AP's Curley to retire; led agency into digital age

After nearly nine years leading The Associated Press through a media landscape reshaped by unprecedented upheaval, President and CEO Tom Curley announced Monday that he will step down.

AP's board of directors has set up a committee to find a replacement for Curley, who plans to defer his retirement until the transition is complete.

Curley, who has led AP since June 2003, spent his tenure working to transform the news cooperative for the digital era. He oversaw the launch of new platforms for multimedia content, led a search for fresh sources of revenue and vigorously protected the results of AP's and the industry's newsgathering efforts in a wide-open online marketplace.

“We've moved pretty aggressively, and arguably only time will tell if it has been aggressive enough,” Curley said in an interview in his office at AP's New York headquarters.

“If you look at what's had to happen, you really didn't have much time to take a breath,” he said. “It's happened very quickly.”

Curley, 63, mandated strategic thinking and rapid response as AP faced competition from new quarters, even as dollars from its legacy business — its member newspapers — continued to dwindle.

“Tom Curley was the perfect leader to guide AP through the roughest times the media industry has ever seen,” said William Dean Singleton, chairman of the AP board and chairman of MediaNews Group Inc. “He was a visionary who understood the need for AP to quickly adapt to new digital times, a transformative leader who created innovative new business opportunities for our industry and an indefatigable newsman who made sure AP remained the definitive trusted source for breaking news.”

AP directors will meet this week to discuss the search process, with the aim of having a successor in place by year's end, said Mary Junck, chairman and CEO of Lee Enterprises, who is heading the committee looking for Curley's successor.

Curley — previously president and publisher of USA Today and senior vice president of its parent, Gannett Co. — is the 12th person to lead the cooperative since its founding in 1846 and was the first hired from outside its ranks. He took over from Louis D. Boccardi.

Arriving at AP, he immediately began working to reshape it, starting with a decision in his first month to move the cooperative from the Rockefeller Center building that had been its headquarters for 65 years and consolidate staff in larger offices on the west side of Manhattan. AP moved into the new offices the following July.

Curley simultaneously guided the cooperative into the digital age. He launched an interactive system for delivering multimedia content to customers in 2005. He pushed to develop products specifically for online audiences, including the Mobile News Network wireless portal released in 2008.

And he led the company in broadening its customer base, expanding AP's television business and distribution of its content online.

The changes came as the industry was battered by a rapid shift in the way many consumers get their news and a brutal recession. With newspapers' circulation falling and profits from advertising down sharply, AP came under increasing pressure.

The cooperative responded in 2007 and 2008 by cutting its rates for U.S. newspaper members and restructuring its offerings, resulting in $30 million in reductions that were followed by buyouts and layoffs.

Member newspapers provided about 40 percent of AP's revenue when Curley arrived. This year, member revenue will represent 21 percent.

“Tom has moved us further and further away from a legacy business while continuing to serve the legacy businesses that are still very important to all of us,” Singleton said.

Curley's focus on digital has continued with the launch this month by AP and partner news organizations of NewsRight, a rights clearinghouse to track unpaid use of their content online and seek payment.

“Tom has worked very hard to promote industry collaboration, and I think that's an important point going forward,” Junck said.

Curley's efforts to remake the cooperative were accompanied by an emphasis on preserving the history of an organization that had previously paid little attention to its past. Under Curley, AP created a corporate archive, gathering and examining records that clarified the critical newsgathering role AP has played since its founding.

The records also revealed the cooperative's long history of adapting to wrenching change. The lessons of the past, particularly how AP retooled following the advent of radio and then television news, proved reassuring in the current media climate, Curley said.

“When you went back and understood what the issues were, the technology is different, but the issues hadn't really changed,” he said.

Early on, Curley made it a corporate priority to push vigorously for openness in government.

“The powerful have to be watched, and we are the watchers,” he said in a 2004 speech in Riverside, Calif., that is credited with helping bring media organizations together to form the Sunshine in Government Initiative, which works to make government more accessible and accountable.

He also led AP's expansion of newsgathering, including negotiations to open bureaus in Saudi Arabia and, earlier this month, in North Korea, where it is the only international news organization with full-time reporters in Pyongyang.

Curley's retirement punctuates a career in journalism that began when he was 15 and called in reports from high school basketball games to his hometown newspaper in Easton, Pa. But while the field has changed tremendously, Curley said his work at AP has continually reminded him to treasure journalism's singular role.

“When I first got here, I remember walking home the first several nights saying, 'Somebody is paying me to live in New York and work for the AP,'” he said. “And I still felt that way last week.”

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