Friday, March 16, 2007

Smokin' by the bay

Has it come to this? Someone is actually seriously suggesting an antitrust exemption for newspapers so that they can all get together, build really high walls around their content and charge for it.

This is beyond desperate.

Yet it's what SFGate/San Francisco Chronicle columnist David Lazarus wrote this week: I'll come right out and say it: It's time for newspapers to stop giving away the store. We as an industry need to start charging for -- or at the very least controlling -- use of our products online. And much later in the column: My thinking is that this is approaching a life-or-death struggle for newspapers, and an antitrust exemption may be the only way that the industry can smoothly make the transition to a digital future. Put simply, we need to charge a fair price for our products, and we need to do so together.

What are they smokin' by the bay?

This is a bad argument in so many ways, let's just take a few:
  • Lazarus acknowledges one -- that if you ask the feds to grant you an exemption, you tend to be beholden to the feds. What they give they can take away. And you think your chains are being jerked now.
  • He fails to acknowledge another -- you'd have to rewrite a large part of communications law and case law, not just anti-trust. Linking to other stories (not displaying them on your site -- just linking) has been given a pretty clear path by the courts and lawmakers.
  • Lazarus seems to assume there are no other sources of news. Hmmmm. Let's see, the typical metro area has how many TV stations? Radio stations? (Yeah, even some of them still do news.) Bloggers? Community papers? etc. Even if you could get 90 percent of those to conspire, there's going to be leakage. And all it takes is a little leakage and you lost because ...
  • Yes, I hate to say it, but they don't care about your product much anymore. You know, the old "news as a commodity thing"? Yep. It is. Sure, there may be a few columnists or special things I want to read, but in most cases I can probably wean myself from it. Part of it is our fault -- our tendency to churn out this commoditized news. (Want to read what is developing as a spirited debate on this? Don't be fooled by the topic -- high school soccer coverage, although it raises its own questions about whether we really cover what people want -- but look how it has evolved into a give and take on that staple of many a paper, the police blotter.)
    • So the answer is to create really great content -- and then put it behind a wall.
    • In an era when people increasingly find that content by search engine.
    • At a time when if you have great content you'd want people flocking to it, wouldn't you? (At least your advertisers would).
Here's the reality Mr. Antitrust Exemption:
  • Build a walled garden and you are just asking for someone to start a competing business, many of them in fact. It's not like the old days when it cost a few mil at least to buy a press. Got $9.95 and you can have pretty much your own Web site -- you can even do it for free if you don't mind someone else's ads -- and it's no-cost if you want to limit yourself to the free blogging platforms. Do you really want more competition?
  • I'm not the typical news consumer -- I gorge on the stuff. Yet, if I want the results of yesterday's game, in a couple of clicks I can find it, and it's often not on my local or national newspaper site. Most people, I think, are so bombarded by wall-to-wall news and information, much of which they'd rather not deal with anyhow, that they are perfectly willing to snack and get on with the rest of their lives, not eat your full meal.
  • You bemoan that the Huffingtons and Drudges of the world link to stories and then sell their own ads around that. If newspapers aren't going to collectively reach into the pockets of online readers, they should at least focus their attention on other Internet players that are profiting from newspapers' content. First off, there are the aggregators, sites like the Drudge Report and Huffington Post that pull together stories from a wide array of media sources (and charge advertisers a fee to appear beside links to content that they had nothing to do with creating). Just as Viacom is arguing that Google/YouTube shouldn't have unfettered access to clips from "The Daily Show," MTV and other copyrighted material, newspapers should insist that a licensing fee be paid for aggregators to have access to their content.
    • Well, first, there's a huge difference between linking to something and posting the whole thing. I agree when you take umbrage at someone just cutting and pasting your entire column. But word of mouth -- and that's what linking is, digital word of mouth -- isn't that what writers and the networks and everyone else who likes to whip out the word "buzz" in conversation wants? And here's how it's going to work if you try to de-link those folks:
      • You're going to write a story. Then on my site, I'll summarize it. Nope, don't even have to quote you. Perfectly legal for me to do that -- reporting on the reporting.
      • Then your competitors will link to me, and your competitor's competitors will find their own way to link around.
      • And eventually within just a few clicks, people who want the basic information will find it. That's why it's called a "web." And 90 percent of them will effectively get what they want -- the first five to seven inches of your story. That will be enough. Hate to say it, but most are not out there with bated breath waiting to read the 60-inch opus.
    • And what you will have created is an entire underground or parallel knowledge economy. And it will be one you will have a darn hard time tracking. And that violates one of the basic principles of "war" -- keep your "enemy" where you can see him.

You quote Bill Keller as saying: "What happens when somebody develops software to filter out advertising -- TiVo for the Web?" It's already happened.

You quote Phil Meyers, who wrote "The Vanishing Newspaper," saying the Internet is "a potentially fatal threat to newspapers." You go on to paraphrase him: If other newspapers want to enjoy this privilege, Meyer said, they'll need to invest in creation of the sort of unique content that readers (and Internet users) simply can't find anywhere else. You lost some of his context, though. In his book, Meyer really doesn't talk about saving newspapers; he writes at length about thinking of smart ways to extend their life a bit so that we can figure out how, if it is possible, to replicate an Internet economic basis for the full-service newsroom that "newspaper" represents. As I read Meyer, and have talked with him, an antitrust exemption would seem to be furthest from what he might suggest because of its tendency to dull the thinking, not sharpen it.

Why do I expend so many words on an idea that seems like a nonstarter out of the box? It's because I think you are not the only one; in fact, I think many journalists latently harbor such hopes (I'll admit to having such daydreams at times).

But it's important we stop drinking the 1970's, '80s and '90s Kool-Aid. The horse has left the barn, the train has left the station, and all the cliches and antitrust exemptions in the world won't change that.

So let's dismiss it as a weak moment of fancy and get back to figuring out how to make it work in the new economy, the one that's reality.

Because you were right on one thing: It's a life-or-death moment.

Michael Bazeley has his own dissection of Lazarus.

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