Tom Curley, The A.P.’s president and chief executive, said the company’s position was that even minimal use of a news article online required a licensing agreement with the news organization that produced it. In an interview, he specifically cited references that include a headline and a link to an article, a standard practice of search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo, news aggregators and blogs.
Them’s fightin’ words: quoting an article’s headline while linking to it would require licensing? This means we would have to get permission from and negotiate with sites before linking to them. That would kill the internet. It also would kill the Associated Press and the news organizations it cons into joining its dangerous crusade – make that its cartel – for no one will link to them and they will not be heard.
There has been much stupidity lately about how news should operate in the ecosystem in the internet – threats to try to extend copyright, the ominously named and ambiguously written Hamburg Declaration, the ACAP “standard” that would be a boon to spammers – but the AP’s shot across our bow is the most destructive and ignorant of them all. The AP doggedly refuses to understand the link economy of the digital age and its imperatives.
The AP would rather destroy the link economy. Oh, it probably won’t succeed, just because what it suggests is so impractical and illegal and ultimately undemocratic and unconstitutional. But like a bull in a knowledgeshop, it could do a lot of damage along the way, trying to rewrite the fair use that is the basis of the democratic conversation and rushing its members to even earlier graves by hiding their content from the readers it is meant to serve. Note well that most news organizations depend upon fair use every day when they quote somebody else’s story or comment on somebody else’s content. The AP is dangerous.
But that’s not the reason to replace it (it’s merely a bonus). No, the reason to replace the AP is because is that it is hopelessly, mortally outmoded for the digital age and its ownership structure – I blame its board of newspaper owners more than I blame its management – won’t let it be transformed for our new reality. We need a replacement that will better serve journalism and the public, not to mention the democracy.
The AP’s primary job is to distribute content. In a content economy, that worked well. In the link economy, what the AP does is a disservice to content because it cuts the links to the source by rewriting news. The AP also translates content from one medium to another, rewriting newspaper stories so they can be read on radio or TV; that, too, cuts the link to the source (and note that rip-and-read has been the worse enemy of original reporting since the invention of broadcast, long before the internet). And the AP adds some original reporting to the ecosystem but it can’t monetize that value in the link economy because to do so would compete with its owner/clients.
What we need is an infrastructure for a content marketplace online that rewards the creators of original reporting – not the copiers or the commodifiers (that is, the AP) – by exploiting the essential nature of how the internet operates, that is, the link.
I’ve called one fundamental example of this structure reverse syndication – and Politico has started implementing it. Look at it this way: In the old days – in the AP’s ways – Politico would have syndicated its story to other papers, which would have sold ads to earn the money to pay Politico. Now, of course, Politico’s story is just a link and a click away. So now another paper – say, the Chicago Tribune – can just link to Politico’s story. That rewards Politico for creating the story. But what about also rewarding the Tribune for adding value through the link, sending audience to Politico? It would be in Politico’s interest to pay the Tribune a share of its ad revenue for the article to encourage it to send more traffic and add more value. That is the missing piece.
Now imagine this Politico story sits out there on the internet with an ad on it and it is sharing that revenue with the Tribune proportional to the traffic the Tribune brings. Politico could sell that ad. But if the Tribune could get higher value, then it should sell the ad and share the revenue with Politico. Or a third party – oh, I dunno, Google – could sell the ad and share revenue with both. Whatever makes more money – that’s the question we should be asking; that’s what’s going to save the news business.
At the CUNY New Business Models for News Project, we are modeling the news ecosystem that we believe will emerge when a metro paper fades away. For our next project – when funded – I’d like to tackle this content marketplace infrastructure to look at what is needed: systems to track and pay and conventions to label content and draw audience to – and thus support – journalism at its source. With or without an AP, we need to improve the means by which original reporting is found and supported.
Another project I’d like to tackle is The New York Times’ favorite subject: how to support a Baghdad bureau in this new ecosystem. I don’t know that I have the answer or that there is one. Global Post is one try. There may be a need for support from charitable sources (the subject of my Monday Guardian column, which I’ll link to later). The AP and large, ambitious news organizations like The Times report from places where others can’t afford to go; we need to look at how to continue to do this.
That leaves the AP’s other role: translating content among media. Well, there’s an entrepreneurial opportunity. On Twitter, Reuters’ Chris Ahearn volunteered to step in. And online, there’s really no need to do that anymore; it takes all media.
Could the AP remake itself? Doubtful. Its owners won’t let it be run as a rational business – redefining rational for the link economy. It also isn’t structured to help its members remake themselves. I told the AP a decade ago, when I was still working for a client, that I wished it would start a national ad network for news sites, to help them succeed. But that’s just not the way they think.
I’ve also speculated with folks with money about buying the AP and remaking it for the digital age, without the handcuffs of its ownership structure. But every time, we come back to the gigantic wind-down costs that would entail, getting rid of parts of the operation that aren’t needed anymore. And that’s the problem: much of it isn’t needed anymore. Just ask the many newspapers that are canceling the service along with their $1-million-a-year bills. (See the Star-Ledger that was produced with a single AP pixel.)
So I think there are entrepreneurial opportunities to replace the AP and bring far greater benefit to content creators online – all content creators, not just the old news oligopoly. It’s time to break out the hammers.
(Disclosures: I am a partner at Daylife, a news aggregator. I was an advisor to Publish2, which also traffics in links. I was on the board of Moreover, which aggregates and creates feeds of headlines and links. I did all that because I see the potential of the link economy, by the way. I also wrote a book about Google – have I told you about that? – and have discussed many of these ideas with people there.)
: MORE: Note that the New York Times Company’s chief counsel does not think aggregation is a copyright issue.
: Note, too, that the “problem” of copyright violation is misdefined (a headline and a link is clearly not theft), and overstated (show me the millions of sites- other than spam blogs – that are copying whole articles), and wrongheaded in the idea that there’s a pot of gold here that will save the news business. It’s a big red herring. It’s a diversion from the real issue: the failure of the news industry to transform itself for the new economy. I guarantee you that if the AP goes ahead with this, it will pay lawyers more than it could ever earn. And it will hurt the industry and its brand in the process.
: Here’s a quick Marketplace story on the AP.
: TechDirt has some advice for Reuters: Go for it.