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.

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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.

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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.