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.

Essential reading for journalists caught in the meltdown

Lost amongst the angst and anger over the bankruptcies running through the news business like a cold through a kindergarten is the wisdom that a few smart voices have offered, and continue to offer, this industry. Not everyone was caught asleep by what has happened over the past few years. If the people running the nation’s newspaper companies had listened to those voices before, more newsrooms would be thriving now. If they would listen now, perhaps more newsrooms could be saved.

Here are four essential articles from the past two weeks that anyone concerned about the future of news should read. They do not speak with unanimity, but do provide a sample of the voices that ought to be leading any discussion about the future of journalism online.

Steve Yelvington
Another day, another Van Winkle, Feb. 28

Everything I’ve learned since 1994 leads me to believe that business approaches built around an assumption of scarcity will not work in an economy of surplus. And imagining that newspapers have some sort of defensible monopoly on the consumer value they provide is delusional.

Yelvington destroys the argument made by the L.A. Times’ David Lazarus, among many others, that iTunes provides a compelling model for charging consumers for news stories.

Paul Robinson
Business Models of News, Feb. 23

In essence to secure the advertising for the print edition, they have in the past completely undermined the business they need to survive in the future. They have told every one of their advertisers that online adverts are not worth paying for.

The problem, Robinson writes, is not that early online newspapers gave away the content. The problem is that they gave away the ads. Now, newspaper companies, as well as their online start-up competition, are paying the price, earning less than they would for online journalism had the newspapers not “sold out” the Web in its early days.

Earl J. Wilkinson
No Iceberg: Separating Truth from Fiction About Newspapers In This Recession, Feb. 25

I’ve heard that one of the Tribune Company’s leading newspapers may have made a US$100 million profit in an otherwise horrible 2008 due to cost containment and targeting its opportunities. But put that in the context of the US$13 billion debt the Tribune Company has amassed and must service!

You can throw off impressive profits, but the way newspaper companies structured their debt to acquire other newspapers assumed they could lift 20 percent margins to 30 percent and more. Little thought was given to the idea that margins could drop from 20 percent to 10 percent or less.

That is turning into a Shakespearean miscalculation.

Wilkinson contrasts U.S. newspapers with those in Europe to portray American papers as behemoths that have borrowed too much to spend too much, focusing on their own products rather than making valuable connections with their audiences. But failure is not inevitable. Wilkinson offers broad models that he believes can help U.S. newsrooms survive this downturn.

Eric Ulken
Newspapers’ supply-and-demand problem (Why you should quit doing what everyone else is), Feb. 25

I’m no economist, but I think the problem comes down to this: The Internet is a single, efficient market governed by the laws of supply and demand. Because there’s surplus ad inventory online — particularly low-grade inventory — prices are falling. But what if the surplus inventory is largely the result of a glut of duplicative content? Would the problem go away if news organizations simply stopped doing about half of what they do and focused on the stuff nobody else is producing?

Ulken brought it all together for us last week, offering the apparently-not-so-simple solution that should provide hope for any news publisher: If you want to have content that has value, create valuable content… and quit wasting your money and staff time creating everything else.

This is not a crisis of journalism. It is a crisis of management. Rather than hoping newsrooms burdened by corporate debt can escape bankruptcy, perhaps we should root instead for them to liquidate (and not simply to restructure) as swiftly as legally possible. Perhaps then, individual newsrooms can pass from the hands of the managers who got us into this mess into new ownership that might better respect and value its relationships with readers and advertisers.

Those who managed us into this mess have had their chance. Rather than moan about how our communities should change to save our businesses, we need new leadership that will change our businesses to help save our communities. It’s time for new voices to run journalism. If the corporate boards that oversee the industry do not identify those voices, their competitors – from online start-ups, non-profits or even partisan media – soon will.

The New York Times needs an online impresario to help it pay its bills

The New York Times should indeed use its website to generate more revenue – but not by charging for any part of its presently all-free daily report. Executive Editor Bill Keller’s recent ruminations on the touchy subject of paid content have led to speculation that the dearly departed Times Select will be reincarnated in some more palatable form. Times Select required users to start paying for the paper’s columnists and some other stories. It threw in as a sweetener the paper’s archives going back to the 19th century. But most of the millions of users decided they wouldn’t pay for content they’d been getting for free.

A confidential memo from multimedia publishing pioneer Steve Brill obtained by Romenesko argues that the Times should “[flip] the Web’s lethal dynamics” and start charging for online content. Under Brill’s elaborate pricing scheme – you have to read his whole, alternately maddening and inspired memo – visitors would pay $55 a year to get access to all content. Search engines and aggregation sites would continue to get free access to the headline and first paragraph of each story – to help keep relevant as an information source on the Internet. Brill, who unsuccessfully tried to sell paid content with his Brill’s Content during the boom/bust, acknowledges in his memo “all of this may seem unrealistic,” but nonetheless concludes, “There is no alternative.”

Times Select was a bust, as was Brill’s Content. But there’s another way for the Times to exploit the potential of its website to raise needed revenue that advertising by itself can’t bring. Why doesn’t the Times mobilize its redoubtable 1,300-person-strong newsroom to start producing added-value online content for which, I’ll bet, a good fraction of users would pay a monthly fee? A lot of the content would help out-of-town visitors make their trips to NYC and other cities more interesting and even memorable. I spelled out some content specifics for what I called TimesPlus in an OJR article last December.

The Times is already half way there in producing added value beyond the daily report – and for which it rightly charges (and finds willing buyers). Except you can’t find it online.

There’s the New York Times Travel Show – Feb. 6-8 this year at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center – for which tickets cost $15. The Times charges as much from $30 to $65 ($100 for “VIP” seating) for lectures, musical performances and other events at TimesCenter, the popular multi-purpose venue in the New York Times Building. Those events, and others like them, could be re-purposed as part of the multi-media TimesPlus subscription package. After all, millions of out-of-town users can’t go to the Javits Center or TimesCenter.

To make TimesPlus happen, the paper needs to hire an online Sol Hurok-type impresario – I doubt there’s any such person on the premises now – who could figure out how to creatively unlock all the under-used talent in the newsroom – and maybe in other departments at the paper. One Hurokian gambit might be for the Times to persuade Broadway and other theater producers to permit video clips of their shows to be part of the TimesPlus package. What a draw that would be to lure subscribers. With the theatrical industry facing shrinking audiences in what is likely to be a long-term economic crunch, producers might see such a deal as a win-win.

The annual bill for the Times daily news report is above $200 million, according to one recent estimate. If just 10 percent of the website’s 20 million unique visitors signed up for TimesPlus – at, say, $100 a year – that would pay for a big chunk of the news, which Executive Editor Keller rightly says comes only through “hard, expensive, sometimes dangerous work.”