Posts about newspapers

How (and why) to replace the AP

The Associated Press is becoming the enemy of the internet because it is fighting the link and the link is the basis of the internet. From Richard Perez-Pena’s New York Times story today:

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.

When news people lose sense

Later note: Please see Howard Weaver in the comments, who says I got wrong what he was saying.

Financial Times editor Lionel Barber predicted that “almost all” news organizations will be charging in a year just because they need to. Meanwhile, former McClatchy news exec Howard Weaver thinks that news orgs should get, oh, say, 10 percent of Google et al’s revenue because they, oh, should.

Amazing how news people lose their sense when they talk about news.

Let’s substitute GM for newspapers in this discussion.

Would Barber ever suggest that GM would charge more just because it needs to, with no consideration of the market forces and its competition? Would Weaver ever suggest that GM should get 10 percent of Toyota’s or Zipcar’s revenue just because, oh, it should?

I just spent two good days at Best Buy headquarters in Minneapolis talking about What Would Google So? and it was so refreshing to be in the company of a company facing the future bravely without whining like newspaper people do. One executive quizzed me, puzzled about why newspapers are so resistant to change. We talked about their sense of entitlement.

In what other industry do companies feel entitled to revenue just because they used to have it or they think they deserve it because of who they are?

But newspapers think that companies that served their customers better – Google or craigslist – owe them money because they lost those customers for serving them badly and ripping them off for years. They think that government owes them protection via copyright law (shall we look up how those papers editorialized about protectionist tariffs?).

It makes me look at the FT’s coverage of other industries in a different light. A dim one.

: SEE ALSO: John Temple tells newspaper people to stop blaming Google. Mark Potts tells Barber why he’s wrong.

: LATER: Like Temple, Chris Tolles does a better job than I do answering Weaver.

It ain’t over

It wasn’t Craig’s fault. It was the internet’s. Almost $10 billion in annual newspaper classified revenue has disappeared (since its 2000 high, versus 2008) and it was essentially replaced by an estimated, unverified $100 million for craigslist with fewer than 30 employees.

But the bleeding ain’t over yet. The stone still has a few more corpuscles to squeeze out.

Look at the newly enhanced Google real-estate search. It’s awesome: useful, fast, informative, entertaining. Put in an address, browse all the homes for sale around. Who needs a newspaper? Who needs a real-estate agent? Speaking of whose death, see Michael Arrington reporting that disruptive, inexpensive real-estate service Redfin is turning profitable. Now see how classified aggregator Oodle is distributing classified ads on Twitter, which has also become the new distribution channel for news (challenging not just newspapers but also craigslist if you’re in the news biz and in the mood for a little schadenfreude).

Of course, this adds onto the the closing of thousands of advertising car dealers; the death of swaths of retail (e.g., Circuit City; and that is far from over, I think); the consolidation of more retail (and then the consolidator, Macy’s, cutting ad spending by half).

But that’s just advertising. I think that other arenas of newspapers’ competence could be targets for similarly disruptive attacks.

In content, I’m seeing that it’s possible for someone to come along with relatively little investment and a much smaller staff that operates more collaboratively to compete with the big, expensive traditional newsroom at low cost.

In distribution, it’s not hard to imagine someone – oh, say, News Corp., which already controls coupons in the U.S. – to take over distribution of other FSIs (free-standing inserts – that is, circulars) and undercut the hell out of newspapers and the postal service. Distributing those ads is the main reason papers want to keep printing at least a day a week, for now.

It’s bad in the industry now but it’s going to get worse as audience shrinks and advertising consolidates or migrates. There’s no quick fix: putting up pay or copyright laws or begging for favors from pols. The only solution is to rethink and rebuild the industry – and to do a better job of it than GM has.

Training the crowd as journalists

In the Philippines, the ABS-CBN TV network has been training citizens – 1,000 in the first recent class, 700 in the next – to report on the upcoming election there. They call it the Boto Mo iPatrol and count 15,000 members. Their curriculum:

They will orient the “patrollers” on the fundamentals of citizen journalism—from shooting pictures or videos using cell phones or cameras, to writing captions and telling a story, to uploading their reports to the Internet. They will also be briefed on the electoral process and the ethics of journalism.

