A proposal to the Associated Press: A link ethic

I propose to the Associated Press that it immediately begin linking to all its sources for stories, especially to members’ original journalism because:

* This will support journalism at its source. As I’ve written here, it is vital that we link to original journalism so it can receive traffic, audience, branding, credit, conversation, and advertising.

* This will provide a better service to readers and clients, enabling them to find, read, and link to original reporting.

* This will be an act of transparency that everyone in journalism should be practicing. As they say in the math test, we should show our work. The AP can provide an example that other news organizations should follow.

This comes out of the ethic of the link and quote that I have learned from blogs. It says to our readers: Don’t take my word for it, go see for yourself. And: Here’s what the source said; I won’t rephrase it but I will quote it directly so you can see for yourself.

The Associated Press, like its industry, has been operating under a different ethic for a different time: the ethic of ownership and control.

These two systems are coming into conflict now, but they need not conflict. As Prof. Rosen has been trying to teach journalists in another context: “Newsroom people, hear me out. You don’t have to leave the moral universe you grew up in. Just admit the possibility of another valid one beyond yours.”

The AP sent Drudge Retort and Rogers Cadenhead takedown notices for brief excerpts from and links to its stories. I reacted strongly but I’ll now try to explain calmly what’s at stake here.

The AP was calling bloggers unethical even while the bloggers were operating under their own ethic of the link and the quote. The bloggers believe they are doing the right thing in quoting directly and they think they are doing the generous thing — generous to both their readers and to the AP — in providing links to the source material. The bloggers will also say that this is an ethic the AP itself violates when it homogenizes and commodifies news, rewriting it and stripping it of the identity — and now the address — of the original reporting done by its members and other sources.

But the AP will say that it has a right to own that content and others, including bloggers, do not, so it believes it is protecting that license. That is its ethic.

Of course, these two ethics need not be mutually exclusive.

Bloggers should not quote excessively from others’ content and when they quote it should be for a reason — to agree, disagree, comment on, recommend, correct (there can be many reasons). This is fair use and fair comment. There can be no word-count limit because it depends on the use. If I want to fisk a story, I may well quote the whole thing because I am commenting on it all. The test is reasonableness: a fuzzy test, but life is fuzzy.

The AP, for its part, should recognize that they and their members now live in a new media ecology constructed of links, one they do not and cannot control any longer. To be good citizens in this new economy, the AP should respect the rights of readers who write and recognize the benefits of receiving links and credit, as the bloggers give it. They should further extend this ethic to their own work. And if there is conflict or questions, their reflex should not be to send their lawyers to write letters. Remember that you are dealing with individuals, not corporations. This was a hostile act and that is why it was met in return with hostility, deservedly so.

Now let me make clear that the AP is no idiot. Jim Kennedy, its head of strategy, who responded to my rant in the comments and has done so on other blogs, has the best strategic mind in the industry (if only there were more of him). He has inspired much of my thinking about the ecology of links in news. Tom Curley, his boss, has spoken eloquently about the need to separate content from the container — to, indeed, look at new means to distribute news (by blog quotes and links among them, I’d say). The AP has been dealing with issues of credit for years when TV stations pick up stories reported by newspapers and then rewritten by the AP, giving no credit to the source; the same happens with photos, as someone said in my comments.

No, the AP is no fool. But it acted like one in this episode. I wanted to throttle them. And so I did. My problem is not just that they threatened bloggers foolishly and needlessly and assaulted the right to fair use and fair comment but that it made them appear so clueless. I believe what they did could harm both the AP and the foundering news and newspaper industries.

How could it harm the AP? Well, I return to the case of the Ohio rebellion, where papers are now sharing their original journalism without the AP and its content mill. I think there well could come a day when local papers decide to share their own content around the AP and even to do without the AP state wire. Those same papers may decide to stop covering the world or at least to do it with links instead of syndicated, commodified, expensive wire content. At the same time, as Jon Fine says in his column this week, newspapers will shrink (or disappear). So I suggest that the AP had better reconsider its relationship locally and it may need to be more of a curator than a mill. It may need to provide not rewritten stories but instead selected quotes and links — as bloggers do.

I also believe that in an economy of links, the AP should reconsider its role. Many years ago, when I still worked for a newspaper company, I told the AP that I thought it should become an ad network; that’s what we need. Maybe it should be an aggregator, or perhaps a curator. But I do not think there is a future in acting as an owner of recycled content in an age when the link also commodifies all information in an instant. That becomes a pointless game of wack-a-mole that turns us — the AP’s readers and promoters — into moles.

