The Newspaper Association of America (NAA; www.naa.org) held its 2009 annual conference in San Diego April 5-7. Press releases promoted the conference as giving members an opportunity to "share strategies, network, and discuss solutions for navigating the challenges facing newspapers." Formed in 1992 through the merger of existing regional and national organizations, NAA members-largely news executives-"include daily newspapers, as well as non-dailies, other print publications, and on-line products." This year's NAA conference came at a time when the industry is facing unprecedented challenges, with most papers facing red ink and some actually closing their doors. On the second day of the 3-day conference, the Associated Press (AP; www.ap.org) held its annual meeting and luncheon and announced a major initiative to "protect news content from misappropriation online."
AP: "Mad As Hell"
AP chairman Dean Singleton, founder, vice chairman, and CEO of MediaNews Group, the 4th largest newspaper company in the U.S., provided the rallying cry: "We can no longer stand by and watch others walk off with our work under misguided legal theories. We are mad as hell, and we are not going to take it anymore." He then outlined AP's three-part initiative: First, AP is developing a system to "track content distributed online to determine if it is being legally used." Next, it is AP's intention to develop "new search pages that point users to the latest and most authoritative sources of breaking news," which would appear to be an effort to compete with Google News and other aggregators. Last, AP announced further rate reductions and new content options for member newspapers as a way to address their mutual economic problems.
(The press release announcing the initiative is available at www.ap.org/pages/about/pressreleases/pr_040609a.html. An FAQ is available at www.ap.org/iprights/faqiprights.html.)
AP's suggested model for a system to track content would create, in effect, "fingerprints" of content that could track usage and links. Its goal would be to issue takedown notices and take other legal actions against any identified offenders. AP's intention to potentially establish its own aggregation site is seen by many as AP's attempt to sort out a new role for the organization. AP's contracts with Google to host AP content on its servers as well as to use AP's content will expire later this year.
Journalist/blogger Danny Sullivan notes that this new system "feels like what the music industry wants to do with DRM ... I think the result would be a lot of newspapers realized they'd cut their own throats and also wasted time better spent on figuring out improved business models" (http://daggle.com/090406-225638.html).
Inviting ‘The Enemy' for a Keynote
Chief among those that the AP and many NAA members blame for their financial problems and inability to reap revenues from web-based distribution of their content is Google. In an interesting move, NAA chose Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, as its keynote speaker.
Google is seen by many newspaper executives as the major competitor for advertising revenue for news information on the internet-a source of revenue that newspapers believe is essential to their ongoing existence. Schmidt, for his part, made a reasoned assessment of the position of newspapers today and hinted at potential future partnership opportunities between Google and the industry. The entire speech is available online at the NAA website at www.naa.org/Resources/Articles/Annual-2009-Audio/Annual-2009-Audio.aspx.
Schmidt noted both the role of news information on the web and efforts by newspapers to date to move from print-based products to the web. Schmidt actually gave the audience useful insights into the future of news in the 21st century. He believes that the majority of future news information will be online, not print-based, and that these websites will be supported by advertising. Online subscriptions, micropayments, and other methods of delivering special, paid content will exist, but won't cover much of the marketplace. Newspapers, Schmidt advised, should be helping to move their readership to the web, which will eventually give them audiences of a magnitude five to 10 times the size that any of them have in print.
Schmidt noted that he finds a lot of online news pieces to be "unpleasant to read" and "terrible compared to magazines and newspapers" because they have yet to fully embrace some of the key features available online, such as personalization of information, social web features, better navigation and linking. He did note that even in the 1990s, some papers were creating a web presence with reporter blogs, reader commentary, and other features. However, papers need to move faster and much further to survive as organized news entities.
On intellectual property, Schmidt noted that "from our perspective, we look at this pretty thoroughly and there is always a tension around fair use ... I would encourage everybody, [to] think in terms of what your reader wants. These are ultimately consumer businesses and if you piss off enough of [your readers], you will not have [them] anymore."
Scapegoat or ‘Tech Tapeworms'?
On the same day that AP made its announcement, Robert Thomson, editor of The Wall Street Journal, was quoted in The Australian newspaper saying, "There is no doubt that certain websites are best described as parasites or tech tapeworms in the intestines of the internet" (www.theaustralian.news.com.au/business/story/0,28124,25293711-7582,00.html). "It's certainly true that readers have been socialised-wrongly I believe-that much content should be free," he continued, "And there is no doubt that's in the interest of aggregators like Google who have profited from that mistaken perception. And they have little incentive to recognise the value they are trading on that's created by others."
And what did Schmidt say in direct response to this maelstrom? "We at Google have a multi-million dollar deal with the Associated Press not only to distribute their content but also to host it on our servers." He added, "I was a little confused by all the excitement in the news in the last 24 hours. I'm not sure what they were referring to. We have a very, very successful deal with AP and hope that will continue for many, many years." In one of his last comments, Schmidt reminded his audience that any news source that wanted to could easily opt out of being linked on Google News.
Goggle's associate general counsel for products and intellectual property, Alexander Macgillivray, followed up on Schmidt's remarks, posting them on the Google Public Policy Blog (http://googlepublicpolicy.blogspot.com/2009/04/some-questions-related-to-google-news.html). Macgillivray notes, "Users like me are sent from different Google sites to newspaper websites at a rate of more than a billion clicks per month. These clicks go to news publishers large and small, domestic and international-day and night." He referred to Google's AdSense program that "pays out millions of dollars to newspapers that place ads on their sites, and our goal is that our interest-based advertising technology will help newspapers make more from each click we send them by serving better, more relevant ads to their readers to generate higher returns."
Similar to the company's response to publisher and author criticisms of Google Book Search, Macgillivray noted that "we show users just enough to make them want to read more-the headline, a ‘snippet' of a line or two of text and a link back to the news publisher's website."
Drawing a Line in the Sand-Or Burying Heads?
Although NAA materials describe the industry as a "$47 billion newspaper industry and more than 2,000 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada," recent bankruptcies, job losses, and paper closings instead seem to describe an industry on the brink of collapse. Paper Cuts (http://graphicdesignr.net/papercuts), a newspaper industry tracking site, estimated at press time that more than 120 newspapers in the U.S. have shut down since January 2008 and more than 21,000 jobs at 67 newspapers have been lost.
Search expert Sullivan, writing on his blog, notes that many in the industry "still seem to believe they occupy some special industry that should get wonderful perks, instead of having to reshape itself and ensure its own survival as many other industries have to do. Rather than do fundamental fixes, this current wave of ‘blame Google' does continue to be an embarrassment" (http://daggle.com/090406-225638.html).
Steve Outing, a respected media consultant, hopes that calmer minds will prevail in the industry: "Right now legacy news executives are panicking, especially newspapers. They're discussing schemes to put news content behind walls, away from Google's prying eyes, and despite many rational and convincing arguments as to why that is a dumb idea except in special cases, the movement appears to be gaining speed" (http://steveouting.com/2009/04).
Rather than trying, like Hans Brinker, to stick their fingers in the growing number of holes in the dike that has traditionally contained news, the industry needs to step back, get a better perspective on the situation, and look for better solutions. Biting the hand of Google-a potential ally that might be able to help them find their future-makes little sense. After all, Google has, more than any other company, been able to understand, forecast, and even exploit many of the innovations and applications that have become intrinsic to the growing web-along the way, amassing a fortune that even Bill Gates must envy.