The History of the Associated Press


In 1848, a year of revolution in Europe but one of tranquility in the United States, six New York newspaper publishers joined together to found The Associated Press. The organizational meeting is said to have taken place in the offices of The New York Sun, an appropriate setting, for thirteen years earlier The Sun had inaugurated the era of the penny press, an era to which the AP, contributed a culminating point and a major impetus.

Before the advent of the penny journals, dailies demanded US$6 or US$7 for a year's subscription, payable in advance. This was as much, or more, than skilled workers earned in a week.

With the shift to a mass audience, newspaper content changed. Where previously opinion was emphasized, and newspapers served chiefly as organs for political factions, the informative function came to the fore. Partisanship survived; but as The Sun and its galaxy of thriving imitators struggled for readership, its edges were blunted and parochialism tended to recede. The process, in the phrase of one authority, transformed the viewspaper into the newspaper.

The penny press lost little time developing its principal asset, full and fast news coverage. Experimentation took many forms. The "human interest" story made its debut in a blaze of purple prose.

"... And while our hero was unsuspectingly reposing on the soft bosom of his bride," reads a sentence from an early Sun feature about a disputed inheritance, "a brother's hand, impelled by a brother's hate, was uplifted with fratricidal fierceness for destruction."

There was little repose, however, for the doughty pioneers of the new mass journalism. Rail and water transport expanded, and communications, revolutionized by the telegraph in 1844, made giant strides. Rising circulation and advertising enabled publishers to invest heavily in the wellspring of these blessings, the means for obtaining and processing news. One consequence was a spectacular increase in operating costs. James Gordon Bennett started the New York Herald with US$500 in 1835; Horace Greeley needed US$3,000 to begin publication of the Tribune six years later; and in 1851, Henry J. Raymond and his associates had to put up US&$100,000 to launch the New York Times, which soon became the seventh charter member in the AP combine.

Under such circumstances, economic common sense suggested the formation an enterprise like The Associated Press to share the costs of news collection outside the New York metropolitan area. The wider concept of a non-profit cooperative, however, remained for the future; not until the turn of the century was the principle victorious. The interval witnessed sporadic battles between the New York Associated Press, intent on maintaining a lucrative monopoly designed solely for its own needs, and the mushrooming regional groupings of "outside" subscribers pulling lustily in a contrary direction.

Despite journal jousting, the nation's first considerable venture in systematic, cooperative newsgathering flourished from the start. Daniel Craig, onetime operator of a carrier pigeon news service, established the AP's first foreign bureau in 1849 at Halifax, Nova Scotia, telegraphing overseas news from incoming ships to New York. Pigeon fancier Craig became the AP's general agent in 1851, succeeding Dr. Alexander Hones, a physician turned newsman who directed the organization in its earliest years.

In 1856, the first message of Cyrus Field's Atlantic cable from Queen Victoria to President Buchanan was relayed from Halifax to Washington. There Lawrence Gobright, the AP's capital correspondent, first summarized the association's creed:

"My business is to communicate facts," he said, "my instructions do not allow me to make any comments upon the facts. My dispatches are sent to papers of all manner of politics. I therefore, confine myself to what I consider legitimate news and try to be truthful and impartial."

AP correspondents took to the field in the first of many bloody contests. Reportorial techniques had to be worked out; so did security arrangements with the military. An initial plan of voluntary censorship soon collapsed; in December 1861, the State Department briefly prohibited telegraphic dispatches from Washington relating to either military or civil operations of the embattled wartime government. The Associated Press was exempted from the order because, as Gobright explained to a House committee investigating the censorship, it contented itself with straight reporting and rigorously excluded political and military opinions.

In general, Civil War correspondents enjoyed a measure of liberty that would scarcely be tolerated in modern times, but relations with field commanders were not always cordial. General Sherman, whose attempts to plug security leaks brought him rough treatment from the press, developed a dislike for reporters. At Vicksburg, when three newsmen were reported missing, the general received the intelligence with grim equanimity. "We'll have dispatches from hell before breakfast," he said, a remark that could be construed as an oblique tribute.

