No one owns the news

Whether you are working in computer programming, or business development, or the arts, creating something new demand a curious mix of hubris and humility. Hubris to believe that you are the one talented and knowledgeable enough to find the new way. And humility to know that you do not yet know that way and must work to discover it.

The legacy news industry today’s got the hubris part cold. The humility? Not so much. News companies’ sense of entitlement regarding the news that they report is preventing them from developing the new business practices that they need to profit in an increasingly competitive information market.

Witness the temper tantrums that major news bosses have thrown during the past seven days about the use of news stories online.

First, Rupert Murdoch complained that Google was stealing newspapers’ copyrights. Then Associated Press/MediaNews chairman Dean Singleton threw down at the AP’s annual meeting, threatening unspecified websites with legal action for using AP material in unspecified ways.

Singleton’s remarks elicited a flurry of Twitter posts from journalists gleeful at the idea of suing online aggregators into oblivion. But the two names most often cited for their use of AP copy – Google News and the Huffington Post – both have syndication deals with the AP. They’ve paid already for that content.

Anyone who hopes to understand the game being played here needs to understand the difference between republishing content, beyond fair use, and linking to content.

The AP, as well as any other publisher, has long had the ability to shut down any republication of its work. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes arranging the take-down of infringing content a snap. If the AP knows of websites republishing AP content in a manner that goes beyond established fair use, one letter can take down each of those sites. And the AP’s managers know that.

So why the dog whistle this week to AP’s subscribers? Because some journalists want to go beyond shutting down plagiarists. They want back their traditional role as the public gatekeeper of all news. That means shutting down the aggregators, whether they be automated agents such as Google News or bloggers such as Drudge and Huffington. Or, at least, requiring those aggregators to become paying affiliates of the AP and other legacy news organizations.

It’s the RIAA game plan versus online upstarts all over again: If you can’t beat ’em, sue somebody.

At least the recording industry had a catalog of unique works to defend, music that people wanted to hear time and again. But news isn’t music. News is information, a commodity that belongs to no one. True, a journalist (or his employer) owns that reporter’s telling of that story. But that story itself, the core facts of what happened, when and where, those cannot, and in a free society should not, be owned by any single entity.

Newspaper companies became gatekeepers of information due to the happenstance of technology. They happened to own what was, for several decades, the most efficient medium by which to transmit large quantities of information to local audience – the printing press and gobs of newsprint.

Now, the Internet provides a better, cheaper and faster, alternative. But I fear that too many managers in the newspaper industry have conflated their ownership of a news medium with ownership of the news itself. That belief cannot stand. People must have the right to talk about the news, to link to it and to report upon it on their own.

As Danny Sullivan has pointed out, the news industry today is functioning better than it ever has, with more original content and more opportunities for more people to find that content than ever before. If you look beyond the established media brands, that is.

So what’s the problem? Oh, yeah, that means competition for long-established media brands. And many of them would prefer not to have to deal with that.

They got used to owning the means of communication in the past, and came to believe that history entitles them to own the means of communication in the future. Every moment and dollar that Murdoch, the AP and the newspaper industry spend pursuing that false entitlement is a moment and dollar wasted. And the news industry no longer has any money, or time, to waste.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. says:

    I get your point, Mr. Niles but money=ownership in the practical sense. Newspapers want to earn money for what they produce, but that business model has dried up, and there’s no foreseeable replacement. They would love to embrace (whatever) but don’t know what it is or if it even exists. In the meantime, we’re being told of half-measures and “this might work” schemes that continue to be dead-ends.

    You’re right, no one owns the news. News companies will have to come up with new ways to package it in order to survive. Convenience will always rule because people will always pay for a better mousetrap. The Web isn’t actually convenient, not in the ways a newspaper is. That’s not to diminish what the Web brings, but it’s not a replacement for newspapers. If it were, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

  2. Your right about their attitude of seeing themselves as the gatekeepers of all news, and it will ensure that they become less and less relevant as the new news model takes shape. What shape that is, no one knows, but I think we can all agree that it will not even remotely look like the one we have now. Which leaves room for new things, new people, new news organizations to fill the void that is forming.

  3. I think you’re setting up and attacking a strawman here. No one I know of claims that the core facts about a news event are owned by anyone.

    The concern is that the expression describing those core facts *is* owned and copyrighted. So, when you say “No one owns the news”, that’s true for the facts, not the articles.

    Aggregators don’t skim and scrape raw facts (owned by no one), they collect news articles (owned by the creators of these articles).

    Also, wanting others to pay you for using stuff you spend your money creating isn’t the same as wanting to be a gatekeeper or seeking a monopoly on the news.

    I strongly support fair use (ownership notwithstanding), but I think you’re inferring way too many negative implications from legitimate efforts to protect copyrighted material.

  4. says:

    This article is right on. The AP in this case feels some sort of entitlement to the facts of the news and we can’t let them get away with it.

    The AP stopped being good for journalism long ago. It’s time for something new.

  5. says:

    i is time to make changes about how we work together to source our own news and empower ourselves instead of the old hierarchy structure of media corporations..their time is over and they know it. time for the revolution.

