Stewardship v. ownership of our news, money, and society

In this week’s news from Wall Street and in last week’s news convention we are seeing the problems that arise when people who are granted stewardship over our assets — charged with the care of our news or our money — instead think they have ownership of them.

The most appalling moment at last week’s Online News Association meeting in Washington came when a representative of the World Association of Newspapers showed off a would-be “standard” for publishers to tell search engines what they may not do. He demonstrated how a news site marked up its content and then showed how a search engine — French, no surprise — followed the instructions. Et voilà: The news site’s content didn’t show up at all. And they were proud of this. I was frightened. They have created a system to hide news. (Our news.)

Here was WAN’s protectionist view of how to preserve news — or rather, its control of news. Luckily, search engines are ignoring it, pointing out that most of these controls exist already and that WAN’s reputed standard could become a boon to spammers. The standard is meaningless, useless, and dangerous. But according to a representative of the Newspaper Association of America, that hasn’t stopped them from signing on. What are they thinking? We need to find more ways to get our journalism into more hands and more conversations and to involve more people in that process, sharing more information. Not our august associations of newspapers. They want to protect their ownership of news.

I heard more than one news executive I respect say at this year’s meeting that the ONA feared becoming the online organization of a dying medium. Wonder why. The hall was filled with employees of old-media organizations that happened to have added new-media arms. The awards they give each other are almost all to their own kind. And they say the blogosphere is an echo chamber.

If I were the ONA, I would cancel whatever schmanzy digs it has reserved for next year’s fest in San Francisco and hire an abandoned factory floor or put up tents in an empty field and I’d open the thing up, begging all the new practitioners of news to come and share. The organization acts as if online news is their domain because theirs was the news business. They owned news.

No more. Now — thank goodness — the press-sphere is made up of an endless variety of players: professionals, former professionals, bloggers, witnesses, technologists, aggregators, analysts, networks, platforms, business people, foundations, NGOs, search engines….

News organizations didn’t own the news as they thought. They were stewards of it. Their stewardship is proving to have been inadequate. Their definition of protecting the news has been to protect their control of it — see: WAN, NAA.

The same can be said of our financial institutions. Their stewardship of our own assets is proving to be disastrous. They thought they owned the industry. Instead, they had the privilege of handling our money so long as they had our trust. They have failed horribly.

The same is said — but too often not meant — when we talk of government. Politicians’ stewardship is clearly lacking.

The original definition of stewardship made it clear that the people who took care of a household and managed its assets — its stewards — acted as servants, not owners. Their control was granted based on trust.

We need new systems and new stewards. I’m not suggesting that the mob take over news, finance, and government. We’re too busy for that. We need stewards but we need stewards we can trust. The key to trust today, in any of these arenas, is openness and transparency. Hiding from the world is no way to get there.

  • Ken Sands

    Jeff: Thanks always for your insightful comments. It’s crazy that newspaper companies are stifling innovation in journalism while they’re trying to save their existing business. The future of journalism has never been better. The tools and technologies that are emerging will enable a previously unimaginable level of sophistication. You know all this better than anyone. The ONA knows this, too. That’s why we’re bringing in people like Robert Scoble. And having sessions like Amy Webb’s on top tech trends. We’re learning about mobile strategies, and social networking applications. We’re not focusing on a business model to save a dying industry. The reality is that, at this moment in time, ONA’s membership is weighted toward the web operations of traditional media organizations. We have 1,500 members (or half the number of people in Robert Scoble’s FriendFeed). We need to be more cutting-edge as an organization if we want to attract the entrepreneurs, the innovators, the people who will help our media evolve. I don’t think we’ll be as bold as you suggest in San Francisco, but it’s a great conversation-starter!

  • Working Reporter

    Jeff, the ACAP system isn’t about censorship. It’s about content companies trying desperately to find ways to make money online. One of the ways they are exploring is trying to reduce the revenue they worry is being lost when their content is repurposed elsewhere without their ads.

    From the ACAP Web site at http://www.the-acap.org: “Publishers are not ashamed about making money out of publishing – that is their business. They make substantial investments in the creation and distribution of content, and believe that they should be able to make a fair return on those investments. Business models are changing, and publishers need a protocol to express permissions of access and use that is flexible and extensible as new business models arise.”

