Telling the Daily Story of Britain ; NEWS AGENCIES ++ THE PRESS ASSOCIATION ++ Formed in a Taxi in 1868, the Press Association Is Dedicated to a Mission of Feeding Stories to the Rest of the News Media. Raymond Snoddy Learns How the Agency Is Being Revolutionised by Embracing Moving Pictures and Even the Weather
Snoddy, Raymond, The Independent (London, England)
One of the many characters of journalistic legend is the reporter at the scene of a disaster who has spent too much time in the pub but still manages to dictate a couple of paragraphs to his copytakers before adding "take in PA." The face-saving instruction meant that the rest of the story would be lifted from the reliable reports of the Press Association, the UK's national news agency.
Nearly 140 years after its formation by four regional newspaper owners in the back of a Hackney cab in London, media organisations - broadcasters as well as newspapers - are still taking in PA. Now its services go to 18 countries and range from the latest sports results from around the world to international weather reports. And on top of the conventional text and still pictures, there are multi-media offerings from a growing band of PA video journalists.
At the beginning of this month the main ITV evening news led with the resignation of Lord Browne as chief executive of BP, complete with pictures of him leaving his office. The pictures were from a PA video journalist rather than ITN.
"We were there, ITN wasn't, and our footage led their news bulletin. We are starting to get into that space now. As volume and quality grows we are being taken seriously," says Tony Watson, PA's editor-in-chief, a former editor of The Yorkshire Post.
The main outlet for the PA's moving pictures is the web and bulletins for internet operators such as AOL, but the news agency plans to offer audio for radio stations as well as breaking news for the main broadcasters.
The video journalists edit their stories on their desktops in the PA newsroom on London's Vauxhall Bridge Road, but among the latest lightweight Sony television cameras there is still room in this building for tradition.
On the walls there are posters of Sir Winston Churchill and what he once said about the Press Association: "Without your help the public would be uninformed and without your integrity they would be misled and defrauded." The help and the integrity takes many different forms these days. For Chancellor Gordon Brown's last budget, the PA collaborated with The Times to create a live multimedia presentation online. In one window of the screen there was a live version of the Chancellor speaking. Along the bottom of the screen, "PA snaps" were running with the latest details from the House of Commons while, to the right, specialist Times journalists added their views by writing into text boxes.
"It was a really neat application. Everyone talks about video being the end in itself. It's not. It's an ingredient in the whole mix of the story-telling process. It's how you integrate all those assets that's important," Watson explains.
At the moment the PA has a backbone of 16 video journalists, a number that will rise to 25 by the end of the year. Now all PA trainees are receiving training in both written journalism and "how to hold a camera", so in theory the new cohorts should, in time, transform the skills base of the organisation.
However, the mainstream broadcasters have started to poach PA's newly trained multimedia journalists and the agency is now racking its brains to come up with methods of retaining them a bit longer.
The move into multi-media journalism is just one of a number of initiatives launched by the PA Group's chief executive Paul Potts to take the agency beyond its roots in text and still pictures in the UK and Ireland.
The former deputy editor of the Daily Express under Sir Nicholas Lloyd, Potts became editor-in-chief of the PA in 1996 and chief executive four years later. Since he took over, the search has been on for new opportunities and revenue streams, a number of them outside the UK. It marked the end of a period of chaos that could have spelled the end of the agency.
In 1994, PA was challenged by a new player, UK News, which was funded by Northcliffe Newspapers - the regional arm of the Daily Mail and General Trust - and Westminster Press, now part of Newsquest.
"I think there was a perception in the industry that PA was-n't relevant and was slightly out-of-touch - that it just hadn't updated its news agenda. It had not gone into things like entertainment and showbiz. It was still a bit-straight laced and still looked a bit of a product of the Fifties and Sixties," Potts says.
The PA modernised and not only survived but bought out UK News. DMGT has become one of its largest shareholders, alongside Trinity Mirror and News International.
The lack of showbusiness stories has long been addressed, with reporting staff based in Los Angeles. "We have some interesting opportunities in multimedia, in entertainment, showbiz, sport and weather, and that's a lot to focus on. We have to be careful not to get overstretched as a management," says Potts.
On the multi-media front, the PA chief executive is keen not to make grand claims. The PA headquarters is not about to turn into an Oscar-winning production house or take on the BBC or Sky News at their own game.
"We're like the light cavalry. We get there fast. We move in quick and if the others want to send in their own heavy cavalry later that's fine," says Potts, The PA is particularly strong outside London, with a network of regional bureaux and around 80 reporters working away from London. It likes to think that it is no more than an hour away from a breaking story in the UK and increasingly the resulting coverage will include video.