Press freedom had a sturdy advocate in President Lincoln, who talked frankly with reporters and relied on this means for a fair presentation of his case to the public. In this respect, according to Edwin Emery and Henry Ladd Smith's history of US journalism, "The Associated Press was particularly effective" since its reports were minus the usual biased interpretations common to most news accounts of the time. If any part of the press served as Lincoln's organ, it was The AP. This policy caused the President much trouble, but he believed the price he paid was warranted."

On 14 April 1865, Gobright was working late in his office. He had already sent an account of President Lincoln's theater party and was absorbed in other matters when a friend rushed in with electrifying news. Before hastening to Ford's Gobright scribbled out a bulletin, which stands as a model of succinctness in a period of longwinded prose. It read:

Washington, Friday, 14 April 1865 -- the President was shot in a theater tonight and perhaps mortally wounded.

As the nation, restored to peace, embarked on its gilded age of business and commercial expansion, the cleavages within
The AP widened. Led by the Western Associated Press, reform agitation gathered momentum. The complaints leveled against the New York management were many. The seven charter members decided what should go into the news report and they preferred to compete among themselves for top stories. That frequently left only the more pedestrian news for journals outside the New York pale. The New Yorkers too, rather arbitrarily fixed rates; other publishers felt they were paying too much with too little say in the association's policies.

Nevertheless, newsgathering staffs, facilities, and techniques continued to make impressive gains. In 1873, the western and eastern Associated Press collaborated in bringing the nation the story of the great Chicago fire. An important milestone came in 1875 with establishment of the first leased wires, a facility used exclusively for the transmission of the AP news. It linked New York and Washington and carried up to 20,000 words a day. In the following decade, the improved service reached Chicago, and by 1890, AP leased wires had pushed to New Orleans, Denver and Minneapolis. A miniature war in 1876 claimed the life of string correspondent Mark Kellog, who fell on Little Big Horn while covering Gen. Custer's ill-starred expedition. Less tragic but still notable feats of reporting marked the disastrous Johnstown flood of 1889.

By now the hour of the old, unreconstructed Associated Press of New York was close at hand. The western insurgents had found able leadership in Victor Fremont Lawson, editor and publisher of the Chicago Daily News. Lawson headed an investigating committee, which produced some shocking disclosures in 1891. Several principals of the New York AP, the committee found, were promoters or shareholders of the competitive United Press, no kin to the later UP and had even entered into a secret news exchange agreement with the rival organization. The scandal meant the end of the New York combine. In 1892, the Western-dominated Associated Press of Illinois was incorporated in New York as a non-profit cooperative, whose members were to supply each other with news originating in their individual publication areas. The old association faded from the scene.

With this crucial reorganization, The Associated Press entered its modern phase, Melville E. Stone, who had sold his substantial interests in the Chicago Daily News to Lawson in 1888, became general manager, devoting his energies to expansion of news operations both in the United States and abroad. Arrangements with foreign news agencies helped bolster the international report. Meanwhile, the Spanish-American War gave AP staffers their first occasion to report battles from foreign soil. When newsmen were denied access to surrendered Santiago, AP's, Alfred Goudie donned peasant clothes and toting a baby and a parrot entered the city ahead of the troops with a swarm of refugees.

The twentieth century had barely got past the threshold when another sizable war set the theme for an impending age of conflict. In 1904, the Russians came to blows with the Japanese, and Stone quickly deployed a veteran staff in the Far East. This included Richard Smith, who had covered the Boer War, and Paul Cowles of San Francisco, the association's Pacific Coast superintendent. It was Cowles who shook up the home office with an expense item of US$80,000 for purchase of a yacht to run copy past censorship into neutral Chinese territory and to cover naval engagements. The vessel later was re-sold at a profit.

Cowles also directed coverage of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, an event that introduced the word "FLASH" into AP procedure. Accuracy had long been a byword of the association. Now the second of the cooperative's three commandments speed received this dramatic emphasis.

