News agencies are among the oldest electronic media, having survived as a genus at least since 1835, the year that the French agency Havas was established. Havas was the first of the world’s agencies to engage in significant international activity. It was followed by Associated Press (AP) in the USA in 1846, Wolff in Germany in 1849, Tuwora in Austria in 1850, and Reuters in the UK in 1851. Very soon there was a national news agency in almost every European country. Outside Europe the pace of development was slower, but no less comprehensive. Generalist and specialist news agencies operating at international/global, regional, national, and sub-national levels have constituted a networked system of news gathering and news distribution for well over one hundred years.
Types Of Agencies
Rantanen and Boyd-Barrett (2004) identified at least four major phases in the development of the major news agencies: (1) global domination of international news flow by a European-based formal news cartel dominated by Reuters (UK), Havas (France), and Wolff (Germany), 1870 –1917; (2) dissolution of the cartel, 1918 –1934, and the rise of the US agencies AP and United Press International (UPI); (3) market domination by the “Big Four” (AP, Agence France-Presse [AFP], Reuters, and UPI) in the 1980s–1990s, and (4) dissolution of the “Big Four” domination from the 1980s onwards. In the latest phase, AP and Reuters continue to dominate among the older generation of “wholesale” news agencies. UPI is no longer a major global player. Reuters, transformed by 1980 into a primarily financial news agency serving financial and business markets, has been significantly challenged by US financial news agency Bloomberg. Additionally, there has emerged a new generation of news media, primarily audiovisual, claiming global market reach.
Throughout this period there were always strong national news agencies engaged in significant international news gathering and distribution, although not on the same scale as the majors, nor, in some cases (e.g., TASS in the Soviet period), operating on a commercial basis. Their number in recent decades has included China’s Xinhua, Germany’s Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA), Japan’s Kyodo, Russia’s TASS, and Spain’s EFE. From time to time throughout the history of the global news system, there have emerged regional agencies, sometimes in the form of consortia of national news agencies, such as the Pan-African News Agency (PANA) providing news of Africa for Africa and the world since 1979, or involving entirely new formations, such as Inter Press Service (IPS), which started as a cooperative of journalists focusing primarily on news of and for developing countries. Some strong national or regional agencies have claimed to provide news services that are alternative or even oppositional to the news services of the major (western and big power-based) agencies. The scope for alternative news services has magnified with the development of the Internet.
News agencies such as AP and Reuters were classically defined as “wholesale” media, gathering news for the purpose of distributing it to other – “retail” – media, mainly newspapers and broadcasters, which packaged news agency news for their own distinctive readers and audiences. Until recently, news agencies did not have direct access to individual news consumers; their services were mediated, subject to the selection and rewriting practices of their media subscribers, which repackaged agency news for local audiences.
In addition to their traditional “wholesale” role, news agencies have become increasingly important as “retail” sources of information not only for media, but also for individual consumers who access news agency services through the Internet and may pay nothing for the privilege. Though they may go direct to news agency sites, Internet consumers more typically access news agency stories through secondary, or “retail,” agents consisting of general-interest portals (e.g., Yahoo!), corporate websites, and the websites of newspaper and television stations.
Some media that were once “retail,” servicing discrete geographical markets, have launched themselves as distributors of news services across major regions of the world or around the entire globe. The best-known examples of this phenomenon included BBC World (headquarters in London, UK), and CNN (headquarters in Atlanta, US) in the 1990s; Al Jazeera (headquarters in Qatar) joined their ranks a decade later, and others will follow. Distribution of these global or regional broadcast services is typically mediated through satellite and cable operators, which package them along with other channels for the benefit of individual consumers in local markets. In this sense, therefore, global broadcasters have become “wholesale” news providers. Additionally, their services frequently become sources of footage and information for local media, sometimes on a paying basis, another sense in which they have become “wholesale” providers. Many Internet news providers have also emerged, of which some, but by no means all, are online editions of established “old” print and broadcast media, their services of value to both individual news consumers and other news producers. Internet sources have sometimes become sources of news for “old” print and broadcast media.
With the weakening of semantic boundaries, the term “news agency” has become more diffuse, sometimes used as indistinguishable from “news media” in general.
Global News Agencies
The number of traditional agencies that can be described as “global” has diminished: at one time, some scholars spoke of the “Big Four,” meaning AFP, AP, Reuters, and UPI (BoydBarrett 1980). These were headquartered in London, Paris, and New York. To their number could be added the Soviet-era TASS, headquartered in Moscow. By the mid-1990s it was clear that there were only two powerful agencies, Reuters and AP, headquartered in London and New York, respectively, of which one, AP, was operating on the basis of a “not-for-profit” model that constricted its business strategies. These two were followed by a third, the French AFP, while both TASS and UPI had significantly reduced the scale of their operations. In the field of news agency television news, there were only two significant contenders by 1998, Reuters Television News and Associated Press Television News (APTN), the latter being the result of a merger between AP’s APTV and Disney’s WTN, both headquartered in London.
