Peter Osnos proposes in Columbia Journalism Review that Google meter the news, helping to determine what percentage of payments should go to the creator of the content. He suggests this as a way to both help newspapers monetize on the Web and level the playing field, so the newspaper that produces a story that ends up getting lots of hits through a Google news feed actually gets the monetary credit.
Osnos suggests this would make sense under the principle of fair use, which he describes as “a technical term for the standards one must meet in order to use copyrighted material without the permission of rights holders.”
All this makes sense in a bit of a fairy-tale way to me. It would be a nice world to live in where your competitor just to be a gosh-darn good guy helps you out, so you can make more money. I just don’t think we live in that world. Here’s why:
- Is the Web free? Osnos justifies his idea by stating that “print journalism bought into the free-news online model,” although he points out that the winners are those who aggregate not create. I take issue with the whole idea that print “bought into” the free model. Many newspapers started out charging on their Web sites, but readers wouldn’t continue to pay once the Web opened up. People didn’t want to pay when they could get so much free elsewhere. So unless everybody held hands and said “we’re going to charge” at the same moment and did it, it would be tough for many newspapers to charge. It might be possible for local newspapers who have stories readers can’t get elsewhere to charge, but I think it’s unlikely they’d get enough geographically based readers to be economically viable using that route alone. Perhaps big names like The New York Times could charge based on their value to the community and the world, but it’s doubtful they could make enough to support the size staffs they are used to. Charging didn’t work before, and it seems it would be more of a challenge now.
- Life isn’t fair: I’m also troubled by the idea he sets forth that somehow “it’s not fair” is a valid reason to force a global giant to help its competitors. It reminds me of when my kids argue that one of them got more ice cream than the other, and I warn them: Life isn’t fair; you might as well learn that now. Newspapers didn’t plan for the Web, they didn’t see its potential and take advantage of it as they could. So in a sense the crisis now is a bit of their own fault. That saddens me as someone who loves newspapers and spent 20 years working for them. But I’m not sure it means anyone can force Google to make things fair.
- Fair conduct: Osnos also mentions a concept he calls “fair conduct.” He cites an example where Sports Illustrated broke a huge story online and got a traffic spike. But at first, the Huffington Post’s use of an Associated Press version of the piece came up higher in a Google search than the original SI story. Yes, that seems unfair, but it could be partially SI’s own fault. I’m no expert on Google’s algorithm, but the way I understand it, a Web site that has greater traffic and more unique inbound links from quality sites will index higher. Add to that the fact that a story or blog post with good search-engine optimization (a keyword-laden headline and lead, for example) will index higher. Perhaps, Huffington Post did a better job of that consistently over a period of time than SI. I support his idea for a search engine that uses humans in addition to an algorithm. In fact, a Syracuse University professor is working on such a project. But until that happens, newspapers need to work within the system to get their stories found.
- Why would Google do this? Osnos quotes a Google exec who wrote on the company’s blog about Google wanting to make it easier for journalists to publish and monetize. Perhaps, that sentiment is enough to spur Google to do the “right thing.” Certainly, one could argue that Google loses if traditional news organizations fail, and it no longer has any content to aggregate. I’d be thrilled if Google could lead the way and be “as much a source of solutions as it is a part of the problem,” as Osnos writes. But I wouldn’t hold my breath. Newspapers need to solve their own problem. Just hoping Google will bail them out isn’t a good way to do that.