I’ve argued that training is going to be a key role for the professional journalists and news organizations as they learn to collaborate with and empower communities to report on themselves. ABS-CBN News is doing that, gaining thousands of new witness-reporters in a story too large for any news staff to cover alone and adding value to their coverage, including verification.

Journalistic narcissism

At the Aspen Ideas Festival this week, Andrew Sullivan said, “Journalism has become too much about journalists.”

True. It’s not just that newspapers are covering their own demise as thoroughly as Michael Jackson’s. This is about the mythology that news needs newspapers – that without them, it’s not news.

In an offhand reference about the economics of news, Dave Winer wrote, “When you think of news as a business, except in very unusual circumstances, the sources never got paid. So the news was always free, it was the reporting of it that cost…. The new world pays the source, indirectly, and obviates the middleman.” This raises two questions: both whether news needs newsmen and whether journalists and news organizations deserve to be paid.

I tweeted Winer’s line and Howard Weaver then started a discussion with this tweet: “Is it news if it’s not reported? I don’t think so.” I don’t think he’s saying that the reporting needs to be done by a professional, but he is saying that reporting is what makes news news. Does news need the middleman?

Steve Yelvington just tweeted that “The Washington Post ‘salon’ debacle is a clash between myth and reality on so many levels: ‘the select few who will actually get it done.'” Being needed.

The realization of that myth – the myth of necessity – hit me head-on when I read an unselfconsciously narcissistic feature in The New York Times this week about the room where the 4 p.m. news meeting is held. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has likened that meeting to a “religious ceremony.” The Times feature certainly acted as if it were taking us inside the Pope’s chapel: “The table was formidable: oval and elegant, with curves of gleaming wood. The editors no less so: 11 men and 7 women with the power to decide what was important in the world.”

Behold the hubris of that: They decide what is important. Because we can’t. That’s what it says. That’s what they believe.

I was trained to accept that myth: that journalists decide what’s important, that it’s a skill with which they are imbued: news judgment. I worked hard to gain and exercise that judgment. The myth further holds that no judgment of importance is more important than The Times’; that’s why, every night, it sends out to the rest of newspaperdom its choices. News isn’t news until it’s reported and it’s not important until The Times says so.

But why do we need anyone to tell us what’s important? We decide that. What’s important to you isn’t important to me. Why must we all share the same importance? Because we all shared the same newspaper. There is the wellspring of the myth: the press.

I am trying to cut through these many myths about newsso I can reexamine them. In something I’m writing now for another project, I say: “To start, it is critical that we understand and question every assumption that emerged from old realities – for example, that news should be a once-a-day, one-for-all, one-way experience just because that’s what the means of production and distribution of the newspaper and the TV broadcast necessitated.” And: “Owning the printing press or broadcast tower used to define advantage: I own and control the means of production and distribution and you and don’t, which enables me to decide what gets distributed and forces you to come to me if you want to reach the public through news or through advertising, whose price I alone set with little or no concern for competition.”

No more. The press has become journalism’s curse, not only because it now brings a crushing cost burden but also because it led to all these myths: that we journalists own the news, that we’re necessary to it, that we decide what’s reported and what’s important, that we can package the world for you every day in a box with a bow on it, that what we do is perfect (with rare, we think, exceptions), that the world should come to us to be informed, that we deserve to be paid for this service, that the world needs us.

The journalistic narcissism that extrudes from the press extends to so much of the journalist’s relationship with her public. Jay Rosen just tweeted his headline for Plain Dealer Connie Schultz’ return of spitball (below): “A blogger was mean to me so that means I’m right.” John McQuaid tweeted that he feared I was “only abetting Connie Schultz’s effort to turn a real debate into a bloggers vs. MSM culture war.” He’s right. Schultz didn’t address the substantive objections to her hare-brained and dangerous scheme; she made it about her.

Oh, I know, this is all a big set-up for your punchline: A blogger is talking about narcissism? Heh. Isn’t blogging the ultimate narcissism? But who called it that, who made that judgment? Journalists, as far as I’ve seen. When they talk, it’s important. When we talk, it’s narcissism. What we say can’t be important – can it? – because we’re not paid and printed. But I don’t want to replay the blog culture war, which I keep hoping is over. I want to question assumptions, to find the cause and effect of myths.

