AP Backs Out of I Can Has Cheezburger Deal Over Concerns of Journalistic Integrity

8/23/10

Everyone loves a cute picture of a kitten with a funny (and often, misspelled) caption over it. Everyone other than the Associated Press, that is.

Seattle’s famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) I Can Has Cheezburger network has made a name for itself as a place where the absurdly adorable meets funny. The slew of 50 plus humor sites —from LOLcats to FAIL Blog—generate a combined 340 million page views a month, and draw in nearly 20,000 user submissions on a daily basis. It has become a focal point for comedy blogging around the world.

In just three short years, the Cheezburger name has become so popular, in fact, that earlier this month it inked a content partnership with big time Seattle-based global media organization Getty Images (the terms of which were not disclosed), and is currently in talks with Corbis Images. The former allows the sites to take images from Getty’s catalogue put them to their users to doodle and caption, before reposting on Cheezburger’s celebrity-centric ROFL Razzi and political Pundit Kitchen sites. But recent talks between Cheezburger and the AP regarding a similar partnership ended abruptly when the wire service backed out of the deal last week, citing concerns over its “journalistic integrity,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Cheezburger founder and CEO Ben Huh was hoping to strike a deal that would allow the humor site access to AP photos, specifically celebrity and political images, that would then, in true Cheezburger fashion, be re-captioned with user-generated comments—much like the deal with Getty.

“I approached AP. We wanted to allow our editors and moderators to post timely and funny photos and allow future use of the pictures for our users,” Huh told Xconomy in an e-mail Thursday.

Huh has frequently spoken to the press about his thoughts on the changing media marketplace—and how Cheezburger’s success is a testament to the fact that there isn’t just one hard and fast way to be a leading publisher on the Web. The company’s immensely popular network of sites have been profitable since its first quarter of operations, and two of the five Cheezburger books have made The New York Times best sellers list. And while some more traditional news organizations run by professional reporters and editors may be more reluctant to associate with an organization that seems to be all about laughs, and nothing serious, Huh says the comedy focus doesn’t make the network any less popular, or relevant, in today’s culture.

When I spoke with Huh back in June, around the time Cheezburger hired its first full-time CFO Pearl Chan, he told me that he sees the network steering into a new space—infotainment. He also predicted that, while Cheezburger will probably never cover hard news, the network could easily expand into other facets of Web publishing beyond comedy. But at this point, that isn’t enough for the AP.

“They felt that allowing any user to add captions may violate their journalistic integrity,” Huh says.

While Sue Cross, the AP’s senior vice president of partner relations, acknowledged the shift within the news media to digital use in the LA Times piece, this did not change the non-profit organization’s position regarding Cheezburger.

“The AP, it’s fair to say, is less print-centric, and more digital- and mobile-focused,” Cross told the Times. But when approached for comment, AP manager of media relations Jack Stokes said the organization had nothing to add beyond what Cross said in her interview with the LA Times.

And while Huh told the LA Times he had not expected to make money from the proposed AP deal, he told Xconomy that he “absolutely” plans to seek out future partnerships of this nature with other media organizations. As for the measurable benefits of the current Getty Images deal for … Next Page »

Thea Chard is a correspondent for Xconomy Seattle. You can e-mail her at theachard@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/theachard. Follow @

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