Thursday, March 15, 2007

San Francisco Chronicle: Pay-to-play is one way to help save newspapers

From San Francisco Chronicle columnist David Lazarus:

"It's time for newspapers to stop giving away the store. We as an industry need to start charging for -- or at the very least controlling -- use of our products online... My thinking is that this is approaching a life-or-death struggle for newspapers, and an antitrust exemption may be the only way that the industry can smoothly make the transition to a digital future."

"Barring that, I agree with [University of Minnesota media ethics professor Jane] Kirtley at the University of Minnesota. If newspapers aren't going to collectively reach into the pockets of online readers, they should at least focus their attention on other Internet players that are profiting from newspapers' content... Bloggers and Web sites are entitled to what is called fair use of copyrighted material... But I frequently see blogs that include entire stories or columns (my own included). Obviously a newspaper can't go after all such violators. But the big ones need to play by the rules."

Comment: Sorry for the chopped up excerpt, but I didn't want to run afoul of fair use rules. Simply put, Lazarus' proposal is what's colloquially known as closing the barn door after the cow has left. I agree that the only way newspapers could start charging for content now is if they collude in violation of anti-trust law. Here's my thing with that idea -- every industry since the buggy whip manufacturers (and there are probably earlier examples) has tried to prevent new technology from ruining their business model. But sometimes progress requires that old technology make way for the new.

I'm not suggesting that journalists are obsolete, or that they've been replaced by bloggers. But I don't think that fighting to protect their traditional business model is going to save newspapers. The industry has to fundamentally rethink the process of producing and disseminating news in the Internet era. I know that's easier said than done, but it's better to start working on it now instead of spending years fighting a futile battle.

As for Kirtley's idea, I do agree that blogs shouldn't be allowed to republish entire stories. But I don't think most A-list bloggers are doing that. If the newspaper industry can find one, then they should file a Viacom-Google style lawsuit so we can get that out of the way. The bottom line is that it's not going to make a difference how those lawsuits turn out. Shutting down Napster didn't stop people from sharing music. Shutting down YouTube is not going to stop people from posting TV shows online. And shutting down 100 A-list blogs is not going to save the newspaper industry.