News agency identity, therefore, has a variety of geographical markers. Most celebrated of the genre are the major global news agencies, including AFP, AP, and Reuters. These built their reputations by means of print-based news services delivered to press and broadcasting clients, later expanding their operations to include photo, audio, moving image, and Internet services. While these large agencies do operate globally, gathering news independently from most countries of the world, and selling it to clients in most countries of the world, each of them also has a long-established national identity (though Reuters rather less than the other two), and two of the “Big Three” have a strong European identity. Once a private limited liability company owned by the national and provincial daily newspaper press of the UK and Ireland, Reuters is today a commercial company quoted on the London stock exchange. Over 80 percent of Reuters’ revenue is denominated in non-sterling currencies. Europe is the principal source of its revenues, but all major global markets are important. Reuters’ major competitors in the financial news markets include Bloomberg LP and Dow Jones, both of which also combine financial with general news. AP is a not-for-profit cooperative news agency owned by most of the daily newspapers of the US (and extending associate membership to broadcasting and overseas clients). AFP is a public entity constituted according to French law, with headquarters in Paris and controlled by a governing council on which is represented the French newspaper press, the agency’s journalists, and its major state clients. State clients, including both government agencies and government-owned or government-controlled media, still accounted for approximately half of the agency’s revenue in 2005, while the remainder derived from private media and other clients. The world of television news agencies (providing “wholesale” footage to “retail” media) has shrunk to two major players, Reuters Television News and APTV (which absorbed what had been the third largest player, WTN, in 1998). The cooperative Eurovision News Exchange is another significant source, but one that also purchases footage from the other agencies.
The global news agencies represent the archetype of “syndication,” and in this way they raise questions about whether the apparent diversity of “retail” media is much less than it seems if those same diverse media are in fact drawing from the same sources of supply. The argument applies not only to the number of supply sources but also to how far these can claim to be meaningfully representative of all the major divisions of interest among peoples around the world. Similar concerns extend to content. The so-called “international” news agencies – AFP, AP, and Reuters – reflect the usual “western” news values (e.g., priority to elite nations, elite sources, recent events, negativity), values which today probably influence the news selection practices of most mainstream media in most parts of the world (Galtung & Ruge 1965). They are primarily in business to provide news of major “national” stories of economic, political, and military affairs, and sport – the stories thought most likely to interest international audiences – as well as news of international relations and conflict. They have been critiqued for focusing on events more than processes.
National News Agencies
The global news agencies are sometimes regarded as the most significant players of a global news system made up of global, national, and city news media. Global news agencies monitor local media; they often develop stories that have first been identified in local media, and they customize local news for distribution to and consumption in global markets. Their local clients include national news agencies, with which they often maintain close ties. National news agencies are popular: most nation-states have them, and new nation-states are generally quick to establish them. They may be seen as component parts of the iconography of nationhood (Boyd-Barrett 2000). National news agencies are sometimes the largest domestic news-gathering organizations, connecting central and peripheral media in a network with the national agency at its center, collecting news from the different provinces, and compiling a service of national and regional news for national dissemination. Some national agencies were originally established directly by or with the aid of the global agencies, and many were junior partners in a global network of news exchange in which the global agencies were dominant.
The global agencies typically supply their international news services to national agencies. Directly, or indirectly through national agencies, national media take international news from the global agencies (which are often the sole first-hand news sources for such news), and their news priorities are influenced by the global agencies. Local media usually have access to other sources of international news, including the international press and broadcasters (much of them North American and European, including publications such as Time, Newsweek, the Asian Wall Street Journal, and the International Herald Tribune, or broadcasters such as the BBC or CNNI). These international “retail” media are not necessarily first-hand sources, since their international coverage will have been influenced by, and to a varying extent drawn from, the global news agencies, even while they are also adding valuable and sometimes more in-depth coverage of leading news events and issues.
Many national news agencies demonstrate some features of “cooperative” structure, inasmuch as they depend on the cooperation of different and possibly competing media that share a common interest in securing a cheap and reliable source of news, or, sometimes, on the cooperation of private media, public media, and state agencies. Cooperative agencies often experience tensions that result from multiple conflicts, including the interests of their owners in saving money as against the interests of their managers in improving/conserving service. National news agencies that have or have had strong ties to their respective national governments, among them the agencies of central and eastern Europe, face a somewhat different range of problems. Just as dependence on government for subsidy or for custom is itself a problem for agencies that are dependent on such funding, equally so, and for different reasons, are reductions in government subsidy or custom, a worldwide trend in the wake of processes of deregulation and political transition. Globalization, deregulation, privatization, and commercialization are all processes that have changed the nature of the relationship between state, agency, and media clients, in particular driving news agencies to provide for more fragmented broadcast, satellite, cable, and Internet news markets, more concentrated print media markets, and overall more “infotainment-ization” of news.
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