By Harry McCracken | Monday, June 29, 2009 at 11:06 am
The media business continues to be a place where people keep asking a very good question–”How can we preserve investigative journalism and other pricey, important enterprises?”–and providing truly terrible answers. One current example: Connie Schultz of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who is advocating for tighter copyright laws that would prevent news aggregation sites from summarizing newspapers’ stories for 24 hours, and mandate that they share advertising revenue with the originating site. She points out a 1918 court case in which the AP sued a competitor that was summarizing AP stories and selling them to newspapers in the western U.S.; the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the AP.
Schultz’s piece speaks of “parasitic aggregators reprint or rewrite newspaper stories, making the originator redundant and drawing ad revenue away from newspapers at rates the publishers can’t match.” If Schultz is concerned about sites republishing copyrighted news stories in their entirety without permission, I agree; that’s theft of intellectual property and should be stopped. But existing laws can do the job.
Schultz doesn’t define the sort of sites she’s talking about very clearly, and the only two examples mentioned are in a quote she uses: Newser and Tina Brown’s Daily Beast. In a follow-comment, she does say she has “no problem with an aggregator who provides only a headline, perhaps a summary sentence and a link that drives readers to this site,” which presumably lets Google News off the hook. But there are countless sites that summarize other sites’ stories in the process of commenting on them, sometimes providing additional information, and otherwise continuing the conversation (and, of course, linking back to the originating site).
I’m not sure where Schultz draws the line as to what forms of aggregation are acceptable and which ones aren’t. But I do know this: A world without aggregation and summarization would be one in which sites like Technologizer couldn’t exist. Schultz’s proposed law, if it applied to Technologizer and there wasn’t a way to opt out, would kill this site almost immediately. A huge percentage of our traffic comes from other sites that quote us (often in large chunks), summarize us (often in an admirable concise fashion), and send readers our way. If the law forbid them from doing so, our traffic would nosedive instantly, and we wouldn’t be able to make enough from advertising revenue to continue.
In other words: Please, world, aggregate Technologizer all you want as long as you link to us. It’s how we get noticed. It’s how we make the money that lets us do this.. It’s the surest proof that we matter, and best path to a healthy future.
The forced revenue sharing and 24-hour embargo that Schultz approves of wouldn’t help. If sites had to pay to riff on Technologizer’s stories and link to us, most wouldn’t, and after 24 hours have passed, news usually isn’t news–a vast percentage of all links to our stuff come in the first day.
Schultz brings up a 1918 court case to buttress her argument. She might be happy if the media biz and its economics were the same as they were back then. But the Web utterly changes how news is created, distributed, and consumed, and precedent from almost a century ago just isn’t very useful.
Now, I’m not presumptuous enough to argue that Technologizer has given the world more than the Cleveland Plain Dealer has, or that its continued existence is more essential. But I’m utterly convinced that Schultz’s proposal would hurt the Plain Dealer as much as it would a teensy site like Technologizer: If it were the law of the land, the paper’s content would be less relevant, less discussed, less read.
Change can be painful. It has plenty of downsides. It may result in worthy enterprises going away. But how many examples are there of change being successfully outlawed? A lot fewer than instances in which venerable institutions adeptly adjusted as the world changed around them.