Washington Post OpEd: Newspapers Shouldn’t Have to Embrace the Internet

The Washington Post’s Saturday Op-Ed on how to save journalism, authored by Bruce Sanford and Bruce Brown, has been coming in for a drubbing over the weekend, predictably from the very people populating the target of their complaints: the internet.

I’d love to be able to go against the grain and praise The Post as a coy contrarian, but it’s hard to feel anything but scorn for an industry that truly seems to believe that it and only it can truly provide the “knowledge necessary to manage life in a complex world.”

The most baffling thing about the article is the claim that the internet has special rules that allow internet companies to thrive while newspapers are sucked dry. Which would indeed be tragic… if newspapers didn’t also exist on the internet and have access to exactly the same rules there as everyone else. But instead of taking advantage of that freedom, instead of embracing the medium, most newspapers have instead been content to simply reproduce their paper-business in online form, all the while complaining that others are doing things they’ve never dared to try.

Which leads to some truly confusing kvetching:

But Google’s products (and profit) would look a lot different if, for example, the law said it had to obtain copyright permissions in order to copy and index Web sites. Search engines have instead required copyright holders to “opt out” of their digital dragnets, and so far their market power has allowed them to get away with it.

So, wait a minute, why can’t, say, The Washington Post just opt out of Google’s content crawling, preserving the exclusivity of its content? Because Google has too much “market power” to be ignored. But what that really means is that links and traffic from Google are too vital to The Post’s online presence for them to even think of going without it. And that reality just doesn’t square very well with the idea that Google is merely a content parasite or purely a competitor in the realm of serving up information.

The whole reason Google is dominant at the moment is not simply because it has stolen content to sell on the cheap (though that’s an undeniable factor), but that it creates tools and services that allow users to deal with all that information. And other big internet players are overtaking Google not by becoming more efficient content scrapers, but by coming up with better services and ideas along those lines (particularly in the realm of social networking, something Google has thus far failed to keep pace with).

There’s no reason why newspapers can’t get in on that action as well. If information is too free for their liking, then they could at least demonstrate some willingness to try and exploit that freedom for their own ends before calling it a deadly danger to democracy. Doing so well might radically redefine how journalistic content is produced and presented. But how long can we really put that off anyway?

I’m still surprised for instance, that papers haven’t spent more time picking apart each other’s content, or engaging consumers directly in the process of creating and promoting stories. Scoff at cable news all you want, but outfits like CNN, MSNBC, Fox already seem to have caught on to this concept, increasingly featuring the sort of interactivity and community that draws users in for the long haul and involves them directly (CNN’s iReporters, twitter feeds as integral parts of broadcasts, etc.). Or sampling and then attacking each other’s content directly (now a staple on most cable talk shows).

Meanwhile, the commenting systems on most newspaper sites are barely a technological or even design step above Geocities era guestbooks, and instances in which one paper attacks the reporting or editorializing of another are few and far between. If you want readers to actually care about which website they’re browsing some bit of information on, these are precisely the sorts of content enhancements you need to think about providing.

Instead, the Bruces propose that the government step in and make it easier to wall content away behind paywalls, disconnect it. I’m almost ashamed to use such a stupid metaphor, but newspapers need to be thinking about building better boats, not artificial islands.

As I’ve noted before, I think users will happily pay a la carte for full access to the content they come across, provided that the price is right (capable of sub-penny payments) and that the system is simple, unified into their browsers, and unobtrusive (i.e. no additional signups every time they want to pay for a read on a new site you come across), and they’ll pay even more for services that actually enhance their ability to organize and interact with both journalists and fellow readers. Instead, most newspapers have simply tried to extend subscription models that are based on the economics of paper distribution. Most newspaper articles online still seem afraid to link to offsite resources and articles, forgetting that it’s precisely the quality of these sorts of links that enhances the value and brand of the original content. I follow thousands of links from my favorite blogs and feeds, but I keep coming back to the source blogs themselves precisely because they are so good at seeking out and re-contextualizing the content of others.

If traditional print journalism were to entirely die off tomorrow, with every major daily shutting its doors, the social shock would be temporary: most people would continue to “manage their [lives]” just fine. And because most consumers still want and would seek out well-researched content, good journalism would live on (though it might have to get cheaper regardless). But I’d guess that the sorts of journalistic outlets that would fill the void wouldn’t much resemble traditional newsrooms, wouldn’t be structured around the philosophy of a one-way readership. And in the end, that’s probably fine with most people, including journalists themselves.

The Post’s Op-Ed Bruces seem savvy enough to genuinely want a bridge to that new era. But to get there, they’re essentially asking the government to first blow up the heavily trafficked bridge that already exists, without ever daring to step onto it themselves and seeing how it really treats them.

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~ by Drew on 2009/05/18.

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