    You can disagree with that — I know you do. I’m not entirely sure I agree with it, either; I don’t see a clear indication that reducing aggregation will real help news producers’ bottom lines. (Or the bottom lines of startup news producers, hyperlocal bloggers, and non-news content creators such as independent musicians or artists, all of whom are struggling with this problem.) But I have an open mind and am willing to listen to the idea. You don’t have to.

    But please, in your passionate advocacy of open information sharing, stop belittling and mocking those trying to find ways to make news make money online. I haven’t seen a better idea from you or many other new media blogs — just a lot of angry resistance to anything that isn’t the status quo of free news, infinitely fungible. And a lot of unsubstantiated claims that if only newspapers found MORE ways to give away their content with FEWER controls, they would somehow find financial solvency.

    We need a better plan than that. Maybe the ACAP isn’t it — what is?

  • Pingback: Work At Home Online

  • http://www.hubdub.com Nigel Eccles

    I attended the ONA conference last week. I thought the attendance was excellent and I met some great people doing really interesting things (infographics at the NYT, Washington Independent, nearly all the finalists etc).

    However I was very surprised how few start-ups were there. One thing I thought was great was the ticket was $500 compared to $1-2k it is at tech events. Hopefully the ONA can market the SF event to more news start-ups and bloggers next year.

  • Andy Freeman

    > Jeff, the ACAP system isn’t about censorship.

    No one said that it was.

    > It’s about content companies trying desperately to find ways to make money online.

    Jarvis wants media companies to make money on line. He’s pointing out that the things that they’re actually doing will make sure that they don’t make money online. Intentions are irrelevant.

    > One of the ways they are exploring is trying to reduce the revenue they worry is being lost when their content is repurposed elsewhere without their ads.

    Search engines don’t “repurpose” your content. They make it possible for folks to find said content on your site. Yes, they also tell the user about other sites that may have content that meets their needs. So what?

    While Google the company may have products that repurpose content, google the search engine doesn’t.

  • http://blog.angelaconnor.com Angela Connor

    Wow. Interesting view, and thoughtful as usual.
    I didn’t attend this year because I just couldn’t get over how upset I was after leaving the conference in Toronto last year and the fact that it was so extremely print-centric. Not to mention the way a guy from Slashdot blasted me for questioning his avoidance of the elephant in the room–which was issues facing traditional media organizations. He wanted to criticize but not offer any new ideas which was how the panel was marketed.
    However, I have read *some* reviews indicating that it was a little better this year. I will say this: Many newspapers have essentially added titles to current or long-time editors or given them “new media” duties or annointed them as “change agents” when they don’t know what that means or how to actually make changes or who to talk to about making changes. Owning the product is so yesterday, as should be the mindset. But clearly it isn”t and until some of that starts to shift, death will inch closer.

  • http://www.revolution21.org The Mighty Favog

    Jeff writes:

    “But according to a representative of the Newspaper Association of America, that hasn’t stopped them from signing on. What are they thinking? We need to find more ways to get our journalism into more hands and more conversations and to involve more people in that process, sharing more information. Not our august associations of newspapers. They want to protect their ownership of news.”

    If the goal is to get eyes onto your ads online, why in the world would you want to make it impossible for new readers to know your news product even exists?

    Editors and publishers DO realize the tidal wave of traffic Drudge can send to their websites, right? Right? Hello?

    The same thing is in play — albeit on a much smaller scale — with links from Google and any number of websites or blogs.

    There are only three possibilities:

    – Newspaper poobahs are even stupider than their radio counterparts.

    – Newspapers are run by abject sadomasochists who want to hurt democracy and kill their own livelihoods — and those of their employees.

    – Newspapers are run by extremely slow-witted sadomasochists who want to kill their livelihoods — and those of their employees — but are too stupid to have found a quick and definitive manner of achieving that. But they’re getting closer.

    I think some newspapers’ strategy for using the Kindle and to-be-released electronic newspaper readers is pretty illustrative, pointing out both how dumb and how greedy publishers have become:

    http://revolution-21.blogspot.com/2008/09/newspapering-for-dummies-really.html

  • http://www.inform.com Josh Kirschner

    I have to agree that WAN’s ACAP initiative is not in the best interests of their members. Not is hiding content from search engines the (shockingly) wrong strategic direction, but Google already indicated that they will not support ACAP, so it is essentially unimplementable.

