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.

Paying for it

The headlines and comment pages are still full of Mr Smith’s misjudged evening in. If it was purely outrage over a public servant playing the expenses system, then Jacqui Smith’s demise should have been confirmed by the second home. But the home secretary’s husband expensed porn, and porn is embarrassing and discrediting. When we’re watching the headlines rather than writing them, it’s always fun to point to the other business interests of the Express‘s parent company. “Dirty Desmond floated up to his current ‘status’ on a sea of pornographic effluent”, says this blogger.

sun-smith-porn-cover

The biggest shock isn’t that Mr Smith watched porn, or even that he haplessly charged his entertainment to the public purse: it’s that he paid for it at all. Why didn’t he just sting the Commons for a laptop and download his erotica for nothing? Like the rest of the culture industry, pornography is anxious about what the internet is doing to its business model: illegal downloading is part of it, but so is competition from freely-distributed amateur product. “The barrier to get into the industry is so low: you need a video camera and a couple of people who will have sex,” points out Paul Fishbein, a professional observer of the adult film industry.

Pornography has always helped to drive changes in media: the availability of porn on VHS was instrumental in bringing entertainment out of the theatres and into the home, and pornography expanded rapidly online, with sites like YouPorn and XTube working on the free-content model and aiming to make profit out of adverts. But while pornography has been good at delivering viewers (YouPorn claimed 15 million unique visitors in May 2007), how to turn hits into money has been less obvious: “It doesn’t make any sense! They’re giving porn away. You can’t make money on this”, says Steve Hirsch of porn giants Vivid.

The fact that I can read Hirsch’s quote for free in a full-text version of an article from a magazine I’ve never bought suggests that it’s not just the porn industry struggling with the trade off between easy distribution and vanishing profits. The internet changes the value of information enormously. A digital copy is less expensive to make than a paper or disc version, so consumers can reasonably expect downloaded product to be cheaper; the ease of digital sharing means that a relatively large number of people are going to be obtaining the product for free anyway (although it’s impossible to quantify gains and losses through free downloading); it’s easier to get your product to consumers, but then it’s also easier for competitors to do the same.

And those competitors might not even be professionals. They might be totally happy to do for free what previous operations have charged for. They might even do it better in some ways. Here’s Greta Christina – porn writer, sex columnist, and not shy of paying for what she enjoys – explaining why the personals on Craig’s List are one of her favourite sources of fantasy material. So if the porn industry – an industry specialising in opportunistic profit-making – hasn’t found a reliable way to turn hits into coin, what is the rest of the media planning on doing? The newspapers should be holding up Mr Smith as a hero for becoming the (involuntary) public face of paying for it. Or at least, getting someone else to pay for it.