No, Newspapers Don’t Need A License To Collude To Survive

At the end of May, I was enjoying a nice Sunday afternoon reading my paper, trying not to think about work, when I came across Tim Rutten’s column, “How the Obama administration can save newspapers.” And I sighed, because apparently newspapers need a license to collude to solve their “search engine” problem. If they can’t all agree to block Google & Gang unless paid a pre-determined price, we’re going to lose them.

I could have dived in and done yet another dissection of things I disagreed with, but I figured what the heck. I’ll write to Tim and see if I can get a conversation going.

It’s been over a week and counting. No word. Maybe my email hit his spam filter (twice, because I sent a follow-up yesterday). Maybe he’s just not interested (and that’s fine — I don’t follow up on everything I get). Maybe I didn’t get the email address correct. But since I’d written a response to him, I figured I might as well put it out for anyone trying to balance what he wrote with another perspective. As a bonus, you can get my shorter letter that I wrote to the LA Times after my letter to Tim. That never made it in print, either.


Hi Tim–

I’ve been covering the search engine space for the past 13 years. It’s my beat. Previously, I worked as a journalist for the Los Angeles Times and the Orange County Register. So I read your column with interest – as I have this entire latest saga of “newspapers versus the search engines” – as the two worlds I know well collide.

You’d written:

“The problem is that newspapers can’t begin charging for online content or licensing their journalism to search engines unless all the English-speaking papers do it at once. That’s currently illegal under laws barring collusion and price-fixing.”

This seems to be the heart of your argument. With respect, it’s a faulty premise. I’d be happy to explain more to you about why this is not the case. I think your readers and people in general deserve a deeper look at the actual issues involved rather than this scapegoating of search engines, and of Google in particular, that many execs in the newspaper industry have been doing to make up for – in my view – their more than a decade-long failure to adjust to the online world.

I’ve written a number of pieces on this issue. More than any other, I’d encourage you to read this one:

Especially at the end, you’ll see where I talk about the First Click Free program that Google’s long run. Many papers already participate in this program. They charge for their content yet also make that content available to search engines.

The fundamental problem is simply that this isn’t enough for some. The AP in particular seems to believe that the mere act of listing headlines of their stories and summarizing them is something that should be worth a license. Through the threat of a lawsuit, they effectively gained a licensing agreement from Google. We’re waiting to see if Google’s going to blink again. These get into more depth about that:

Any newspaper that wants to pull out of Google or other search engines can do so right now. It’s a simple solution, a line or two in a “robots.txt” file to make it happen. They don’t need to have secret meetings to do this. I agree, if they all don’t agree to do it at once, some of them might decide to cash in on the traffic the others would lose. But there’s no guarantee at all that if they did pull out, that Google would someone decide to cough up some newspaper bailout money.

Just ask the Belgians:

Unhappy about being listed in Google News, rather than block from being included (an easy, no-need-to-sue solution), the papers actually sued to be excluded. The goal was to effectively blackmail Google into listing them through a licensing agreement. Google declined. The papers were dropped. The Belgians won their case (though it might still be in appeals), but they still came crawling back because in the end, they wanted the traffic.

Many major newspapers actively court traffic from Google, including your own (you have a person dedicated to doing nothing but getting you more traffic – Brent Payne). The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal have similar people (both of whom I know personally). The newspaper executives trying to rally a fight against Google as boogeyman rarely if ever mention that they still want this traffic and how they go after it.

You also need to understand that it is not just Google News. Every paper gets traffic from regular Google web searches. While the newspaper industry feels it is so important, providing such a vital function to society that it should get special privileges, general web search depends on the inclusion of all types of content. There are plenty of other sites that provide journalism not to mention the information journalists at newspapers depend on. If they also demanded some special treatment, some idea that merely listing their titles and a summary of their pages was a copyright violation, you and your colleagues could not do your jobs. Again, this is a key article about that:

Journalism isn’t threatened by search engines. Journalism, from newspapers, is threatened by newspaper executives looking to blame the wrong things. There’s plenty of good journalism out there that has learned how to coexist with search, which these get into more:

Please take the time to follow up with me by phone, if you really care about more depth in these issues. It is not the way some of the newspaper execs have been painting it.


