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The Great Content Debate

The Associated Press is a venerable news institution that has brought us solid reporting for 163 years. AP syndicates articles, which means newspapers around the world pay to run them, and that money pays for more reporting and AP's staff of over 4,000 employees. It was a nice little virtuous circle -- at least, until Google and the other aggregators came along and began killing off AP's biggest newspaper clients.

While Google has an AP licensing deal, it shows little interest in paying other news organizations, nor does Google have any interest in developing stories on its own. Instead, it wants to pull those stories into Google News and sell its own ads against them. It's kind of like me selling beer out of your refrigerator.

As he sees newspapers collapsing like over-leveraged banks, the head of AP, Bill Singleton, says he'll track who uses its contents and seek compensation.

Google's top geek, Eric Schmidt, has his own self-serving take on the matter. Schmidt argues that "the vast majority of people only want the free model," which is something the papers better get used to. (Wonder if he'd tell a drowning man to get used to water?) He then lectured newspapers to "understand what my readers want," argued that intellectual property rights are not eroding, then tossed out a feeble free speech reference.

Will you miss your favorite newspaper, and is Google good or bad for media? Reports, analysis and bulletins all welcome at [email protected].

For her part, Editor Becky Nagel disagrees with me on the aggregators. She wrote the following to me a few months ago after reading this article:

I like how the AP says that the aggregators are relying on "misguided legal theories." The underlying case law for the application of summaries in for-profit publishing was decided years ago when mainly legal book publishers tried to sue other publishers who summarized their findings. They lost.

I think all this is just the AP trying to extend its Google deal (which it was lucky to get in first place) to its customers in an attempt to stay relevant at a time when newspapers are realizing they can share content with each other without paying anyone. Added bonus: It gets to squeeze cash out of the smaller aggregators who can't afford the legal fees to defend themselves.

Even if they could win, the AP isn't helping anyone. The only newspapers who don't want traffic from aggregation sites are the ones that can't get past the old "we can only sell local traffic" mentality -- the ones that are completely failing online. So now they can all go down together, with the AP leading the charge.

I'm not the only one who thinks this is heading to folly. There's a great follow-up blog post by The New York Times' Saul Hansell who sums up the entire situation perfectly in his first sentence: "If The Associated Press could completely win its war on search engines and news aggregators, it's hard to see that the news association or the newspaper companies that own it would be even the slightest bit better off."

And finally, one more kernel of information: Media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch are now promising to charge for content. So who's right and who's wrong? Write me (free, of course) and express your thoughts at [email protected].

Posted by Doug Barney on August 31, 2009


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