Wednesday, July 12, 2017


Another AP Mystery: What was Wide World Features?

Yesterday we finally got to the bottom of the Associated Press' color comics debut. That was a really big item off the long list of things I've always wanted to figure out. However, there is another smaller bulletpoint on that list having to do with the Associated Press, and Jeffrey Lindenblatt gave me a poke to finally get to the bottom of it while we were corresponding about the AP Sundays.

This other mystery is that for a short while, the AP comics, which were always copyright-slugged as "AP Features", was changed to "World Wide Features" (just "World Wide" at first). In tracking down the early Sundays, Jeffrey found that the Wide World name was slugged on the Sundays from March 8 through December 20 1942. That gave me the push to finally track down what was going on.

I first checked the AP dailies; they were slugged with the World Wide stamp from March 2 to December 19 1942. The big question, though, is not so much when by why.

Combing through old news stories and legal documents brought forth the answer. In 1941, the New York Times decided that their photo service division, called Wide World Photos, was not making enough money. The Associated Press, United Press and NEA photo services seemed to be sufficiant for most newspapers, and their client list was too short. Luckily for the Times, their unprofitable division had one substantial asset -- a vast trove of news photos from prior decades.

Tha Associated Press and the New York Times were able to make a deal for the AP to buy both the current business and the archives. For reasons that are unclear, the AP decided to keep that business name as a new division of their company. The new division also took over the business division then known as AP Features, the moniker they used for their photo and feature business, including comics. The name of the service was changed slightly, to Wide World Features. Therefore, on March 2, AP Features abruptly disappeared and was replaced by Wide World Features.

That was all well and good, except that in April the U.S. Attorney General sent the Associated Press a letter, saying that they were engaging in monopolistic practices, and that they might want to quit it before the government got really peeved. The reason for the letter had little or nothing to do with Wide World Photos/Features; it had to do with the AP's exclusionary practices in which client newspapers could not share their news stories -- even locally written ones -- with any other newspaper. Marshall Field of the Chicago Sun was the main complainant who got the government to move on the case.

Apparently the AP responded to the letter by basically saying that they weren't a monopoly, that there are other news cooperatives around, and that the government had no case. You don't scare us a bit.

If this was meant to make the government fold up their tent and go home, it didn't work very well. In August the government brought suit against the AP in New York district court, with a substantial list of grievances. One of the minor items they complained about was Wide World Features -- they brought it up as additional evidence of the AP's monopolistic tendencies.

Of course the inner workings at the AP are impossible to tell at this late date, but for some reason they seemed to feel that it might be best to minimize the importance of Wide World Features while this court case was going on. Thus, on December 21 the comics and many other features went back to AP Features, while Wide World Features seems to have been left as a division with very little to do. It is still referred to on the occasional column or photo later on, but they are few and far between.

To finish off the story about the government case, the New York State circuit court tendered an opinion in October 1943. Judge Learned Hand wrote an opinion that basically boiled down to the idea that news-gathering is not quite in the realm of a public utility, and that therefore the AP was within its rights to conduct business as they had been.

The case was then bumped up to the Supreme Court, which in 1945 pretty much concurred with Judge Hand.

Companies like AP that have market domination issues often like to provide product under separate branding. That may have been the attraction of Wide World - what was essentially the AP photograph service could be sold to newspapers that were not already AP members.
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