Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Before journalists go too far in lobbying Congress, they might do some research

Now comes the idea that one way to save newspapers is to tighten copyright laws. Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Connie Schultz argues that journalists should lobby Congress to force online aggregators to reimburse newspapers for ad revenues associated with their content and bar aggregators from profiting from newspaper content for the first 24 hours after stories are posted.

While I think I understand both the urgency and the frustration Schultz feels (what newspaper reporter hasn't felt frustrated listening to a radio "news person" read his story over the air without crediting his paper and what newspaper journalist isn't worried about the future), this approach seems to be another misdirected attempt to right the newspaper ship.

Perhaps before people get too excited about it, Schultz and others who feel the same way should fund a study of how much revenue newspapers are "losing" to aggregators and competitors like TV stations. I think they'd find that even if they could recapture every penny others are making by siphoning their resources, it would do little to alter newspapers' financial straits but it would do a lot to reinforce their negative image.

Set aside the unbelievable bureaucracy or legal structure that you'd think would have to emerge to enforce the proposal, or the punitive image it would engender, and just consider the anecdotal story with which Schultz begins her column. She praises, and it sounds much deserved, excellent watchdog reporting by a reporter on her own paper that exposed a corrupt sheriff. That kind of reporting can do wonders for the identity of a newspaper, for its reputation in the community and sometimes for street sales, but based on my experience it's highly unlikely that national Web sites will link to it unless it has a bizarre dimension. So forget going after The Daily Beast or others like it. And as for local television stations, well, if they're customers of the Associated Press, as most are, they're going to get the story unless the paper specifically exercises a local out. But does it really not want the huge percentage of people who don't read the paper to learn about its exclusive reporting? I think it wants those people to know about its work. It can usually make that happen just by specifically copyrighting every exclusive story and working with the AP to include the phrase, "in a copyrighted story by the Cleveland Plain Dealer."

The path of penalizing others for reporting what her newspaper has uncovered puts the focus on growing revenue in the wrong place. Yes, it's an unbelievably competitive world. But newspapers have to find ways to grow new sources of revenue, not further isolate themselves with rearguard actions designed to protect their "franchise."

The Plain Dealer has many ways to tell the world about its valuable reporting as a result of the Web. It also has many new ways to make money. Those are where the urgency should be directed. Not on lobbying Congress.


  1. It seems that you're half right.

    Journalists *should* be lobbying Congress, just not on that issue.

    There is a slate of policy changes that could help sustain -- and even revitalize -- journalism during this current crisis.

    Free Press, the national media reform group [of which I am campaign director] just released: "Changing Media: Public Interest Policies for the Digital Age". Chapters 8 through 10 are dedicated to policy options that could remake a thriving journalism sector in the 21st century:


    Get more engaged in policy is where we need to move the current discussion about the collapse of traditional news media. We actually have the opportunity -- with this Congress, this FCC and this president -- to make these changes a reality right now.

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