Why it's best not to anger Google

Posted: April 7th, 2009 | Author: Tyler Dukes | Filed under: journalism | Tags: , , , , , | View Comments

bear_pokeIn their most recent attempt to stall innovation and flail their arms wildly about in a misguided attempt to summon help from anyone but themselves, the Associated Press has decided to pursue litigation against aggregators who “walk off with our work under misguided legal theories.”

Fair use, by the way, is the misguided legal theory to which they’re referring. And Google is the largest intended target of this unanimous AP board decision, which will pave the way for the negotiation of a new contract between the search and news giants.

As other bloggers have pointed out, the AP’s groundbreaking tactics largely mirror that of the RIAA, which decided to sue the pants off song-stealing pirates, like dead grandmothers and children.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are some similarities between the litigious strategy of the RIAA and the AP, but there are a few reasons why biting the hand that feeds is even more dangerous for a news organization that relies on traffic and trust to survive.

What the AP seemingly fails to realize is that aggregators like Google are already exchanging something valuable in return for their headlines and short snippets of their stories — readers.

Online readers don’t use one news source.  They’re looking in multiple places for things that interest them. They read blogs, click on links from friends and gather content in applications like Google Reader.

Aggregators allow news organizations like the AP rise above the noise — the same stories everyone else is writing about the same subject — and become part of the conversation.

Now the fact that news organizations are all writing about the same stuff, effectively driving down the value in the eyes of the consumer, is a problem in and of itself. But despite that, aggregators have given the AP a golden opportunity to capitalize on an increase in readership it couldn’t have achieved on its own.

In light of that failure, the AP is looking to put into place this stop-gap measure to compensate for its shortfalls and slow the decline of its business, which many of its member newspapers have already determined they can live without.

That whole “buy us some time” argument is probably the best reasoning I’ve heard for the AP to proceed with this strategy — although that’s not saying much.  Some smart journalists, like Ted Mann at Gannett, are already on board with the idea.

I even had an awkward Twitter argument Monday with a few of my journalist friends on the subject:

mtdukes Ridiculous. AP preparing to take legal action against aggregators, which, you know, drive most of their traffic. http://is.gd/r3jo

pironio @mtdukes might be ridiculous, but it’s the natural progression. All you have to do is look at the music industry’s history for news’ future.

mtdukes @pironio Music and news are different industries following diff. paths. And this isn’t the natural progression, it’s a bad business decision

pironio @mtdukes explain to me how we can get news for free? business is business.

pironio @mtdukes music and news are content, and people want them for free. thats how they relate

mtdukes @pironio That’s like saying a hamburger & sweatshirt are the same because they’re products. Music & news are valued by consumers differently

pironio @mtdukes you value it more because it involves you. To everyone else its just content. and your right those products are related.

benmcneely @mtdukes @pironio We need to recoup some money from Google and all the aggregators. I don’t think legal action is the right answer.

pironio @benmcneely your right its not, but its a way to figure things out. The idea of being sued will get people thinking on how to solve things.

mtdukes @benmcneely @pironio Nothing is free, consumers pay with eyeballs. Aggregators are driving hits & spreading content. That equals ad revenue

benmcneely @mtdukes But not enough ad revenue to support newsrooms. If we charge Google micro-fees to aggregate content,we can get a piece of their pie.

pironio @mtdukes so your saying AP should be paying those Aggregators since they bring them business.

mtdukes @pironio No. They’re both benefiting from the relationship, but new orgs just don’t think they’re getting enough.

mtdukes @benmcneely Charge all you want. The implementation of this system will be expensive and Google probably won’t pay.

But the fact remains that the RIAA and the news industry are different.

Namely, the AP simply can’t afford to alienate its audience the way RIAA alienated theirs. No one can deny that the hundreds of lawsuits filed over the years has hurt RIAA’s public image.

That’s fine for them.

I don’t have to like the recording industry, or recording artists for that matter, to buy stuff from them. If I did, I would never be a fan of John Mayer.

That’s not the case for news organizations. Credibility is a requirement, and without it, readers won’t read it, bloggers won’t blog about it and pundits won’t weep about it on cable television.

Take TechCrunch for example. As high and mighty as this blog is, it’s also influential with a huge following. Now they’ve banned all links to AP content.

News content is also valued differently by consumers than music. Namely, 26 percent of the public doesn’t value it at all. Music is unique. It defines generations and moments in people’s lives. It’s memorable.

News, on the whole, is not.

That’s not likely to change, especially as the reporting power of blogs grows equal to that of professional journalists and the AP faces more competition for the same stories.

A business model based on the sale of news information will never be successful in the digital age. The costs to craft stories that are one of a kind and indispensable in the eyes of the public are too great and the return on them too small.

Some people, like AP Chairman Dean Singleton, just don’t get that.

We own the content but we’ve let those who spend very little, if any, get the most advantage from it.

What news organizations have to realize is that it’s not the information they’re selling — it’s the eyeballs. That’s what advertisers pay for, and any action to block those eyeballs from content will have dire consequences for the viability of these businesses.


  • Spot on! The dirty little secret is that very, very few people read the news. They scan the headlines. Every once in a while they find something that gets their interest. The AP stories aren't meant to be read. They were designed and are mostly used to fill the news holes between the ads in Print.

    The New Yorker is meant to be read. Good words. Interesting stories. But that's a really niche audience. Meanwhile the New Yorker lets everyone read everything for free on their site.

    The AP still thinks they have the keys to the kingdom. Not so much.
  • Nice argument. I get what you are saying and I agree, we should go after readers, not content. The more readers we get, the better off we are.

    But, just because we have a bunch of readers (i.e. millions) looking at our stuff everyday doesn't necessarily translate into ad dollars, or not enough that can sustain a newsroom.

    Even Facebook isn't making money. It is thriving on venture capital to keep going, because it doesn't charge a fee to sign up.

    The AP and news orgs cannot survive without money. And newspapers are dropping the AP third-period French because their readers want all local, all the time.

    So what's the answer?

    One grand idea is to partner with Google somehow. Obviously, the CEO is on board with newspapers anyway, so instead of suing them, why doesn't the AP partner with Google so the members newspapers can get revenue from the Internet and Google can get their eyeballs.

    The downside to that is Big Brother really will be watching what you read. Could run into anti-trust laws as well.

    But this business of "suing-to-buy-time" is horsehockey.
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