mid-1990s. The model—using news as a sticky feature to draw and keep users—was widely emulated. Then, in 2002, Google launched Google News. Its website says it uses “searching algorithms for retrieving, selecting, ranking, and linking to 4,500 continuously updated news sources…sorted without regard to political viewpoint or ideology” and offering “a wide variety of perspectives on any given story.”