Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Newspapers show some spine

At the annual meeting of the Associated Press on Monday, a big issue was the problem of Google free-riding off local newspapers and thus commoditizing the value of daily journalism.

There is a great summary by John Murrell on Good Morning Silicon Valley (part of the Mercury News), and specific reports by Staci Kramer at PaidContent and Peter Kafka at All Things Digital. Ironically, these are all free online sites (although the former and latter are affiliated with newspapers).

The charge seems to be led by newspaper publisher Dean Singleton, CEO of MediaNews Group (owner of the Mercury News among others) and this year chairman of the AP board. Another irony is that the first serious effort to save newspapers and the jobs of journalists from the commoditization of their work is coming from Singleton, who has been long derided by journalists with being more concerned with the bottom line than the noble calling of the profession. Today, he seems to be doing more to solve the problem than A.O. Sulzberger, Jr., scion of the clan that controls the venerable New York Times.

The AP will use tags and other technical changes to trace the use of its content by those that are not licensing its content. Or, as Kramer quoted an AP executive earlier, “What we’re really talking about here is much broader use, the commercialization of news that is scraped.”

Kramer’s interview with Singleton includes this clear shot at the free news portals (without mentioning the G-word by name):

“I think our industry has been very timid about protecting our content, probably because we’ve done so well in the past few years that we didn’t recognize that misappropriation is as serious an issue as it is. As we’re now relooking at business models, it’s become clear that we must protect the rights of our content. ... We perhaps have been timid about enforcing [those rights]. No more. We own the content but we’ve let those who spend very little, if any, get the most advantage from it.”
Kafka thinks it’s all for naught:
The thing is, even if the news guys somehow stopped people from using Google to find information they need, it wouldn’t do anything to solve the essential problems plaguing their business. Such as:
  • An overabundance of undifferentiated, commodity information.
  • The wholesale evaporation of classified advertising and local retail advertising.
  • Investors who paid too much for newspapers and other media assets during the last 10 years, using too much debt.
I find it encouraging that the news(paper) industry has decided to stand up for the value of its content, and (despite my disagreements with specific newspapers) wish them well at creating a business model to be compensated for their efforts.

Still, I agree with Kafka that this is not a problem that’s going away with a simple policy change. Clay Shirky wrote a column last month that documents 15 years of unsuccessful efforts by newspapers to deal first with online service providers (like AOL) and then the Internet as conduits for information.
One of the people I was hanging around with online back then was Gordy Thompson, who managed internet services at the New York Times. I remember Thompson saying something to the effect of “When a 14 year old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem.” I think about that conversation a lot these days.

The problem newspapers face isn’t that they didn’t see the internet coming. They not only saw it miles off, they figured out early on that they needed a plan to deal with it, and during the early 90s they came up with not just one plan but several.
After considering various options, the papers were hit by a perfect storm:
As these ideas were articulated, there was intense debate about the merits of various scenarios. … In all this conversation, there was one scenario that was widely regarded as unthinkable, a scenario that didn’t get much discussion in the nation’s newsrooms, for the obvious reason.

The unthinkable scenario unfolded something like this: The ability to share content wouldn’t shrink, it would grow. Walled gardens would prove unpopular. Digital advertising would reduce inefficiencies, and therefore profits. Dislike of micropayments would prevent widespread use. People would resist being educated to act against their own desires. Old habits of advertisers and readers would not transfer online. Even ferocious litigation would be inadequate to constrain massive, sustained law-breaking. (Prohibition redux.) Hardware and software vendors would not regard copyright holders as allies, nor would they regard customers as enemies. DRM’s requirement that the attacker be allowed to decode the content would be an insuperable flaw. And, per Thompson, suing people who love something so much they want to share it would piss them off.
Whether or not the current initiative succeeds, the newspapers must try something different, and this seems like a good start.

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