A danger to journalism

The more I think about it, the angrier I get at Gatehouse for its dangerous and hypocritical crusade against links.

Links are the bloodstream of the web, carrying its oxygen. Links are how original journalism will get audience, traffic, branding, attention, credit, and monetization. Links are a gift and a courtesy. Links are the means to better-informed communities. Links tie people together with each other and the information they need. Links are necessary. Links are good.

But Gatehouse (like the AP before it and the French often) is fighting links from Boston.com. That’s a case of cutting off its nose to spite its face: Gatehouse is turning away traffic and audience. Suicide. But it’s also attempted murder: If on the very slight chance that an equally clueless judge lets this suit proceed, it could put a chill on linking just when we need it most. That’s what’s dangerous. That is irresponsible on Gatehouse’s part.

Indeed, we need more links to more journalism at its source, as I proposed to the Associated Press in the midst of its aborted antilink crusade. Links are also the key to specialization and efficiency; they will allow a local publication to do local well and link to other stories rather than rewriting them: Do what you do best, link to the rest.

In the comments on my post yesterday, Brian Cubbison (of Syracuse.com) pointed out the irony – make that hypocrisy – of Gatehouse’s link policy, as – just like Boston.com – it started a hyperlocal blog in Batavia – where, unlike the Globe, it has no paper – and it links to papers owned by other companies. See this post on the blog’s very first day. I’d say what it does is far worse for both readers and the competition: It summarizes stories (arguably making it unnecessary to click through; Boston.com instead quotes ledes that should entice readers to read more) and it links only to the home page and not directly to the stories (which is downright rude and inconvenient to readers who then would have go do digging for the content). This is closer to stealing content and journalistic value than what Boston.com does. See also this Batavia post today, which summarizes and quotes a competitor’s story – more than Boston.com has done – and links to it. And look at this post from a blog at Gatehouse’s Wicked Local – the alleged victim of Boston.com’s linking – which quotes news from Boston.com and doesn’t link to it. I’d say that is theft.

So what should happen here? Should Gannett sue Gatehouse? Should we all just sue each other for lnking to each other – for doing what the web is all about? As Mark Potts says:

This sort of nonsense really has to stop. Companies like GateHouse need to understand the medium they’re playing in, and how best to play in it, rather than trying to turn back the clock to some sort of imaginary time when they could keep their garden walls tall and stout.

If you can’t stand the links, Gatehouse, get off the web.

Gatehouse’s market cap is a measly $2.1 million. Why don’t we put together a fund to buy it and put it out of its misery and get rid of this ridiculous suit. Or let’s all appeal to Michael E. Reed, CEO of the embattled Gatehouse: Stop this dangerous and destructive suit.

: MORE: Henry Blodget mocks Gatehouse: “We hereby give the New York Times permission to aggregate any or all of our headlines and ledes anytime they feel like it. We’ll even give GateHouse Media the same permission. We can’t wait to welcome their readers to our sites.”

Journalistopia says:

If GateHouse were to have its way with its deep link argument, it would create a legal precedent that makes the act of linking to a copyrighted article illegal. It could mean a crippling of sites such as Romenesko and the Drudge Report, which can bring in enormous amounts of readers while being primarily built upon links to someone else’s expensive-to-create content. But, if enforced, it would also cut off the voluminous flow of readers who arrive to news sites via search engines and aggregators. That, too, has an effect on the bottom line.

In the end, we could see a long list of media companies flinging short-sighted lawsuits at each other, while suicidally pushing their content into black holes guarded by copyright law.

[Disclosures: I have an interest in the link economy as a partner at Daylife and a board member at Publish2 and an advisor to Outside.in. I am involved with those companies because I believe links are the foundation of news in the future.]

: LATER: Matthew Ingram has a v good response to the dustup:

With David Carr’s argument that newspapers should ignore the Web only a few days old — not to mention Joel Brinkley’s suggestion that anti-trust violations are a viable business model — I thought the market for stupid newspaper-related activity was pretty well saturated. But apparently I was wrong….

GateHouse apparently doesn’t like the way the Internet works. That puts the company in the same category as the World Newspaper Association and forward-thinking types like Chicago Tribune owner Sam Zell, who have repeatedly criticized Google for linking to news stories from its Google News search engine, or the Belgian newspapers that sued Google over similar tactics. All of these groups are trying to turn back time, to play King Canute with the rolling wave that is the Web, instead of trying to find ways of using that wave to their mutual advantage….