And my letter to the LA Times:

Tim Rutten repeats a myth that many newspaper executives have – that there’s no way for them to be successful online unless they figure out a way to extract licensing fees from Google and other search engines.

Newspapers were in trouble before Google existed. They were also quite happy to drop paywalls over the past three or four years to get more traffic from Google. Now that the ad market is going through a downturn, suddenly Google gets painted as the “problem” causing newspaper woes.

There are plenty of web sites that have grown up on the web and make use of it, as well as search engine traffic, to have healthy business models. There is also plenty of good online journalism. Creating some type of newspaper “bailout”  or relaxing anti-trust laws simply allows newspapers as an industry to have an unfair advantage over their real competition, online journalists.

Rather than wasting time scapegoating search engines, let’s see those who care about the state of newspapers look toward more productive areas.


  1. says

    It’s still baffling why print media doesn’t embrace digital better, especially when you consider the environmental costs of actually producing all the paper that they use. ( Newspapers made sense when paper was cheap and they had the best distribution, but along came the Internet and instead of embracing the media and ideals around what made them giants in the first place, they tried to sell everyone on the idea of their paper forts. Next up, they’ll be asking for a bailout in order to keep chewing trees and rocketing towards a too warm world.

    Oh, editorial note: …Google would someone somehow decide to cough up some newspaper bailout money…

  2. says

    I also e-mailed Mr. Rutten and didn’t hear back from him. I had blogged about the same column here and share your views on the topic. I’d love to see all newspapers do this, because then I could build one free site and run them all out of business.

  3. says

    They don’t embrace it because it’s terribly, terribly risky. Presses, paper and ink are their biggest cost sinks and they can only truly take advantage of digital distribution by eliminating them. Digital distribution, by itself, does not bring in enough additional revenue to cover its costs unless the traditional distribution costs are eliminated.

    That’s a plunge most are unwilling to take, hence this request for collusion. Everyone is afraid that the first papers to go digital-only will lose their advertising revenue and not survive, despite the reduction in costs. Those advertising dollars will shift to more traditional outlets that keep their dead tree editions.

    So by now everyone might admit that the transition is inevitable, but no one wants to do it first. While no one is willing to make that transition, all the outlets suffer, and the existence of those outlets puts a cap on the growth of new, alternative outlets, as advertising dollars can be fairly conservative.

    Eventually it will all work itself out. Many may not like the results. All the traditional outlets will fail. Only new ones will remain, those unfettered by dead tree distribution costs. Those outlets may bear little or no resemblance to the old ones. They will be organized by topic, not by geography. Advertising agencies won’t be able to play with numbers anymore since digital distribution generates figures that are a lot less fungible.

    It might actually be true that newspapers can’t survive, as a group, without some kind of gentleman’s agreement.

    I think it is equally true that they should not get it. What we need to be looking at is creating new, digital outlets that perform the same social functions and provide similar value, and how to convince advertising revenues to fund them and abandon the old models.

  4. Penquin Prose says

    I don’t know why the newspapers are making such a big fuss about this.

    When it’s all said and done, they’re going to get a government bailout. The MSM papers will, inevitably, convince the Obama Adminstration that their dying product is too precious to fail, forcing taxpayers to shell out even more money to keep another product on the market that Americans no longer demand.

    Why not nationalize the New York Times? Isn’t their editorial staff already on the Fed’s payroll?

  5. says

    The fact that they continually refuse to acknowledge your inquiries, someone who is uniquely qualified to speak on the subject from both angles, is evidence of their true motive, which is not to understand the issue and come to a sane solution, but to cross their arms, pout their lips and sulk until they get their way. It won’t happen and as a result they truly are committing hari kari right before our eyes.

