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A prescription for the newspaper industry

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Friday, Apr 17, 2009
by Joel Brinkley - McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

In France, newspapers are in trouble, just as they are in the United States. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, wants to give 18-year-olds a free subscription to the paper of their choice.


In America, the news media don’t take financial aid from the government, even when it’s indirect. Still, major newspapers are shutting down, and owners are telling others that the end is nigh. As they say, pending death tends to focus the mind. So let’s focus on this: How can an industry survive if it allows other companies, like Google News, to use its content without any compensation?


At a conference last year, I was chatting with Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, and Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google. Half joking, Keller asked him, “When are you going to start paying for our content?” Schmidt stiffened a bit and declared: “We will pay when everyone pays” - everyone with an Internet site, that is. There’s an impossible standard.


Think back a decade to when the music industry was facing its own pirates, Napster and other Web sites that were sharing music files. What would have happened to that industry if a record-company executive had asked the CEO of Napster a question similar to Keller’s - and then simply walked away when he gave a dismissive answer like Schmidt’s?


“We would be in a world with thousands of pirates,” Johnathan Lamy, a senior vice president for the Recording Industry Association of America, told me. If the RIAA had not sued Napster, “the exciting legal, online marketplace we now have would never have been allowed to get oxygen.”


Online sales now provide one-third of his industry’s income. At best, the music business would be a hollow shell of what it is today.


I asked Schmidt to comment; he did not respond to my e-mail. But he did speak to the Newspaper Association of America last week, and promised: “We can build a business with you. That is the only solution we can see.”


There’s another solution. The courthouse. The Associated Press announced last week that it would “seek legal and legislative remedies” to stop Web sites from pirating AP content. The nation’s newspapers own the AP. Shouldn’t newspapers stand up for themselves? (Google, by the way, does pay the AP for its stories.)


You might ask: Why does it matter? Several studies have shown that more than three-quarters of the news you see, hear or read anywhere is at least derivative of something that originally appeared in a newspaper.


Television news has always been especially dependent on newspapers. Years ago, John Chancellor, who was then the anchor of the “NBC Nightly News,” told me of his morning ritual: He would pad to his front door and pick up the New York Times, then urgently look over the front page “to see if we had played our stories correctly.” That was a long time ago, but quite recently a reporter for a major network news show told me of her exasperation with her producers’ timidity. They wouldn’t run her stories unless they had been “validated,” by appearing first in the Times or the Washington Post. The point is, without newspaper journalism, the nation would have little original journalism left.


Speaking at Stanford University last week, Keller expressed his own exasperation over Google and other news aggregators.


“I wince as they run long excerpts of our material,” he said. “I’ll leave it to the lawyers to decide if that is piracy. But it’s certainly freeloading.”


Lamy had a stronger view. “If you are a consumer, and if there is no disincentive to go to illegitimate Web sites, then that becomes the cultural norm - a world in which people don’t understand the difference between what is legitimate and illegitimate.”


Newspapers offer aggregators an easy target when they give their Web content away for free. In a previous column, I argued that it’s time to start charging. A robust debate has flowered over different strategies for doing that.


Meantime, Keller said he frequently encounters the lofty ethos of the Internet age: Information should be free! Wouldn’t that be nice. Wouldn’t it be nice if metropolitan newspapers didn’t have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for their reporting staffs? Wouldn’t it be nice if Keller’s paper didn’t have to pay $2 million a year to maintain its Baghdad bureau? Newspapers provide an expensive product. They deserve to be paid for it.


Keller said executives at his company are poring over precedents.


“We’re looking very closely,” he said, “at what the music industry is doing.”


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ABOUT THE WRITER


Joel Brinkley is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times and now a professor of journalism at Stanford University. Readers may send him e-mail at: brinkley AT foreign-matters.com.

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