Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

Schanberg Reports: Journalism At A Precipice – Google Et Al Vs. Newspapers

There have been, in recent years, some whopping negatives that temporarily diminished the credibility of the mainstream press – the most egregious of them being the failure to debunk the Bush Administration’s false intelligence that led the nation into the Iraq war.

But the threat that faces the press now has nothing to do with our professionalism or reporting skills. The dark cloud this time is the economic meltdown in the newspaper industry, which is literally strangling the reporting profession.

Computer screens connected to the internet, not newspapers, are where more and more people around the world are getting their news. And the advertising that once supported the newspapers’ biggest expense – the salaries of the reporters and editors necessary to produce professional, reliable information – has also migrated to the Internet. So newsrooms have been shrinking at a hastening pace, as more and more staffers have to be laid off. A number of papers have already folded, while others have gone into bankruptcy proceedings. The staff cuts across the country are so numerous that they are now almost daily news stories themselves.

The bitter paradox of this sea-change is that the news stories that appear on the Internet now are still coming from the same beleaguered newspapers. But not a penny is paid to the papers. The looters simply “aggregate” the news stories by linking to the papers’ own websites. “Aggregation” is the new-age euphemism for grand theft.

Isn’t this illegal? I think so. But the papers were slow to band together and go to court to defend their copyrighted material. They seemed to give up the ghost, accept the looting and begin groping for a new “business model” to replace the lost advertising revenue. As I write this article, with the situation deteriorating, there are some stirrings in the print world to coalesce, get mad and go after the looters. It’s the only way to bring about some fairness, since the “aggregators” are still insisting that their free ride is completely legal.

The biggest violator is Google, the multi-billion-dollar information gatherer and dispenser that sits atop the Internet business world, its coffers over-flowing despite the tanked national economy. As the saying goes, the Google slickers have been laughing all the way to the bank.

And there are a myriad of smaller Internet news and commentary sites doing exactly the same thing.

A leading example is the Huffington Post. Arianna Huffington, a smart, ambitious person on the move, has created a successful website whose advertising supports the comfortable lives of herself and her financial partners. The Huffington Post presents a daily smorgasbord of stolen stories and the blogging rants of Arianna’s wide collection of celebrities and friends who don’t mind not being paid as long as their names and faces are out there.

Arianna has only a handful of paid employees – mostly the worker-bees and techies who do the aggregating and tend to the digital mechanics. After a barrage of criticism that she initially ignored, Arianna recently announced that she plans to spend nearly two million dollars to build an investigative team that will produce original work. It’s about time, Arianna. Let’s see what it produces.

Tina Brown is another, but somewhat different, example. Late last year, the writer and magazine editor started up a competitive news website called the Daily Beast. Though she, too, appropriates stories she also immediately began publishing and paying for original content. Kudos to her – in the hope that she will eventually pay for her purloined content as well.

Those who contend that the Internet will fill whatever gaps are left by the demise of newspapers have been, however, unable to answer the key question: If newspapers become faded relics, who will do the serious investigative journalism that holds government and other power centers accountable? That kind of journalism – so critical to a democracy – has been diminished by the newspaper layoffs, and the Internet has shown little interest in taking on this challenge. Investigative stories are labor intensive. They often take several months or more for a duo or team of reporters to produce. In short, deep-digging journalism is costly. And newspapers have always done the bulk of it.

The cheerleaders for Google and its free-loading sister souls (who include Drudge and Yahoo) say that the Internet was invented to make all information free. Some of these acolytes talk as if they’re rooting for newspapers and their product to die off entirely. But if newspapers disappear and the Google world continues to refuse to do its own original reporting, where will serious journalism come from? Hollywood? Lobbyists? Derivative brokers?

One of Google’s most active cheerleaders is Jeff Jarvis, who teaches at the CUNY Journalism school, does consulting and maintains a blog called “Buzz Machine.”

In early April, Jarvis composed and posted on “Buzz Machine” the “get-lost” speech that he thought the Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, should deliver bluntly to the nation’s newspaper publishers. The latter were then gathered in San Diego at the annual meeting of the Associated Press, a news service co-operative formed by newspapers in 1846.

The running theme of Jarvis’s proposed speech, addressed to the publishers and repeated several times, was: “You blew it.” The language was hostile, nasty and dismissive.

Here are some samples: Jarvis says, referring to the publishers: “They’re preaching up at their own choir loft with angry, self-righteous fire and brimstone about their plight…Well, gentlemen –and that’s pretty much all I see before me: angry, old, white men – you have no right to anger. Instead, you are the proper objects of anger. The public should be angry with you for the poor stewardship you have exercised over the press and its service to society….Yesterday, you delivered a foot-stomping little hissy fit over Google and aggregators. How dare they link to you and not pay you?….Google and aggregators and bloggers are bringing value to you; they should be charging you for the value they bring. You should rise up today and give Mr. Schmidt a big thank you for not charging you. But you won’t, because you’ve refused to understand this new business reality. You blew it.”

Schmidt, who spoke to the publishers on April 7, didn’t deliver the ugly Jarvis speech, but he didn’t offer any olive branches either. His address was narcissistic and self-serving. He told the newspapermen they should reinvent their businesses to be more like Google and the aggregators. He gave no ground on his use of newspaper product without paying.

On the day before Schmidt’s speech, William Dean Singleton, chairman of the Associated Press, had addressed the publishers’ meeting and announced that his news service and its member newspapers (which include the nation’s largest papers) would henceforth take legal action against websites that took the work of news organizations without first gaining permission and agreeing to share revenue with them.

“We can no longer stand by,” said Singleton, “and watch others walk off with our work under misguided legal theories.” (The Singleton speech was what Jarvis had labeled “a foot-stomping little hissy fit”)

So, belatedly, the inevitable legal clash has begun.

I hope the story rustlers are made to stop stealing. They give rustling a bad name. But it’s hardly a sure thing.

Google bases the legality of its behavior on something called the “fair use” doctrine that evolved in copyright cases over the years. But this doctrine is now just as antiquated as the typewriter, linotype machines and carbon paper that used to put out newspapers. Just as newspapers have had to revamp themselves because of the new electronics that have utterly transformed the delivery of information, so too must the “fair use” practice be brought up to date to fit today’s technological realities. “Fair Use” allowed someone to use a few paragraphs of someone else’s published work. Now Google and the other appropriators give you a link to the entire text while keeping all the advertising income for themselves.

Still, some key newspaper executives seem hesitant about mounting a serious fight to create a fairer playing field. The other day, Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, chose to disagree with Robert Thompson, his counterpart at The Wall Street Journal, who had said publicly that Google and other aggregators function like “parasites or tech tapeworms.”

According to The Observer, where Keller’s remarks appeared, the Times editor said instead, “Google is one of those companies that we generally refer to as frenemies,” – which he defined as a force that while self-interested was at the same time an “ally” of newspapers. “On balance,” he said,“ they’re driving a lot of traffic to us. I don’t think most of what Google does in that regard could be described as parasitism or piracy.” But what about the other things that Google does that do seem ever-so-much like piracy?

Keller didn’t go near that murky lagoon. He said that The Times was rather pursuing a “carrot approach” in which the paper and Google would collaborate to improve the paper’s web advertising revenue. The idea is to imbed the ads in the text of the articles and thus increase the audience when someone links to the articles from other sites.

While the two sides visibly strain to make nice in public, I can’t help thinking that until the Times gets serious in this struggle, only one side will be carrying a big stick.

A version of this piece was first published in The Silurian News.

FCP November 2008 - May 2009

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