At a time when major media organizations are cutting back on the most vital ap-celebrity.jpgnews coverage, how discomforting to know that some are increasing their celebrity reporting instead. I’ve learned that the venerable Associated Press is finally making good on its promise to pour major dollars into beefing up its already huge entertainment coverage by hiring 21 new employees in 2008 spread across Los Angeles, New York and London. (See internal memo below.) It’s also cold comfort that AP insists its new separate entertainment vehicle is “not about gossip, unnamed sources and innuendo or about ‘peephole’ journalism with AP photographers becoming paparazzi.” Instead, the wire service claims it’s just giving its members what they want “in an area of growing interest” because it “makes good business sense”.

Certainly, the AP is under intense financial pressure during these doomed celebrities2.JPGeconomic times for newspapers: Dow Jones newswires just announced it’ll stop using AP stories after failing to agree on a price after more than a year of negotiations. Clearly, the AP now thinks that Hollywood coverage can become its new cash cow. It’s already led to AP signing a deal to provide celebrity video for

Specifically, newly appointed Director of Entertainment Content Daniel Becker, based in Los Angeles, will oversee AP’s expanding showbiz coverage across video, photo, audio and text formats as well as help develop new multimedia products. I’m told that deputy entertainment editor Josh Dickey has been brought from New York to Los Angeles, and Ryan Nakashima, who covers corporate entertainment business, is coming from Las Vegas, where he was covering the casinos, to Los Angeles as well. Reporter Derrik Lang, too, has relocated to Los Angeles and begun working a newly created celebrity beat. Additionally, ex-Variety reporter Dan Cox will work as a stringer at the courts covering celebrity and showbiz cases. And Entertainment Editor Jesse Washington has restructured his primary editors to provide coverage from 4 AM to 7 PM Pacific Time in order to be “more agile and aggressive” to compete with other real-time entities like I hear the AP also is desperate for exclusives.

Back in January, AP’s Los Angeles bureau told staffers that “now and for the foreseeable future, virtually everything involving Britney is a big deal.” Lou Ferrara, the AP’s managing editor for sports, entertainment and multimedia, explained to The New York Times that the news service’s more than 1,500 daily papers and thousands of other media outlets were hungering for more photos and videos of celebrities. He briefly referred to the AP’s entertainment expansion plans without elaborating.

I’ve obtained this AP internal Q&A with the AP’s new showbiz coverage boss Becker:

What is the purpose of your newly created post, and how does the position fit into our current organization?
AP created the Director of Entertainment Content position to oversee all components of the new entertainment group. My role is to unify our entertainment efforts across all platforms and deliver increased market-driven content to meet the growing demands of our members and clients. I report jointly to our business owner, APTN Executive Director Nigel Baker, and Managing Editor for Sports, Entertainment and Multimedia Lou Ferrara. I work closely with both to develop the content and business side of the entertainment vertical. The vertical’s print, video and photo entertainment content heads report to me.

What is the most exciting and/or most challenging part of your position?
Everything is possible! We have the right resources supporting us, which allows our team to build in every direction. We are exploring new models for effective multi-format work environments and efficiencies, and are putting great emphasis on teamwork and working towards common goals. Most exciting to me is witnessing the Associated Press’ brand becoming more visible among the entertainment community.

Why an entertainment vertical?
There is overwhelming demand from customers and members for coverage of celebrity, movies and music. According to PQ Media, the market for outsourced entertainment news content is set to rise by 77% by 2011 to $960 million. So, increasing our entertainment coverage provides an opportunity to give them more of the content they want and to increase revenue at the same time. AP is uniquely positioned to become the definitive provider of entertainment news for all media formats largely because of our reputation for accurate, unbiased coverage. No other competitor can offer our reach or our unique global mix of daily video, photos and text coverage, as well as rich archives. In a world of single source providers, that’s an important advantage.

Why can’t we just increase coverage? Why is a separate entertainment group necessary?
The entertainment vertical will be produced by a separate AP entertainment group, with its own unified staff, management structure and P&L. The new division will be responsible for AP’s entertainment coverage in all formats and for developing new content products to satisfy the needs of print, digital and broadcast customers. Having a separate, dedicated group of entertainment staff allows AP to fine tune its content offerings to meet the large demands from customers and members. It also offers a way to build awareness of AP and differentiate our services. Ultimately, creating a separate entertainment division will make AP stronger journalistically and financially.

There is a fear that this will take AP closer to tabloid journalism. How will AP ensure it maintains its journalistic standards?
The entertainment vertical is not about gossip, unnamed sources and innuendo or about “peephole” journalism with AP photographers becoming paparazzi. It’s about recognizing an opportunity to use our journalistic talent and unmatched network of resources to produce high quality, multimedia coverage in an area of growing interest. AP’s high editorial standards and news values will continue to be observed, honored and practiced. That makes good business sense, too: In a realm in which gossip and innuendo abound, particularly on the Web, our standards establish us as the trusted, authoritative voice on entertainment for all our members and customers.

What new products are currently being developed?
The entertainment vertical will focus on coverage that is most often requested by our members and customers – coverage of celebrities, movies and music – with an emphasis on photo and video products to meet the growing demands of the market. Future products will be developed and targeted for the online and broadcast markets, which are seen as the largest areas of growth. The first new content offering from the entertainment division will focus on celebrities and be heavily image driven. To that end, we will start ramping up celebrity coverage soon. The new initiative has already led to a new signing for AP, a deal to provide celebrity video for

What differences will staffers currently covering Entertainment notice in their day-to-day work?
There is no plan to shift reporters; beat reporters will stay focused on their assigned areas of coverage. Our goal is to free up the entertainment staff to develop sources and impact stories, break news and push for greater in-depth coverage across all platforms. To this end, Director of State News Training John Dowling is organizing two competitive reporting workshops for the text, photo, video and radio staff in Los Angeles, and we are encouraging the group to proactively seek involvement in areas outside their major disciplines.

Are there any staffing changes on the horizon?
We are planning for an additional 21 new employees in 2008 spread across Los Angeles, New York and London. In filling these positions, we will be looking at both internal and external candidates. Entertainment Editor Jesse Washington has restructured his primary editors to provide coverage from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Eastern. The new schedule allows them to be more agile and aggressive, and to cover more of the crucial Los Angeles copy. Reporter Derrik Lang relocated to Los Angeles and began working a newly created celebrity beat. Additionally, Los Angeles expects to hire an entertainment writer in April who will work in the courthouse covering celebrity cases.