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April 9, 2009

AP vs web aggregators, part 2: Could newspaper failures have been prevented?

After writing the earlier post on the AP’s claims of copyright infringement by news aggregators and others, I found this article in Business Week. And it says pretty much what I surmised about the AP’s motives:

In a largely overlooked aspect of its battle with Google and other aggregators of news content, the AP plans to build an online destination where it hopes Web users can easily find and read its news stories and those of other content creators. When it comes to compiling online news, the AP wants to out-Google Google. The Web search giant “has a wacky algorithm” for collecting news stories, AP Chief Executive Tom Curley says in an interview. “It does not lead people to authoritative sources.”

So, the AP does intend to compete with Google News or maybe, try to shut it down (fat chance).

Let me say that, as a writer and editor, I am horrified at how many newspapers have failed (and still may fail). But the AP’s current position highlights the awful truth:

It could have been prevented.

All the news organizations own the rights to display their content on the web. But they never devised sensible business models for doing that. Even after Yahoo, Google, MSN, Drudge, and everyone else figured out how to profit from linking to news on the web, those who were generating that news stood around, picking their noses.

Now, late, late, late to the party, the AP decides that it will become an aggregator too, with all its subscriber partners. But, competing against Google News et al is an outrageously difficult feat. (My home page is set to Google News; many cable and DSL providers set users’ home pages to their own news aggregation sites by default).

So, yes,  the AP probably now recognizes that it should have taken advantage of its own assets the moment others discovered value in them. But since it didn’t, and it can’t turn back the clock, it cries copyright infringement, hoping to shut down or maybe slow down the established aggregators and get its own go-to news site up.

Sad, stupid, and infuriating to think, as we watch this melodrama, that possibly, news organizations themselves could have become the equivalent of Google News, years ago, and saved the news.

– Anita Bartholomew

AP vs. web aggregators: Piracy? Or free advertising?

Filed under: Commentary,News,The Publishing Biz — editorialconsultant @ 9:20 am
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The Associated Press (AP) is a news organization, owned cooperatively by other news organizations. News gathered by its reporters is distributed by subscriber news organizations: newspapers, broadcasters, and websites.

You’ve read plenty of AP stories although you may not have noticed that the AP was the source.

But, as newspapers die a slow, painful death, the AP is feeling the pain along with them. It’s decided that this isn’t death by natural causes. Nope. It’s slow poisoning. And the AP is pointing a finger, without actually naming names, at the web.

Okay, it’s true. The availability of content on the web is killing newspapers and nobody knows what to do about it. But the reason isn’t because content is free to readers. Nobody ever got rich from selling the paper itself. What made newspapers viable were the ads they sold. Classified ads, especially, that they could sell at huge profit in local areas because they were the only game in most towns. Then came Craigslist and there went most of the classified income.

Display ads, the other income generator, are still sold by news organizations and others on the web. But advertisers aren’t willing to pay the same rates as they do in paper media. A media honcho I spoke to about this said that, in the move to the web, advertising dollars became dimes.

So, the problem isn’t so much that the web exists or that content on the web is free. It’s that advertising is cheap (display ads) or free (classified ads).

That’s the poison.

Which is why the antidote that the AP has come up with isn’t the answer. It wants to crack down on what it calls copyright infringement by those who link to its content, maybe borrowing a headline and a line or two, without subscribing to the content.

In other words, it seems to be calling Google News, Yahoo News, Drudge, and various other web search engines, news aggregators, and websites, infringers (I say, seems to be,  because the AP isn’t naming names, just blustering about links).

But is linking and snipping actually copyright infringement?

The Fair Use section of copyright law is fuzzy but here’s a relevant portion:

…reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include —

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The problem with the AP’s claims of infringement are that, while Yahoo News, Drudge, Google News, et al, are commercial enterprises, reprinting a headline and a teaser snippet such as a sentence or two, isn’t substantial. But the bigger problem with AP’s claim is #4: the effect of the use upon the potential market.

Search engines and news aggregators that link to stories actually drive traffic to the copyright owners’ websites with those teasers and links. Google claims that it provides about a billion clicks a month from its links to newspaper articles. Clicks from other sites aren’t going to match Google but you get the point. The AP isn’t losing business from those clicks, it’s benefiting from the free advertising.  Aggregators and search engines are helping consumers find news that they wouldn’t otherwise find.

But the AP can’t make advertisers pay more on the web unless it becomes the go-to destination for all those searching for news on the web.

If that’s the point of this tantrum, it isn’t going to help the AP in that quest. It needs to figure out why people who are looking for news aren’t going to the AP and its news organization member sites first, rather than heading to the sites that provide links to the AP’s content. If it can’t do that then the AP’s proposed antidote to the web’s poison is actually more poison. And that self-administered dose could finish it off.

– Anita Bartholomew

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