  • One point – Gatehouse Media lost 99.95% of its value in the 18 months before it took this action. During a period when they were the poster boys for “change or perish” brigade, as evidenced by batvia.com.

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  • Jeff… I don’t agree that this is as clear cut or as obvious a cause for anger as you say.

    (I’ve posted on this: Newser: Brilliant but toxic at http://garciainteractive.com/blog/view/21/ )

    Aggregator businesses are fabulous services to readers. They have taken insights that newspapers have known forever and made businesses out of them. Newspapers have only themselves to blame. We can agree on this.

    But there’s a difference between a link aggregator (like your own Daylife) and a site that actually tries to capture readers for itself by exploiting fair use and producing the story at shorter length on its own website. Newser for example. Link aggregators are fine. But there’s a drift towards the Newser model that all content producers should stop and think about.

    Fair use was not designed to allow companies to build businesses around copyrighted content by taking the most interesting stuff for free and then selling advertising next to it, even if that content does generate some traffic for the content originator itself. It was designed to allow content owners to reproduce small parts of each others’ work to avoid permission requests for everything.

    It is too early to say things like “this is what the web is about”. The ecosystem of the web is complicated and interdependent and if the ability to profit from an investment in generating original content disappears and a sub-species of news producers (albeit slightly dodo-ish) disappears, it is hard to tell whether that ultimately benefits users or not.

    The principle that, if you spend money or effort generating content, you should enjoy exclusive rights to exploit that content for a period of time, exists to protect creativity not diminish it. And that principle is being violated by some of the more content rich aggregator sites.

    Up to now the profits of print have subsidised news organizations online and allowed them to not worry too much about aggregation sites and what they do. It looked as if there would be enough pie for everyone, but it’s become obvious at last to newspapers that online revenue will not fund their journalism and that they have to start being more aggressive and smart online if they really don’t believe in print any more.

    We are probably now entering the post-print era of online news. It’s not going to have the same ecosystem as the print era of online news. The content food chain that starts with professional media organizations is going to change. It is wrong therefore to assume that what works for everyone’s benefit now will necessarily work forever. Things change.

    The truly shocking thing is that news organizations have been slow to copy this aggregation/short form model and do it themselves. If you can’t beat em, join em, was an oft repeated phrase on Fleet St and it meant we tended to jump on the best innovations and imitate them but newspapers here in the US seem to want to sit on their hands and bleat.

    That is no strategy for winning or reinventing anything. But neither is assuming that it is impossible to challenge the way other companies use your content.

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  • I’m not sure we’d end up in a linking “freeze” if this ridiculous suit were allowed to proceed. We’re talking about a civil suit here, meaning that if a site started aggregating from several other sites, those sites could just look the other way (and if it were NYT doing the aggregating, I think most would).

    Or — worst case scenario — sites would just have to start running “Hey, feel free to aggregate from here” disclaimers, kind of like the equally absurd “Caution, this drink is hot” warnings on disposable coffee cups.

  • Dan

    No need to get angry. Gatehouse is clueless, to be sure. They have no idea what they’re talking about, and no idea what they’re doing. But that massive ineptitude extends to their news product as well. It’s cheap garbage (which is not necessarily a reflection on many of the journalists working there). So let them be clueless: the more idiotic they are, the faster they’ll go away. It’s a bad company that produces a bad product. They apparently don’t want to market what they produce. Fine. Bye-bye to them.

  • Tom Davidson

    Jeff – I’ll gladly kick in some bucks to buy Gatehouse.

    But only if we can structure it as a purchase of assets, and not that pesky $1.2 billion in long-term debt they wracked up assembling the empire.

    With due respect to my friends and colleagues who work at Gatehouse, I suspect this has far more to do with their monumental debt (as much or more, proportionately, than even my employer, Tribune, was carrying before its Chap. 11 filing) than anything else. I’d be happy to be proven wrong, but one suspects this is little more than attempted greenmail.

  • Dan: You can’t separate the journalists from the “cheap garbage” you criticize. GateHouse has a lot of good journalists, and they’re producing good work. That’s not to say their papers are understaffed. Each reporter is producing more and thinner stories than would be ideal. But “cheap garbage”? Not at all. We’re GateHouse customers, and we’re pretty happy with our local weekly.

  • GateHouse is moronic.

    Someone needs to swat this insect so it stops buzzing.

  • Isaac

    The crime of this lawsuit is that Gatehouse is paying lawyers some incredibly high figure which could go a long way towards bettering their own web sites and actually serving their audience.