My suspicion is that it’s the lawyers who got the AP into this mess. My best advice for the AP’s executives is that they should try to practice the bloggers’ ethic of the link and quote themselves (updating their news values with one more value). My next-best advice is that they should walk down the hall and tell the lawyers to put a damned sock in it or send them off for a very long off-site on a golf course where they can do no harm. This is not going to be resolved enforcing the fine print of outmoded laws built for an extinct age. This is a constantly changing landscape that must be maneuvered with flexibility and openness. But if those lawyers continue to threaten bloggers who know more about this new age and are only practicing their appropriate ethics, I will continue to use this space to suggest where socks should go.

[Disclosures: I have many dogs in this hunt, which I try to point out whenever I write about this but I’ll make a fuller statement here. I am speaking for myself and none of those dogs. I am a partner at Daylife, which collects news and is a platform for links among news sources. I am on the board of Publish2, which will provide a platform for journalists to provide links to their sources. I am a member of the Media Bloggers Association, whose founder, Bob Cox, a more reasonable man than I, is talking with the parties in this story. I am writing a book about Google and believe that its role as aggregator, linker, scraper, and search engine is vital to the new ecology of media. I quote from and link to AP and others’ stories constantly. I have worked with and consider myself a friend of the AP, though they might disagree right now.]

  • http://www.ap.org Jim Kennedy

    You’re moving on a more productive track with this post, and thank you for suggesting a reasoned approach.

    Two points to add:

    First, we already do add links to the original sources of stories that we pick up at the state level in the United States. That has been standard operating procedure for some time. Those links appear predominantly on state-level news, because 90-plus percent of our national and international news is originally reported by AP. (Sometimes you’ll see these on yahoo.com, for instance, more often on a local newspaper site.)

    Second, as a result of this particular case with the blog, we are going to work with the Media Bloggers Association to see if we can establish some guidelines for referencing and linking that satisfy all needs and concerns. So, more to come, on a positive track we all hope.

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    Thanks, Jim. Why am I not seeing this on, for example, coverage of the Iowa floods. That’s state coverage, yes? Or is that a national version of a state story? I forget my AP arcana.

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  • http://joeclark.org/weblogs/ Joe Clark

    Jim Kennedy, you don’t need “guidelines,” which in any event are not rules, and you don’t need them to come from some association that practically no one has heard of, or belongs to, or needs to belong to.

    A copyright holder can attempt to exert legal force, as AP has already done, or can appeal to the court of public opinion. Some kind of quasi-official guidelines, agreed to by only one side in the current discussion, will be meaningless. AP’s foray into the legal system has led it into disrepute; we’re waiting for AP to realize it has to win its case in the court of public opinion. Some kind of bloggers’ association isn’t going to help you there. In fact, it will probably be yet another indicator of cluelessness and a source of ridicule.

  • http://www.blognetnews.com Dave Mastio

    I have found that the AP isn’t the only one that has this problem with understanding fair use. Sometimes prominent bloggers get themselves in almost the same position.

    This Megan McArdle post: http://tinyurl.com/68tlc8 was linked to approvingly by Instapundit who also linked approvingly to Jeff’s FU post.

    McArdle’s complaint is that Dow Jones is advertising for a journalist to mine blogs for story ideas and interesting tidbits to be excerpted. She says, ” ‘Is it just me,’ asks my friend, ‘or is Dow Jones advertising for someone whose job will be to steal blog posts?’ Quick answer: yes.”

    Neither journalists nor bloggers should get to have it both ways.

  • http://blackblueandredallover.wordpress.com/ Paul Evans

    I didn’t see Jim responding to how AP handles photos. Would love to see them require credit to the original shooter and their agency/publication.

    Maybe this legal business is just an error or a blip. Guess we will have to wait and see. But if AP expects fairness from others it should extend that same fairness to everyone with whom it does business. AP created a lot of unhappy customers over the past few decades and they may not leap quickly to its defense on this current issue. Besides, a lot of them have problems of their own.

  • http://www.beatcanvas.com Brett Rogers

    I think part of the problem here is that linking and sourcing is not always easy. For example, if you, Jeff, link to an article from Reuters, and I like it and I link and attribute to you, not Reuters (which happens a lot in the blogosphere), then Reuters is out of the loop and you’re getting the credit.