    To offer some constructive criticism for WAN – focus on helping your members implement technologies that make their content more relevant to readers, not less. Work with semantic technology companies such as mine, Inform Technologies (or Jeff’s Daylife), to help your members create destinations that draw-in and retain readers.

    Dozens of major publications – CNN, Washington Post, NY Daily News, Cox and others – are using our services to create better reader engagement, increase page views and improve advertising effectiveness. The solution is straightforward to implement, saves your editors time otherwise spent manually tagging articles and it actually improves SEO, not reduces it.

    It is these types of positive solutions to the current problem media companies are facing online which I would strongly encourage WAN and its members to consider. The current strategy is truly a disservice to their members.

  • Working Reporter

    Andy:

    I chose the term “censorship” to summarize Jeff’s comments that he was “frightened … (by) a system to hide news (our news).” If you don’t agree with the term, that’s fine.

    I agree that Jeff feels ACAP won’t help make money online. However, he fails to provide any evidence to back that up. There’s lots of evidence (see AJR, among others) that free, infinitely fungible news doesn’t make money either, yet he doesn’t seem to discourage that approach.

    > Search engines don’t “repurpose” your content. They make it possible for folks to find said content on your site.

    I never said anything about search engines. Jeff said, in his original post, that the demo he saw used a search engine for illustration. I’m sure he’s reporting correctly; if he is, the demonstrators used a bad example.

    (I’m assuming, by the way, that we’re talking about ACAP here –unless I’m overlooking it, Jeff doesn’t name the technology he saw.)

    This is a common argument against efforts like ACAP: the argument that people trying to control content are somehow anti-search. I don’t think anybody — including the folks behind ACAP — actually want to prevent people from finding the news. They want to control how the sites that reuse that news content (and other forms of content) use it.

    I suspect that down the road, content control is going to become a major industry — like it or not. Companies like attributor.com are already being used, and I suspect ACAP is just the first of many efforts at finding a technological means of controlling content reuse.

    The bottom line is that the link economy isn’t working out for content creators. I can’t think of anybody offhand who is making enough from CPM online ads alone to sustain any significant content creation. Enthusiasts have argued for ten years that at some point the online audience would scale to a point where the model would make financial sense — it hasn’t happened, it doesn’t show signs of happening soon, and content creators are losing patience.

    I’m worried that at some point the content creators are going to dump the consultants telling them they just need to draw more eyeballs and decide to do what the RIAA did to Napster. Imagine the impact on public discourse if major media corporations began using spiders bearing cease and desist orders to try and halt all reuse of their online content.

    It would be a disaster. And before you say it would be economic suicide for the companies to try this, just remember that on average newspapers get just 7 percent of their revenue from online. At some point they may consider it a gamble worth taking.

    I really want people like Jeff to work with organizations like the NAA and WAN to find ways that content creators can reasonably control and monetize their work with a minimal impact on free speech. And I don’t think dismissing ACAP — or any other idea — out of hand is moving the ball along.

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

    I’m kinda surprised to see you advocate more stewardship, as though humans will improve their ethics when given power. They won’t, and there is no such thing as a better steward.

    I do agree with your call for greater transparency, but after that happens, those in power will seek new rules to let them hide their lust for more power and control.

    The only way out of this is the raw market. Competition. Robust, market-driven, transparent competition. Only competition makes us better. Which is why the military is the only efficient segment of our government. Their competition kills them when they make a mistake.

    You might think that the media has competition aplenty today. But what competes with the AP? Reuters?

    What competes with our local newspapers today? There’s only one in most towns. And it’s pretty much all liberal. It’s a dirth of competition out there. Every conservative I know personally abandoned print media long ago. Why read what I know is leaving out huge chunks of the story? Who trusts the AP any more? Is Reuters really any better? And yet that’s the source for most of what’s out there in print. And online, frankly. The wire services…

    You can scoff at this, but half of America votes Republican, and any business that is okay intentionally not serving half its intended market is begging for bankruptcy. But you never bring that into focus, Jeff. Despite the fact that a bunch of people say it to you.

    Not stewards. Good lord, not stewards. Clear transparency and raw competition. No sweetheart deals of exclusion that smother any competition.

    And diversity. Which provokes conversation. Newsrooms are the least diverse places on earth. 95% of media people are libs, vote Democrat, and give to Obama’s campaign. Zero diversity.

    The beauty of all this is that the market will answer back with options, as it has, and alternatives are blooming.