The third objectivity also came in for renewed attention. In Washington, emerging as an increasingly important news center in the opening decade of the new century, Chief of Bureau, Charles Boynton gave his growing staff a notable directive:

"If anybody should ever come to you and ask for the publication or suppression of anything on the ground of some alleged acquaintance or relationship with me or with any other official or person supposed to be influential in The Associated Press, throw him out of the window and report the case to the coroner."

The presidential contest of 1916, demonstrated the soundness of the cooperative's new election coverage system, which used the county rather than the state as the basic unit. AP correctly reported hairline decisions in several key states, but there were black moments when opposition accounts declared Hughes elected and irate telegrams from members and public alike flooded AP headquarters. The association stood fast by its painstaking calculations and in time the final outcome corroborated them.

A somewhat similar situation developed two years later, when United Press flashed its "false armistice" on 8 November 1918. AP checked, could find no such agreement, and said so. Once more an emotional outcry arose, with unruly crowds gathering at the AP building in New York. When the armistice was actually concluded on November 11, some people declined to take anyone but the AP's word for it.

Helping to organize the association's election coverage in 1916 was its youthful traffic chief, Kent Cooper, who became manager in 1925. A wide range of advances is connected with his name. The network of bureaus and correspondents increased. Writing quality was stressed; interpretives and feature stories came into their own. The transition to an enlarged concept of news presentation was marked by Kirke Simpson's powerful series on the burial of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery in 1922. Simpson won a Pulitzer Prize and, what was then almost as difficult, a byline. Signed stories thereafter became accepted usage, and over the next decades the scope for individual expression was remarkably broadened.

Innovations, in fact, came thick and fast. State services were expanded and a mail feature service started in 1928. The newsphoto service, launched in 1927, culminated with wirephoto eight years later. Now and integral part of photo operations, the system for instantaneous picture transmission was not adopted without heated opposition from a minority of the membership.

In the 1930's, the character and quality of the news report came under intensive day-by-day scrutiny by the Associated Press Managing Editors Assn. From 1947 on, the reports of a continuing study committee were annually printed, providing staff and members with a critical compendium on past performance and future goals.

By 1928, The Associated Press had grown to 1,228 members; its leased wires spanned 160,000 miles. Wall Street had become big news, never so big or so disagreeable as on 29 October 1929, when the stock market collapsed. Claude Jagger, acting as financial editor, hustled reinforcements from the New York City staff to the beleaguered financial district. Handling the main story, Jagger churned out 8,000 words before the day passed into history.

Kidnapping wrote headlines in the early thirties. Frank Jamieson covered the search for the Lindbergh baby, scored a sensational beat on the discovery of the body, and won a Pulitzer Prize. The Lindbergh case also produced a celebrated mixed-up. Staffers assigned to the Hauptman trial had rigged-up a makeshift system, involving special radio and telegraph installations, to signal the verdict from the sealed courtroom. Unfortunately, the wrong signal life imprisonment instead of death sentence came through; it took eleven agonizing minutes to catch up with the error.

The next year 1934, saw the successful conclusion of the long, stubborn campaign to crack the entrenched European foreign news monopoly. The world had been parceled out into spheres of influence allocated to Reuters of England, Havas of France, and Wolffe of Germany. Incursions by other services were effectively discouraged, and The Associated Press was prevented from distributing its news overseas. Now it broke away, and AP bureaus abroad became wholly self-sufficient, dealing with foreign newspapers directly rather than through the medium of the monopoly. Break-up of the cartel enabled the cooperative to build up its foreign service on a par with its domestic achievements.

The barriers fell just in time. War shadows began to lengthen again in the mid-thirties, keeping the growing foreign staff busy. Key men were shifted from danger zone to trouble spot as the prelude to Munich unfolded. Fresh from covering a revolt in Greece and Crete, Jim Mills was sent to Ethiopia on the eve of the Italian invasion. Emperor Haile Selassie, seeking to attach Britain and the United States to his threatened nation's interests, granted exploitation rights for enormous tracts to American and British concerns. Mills scored a notable beat on the Rickett Oil concession, as it was called after its principal negotiator.

