Now Associated Press Has A Plan So Cunning Even They Don't Know How It Works. (Updated)

It seems every now and then I see some company or organization that finds itself challenged by the fact that the internet gives people lots of interesting alternatives and thus upsets traditional business models. This prompts said company to flail around for a bit, denouncing how piracy or whatever is unfairly destroying it, then announcing some stunning new proposal or plan that lashes out at this supposed piracy. Usually, since the problem is not “piracy” but “competition,” this plan makes no sense whatsoever.

As I noted previously, the newspaper industry generally is flailing around and proposing all kinds of foolish things rather than figuring out how to adapt and thrive in new market realities where people and advertisers have a very different set of choices and the days of 20% profit margins are gone. The Associated Press is the latest organization to jump off the deep end. AP believes that by setting up a “beacon” system for its content it can require everyone “stealing” its content to pay royalty fees.

There are several problems with this scheme. First, the article does not make clear whether it tries to cover linking as “using content” for free. I’m not sure that it could, nor does it make sense given their theory of “piracy.” If I link to an AP story, I haven’t copied anything and clicking the link actually brings people to the content — the desired result from AP’s perspective. Nor can the AP prevent me from describing an AP story even without a link. Heck, many of my local radio stations do this with my local newspapers, simply summarizing articles with an attribution. So if the object is to prevent people from linking to AP articles, or discussing AP articles (the “free ride” that so incenses the traditional news media and its defenders), this proposal really doesn’t seem likely to help.

The AP can prevent wholesale copying of its articles where the amount copies exceeds fair use. But, as the article linked to above points out, the AP already uses software to do this. The new system may make it easier to license AP works (a result I would heartily support — AP should use technology to make it easier to monetize its content with license fees for reprints), but the description seems to go well beyond that. Either I am dramatically underestimating the number of websites that reproduce significant amounts of AP content over and above linking and simple descriptions of stories (which is certainly possible), or the technology dramatically lowers the transaction cost of licensing content and thus makes collection of license fees easier, or this fails to strike at the real root of the problem — people have lots more options for news.

Ultimately, it is this last point that has me scratching my head about how the AP expects this to work. If the AP locks up its content, I can find lots of other news content. True, AP might be “better” — although modern reporting leaves me dubious. But the ability to access, debate and discuss news far outweighs any marginal superiority in quality AP can claim over other outlets (which include many traditional news outlets with high quality reporting) that provide accessibility.

There is a delightful historic irony here, in that AP was to some extent the product of the last revolution in telecommunications. Ubiquitous telegraph service made it possible for small news organizations to have the same reporter resources as larger operations by sharing costs among their members and leveraging local reporters. Finally, papers in small towns and on the frontier could run the same stories as the NY Times or the London Telegraph, reporting news from around the world thanks to a global communications network. Larger papers, which had traditionally held a huge advantage from their superior ability to send reporters to distant sources of news and receive faster reports, found they had to join the AP themselves or risk missing important stories covered by the AP’s superior network of on the ground reporters already present as news developed.

AP should learn from its own past and adapt to the future, rather than trying to fight the future and cling to the past. AP and other news media need to work on how to leverage the advantages of a global communications network that allows for distribution of news reporting resources rather than chasing phantom “pirate” gold.

Stay tuned . . . .

Update: This article in Columbia Journalism Review clarifies that the intent is to go after those who are doing wholesale copying, rather than those linking or quoting. As I said above, good for them. I hope that the program in question actually provides some data on how widespread this practice really is. Given the tools that already exist to find direct copying, I’m not sure how this new beaconing adds value.

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2 Comments

  1. Alan Thiesen says:

    These days I get all my news from the internet, so that I no longer pay for any news I read. However I value investigative reporting, which probably costs money. Now that news costs next to nothing, is investigative reporting adequately funded? Where are the Woodwards and Bernsteins of this generation? Are they working for the AP and for major newspapers and TV stations, or are they ordinary people who post newsworthy stuff they happen to know to their blogs or Wikipedia? Should we be concerned about the future of investigative journalism?

  2. Harold says:

    This is a question worthy of exploration.

    One issue is to challenge the underlying assumption. As I noted in my Newspaper blame game post, the bankrupt Tribune still had an 8% net profit for the most recent quarter — which is pretty good in a recession. Tribune went belly up because it was incredibly overleveraged, not because reporting doesn’t pay.

    I also note that many online news outlets pay reporters. They make money in a variety of ways — such as advertising and subscriptions. At present, these are generally highly specialized or highly localized publications. But we are still early in the business model development process.

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