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April 13, 2009, 7:11 a.m.

David Carr: The reckoning is at hand for free content

David Carr returns today to his favorite question of late: When are we going to start charging for this stuff?

In a piece which ends with the foreboding phrase “The reckoning is at hand,” Carr begins his wrap-up of the events of the past week with something of a stretch:

“Questions about who owns content became a jump ball last week. The struggle results from a rethinking of business models that have existed almost since the birth of print.”

I don’t think there’s ever been a question about who owns content. The creator owns content, unless he/she sells it outright. The question on the minds of Carr and others is more concerned with how content creation can continue as the money-pump runs dry, and how to extract more revenue from online publication. Fair questions. Is the answer to put up a wall and start charging for newspaper content? That’s an itch that most surely will be scratched soon, allowing this argument to move from theoretical to post-mortem.

“News content, past pratfalls aside, has generally always been free for the taking in an ad-supported Internet format. The book industry, though, received a cash payout from Google in exchange for the right to scan out-of-print books. With abundant precedent for the sharing of revenue for professionally produced content, an increasingly bereft newspaper industry is asking, ‘Where’s ours?’”

Who will jump first? The Times? Tribune? A few more smaller-market papers? This tease can’t go on forever.

But while we’re still in the realm of the theoretical, the willful distortion of the issue continues to annoy. Words like “theft” and “steal” and “take” are thrown around as if we’re all in agreement that users and aggregators are no better than Somali pirates, gorging on sweet, free content and moving on.

“The taking of one company’s content and selling ads against it for the benefit of another company is simply not fair, no matter what the lawyers stipulate. But even though this is not the world newspapers might have chosen, it is the one that they live in. Deprived of links — the oxygen of the Internet — many news providers would wither away. The desperation was reflected in the rhetoric.”

Point one, repeated frequently in the past week: robots.txt. If newspapers or the AP feel their content is being stolen, they have an option available to them. They can opt out.

Point two: The reason that the newspaper industry is “desperate” for life-giving linkage — overly dependent on Google and others for traffic — is that, given a wide-open opportunity to not just benefit from the link economy, but to create it in the past decade and a half, the newspaper business has chosen — and continues to choose — to act like links don’t exist. Look at Carr’s piece itself; I count at least 8 opportunities for links that would help the reader and add depth to the story, among them:

  • The NYT’s own previous coverage of the unfolding AP story
  • Online coverage and discussion of the Los Angeles Times’ front-page fake news article/ad
  • News of the VEVO joint venture video service
  • The Wall Street Journal’s Robert Thomson on digital tapeworms
  • “Digital scold” Jeff Jarvis’ screed about how the newspaper industry “blew it.”
  • Danny Sullivan’s “Shut up” manifesto (in which he explains the simplicity of robots.txt)

The NYT’s online publishing system, however, has supplied six nearly meaningless robolinks to topics it has found in its database. Is this the kind of “search-friendly landing page(s)” that the AP is pitching as part of the salvation for newspapers?

The good thing about all this discussion is that there seems to be a growing consensus that the business model for newspapers is broken. And bless David Carr for carrying some Inside Baseball to a wider audience. But it would be a shame to waste this opportunity by simply seeking scapegoats and trying to bend the internet to the needs of the newspaper, rather than to use the depth and strength of news organizations to build something even better.

POSTED     April 13, 2009, 7:11 a.m.
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