We're All Newspapers Now

Redfin posted an essay on TechFlash late last night discussing the implications of what TechCrunch calledDanny Sullivan’s beautiful rant.” Sullivan argues that newspapers should just opt out of Google’s index if they don’t want their home pages to be replaced by Google News.

But, as is usually the case with posts like this, we disagree. Simply saying that we have to love all Google’s policies and products or leave its index ignores the dominant position Google has in shaping how people consume just about everything on the Internet.

The great responsibility that comes with that falls not just on Google but on all of us in technology who make it easier to distribute for free content that others depend on selling to make a living.

This is not to say that Google is to blame for having a business that profits from having as much content as possible be free on the Internet; most other technologies do the same, and the consumer benefits too, at least for now.

The problem is bigger than Google. The problem is the “beautiful rant” itself — a pervasive  belief that the newspapers, musicians, film-makers and story-tellers who create all this wonderful stuff on the Internet can only do so on our terms, which is to say  zero, nada, free.

I guess the writers and artists could go build their own search engine, their own music-sharing and video-sharing technologies, but wouldn’t we rather they keep writing “30 Rock,” reporting from Darfur and recording sappy love songs?

If we all become distributors because nobody pays creators, won’t the whole Internet become a pirate’s junkyard of free stuff?


  • http://smallprecautions.blogspot.com Nils Gilman

    Here’s an idea. Let me suppose that we collectively as a society think that newspapers are worth preserving, if not in the printed form, at least in their content.

    One way of looking at the problem that the newspaper industry has is actually not as “an Internet problem,” but rather as a collective-action problem. The issue, at bottom, is the Mary-Meeker inspired original sin, made in the first days of the Internet, to start giving away their content for free. This ingrained a culture among users that news content should be free. Once that happened, whenever a newspaper unilaterally tried to charge for content, users generally shied away, because there was always somewhere else on the Internet where you could get more or less the same content for free.

    The problem, in other words, is that the newspapers haven’t been able to coordinate their shift to a pay-per-view model — this is partly a coordination problem, but it’s also partly a problem of anti-trust law, since if they did coordinate this way, it would certainly run afoul of anti-collusion laws around pricing.

    But that’s just a legal issue. What if, as we’ve done with baseball, we decide that newspapers are a national treasure that deserve an anti-trust exemption? This doesn’t mean a free-for-all, and it doesn’t mean a government handout, it just means that we as a society recognize that we want to preserve their reporting and transparency function, and that this means we need to protect them on the one matter of pricing.

    Along with this exemption, however, Congress would also have to get a little into the payment mechanism. My suggestion would be something like this — that newspapers set up a microcollections scheme so that you need to pay, say, a nickle for each article you read (seems about fair, no?). You’d also want to write the exemption to make clear that this doesn’t give Congress the right to scrutinize the content that is being supplied by these newspapers, just to set a maximum rate for online pricing.

    You’ll still have the piracy problem, of course, but this is what Attributor’s for, no?

  • http://blog.redfin.com/blog/author/glenn%20kelman Glenn Kelman

    I am not sure we need a change in law just yet Nils, but I agree that it’s hard to change user expectations now. Record labels never started by giving away music but many now expect it to be free, so I wonder if those expectations are really the newspapers’ fault?

    In any event, it’s good to see the old Berkeley historian get all socialist on us at the first provocation! Thanks for commenting, as always…

  • Amit

    All newspapers and press organizations should find a way to charge for their content and their work, they owe it to their shareholders to do so. Their fear of losing their viewers should be trumped by their fear of going belly up.

    Until the Internet, the way they made money was by profiting from the distribution. Now that the Internet makes distribution dirt cheap and ultra-efficient, they need to find another way to make a buck from their work. They should start from the ground up and act like they are inventing the business from scratch, how will they operate, how will they make money, etc. That’s the only way out of their current predicament.

  • http://smallprecautions.blogspot.com Nils Gilman

    As socialist as baseball…

  • http://smallprecautions.blogspot.com Nils Gilman

    It appears that David Simon, creator of “The Wire” and a former newspaper man, proposed my same anti-trust idea in testimony before Congress today.

    I would urge Congress to consider relaxing certain antitrust prohibitions, so that the Washington Post, the New York Times and various other newspapers can openly discuss protecting copyright from aggregators and plan an industry-wide transition to a paid online subscriber base. Whatever money comes will prove essential to the task of hiring back some of the talent, commitment and institutional memory that has been squandered. Absent this basic and belated acknowledgement that content matters—in fact, content is all—I don’t think anything can be done to save high-end professional journalism.