    I heard more than one news executive I respect say at this year’s meeting that the ONA feared becoming the online organization of a dying medium. Wonder why. The hall was filled with employees of old-media organizations that happened to have added new-media arms. The awards they give each other are almost all to their own kind. And they say the blogosphere is an echo chamber.

    Not an echo chamber, but a corrective lens, which brings in the full transcript and video and data that the media left out.

    The medium dies, which is weird because people crave information more than ever before. They’re just not getting it from the media. Too bad, because they’re two feet from the oasis if only they would take the hand of those they loathe (conservatives).

  • Isaac

    Any publisher that spends time/money on this search engine “standard” deserves what’s coming to them. Someone is trying to fix a problem that does not exist instead addressing the huge that does: adapting a news org to the net.

    Search engines are the digital equivalent of your neighbor A handing a newspaper to neighbor B and saying read this story because it affects us or someone picking up a magazine in a doctor’s office. This sharing helped make news orgs relevant in their communities. Imagine if there was a disclaimer on the front page that limited how you could share a paper with someone.

    Imagine if news orgs would invest in the things that made their sites more relevant and gave users more reasons to come/stay on their site instead of fighting their users behavior…

  • Working Reporter

    >Search engines are the digital equivalent of your neighbor A handing a newspaper to neighbor B and saying read this story because it affects us or someone picking up a magazine in a doctor’s office.

    I can’t resist picking up this analogy and extending it to aggregation sites: They are the digital equivalent of neighbor A taking a newspaper, cutting out all the ads and some of the content, putting in new ads, and handing it off to Neighbor B with a note that says “If you want to read more of these stories, pick up your local newspaper.”

    Again, this isn’t fundamentally about search. It’s about reuse. It’s not about hiding content; it’s about setting permissions for how your content can be used.

    Its great to encourage news organizations to improve their sites and content. But if they create a great product and still go broke, what difference does it make?

  • Andy Freeman

    > I never said anything about search engines.

    That’s curious, because “The most appalling moment at last week’s Online News Association meeting in Washington came when a representative of the World Association of Newspapers showed off a would-be “standard” for publishers to tell search engines what they may not do.” is how Jarvis got to “They have created a system to hide news. (Our news.)”

    > This is a common argument against efforts like ACAP: the argument that people trying to control content are somehow anti-search.

    Let’s review what they did and how they felt about it. “The news site’s content didn’t show up at all. And they were proud of this.”

    > Imagine the impact on public discourse if major media corporations began using spiders bearing cease and desist orders to try and halt all reuse of their online content.

    That’s absurd. If you don’t want a search engine to index your site, or parts of your site, you can say so with the appropriate entries in your site’s robots.txt file.

  • Andy Freeman

    > Search engines are the digital equivalent of your neighbor A handing a newspaper to neighbor B and saying read this story because it affects us or someone picking up a magazine in a doctor’s office.

    No, they’re not.

    Search engines are the digital equivalent of “neighbor A” telling “neighbor B” about sources for whatever it was that B asked A about. The “tell about” for each source consists of the name of the source, a sentence or two from said source to help B decide between sources, and an easy way to get to said source (the link).

    When someone says that they “found content” on a search engine, they found a link and clicked it. They didn’t get the content from the search engine, they got the content from a source that the search engine found for them.

    Yes, A looks at the content of various sources to help decide what sources are relevant to possible questions from B, but A does NOT provide content to B. All that A provides to B is the names of sources, a reason to use them, and an easy mechanism to get to them.

    Note that B may choose between sources based on how much they cost. For example, B may not choose sources that require registration or charge a fee, and instead go with low-cost sources that A says are relevant to B’s interests. However, search engines aren’t low/no-cost content providers, they merely help folks find them.

    However, like I said, if you don’t want search engines to look at your content to help folks find it, just put the relevant entry in your site’s robots.txt file. They won’t look at it at all. (Search engines may still mention your content as a possible source from looking at other people’s links to it but I probably shouldn’t mention that to an audience that exhibits the basic misunderstandings above.)

  • Working Reporter

    Andy, it seems you’d prefer to talk about search engines. I know that’s what Jeff originally mentioned; as I said, I thought that was a poor demonstration choice by whoever he saw.

    My point is, again, that the issue the technology I think he saw — the one I’m concerned with, ACAP — is not fundamentally about controlling or blocking search; it’s about controlling how content is aggregated.

