Newspaper Publishers Should Listen to Nancy Reagan
Newspaper Publishers Should Listen to Nancy Reagan
Newspaper Publishers Should Listen to Nancy Reagan

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    If the news industry was as adept with its technology and finance as it is with its corporate whingeing and pleading, we would all be a lot better off. Not content with the Associated Press (AP) and Rupert Murdoch picking fights with Google over links to stories, the Newspaper Association of America trotted up to Capitol Hill to claim ownership of facts and to demand payment for them.

    James Moroney, publisher of the Dallas Morning News, claimed a “quasi property right” over facts that were being used for “commercial gain,” not by readers but by “someone else.” Search engines and other aggregators receive “a free ride,” he told the Senate panel on behalf of newspaper grade group. Moroney was aided and abetted by David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who is now a TV (pardon me, it’s not TV, it’s HBO) writer and producer. His slam on the Internet was how the “parasite is killing the host,” i.e., the use of news material online by others will destroy the news business.

    The news business exists by reporting facts. Let us imagine there is a burglary in the fancy Dallas neighborhood of Preston Hollow. A police officer responds, writes up a report, and the Dallas Police Department issues a news release. The Dallas Morning News then writes up a story on the burglary in the neighborhood. What is the fact? That the newspaper reported it? Or that the burglary occurred? Over which “fact” would the newspaper claim quasi-ownership? From whom would it be reimbursed if someone else noted the burglary in former President Bush’s new neighborhood?

    Facts can be nasty things. They get nastier when someone tries to claim them. Moroney suggested that Congress consider property right for news similar to retransmission consent. By his analogy, Web sites would have to pay newspapers much like cable and satellite networks pay broadcasters now. (Moroney’s parent company, A.H. Belo, also owns a batch of TV stations.)

    Even more metaphysical is the question of what is the news? In a fascinating exchange at the hearing, Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, claimed (quite properly) that the three or four lines that HuffPo uses for news is fair use, not the entire story. Readers who want to know more than the site serves up can follow the link to the Dallas Morning News site. Moroney retorted that for some people, those four lines is the news, and the newspaper should benefit because Google sells ads around them. (Note: The amount of text ads on pages with search results varies by search.)

    There is no quick fix for the newspaper industry. Simon, for all of his rhetorical flourishes at the hearing, said it best in season 5 of his fabulous drama, “The Wire,” which centered on the destruction of his former newspaper by out-of-town buyers. Times-Mirror, the owner of the Los Angeles Times bought the Sunpapers from the A.S. Abell family in 1986 for $600 million. Simon got laid off in 1995. Tribune Company bought Times-Mirror in 2000 for $6.45 billion, including assumption of $1.8 billion in debt. The Knight-Ridder chain, once known for quality journalism, was making a 14 percent profit, but has had layoffs for the past 10 years before being bought by McClatchy, a small chain half of the size of its purchase, which it had no business buying.

    Mark Bowden’s takedown of the New York Times in the current Vanity Fair (to which I subscribe and love reading on glossy paper), relates major financial and technological errors the Sulzberger ownership made, including not making a deal with Amazon, not doing its own Craigslist and spending hundreds of millions on a new building.

    If the news executives think the Web has really caused their problem, then there are a couple of quick fixes. One is to block search engines from their sites. The second is to try charging for more material and see if people pay it. The third is to use the Nancy Reagan admonition and Just Say No. That’s right. Take down your Web sites, publishers. There is no requirement that you have one, that you spend millions having one, or that the one you have be searchable by external search engines. The world will exist without the New York Times Web site, and relatively few will cry over the disappearance of the Dallas newspaper site. The Internet will live on without you.

    Moroney’s appearance at the May 6 Senate Commerce Committee hearing was the latest in the tiresome parade of corporate executives and their apologists who rail against government except when they want something or find a situation they can’t handle. The news executives are a little late to that game also. Hollywood and its allies have been the chief complainers, along with record companies and the phone companies.

    The most recent example is author Mark Helprin’s an all-purpose whine in the May 11 Wall Street Journal. He issued a clarion call that it’s time for writers, composers and others to “fight back” against the “richly financed” Creative Commons financed by Yahoo!, Google and “others of type” whose “interests would be advanced if they did not have to bother with permissions and payments for what they call ‘content.’” Helprin’s dire warning: “the weakening or de facto abolition of copyright will not merely roil the seas, it will drain them dry.”

    For the record, Creative Commons is a copyright regime that allows the owners to determine how their work is used. It does not destroy copyright; it enhances it. As CC defines itself, “Our tools give everyone from individual creators to large companies and institutions a simple, standardized way to grant copyright permissions to their creative work. The Creative Commons licenses enable people to easily change their copyright terms from the default of “all rights reserved” to “some rights reserved.” No one in the public-interest community is out to destroy copyright. Some of us, however, reserve the “fair use” of material, as defined in law, as an adjunct to copyright which allows some uses without permission.

    It’s the great irony of this debate that those who feel most put upon are among the most powerful, well-connected and richest industries in the world. Helprin’s call to “fight back” would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact Hollywood comes to Capitol Hill every year for new and expanded copyright laws and is largely accommodated.

    Movie companies, even in the face of increasing box office receipts, still complain about “piracy.” Disney could best fight piracy by sending some of its cruise ships to the Gulf of Aden and invite those kids with AK-47s to breakfast with Mickey. It might be the first square meal the real pirates have had in weeks.

    And in a feat of technological wonder, the Motion Picture Association of America suggested that educators who want to use video material actually take movies of a TV screen. Seriously? Look up the word, “kinescope,” and you will see that suggestion is really going back to the future. Before videotape, old TV shows were preserved by making movies of them off of the screen. If this is the best Hollywood can offer, they are no better than the newspaper industry, which considered printing color photographs a breakthrough of epic proportions.

    One final note: The preceding blog post has been designated as a LINK-FREE ZONE. No links were created or destroyed in its writing, and yet facts were related, words were quoted. Also no advertising was seen because there were no links to follow to pages with ads. In theory, any number of references could have been linked, to take readers to see content, and ads, in a number of publications and sites. In this instance, that won’t happen. I hope the non-linkees are happy.