Newspapers wonder: why aren’t we more like the beloved and successful recording industry?

Why the sneaking emergence of pissing and moaning about Google in the newspapers? Because the Assosiated Press is trying to establish search engines as the enemy in the latest attempt at saving a newspaper business model that only ever worked because of the economics of the printing press, that’s why:

Last Monday The Associated Press announced at its annual meeting that it would begin tracking how its content and that of its member newspapers was used and seek a share of the revenues generated by it. If an accommodation was not reached, The A.P. and its members would pursue legal remedies, the association said.

Beyond the saber rattling (or empty threat, if you remember how poorly hunting down users went for the record industry), The A.P. said it would build its own search-friendly landing page, a place where links to licensed content from member newspapers (including The New York Times) would be aggregated.

There are sites big and small that scrape content and serve it up with their own ads, often supplied by Google, but the clearest target of The A.P.’s announcement was Google News, which was not mentioned in the announcement, but which features an enormous amount of content from The A.P. and its member newspapers.

David Carr, “The Media Equation: Papers Try to Get Out of a Box”, WSJ

Of course, the recording industry is still trying extremely hard to penalise its customers into coming back (and the RIAA seems to be having a nice run of political success at the moment, even if everything else in the world is screaming that they’re doing this wrong).

But however much print tries to emulate the “sue your punter and carry on as before” model, political muscle isn’t enough to compensate for a transformed knowledge economy. Traditional print media outlets are preoccipied with wishfully thinking that they can carry on making money in the same old way while everything around them is changing – and as a result, according to Clay Shirky, “the conversation has degenerated into the enthusiastic grasping at straws, pursued by skeptical responses.”

So what’s going to happen? Thrillingly, nobody knows. Shirky again:

Print media does much of society’s heavy journalistic lifting, from flooding the zone — covering every angle of a huge story — to the daily grind of attending the City Council meeting, just in case. This coverage creates benefits even for people who aren’t newspaper readers, because the work of print journalists is used by everyone from politicians to district attorneys to talk radio hosts to bloggers. The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; “You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!” has never been much of a business model. So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?

I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it. The internet turns 40 this fall. Access by the general public is less than half that age. Web use, as a normal part of life for a majority of the developed world, is less than half that age. We just got here. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.

3 thoughts on “Newspapers wonder: why aren’t we more like the beloved and successful recording industry?

  1. Thanks for this – a timely article. I was wondering why those NIMBYs who blocked the Google street view car were getting so much attention.

    I think the biggest concern is that the AP (much like the music industry struggling to respond to a change in the landscape) will successfully set some stupid legal precedents that may hold us back for decades to come.

    But as you say, who knows? Maybe the revolution could happen sooner than we think- a global economic crisis is no time to be defending your business model against a younger, leaner technology…

    Good website, I’ll read through it some time.

  2. True, ‘You’ll miss us when we’re gone’ might not be a great business model, but given that it’s a pretty accurate warning perhaps movement towards a practical and mutually beneficial solution is a better idea than pointing at sad old media while it drowns itself. Being right about the fact that information exchange is changing exponentially doesn’t, I think, relieve anyone of the responsibility of contributing to the preservation of authentic journalism.

    Not digging at anyone or anything, really, it’s just frustrating that so many who clearly rely upon and enjoy quality news are happy to hold their hands up and shrug. And – opening a meatier can of worms – I’m not convinced at all that because copyright infringement is currently impossible to police that it’s therefore legitimate, especially when we’re not talking about individual file-sharers but a prominent tech company like Google (is it valid to conflate the two as you have?).

  3. It’s the AP conflating the two: they see their situation as analogous to the record industry’s and they see Google’s news service as the equivalent of Napster/Limewire/Pirate Bay (repeat to fade). But if copies are free, fast and perfect, it’s going to be very hard to stop people from making them, never mind that digital piracy feels very different from paper piracy – more like passing a newspaper along to a friend than firing up a private press and making rubbish copies in a garden shed. That difference more than anything is what’s going to make copyright infringement incredibly hard to prevent.

    The Shirky essay is worth reading right through: he’s clear that there are lots of different models being experimented with, and it’s impossible to see right now which will work and which won’t. I think it would be devastating if journalism stopped. I don’t think that using political lobbying to try to force people to pay for it the way they’ve always paid for it is a particular good way to save it, and definitely not when it makes you treat your customers as criminals.

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