    We’re both hampered by the fact that Jeff didn’t say what, exactly, he saw. So rather than tie up his comment space talking past each other — you about search, me about aggregation — let’s just move on.

  • http://www.inform.com Josh Kirschner

    I saw the same presentation at the ONA conference and what I saw was an ACAP representative demonstrating the ACAP technology preventing content from being picked up by some third-rate French search engine – and this was presented as a good thing.

    In any case, I have yet to see anyone clarify, including the ACAP website and the ACAP pamphlet handed out at the conference, how this technology would accomplish anything either technically (since no major search engine or other tech service will be supporting the “standard”) or legally (since content usage limits are already protected by U.S. and International copyright law). Working Reporter, if you have additional insight here, please let us know, because it ain’t being presented anywhere else!

    I support publishers’ rights to control their IP. However, ACAP appears to accomplish nothing, and is a strategic distraction when the primary focus for WAN (and it’s publisher members) should be about improving the value of newspaper content and sites.

    If publishers want to go after improper usage, they can and should do so under existing copyright and commercial law. This is not the same futile effort that the RIAA is facing, where it is millions of individuals who can easily exchange perfect copies of entire music libraries on a peer-to-peer level. The number of web sites that are engaged in copyright infringement in a materially impactful way is relatively limited.

    But this is missing the point again. The reason publishers are becoming less relevant is not because their content is too widely distributed, it’s because there are more entrants into the market and old-school publishers (to a large degree) are doing an ineffective job differentiating their product.

  • Andy Freeman

    > Andy, it seems you’d prefer to talk about search engines.

    Since we’re discussing a mechanism for controlling search engine access, discussing search engines seems somewhat germane.

    > My point is, again, that the issue the technology I think he saw — the one I’m concerned with, ACAP — is not fundamentally about controlling or blocking search

    Oh really? Let’s review what Jarvis wrote: “The most appalling moment at last week’s Online News Association meeting in Washington came when a representative of the World Association of Newspapers showed off a would-be “standard” for publishers to tell search engines what they may not do.”

    Note – “search engines”. Not aggregators.

    > We’re both hampered by the fact that Jeff didn’t say what, exactly, he saw.

    While he didn’t tell us much about the standard, he did tell us what it was intended to do (“tell search engines what they may not do”) and the result when it was used as intended (“The news site’s content didn’t show up at all. And they were proud of this.”)

    Again, “search engines”, not aggregators.

    Aggregators are a real issue, but search engines aren’t aggregators.

    When newspaper folk say “search engine” and then start complaining about something that has nothing to do with search engines, folks naturally, and understandably, tune them out.

    You’d think that people in the communications biz would understand that.

  • Isaac

    You can pick apart my neighbor analogy but newspapers never went after people who redistributed their paper. In the long run the people who shared the paper helped the newspaper… just as most aggregators do today.

    I generally don’t have a problem with aggregators. Most help drive traffic to your site. When problems arise there’s copyright laws. The effort/cost of dealing with “bad” aggregators just isn’t worth it and should be put into more productive purposes.

    Once an aggregator leads a user to web site, it’s that site’s job to give a user a reason to come back. If all you offer is content that can easily be re-packaged on an aggregation site, chances are you’re not doing enough to sustain your news org and it becomes easier to blame the aggregator than address the real problem.

  • Pingback: Cision.net Blogs » Blog Archive » Comms Links 18/09/2008

  • Andy Freeman

    > You can pick apart my neighbor analogy but newspapers never went after people who redistributed their paper.

    Interestingly enough, several high-cost publishers have successfully sued customer companies that internally distributed photocopies of said publications. (Do you really want to argue that such lawsuits would have been unsuccessful if the distribution had been external?) Yet, everyone agrees that said customers can pass around the copies that they bought.

    There’s a huge difference between passing around the copy that you bought and making new copies. Aggregators make new copies. Someone handing a newspaper (or clippings) over a back fence isn’t.

    There’s another difference – scale and biz presence. A single aggregator reaches lots of people and is a single point of contact.

  • Pingback: Saturday squibs : Notes from a Teacher

  • Pingback: Jeff Jarvis on the WAN supported anti-search engine optimisation handcuffs « Info:node

  • Pingback: Current » A colossal game of “chicken”

  • Pingback: Manuel L. Quezon III