  6. Thanks Robert. You have raised a very important issue, But I think the issue is more complicated than you think.

    Just like Terry rightly said, these aggregators don’t collect those raw facts and publish, they publish the ‘processed’ facts which had cost someone money and time to put together.

    While, I would not contest the issue of republishing news by others, I would be very worried about improper attribution, and the act of plagiarism. Indeed, plagiarism is rampant in Ghana, where I come from.

    Newspapers, radio and TV stations and websites copy news stories and articles from other sources and do not attribute to the original creators of the works. That indeed, is of a greater worry in my opinion than the republishing of news – in which case the original source is credited.

  7. Eric Mehl says:

    I really agree with Terry on this one. Even if some individuals or organizations would like to be the gatekeepers, no one really is.

    If there’s a riot going on somewhere, you (the global you) are free to go and report or photograph. If you don’t want to read someone else’s reporting from D.C., by all means, spend a few years cultivating contacts and building relationships with politicians and their aids so you can get information before it hits CNN.

    I don’t think anyone is fundamentally opposed to Google starting up a news organization, which they certainly could do. I actually think Google is the least offender here, since they don’t give much info without sending you to the source site. Maybe they should or maybe they shouldn’t pay to be allowed to index that info, I’ll leave that up to them and the news orgs. (The exception here is the photos they post, since those are consumed instantly.) But for other publications that use the source material the AP and others produce to make money (and anytime you put an ad on your site, you are trying to make money, right?), this is a problem.

    In short, just because you read the news in the NY Times, doesn’t mean the NY Times IS the news (although their PR department might want you to think that). If you are using someone’s work (writing, photos, videos, etc.), especially to make money, but really for anyone, they are providing value to you and it’s reasonable for them to ask to be compensated for that. Otherwise, get your own news.

  8. I see this as more than just a question of whether newspapers remain “gatekeepers.”

    Your comment that:
    “Newspaper companies became gatekeepers of information due to the happenstance of technology. They happened to own what was, for several decades, the most efficient medium by which to transmit large quantities of information to local audience – the printing press and gobs of newsprint.”

    Is somewhat simplistic. It wasn’t the happenstance of technology, it was the hiring of journalists to go and hit the pavement and work the hallways of power digging up information and sharing it with people.

    The business model we’re all debating is as much a question of how to keep those people doing what they’ve been doing as it is maintaining corporate profits.

  9. I’m pretty sure soon we’ll see more and more news site where everybody will be able to contribute. Of course it will need some moderation though… A little bit like wikipedia I guess.


  10. Yes, it is true that aggregator sites (aside from those who have paid AP fees) are often in violation of copyright law.

    Why, then do they not create robots.txt files that disallow such sites from spidering their content?

  11. says:

    Who will cover local school board and city council meetings?

  12. says:

    Are you salaried? Tenured? Or do you have some other steady income such as an inheritance?
    You describe news as “a commodity that belongs to no one.” So: Who will pay to report and produce good journalism? Can you afford to work for free? I never could. And if you think we can just rely on unpaid volunteers to do important journalism, beyond the occasional school board junkies (bless their hearts), you are naive beyond belief. Ellen Soeteber, ex of St. Louis Post-Dispatch, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Chicago Tribune.

  13. FWIW, I am not a USC employee. The bulk of my income comes from publishing independent websites. The rest comes from various freelance gigs, including OJR and the American Statistical Association. So I’m practicing what I preach.

    I’d also suggest that a great many local council meetings are being covered by independent online writers. Perhaps as many as, if not more than, the number which are not covered by any newspaper.

  14. I’m sorry, but I have to dissagree with the last part of your article.

    The news industry is not better or more reliable by any mean, the big players who owns most of the “old media” are owned by corporations that are already biased, the young blogger and so called “repeaters” only copy the firsts agenda, and even though they create a feeling of diversity, it’s a false one.

  15. This reminds of a night in the early 60s at The Fillmore East on New York’s Lower East Side. A local neighborhood anarchist group colorfully called The Motherf**kers interrupted a concert, took over the stage and declared that “Music belongs to the people.” They said they would occupy the stage indefinitely until (as I recall it now) the Fillmore agreed not to charge admission. Legendary music entrepreneur Bill Graham, who owned the Fillmores East and West, stormed onstage after a bit, grabbed the microphone away from the leader of the protesters and shouted: “This music doesn’t belong to the **!!*** people, it belongs to me because I paid for it.” Graham, needless to say, prevailed and we all still pay for tickets to most concerts. In the same way, news belongs to the people who pay for the reporting. God bless them, their numbers are dwindling. As a former Knight Newspapers reporter, I’m kind of surprised to see Niles’ brand of naive anarchism taken seriously.

  16. And I am amazed by your arrogance toward your sources and the communities you cover. Do you honestly believe that you (or Knight Ridder) owns the stories of their lives, and that you alone ought to have the right to tell them and to profit from them?

  17. You’re dead right about established media brands not wanting to have to fight the competition. But, as you say, no one owns the news, but they do own the mechanisms for reporting it. The blog explosion has changed the nature of news report forever and for the better in my opinion.

  18. well,that i have to is not really exclusive as anyone who has access to the news can be considered just to be a trader instead of a manufacturer of the news.

  19. Good analysis. Nice approach to a tough subject.