  6. says

    Hey Danny
    To be honest :) I just thought of you and stopped by. I kept up with the blogging thing and work on my Anger issues a LIL. Anyway hope you get a nice LONG break this summer from all the seo serps etc etc.
    No laptops,no not even a phone sort of like that Corona commercial
    Your always welcome to sneak off to San Antonio.
    Enjoy your summer Mr Sullivan
    PS I like this comment system better I came by alon time back and it was like braking into Ft Know :) Peace
    My comments are DO follow despite popular methods
    google “pure juice not from concentrate” got that one from you :)

  7. says

    Hi Danny,
    I’ve been a devotee of yours for awhile via SEL, SMX, etc. I have always appreciated (and respected) your view points on newspapers vs search, especially given your journalism background. I found your letter to Tim Rutten very salient. Personally, I’m the ‘black sheep’ seo-guy from a newspaper family that goes back three generations. My immediate family all currently publish regional weeklies and dailies. Every time we get into the search vs. newspaper demise conversation, the walls go up and they don’t really want to talk about how newspapers can change. I’ve chalked this up to my observation that they don’t understand the Internet or really want to, so the conversation never goes anywhere. But your posts make a key point in that newspapers may be faltering (by way of the executives) but the journalists are not. In fact, the ability for newspapers to be ‘gate keepers of democracy’ relies upon strong journalism, not the newspapers themselves. It’s still nascent, but I’m seeing more cases of journalists leaving their traditional masthead (like with the Union Tribune in San Diego – where I live) to start their own sites and blogs that are built around ‘reporting’ and ‘journalism’. It’s too soon to tell how sustainable these new sites will be, but the trend points to how the ‘soul’ of newspapers no longer needs just newspapers to survive. It’s still about the journalist.
    Again, thanks for your ‘right on’ posts about newspapers. And thanks too for letting me ramble on your blog :)
    Looking forward to seeing you at SD Interactive Day.

  8. says

    Luv Triangle
    “How Google got its Tiger pierced by The Federal Search Commission.”
    Luv Triangle Act 3 scene i

    “Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of the press. Enter the embedded Journalist. Thomas Jefferson somehow knew on September 25, 1789 that somewhere in the future the Forth Estate Corporatocracy would one day be in a position to transmogrify “Freedom of the Press” into the freedom to secretly negotiate with the Government over terms and conditions regarding the policies that the Government wanted the Forth Estate to “wag the dog” on in exchange for what the Forth Estate wanted in return. Somehow Thomas Jefferson knew that one day the Forth Estate would sell out and make a deal with the Administration to escape the Digital Dutch Oven.
    Thomas Jefferson knew.”

  9. bob brady says

    You can be sure that the medieval scribes hated Gutenberg for inventing movable type, taking away their information monopoly (and depriving the world–or at least those privileged enough to see them) of incredibly beautiful texts.

    The point is that technology changes, and we have to adapt to it or risk extinction. On the other hand, Google is a parasite. Whether it evolves to an equilibrium that allows the press to continue in something like its historic form or not, it seems unlikely that Google, itself, will remain unchanged if it destroys the organ it is feeding on. Somebody is going to have to produce the information to be searched. Long term, it probably won’t be just the hobbyists, content with recognition from remuneration.

  10. Penquin Prose says

    Yes, the Antitrust Gestapo will soon be taking a break from wasting billions of dollars suing Microsoft 24/7 and turn their briefcases on Google.

    I will sleep so much better at night knowing Google will soon be joining the ranks of Microsoft, businesses too successful for the government not to paralyze in the public interest.

    Yes, the answer to this Google dilemma is massive litigation and regulation.

    I’m glad the government is baling out GM though. Can’t wait to see the new line of Obama-mandated solar powered SUV’s.

    If I get a position with Government Motors, will that be a “green” job? Not sure if I’d look good in a green collar…