And that’s what Winer is trying to do when he reminds us that the important people in news are the sources and witnesses, who can now publish and broadcast what they know. The question journalists must ask, again, is how they add value to that. Of course, journalists can add much: reporting, curating, vetting, correcting, illustrating, giving context, writing narrative. And, of course, I’m all in favor of having journalists; I’m teaching them. But what’s hard to face is that the news can go on without them. They’re the ones who need to figure out how to make themselves needed. They can and they will but they can no longer simply rest on the press and its myths.

: LATER: Good discussion in the comments already. I particularly like this from Craig Stoltz:

At the WaPo, where I used to work, the story conference room was decorated with (1) the metal frame with sticks of backwards type that was used to print the “Nixon Resigns” front page [it is said that that wall had to be reinforced to bear its weight–myth?]; (2) a framed Post advertisement from the early 70s reading “I got my job from the Washington Post,” which Gerald Ford was good-natured enough to sign; (3) two columnar shelves of important tomes written by Post staffers over the years; and, yes, (4) a polished wooden table whose craftsmanship and sheen suggested the Pedestal of Truth.

No coffee was allowed in the room.

Confession: Every time I was in that room I felt inspired, breathed in the myth, absorbed the history and mission that made the Post such an extraordinary institution [and which makes these week’s “salon” disaster so heartbreaking].

That room and the myth it conveyed may have made me a better journalist.

I suspect it made me a more arrogant, and therefore ultimately vulnerable one.

: In Twitter, Aaron Huslage asks: “How is curating journalism different from the NYT editorial meeting? isn’t it, at heart, picking ‘what’s important’?” And I responded: “Now it doesn’t have to be one-for-all. And it’s not necessary what’s ‘important’ (as the NYT says) but ‘relevant’ (Google’s goal).”

: Juan Antonio Giner takes apart the Times room: an analog space for a digital age.

: Tim Russo responded to Schultz, though she refused to respond to him.

: ANOTHER great comment, this one from David Weinberger:

May I add one more, related, myth to your collection, Jeff? Here goes: It’s possible to _cover_ the day’s events.

This is just a different way of putting your formulation “One man’s [sic] noise is another man’s news.” But I think it’s worth calling out since the promise of global sufficiency is a big part of traditional newspapers’ promise of value to us: “Read us once in the morning, and after going through our pages, you will know everything you need to know.” (Do radio stations still make the ridicule-worthy “Give us 8 minutes and we’ll give you the world?” claim.) Yeah, no newspaper would ever maintain that claim seriously if challenged — they know better than their readers (or at least they used to) what they’re leaving out — but it’s at the base of the idea that reading a paper is a civic duty. The paper doesn’t give us _everything_ but it gives us _enough_ that reading one every day makes us well-informed citizens.

The notion that newspapers give you your daily requirement of global news — which works to wondering, along with Howard, if there is such a thing as “news” — seems to me to be as vulnerable as the old idea of objectivity. Like objectivity: (1) It’s presented as one of the basic reasons to read a newspaper; (2) it hides the fact that it’s based on cultural values; and (3) it doesn’t scale well in the age of the Net.

Ultimately, this myth is enabled –as so many of the myths of news and knowledge are — by paper. Take away the paper and the newspaper doesn’t become a paperless newspaper. It becomes a network. That’s what’s happening now, IMO. From object to network … and networks are far far harder to “monetize” (giving myself a yech here) than objects….

: In the comments, Jay Rosen says narcissism is an even more apt metaphor than (he thinks) I know:

Jeff: You should improve your grasp of what narcissism is. The term is commonly used to mean self-absorption or excessive self-regard (“it’s about meeeee”) but that’s a subtle misunderstanding. True narcissists have a weak concept of self because they often don’t know they leave off and the world begins. In the clinical sense, key features of a narcissistic personality disorder are grandiosity and a lack of empathy.

I’m not trying to correct you; I’m saying that if you look closer at what pathological narcissism is, beyond its pop culture meaning, this might allow you to strengthen your critique. For example, equating newspapers with democracy is grandiose in the extreme, right? The prize culture could be connected to the “need for admiration,” and so on. It may be a better metaphor than you have let on here– and worth developing. Cheers.