Still pictures remain important and PA Photos, which says it has the largest team of photographers in the UK, supplied photos to more than 2,200 customers last year. Last year more than 210,000 images were added to the 3.5 million available online.
Its commitment to the north of England goes far beyond reporting staff. Around 600 of the PA Group's 1,400 staff work at a sport and operations centre in the market town of Howden in East Yorkshire. Its development was helped along by the sale in 2000 of Ananova, the PA's computer-generated virtual newscaster, to the mobile phone group Orange for [pound]95m.
Sport has also increasingly been developed as an international speciality. A new production centre for SportsTicker, the US sports results and sports agency business bought from American sports broadcaster ESPN, was opened in Cheshire, Connecticut, in December.
Chris Buckley, the chief executive of PA Sport, is based in New York in order to build the business in North America. There has also been a link-up with Sportal Australia, the opening of a Hong Kong bureau to cover Asian football and horse racing, and the setting up of PA Sport South Africa.
"I am not suggesting for a minute that PA would ever be an international news service akin to Reuters or Associated Press. What I am saying is that there are areas of our business that sit quite well in the international context and sport is one of them," says Potts.
Then there is the weather. The PA developed a relationship with the Dutch international weather forecaster MeteoGroup by buying weather information to turn into "page ready" weather panels for local and regional newspapers. They then moved into weather information for companies and other bodies - such as giving local authorities detailed information on when they should spend money gritting the roads.
"It started to grow and suddenly we saw weather in a slightly different light - information," says Potts. So when the owner of the largest privately-owned weather forecasting business in continental Europe decided to retire, PA bought the business.
"In the corporate world the number of companies that are to some degree dependent on the weather for their economic performance is considerable," says the PA chief executive.
The market for such information includes oil companies. It can cost millions of pounds to move an oil rig and the companies need to know the best days to do it in terms of the weather. Tankers coming out of Rotterdam use tailored weather forecasts to plan their routes.
"It's really good business. It fits very nicely with the international dimension, the information dimension and the need to diversify our revenues and the margins are certainly better than the poor agency," says Potts.
Another little acquisition was Lovelacemedia, which provides business intelligence in the form of electronically delivered morning briefings for senior executives in the technology, media and telecommunications sectors.
It adds up to a respectable rather than scintillating financial performance, because money is still being invested in what Potts believes is the greatest period of change the agency has faced since it was formed in 1868.
Underlying operating profit rose by 5 per cent to [pound]6.4m while revenues on continuing activities grew by 15 per cent to [pound]87m. The "poor agency" only made a profit of [pound]100,000 last year, partly because of more than [pound]1m invested in multi- media.
Unlike Reuters - now in the process of being taken over by Thomson for $17.6bn - the PA Group is unlikely to float on the stock market any time soon.
"There is too much going on and we have got things to achieve. The view is the more journalism we give the industry the more they like it and we can only do that if they own it. PA will be fine as long as the industry buys into it and thinks it important," predicts Potts. Next year he will become executive chairman following the retirement as chairman of Sir Harry Roche, who has been a director of PA for 20 years.
Potts is also working on the creation of a trust to guarantee the integrity of everything that comes out of the PA Group - rather in the manner of the trust designed to protect the editorial independence of Reuters.
"As we keep pushing out into the commercial area we have to make sure that we keep stressing that the editorial mission and the integrity of this business is not negotiable," he says.
Potts wants to ensure that the Press Association continues to have the impact it did during his career as a journalist. When he was a lobby correspondent for The Yorkshire Post and The News of The World he was very aware of the wire service covering every minute that the House of Commons and House of Lords sat, and of the impact of legendary PA political reporters such as Chris Moncrieff.
Then, when he was deputy editor of The Daily Express, he welcomed PA's provision of "alerts" on breaking stories. "It gave you a first early look at a story from which you could start asking questions and plan the flow of the paper," he remembers.
So, despite the diversification of PA, Potts says that its aims will stay the same. "I hope that we will remain very relevant to the industry in terms of our content and alert service and just giving them the constant flavour, a snapshot of what is happening in this country. PA is the story of the nation told on a daily basis."…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Telling the Daily Story of Britain ; NEWS AGENCIES ++ THE PRESS ASSOCIATION ++ Formed in a Taxi in 1868, the Press Association Is Dedicated to a Mission of Feeding Stories to the Rest of the News Media. Raymond Snoddy Learns How the Agency Is Being Revolutionised by Embracing Moving Pictures and Even the Weather. Contributors: Snoddy, Raymond - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: May 28, 2007. Page number: Not available. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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