    Oh and if Gatehouse fears being aggregated by the out-of-town boston.com maybe they should use their local knowledge of their markets to make their own web sites much more valuable to their core audience. If you can’t do this, you might as well fold up the tents anyway…

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  • Stop the Lies

    Call me a Luddite, but with 21,000 lost journalism jobs this year, the web has been nothing but a black hole for journalism. Newser and HuffPo are thieves. Other aggregator sites are parasites. What else do you call it when a site takes someone else’s work and runs ads around it. Search ads are the only ads with any traction. Display ads are worth fractions of pennies.
    I agree newspapers were idiots not to see it. I agree it is too late to turn back. But that doesn’t make it any less a massive mistake. The promise of newspaper web sites as the future is a lie. It’s time to stop lying. Detroit is going to die. The Rocky is going to die. Miami is going to die. The LA Times is going to be a drooling comatose version of itself.
    No one is going to pay for content when they can get it free. Only when we’re down to a handful of creators will the aggregators run dry. Will they then become creators – true creators with reporting and all the costs, not just blowhard riffers off someone else’s work? There may be a few, non-profits or high minded citizens with a wad of cash and time to spare. wandering in the wood like the characters in Fahrenheit 451. But “news” will be big business websites masquerading as news, marketing whore websites and thousands of soapbox sites peddling outright lies and bogus theories. What is just so amazing is how fast it is all happening. Months, not years. God help us.

  • Stop:
    Try this test: Take away all the linkers (and aggregators and search engines) and where would newspaper sites be? Without most of their audience, traffic, and revenue. You can’t apply the rules of an old media architecture to a new one; you have to adapt and find opportunity where you can. This is no longer a closed, controlled, monopolistic architecture. Those days are over and it isn’t HuffingtonPost’s or craiglists’ fault; it is the reality of the internet. The great news, below, is that the LA Times’ web revenue is matching the editorial payroll; there’s the light at the end of the tunnel for journalism (but not for pressmen and drivers).

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  • Jeff: Rather than trying your test, why don’t you take a close look at the specifics of this case? They’re complicated, and can’t be boiled down to a simple matter of who is “clueless” and who is not. I’ve blogged about it a lot over the past few days, but let me start by recommending a post by your friend Dan Gillmor, who grasps the nuances quite well.

  • You’re both scaring me. If linking to a story with a headline and a lede or similar excerpt is theft, then the web and the blogosphere are doomed. Hyperventilating? Call it what you will. What Gatehouse is doing is dangeorus and stupid and clueless and I’ll come up with a few more adjectives after tonight’s wine. This seeing-two-sides meme in this case is itself dangerous, for it gives credence to an action that is destructive of the very future of journalism. You bet I’ll hyperventilate. We on the web and in new should be picketing Gatehouse.

  • If you want respect, give it, Warreny.

    I do understand their side and I think the nuance also includes politics (a former employee going to the other side).
    But with all respect, I also think in the effort to go against the grain – seeing Gatehouse’s side – I think you are underestimating the danger of what they are doing.

  • Jeff:

    I don’t have a dog in this fight. My general feeling is that nothing good comes out of lawsuits, and I wish GateHouse hadn’t taken it to that level. But as Warren points out, this is not about linking to a story with a headline and a lede.

    This is about one company — GateHouse — trying to put together portals for each of its communities, and another — the Times Co. — linking to virtually everything of value on the GateHouse sites in an attempt to substitute its own sites for GateHouse’s.

    Surely the act of linking does not bestow sainthood. Can’t there be good and bad linking practices? Fair and unfair?

    The bottom line may be that the Times Co. went too far and GateHouse overreacted.

  • Copying whole stories without permission: unfair.
    Linking to stories with their best ads – their headlines and ledes, the same as used in RSS feeds – not only fair but generous and necessary to the infrastructure of the web and journalism in the future.

  • Stan Hogan

    Yes, linking feeds our Web traffic and drives our page views, which sets our ad rates. Clever newspaper Web sites are taking full advantage of this opportunity.

    Unfortunately, newspaper people are also drowning in the folly of chasing the Internet buck. The return is weak. Weak and disposable.

    We’ve devalued our products and made other people rich in the process. We’ve done this on the advice of people like Jarvis. He doesn’t get it and makes a living proving that.

    All newspapers should pull their content from the Web then watch what happens to the bottom feeders. They’ll be clammoring for content like it was 1998.

    Print-only newspapers can then work on maintaining their 20 percent to 35 profit margins. The culture of free on the Internet should have created a market of crap. Jarvis and his ilk saw otherwise and newspapers are paying the price for paying attention to the man behind the curtain.

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