Wednesday, April 15, 2009

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.

Source: Knight Digital Media Center

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