More sand

Jason Fry in the Wall Street Journal writes an excellent column summing up the suicidal impulses of the association of Belgian newspapers — and others — who try to shut off Google and think they are still in a position to make media’s rules.

These disputes are about money, of course — the newspaper groups think Google’s making some off their efforts, and they want a piece. But more broadly, Copiepresse objects to the idea that Google and other search engines should set the rules for linking, contending that such standards should be set by copyright laws, not technological standards. That’s a bid to turn back time and declare a do-over on the basics of search engines — a quixotic effort that flies in the face of the reality of how content is consumed today, and one in which Copiepresse has inadvertently lined up against its papers’ own readers.

Whether or not content creators like it, this is the age of fragmentation. In industry after industry, consumers are voting with their feet against old methods of packaging and distributing information. They want to pick and choose what’s of interest to them, without having to pay for or wade through what isn’t. That change, midwived by technology, has shaken or shattered content companies’ business models. It’s made everything they do more risky. And it’s stripped them of power they once enjoyed, forcing them to work with new companies and industries that somehow got to set the rules. Faced with such a situation, it’s understandable that content creators are angry. But the chance to set the ground rules passed some time ago, and it’s high time for content creators to realize that and adjust.

After reviewing the internet-induced upheaval that has struck music and television, he says:

The only surprise would be if newspapers were any different.

In moving online, newspapers have become collections of individual articles, each of which often stands on its own. Once, readers encountered articles by reading the paper a page at a time. Now, such readers are being supplanted by voracious online consumers who get their news in any number of unpredictable ways.

That’s a critical insight I rarely see in print but one that blogs understand because, as Meg Hourihan said in the dawn of blogging, the atomic unit of media is no longer the publication or the section or the page or even the article but the post: the nugget of information, the thought, the notion. That is what is really being disaggregated: the old unit of media itself.

I have no idea how you’re reading this column. Maybe you found it on the Online Journal’s home page or the technology page. Maybe you saw it because it includes Google’s stock symbol, or it hit your newsreader via an RSS feed. Maybe you followed a link from a blog, Google News or Technorati. . . . I can’t control any of that and wouldn’t want to — like any writer, the most-important thing to me is to be read. If the Online Journal started directing readers who followed third-party links to this column to the home page and left them to find their way from there, I’d be furious — because I’d be guaranteed to lose readers who got lost. And if said they were doing that because there were ads on the home page but not on this article, I’d not so gently suggest hiring a competent Web designer instead of suing search engines. . . .

Ultimately, what content creators face isn’t new technology, but a sea change in consumer behavior. Consumers don’t want to go back to watching TV at set times, buying albums or reading newspapers page by page. Trying to make them do so using laws that haven’t kept up with technology will fail. . . . At its heart, the Web is driven by users, not publishers. Whatever pain that causes content creators, opposing that fundamental idea became a revanchist fantasy long ago.

Well said. The problem for the controllers of media is that they still want to be and think they can be in control. But the obvious rule of nature is that we will be in control whenever we can be and we will cede it only unwillingly, only by necessity. So the key is to find out how to succeed by enabling us to do what we want to do. That is what the technology companies — Google, Facebook, et al — do. How can media companies do likewise? WWGD?

At the Murdoch clambake in Monterey, I tried to suggest that the real lesson these media men and women should learn from Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook is that he delivered enabling technology to the people and millions used it. How do we build news so it gets used? How do we succeed at that? How do we exploit Google?