Meantime in Spain, the worldwide horror to come received a sinister preview. From its start in 1936 to the final Franco victory in 1939, a corps of AP staffers, assigned to both sides, reported the civil war under grueling conditions. Sweating out shellings and air raids, censors and snipers, their stories opened a window into the not-so-distant future. Edward J. Neil, a sports writer turned foreign correspondent, was fatally wounded during the Teruel offensive of December 1937. Paying tribute to him, the Associated Press Board of Directors said:

"If democratic institutions are to prevail, as we all believe they will, the public must be fully informed as to what is happening in the world. We recognize that the good reporter is the keystone of our journalistic edifice. Believing this, we also believe that Edward J. Neil's death was not in vain."

It was a faith to remember in the darkening times which followed. In the winter of 1938, the AP moved its headquarters into the fifteen-story Associated Press Building on Rockefeller Plaza. There on 3 September 1939, the bells on the London cable printer sounded the flash signal. The message it hammered out surprised no one. It reported that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had proclaimed Britain at war with Germany, which was already busy dismembering the Polish army.

World War II confronted the cooperative with the biggest and most taxing reportorial assignment in its long history. In every theater of war, on every major battlefront, AP correspondents served with distinction. Several were killed, wounded, the imprisoned. Six staffers won Pulitzer awards. These included Hal Boyle, who covered the North African invasion and European war fronts; Dan De Luce, for his stories from inside Yugoslavia; Larry Allen, assigned to the British fleet; and photographers Joe Rosenthal, Frank Noel, and Frank Filan, Rosenthal for the most famous picture of the war, the Iwo Jima Flag raising.

But the end of World War II brought only brief respite to the war-weary. Fighting erupted in Palestine, in Indochina; and in June 1950, the North Korean Communists attacked across the thirty-eighth parallel. The AP's Tokyo bureau went on a round-the-clock emergency footing while reinforcements were rushed to Korea. Staffer William Moore, one of the first to reach the front, was killed in action. Boyle found himself in the thick of yet another campaign. The Reds captured photographer Noel. And again there were Pulitzer prizes, going to newsmen Don Whitehead and Relman Morin and photographer Max Desfor.

Between the hot spells, the cold war presented its own peculiar challenges. In some Iron Curtain lands, it soon developed; objective reporting could readily be twisted into charges of "espionage" and offenses against the state. There was a rash of expulsions, but more serious troubles also occurred. William Oatis was imprisoned in Czechoslovakia. Budapest staffer Endre Marton, a Hungarian national, had to flee his country after covering the Hungarian rebellion.

The domestic service, too, had its full quota of major stories. The furor over President Truman's dismissal of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the political changeover in Washington, and the activities of the late Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, to name just a few all generated impassioned controversy. They called for skillful handling in accord with the association's principle of complete accuracy and impartiality. This did not, of course, imply drab writing or timidity of approach. AP's top writers teamed-up for a memorable series illuminating every facet of the Wisconsin senator's remarkable career and personality. And when the Supreme Court outlawed public school segregation, the AP was quick to assign seasoned newsmen to cover the story as it unfolded month and year by year.

And so, to the lingering echo of the latest burst of international gunplay, amid the ceaseless tumble of events on the domestic stage, AP's past blended into the present without perceptible break. The basic principles enunciated by Victor Lawson, Lawrence Gobright, and other pioneers remained unaltered in a more complex age and against greater pressures. Born in a year of European travail, when that continent's affairs seemed remote to Americans, the cooperative entered its greatest development at a time when happenings anywhere on the globe were of intimate concern to the United States. And if the task of keeping the public fully informed assumed a new urgency in the context of worldwide ideological combat, The Associated Press, stood ready as ever to discharge the responsibility.