    What would be cool is a way to have the source info (name, link, date, etc) remain sticky with the content, not unlike watermarking a photo. Just like RSS became a standard, we need a similar standard for attributes. Then imagine a button you can click by every article online to collect into clipboard the source info to make it easy to embed. Like YouTube, but for stories.

    Encourage the big services and news companies to get behind this standard and push it hard.

    This might make it easier for curmudgeons like the AP if they see their brand more easily and consistently promoted. And if they don’t, but others do, they’ll be left behind. Darwin, and all that…

  • http://godlessliberalhomo.blogspot.com libhomo

    Given the right-wing bias of AP, maybe it’s best to rely more on independent media anyway.

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  • Your Uncle Bastard

    This is exactly the same BS the AP pulls *all the time*. Why, for instance, does it repeatedly rip off original reporting content from TPM Media without credit, then turn around and huff so ridiculously for fair use according to the quote and link ethic?

    Take your ball and GO HOME, AP! You are not needed any more, and we need the trees to breathe.

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  • DennisG

    @Jim Kennedy
    Can you maybe also come back to the suggestion that you pass by the lawyers and tell them to back off the bloggers.
    Where exactly is this coming from within AP. Any reasonable internet Strategist would love to get all the free link love and free traffic. The more the better…

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  • chris

    What navel gazing! It matters not a damm whether the AP does or does not put links at the end of its stories. Ethics, my god. Bloggers/blogging is a harmless waste of time. Nothing more.

  • chris

    New ecology of media. Excuse me, I have just thrown up.

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  • http://moneyries.blogspot.com $ries

    Seeing that Jim Kennedy was the first to post, saying “You’re moving on a more productive track with this post, and thank you for suggesting a reasoned approach.” (and no, im not paying for that quote Jim), it leaves me to wonder if this post was a bit of a redaction, encouraged by Jim himself. His comment is almost fatherly.

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  • http://scripting.disqus.com/ap_objects_to_quoting_and_linking_scripting_news/#comment-690959 Bill Enator

    What this looks more and more like is that the AP considers that they are entitled to “Own the news”, not just the expression of the news but the “facts of the day” or as AP’s chief strategist called it “conversation of the day” as well.

    AP is trying to strong arm and coerce bloggers, the aggregators and online news into accepting terms that no court would ever grant them. The AP is probably willing to bet that not too many people have the resources or willingness to mount a defense.

    No doubt about it.. they consider this an end game play

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  • http://www.ricksrss.com Rick Hancock

    The AP is now in the business of marketing many of its services, why not create affordable blogger accounts. iTunes and other music pay sites figured out a way for people to buy instead of illegally download music. I did a very quick check on the AP website and came across this on its FAQ page

    ” How can I become a member of The Associated Press and receive AP services?
    If you are a newspaper, radio or television station, you can become a member of the AP cooperative.

    If you are not a member of The Associated Press, but want to receive AP news for your Web site or wireless service, company intranet, desktop or other interactive application, you can contact AP Digital. ”

    Not sure how much AP Digital costs, but whatever it is, it’s probably out of the financial reach of most bloggers. However, I’m sure many bloggers would be willing to pay a reasonable amount to legally use AP content. Maybe AP and the Media Bloggers Association can cut a deal where members in good standing can legally access AP content.

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    I don’t want to buy AP content. I’m not putting stories up on my site. I sometimes did want to quote, link to, promote, and benefit AP stories. But I can always find the same story somewhere else and the AP’s is the most commodified version, always. I’d rather find, link to, and quote original reporting. And if the AP doesn’t want our links, well, that is certainly their loss.

  • http://www.newscred.com Shafqat

    @Jeff – I think Rick makes a good point when it comes to aggregators and so-called ‘social news sites.’ The AP does allow these sites to host full articles, and the price is fairly reasonable but still out of the reach of regular bloggers. As you point out, most bloggers don’t want to nor to they need to buy AP content.

    However, there are news aggregation sites out there, such as mine (full disclosure: I’m cofounder of NewsCered), that should pay for content. Otherwise, we get into splogging territory which is clearly undesirable. For everyone else and also for my personal writing, the ethic of the link and quote is how I will live and die.

    Shafqat

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  • http://vinylart.blogspot.com Daniel Edlen

    Jeff,

    Re: your comment on June 21st

    That’s what I’d say. Let them build their wall. What are they trying to keep out again?

    Peace.

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