Associated Press expansion had more to do with competition than imperialism, new research says


Staff Reporter

The international expansion of news agencies in the early 20th century had more to do with journalistic competition and business strategies than media imperialism, Ryerson journalism professor Gene Allen argues in his new research.

Allen’s scholarly paper, published in a recent issue of Journalism Studies, focuses on the Associated Press’s (AP) competition with rival American news agency United Press.

“One of the questions about the international news system is how do you account for the dominance of the United States and Britain and France (in the 20th century),” Allen said in an interview. “Why did that happen and how did that happen? And a lot of people have taken different approaches.”

While he agrees that the imperialist approach played a part in AP’s expansion, Allen asserts that competition with another U.S. agency, United Press (UP), was the crucial motive. For many years, AP’s main goal was to provide its U.S. subscribers with a better supply of international news than its competition, rather than to sell its own content around the world. Even when AP embraced international news distribution more aggressively, competition with UP remained a key underlying motive.

“I think there’s some truth to that (imperialist approach),” Allen said in an interview. “But what I’ve found when I looked at the documents very carefully is that it was actually journalistic considerations and competitive considerations that had a lot to do with how the expansion happened.”

Allen’s paper in Journalism Studies, entitled “Catching Up With The Competition: The international expansion of Associated Press, 1920-1945,” also explores AP’s withdrawal from the Reuters-controlled international news cartel in 1934. The article is the first paper of a much larger project – since 2012, Allen has been writing the biography of Kent Cooper, who ran AP from 1925 to 1951.

Allen said he is excited about the project because he has been given access to the AP corporate archives in New York, which only became available to researchers in the last few years. He has spent most of his last three summers in New York going through the material.

Allen’s argument goes against the widely held “media imperialism” interpretation – expressed in an influential 1980 report released by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). He also argues that the current debate about whether Western news companies will still continue to dominate internationally has no clear answers, even as news is developing and spreading from other parts of the world at a faster rate.

“A lot of the news organizations in Third World countries, broadly speaking, do have strong government connections and they’re very open to government influence,” said Allen. “The Western model of journalistic independence is not perfect, but a lot of people who are in the journalism business think that it’s probably better than the alternative.”

Allen concludes that AP’s experience underscores “the importance of understanding the business of journalism, especially its competitive and strategic imperatives. Business history, with its strong case-study orientation, and journalism history, which insists on taking journalistic motives and practices seriously, do not provide a competing explanation to critical political economy so much as a complementary one.”