USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





Link Like It's 1999
NPR's "new" linking policy turns back the clock.  Plus, Emusic.com's Siren Song; and How much is too much at WSJ.com?

NPR.com promised changes in its Draconian linking policy and the public radio network delivered. The request form has vanished as has most of the alternately patronizing and galling language. In its place is a terms of use policy that might even have seemed liberal had it been the network?s first effort.

Instead of barring use of NPR links sans formal permission, an effort akin to plugging a dike with a pack of sugar, NPR now reminds people about copyright law and warns against the use of copyright material or NPR logos and trademark material without written permission. Framing also is prohibited. On the plus side, nowhere does NPR even appear to prohibit the practice of deep linking.

I understand the need to protect rights against misuse but I flinch at the notion that NPR might look at a site you or I would consider educational and deem it inappropriate.

Instead, NPR now ?encourages and permits links to content on NPR Web sites? -- with caveats, of course, because ?NPR is an organization committed to the highest journalistic ethics and standards and to independent, noncommercial journalism, both in fact and appearance.? That means NPR reserves the right to withdraw this permission if the link is used to suggest that ?NPR promotes or endorses any third party?s causes, ideas, Web sites, products or services? or uses ?NPR content for inappropriate commercial purposes.?

This is where you can imagine the word tilt in Roy Lichtenstein-like comic form. NPR maintains the right to use links to other sites (that?s the section about Links to Third Party Sites) with impunity while at the same time reserving its rights to tell other people not to link to NPR sites.

In the legalistic sense, I understand the need to protect rights against real misuse but I still flinch at the notion that NPR might look at a site you or I would consider educational and deem it inappropriate because it doesn?t meet NPR?s standards.

I?ve already heard from a reader who suggested the reason for the linking policy in the first place was to allow NPR to avoid criticism for its Middle Eastern coverage. NPR, like many other media outlets, has been under fire for its coverage with numerous sites using links to illustrate various examples. I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next person but it?s not merited this time. The original policy looked like a textbook example of overlawyering. I have no doubt that the purpose was to stop some egregious forms of use -- sites that might be misappropriating or misrepresenting NPR?s content -- but I don't think it was aimed directly at any one site or at stifling criticism.

For now, I?m willing to give NPR the benefit of the doubt on the linking issue and hope that some lessons in Internet interaction were learned. I still have a problem with the idea of establishing a Web site that?s open to the public and trying to tell people they can?t link to it at all. It reminds me of a toddler who thinks if she covers her eyes we can?t see her but it?s more serious than that. If you want to take advantage of being on the Web you need to accept the responsibility. The alternative is called an intranet. 

During the initial fracas, some people suggested dealing with NPR by linking to them. I?m tempted to say the real punishment for news and information sites prohibiting linking or setting overly narrow standards would be not linking to them and letting their work exist in a kind of Internet void.

As for deep links, I?m a fan of using the most direct links possible. I also believe in a site?s right to make money through advertising if money can be made and the advertising isn?t overwhelming. One possible solution: using software that shows an ad from the front page whenever a deep link is used from offsite.  Someone will create software to override it -- heck, both pieces probably already exist -- which will let anti-ad types zap away but enough people should see it to appease advertisers. Better ideas are more than welcome. 

How much is too much? 
       
Speaking of making money, one news site known for doing just that with subscriptions is upping the ante as the Online Journal raises print subscriber rates to $39 from $29 and non-print subscriber rates to $79 from $59.

During an in-depth interview about the winter relaunch of the Wall Street Journal Online, Neil Budde told me a price increase was anticipated this year and would probably have happened with or without the redesign.

?What we chose for timing purposes is to let people get used to the changes, to understand what we?ve done to improve the product,? Budde said then. ?Our hope is that they?re that much more addicted to it.?

Now that the increase has taken place, Budde added via e-mail: ?We think the price reflects the value in the product, especially given the many improvements over the past year, including the redesign and new features, additional exclusive content, expanded investment and company research.?

This marks the Journal?s first online price increase for print subscribers since launch; the non-print price started at $49 and was raised to $59 in November 1998. As a print and online subscriber, my response to the e-mail message that my renewal was coming up and the price was going up was a shrug although a steeper hike could have produced a different reaction. (Budde reports that there have been very few calls or e-mails about the price; of course, some people have yet to notice that the cost of being informed by the Online Journal just went up.)

As an industry observer, my first thought was, ?What took them so long?? Long before they decided to plunk down $28 million for a redesign the Journal had a valuable resource that people obviously were willing to pay to use. They could have raised the price two years ago.

But the lower price allowed the Journal to build audience, a concept management not only grasped but appears to have embraced. ?We could have easily charged a lot more and still gotten a healthy number,? Budde said last winter. ?You could almost look at it as a marketing cost.?

How much is too much for the Online Journal? Budde isn?t talking about price points or when the business plan next calls for an increase.  Another $10 or $20 a year and the other WSJ reader in my house and I would be talking about which of the two editions to keep.

Bear in mind, not every site can get away with a move like this just as not every site is in a position to charge at all. An extra $1 or so a month for one service might easy to sell while a $1 a month for others would have few takers. 

Emusic.com's Siren Song 
 
Which brings me to Universal Music. What does Universal Music?s announcement that subscribers to its emusic.com can download albums and make their own cds for $9.99 to $14.99 a month have to do with online journalism?

Not a thing in the purest sense. But my response to the news -- instant interest and a beeline to the Web site -- has everything to do with it.

With the exception of milestone moments that drive Internet users to news or sports, how often do journalism sites provoke that kind of must-see, must-have response? And if I?m spending time and money there or on similar sites how do journalism sites compete?  

I?m not sure I?ll subscribe to Universal?s service (although the chance to download all the Lenny Bruce I want is tough to pass up) but it got my attention.