Battle of the day: AP vs. blogs
When the sun finally shines, it's hard to get too worked up about bloggers' tiff of the day. But last week's blowup over The Associated...
Seattle Times staff columnist
When the sun finally shines, it's hard to get too worked up about bloggers' tiff of the day.
But last week's blowup over The Associated Press' clamping down on reuse of its content is worth a second look.
It may turn out to be the rattling chandelier that lets you know an earthquake's underfoot.
If you missed it, the AP asked the producer of a Florida blog to remove six blog entries containing excerpts of AP stories.
After the blogger, Rogers Cadenhead, wrote about the situation, prominent bloggers rushed to his defense and accused the AP of misunderstanding the new world of online news.
The AP talked it over with Cadenhead and some bloggers and the threat of a lawsuit subsided, for now.
Cadenhead said the outcome will be a set of guidelines for bloggers that the AP is expected to issue today. He predicts it could lead to a Napster-like battle over news and what's fair game for sharing.
After the backlash resulting from its clumsy move, the AP is being cautious. Spokesman Paul Colford wouldn't share any details with me or even confirm that guidelines are coming out today.
He would only repeat a statement issued Thursday, saying there has been "a constructive exchange of views this week" and its resolution "illustrates that the interests of bloggers can be served while still respecting the intellectual property rights of news providers."
Those last six words suggest that Cadenhead's right and the AP — and the news industry it represents — are bracing for a showdown.
But it won't be a fight between amateurs posting their diaries online. Nor will it stifle online commentary or citizen journalists who publish their own stories.
What's boiling over is the tension between news organizations that still gather and publish most original news, and the online magazines and news aggregation sites that still call themselves blogs but are really professional news ventures. The latter are moving aggressively into newspapers' turf, just as newspapers are staking their future on Web distribution.
Consider what The Huffington Post announced last week. Instead of being just a politically focused online commentary site, it's moving to open local news sites across the country. It's starting in Chicago with one reporter.
Presumably, there are more than one or two stories a day worth reporting in Chicago, so it will include snippets of stories reported by other media. The site already does this sort of lamprey journalism on a national scale, presenting a daily batch of excerpts from stories on topics such as business.
After you've read the excerpt and gotten the gist of the story, you can of course click through to the original source — but why would you?
As Slate, the online magazine, pointed out in a recent story, online readers are mostly grazing for little nuggets of information.
This gets back to the AP spat, and the difficulty news organizations have protecting their intellectual property. People are free to comment on news, and even refer to the original news source. Yet blogazines seem to be pushing this too far, copying snippets of news articles so they can present a daily report rather than commentary.
Cadenhead's most vociferous defender may be media blogger Jeff Jarvis, who argues that the old media don't grasp that links to stories are the "new currency of media. Links can be exploited and monetized; get links and you can grab audience and show ads and make money," he wrote.
But what if Jarvis has it backward?
What if, after more than five years of being told that the key to success in the digital future is to give away content and maximize traffic, it's just not working for publishers?
They have been giving it away, and they're apparently not making it back on traffic. Even the big national newspapers that "get" the Web aren't earning enough online to avoid layoffs.
Meanwhile, online-ad sellers have made billions, and Web entrepreneurs have gotten rich building companies that compile, repackage and comment on all that free content.
How long could that continue before the AP pushed back? Remember that the AP isn't a stand-alone business. It's a cooperative of the news organizations that are getting eviscerated online.
I don't want to criticize sharing of ideas and fostering conversations online. Those are probably the greatest things about the Web. But that touchy-feely stuff distracts from what this debate is about: whether and how companies are to be compensated for the material they produce.
The Google ad business model that supports small blog ventures is not working for companies that gather and present most of the news.
No wonder there's a cluster of startups in Seattle that have recently turned their companies toward producing tools and services to help media companies better monetize their online content.
Just in the past few months, Wetpaint released interactivity tools geared to media companies, DelveNetworks relaunched as an indexing service for video publishers, and a Paul Allen-backed startup called Evri surfaced with new tools aimed at the mainstream media.
Evri, which is expected to make its tools public Tuesday, has technology that hooks into news stories and automatically generates background information culled from the Web and a set of links to related stories.
I'm not sure that any of these companies has a magic bullet, but perhaps the AP should look to them for ideas on how to license its material.
Wetpaint, for instance, provides its tools free to blogs and Web sites until their traffic reaches 100,000 unique visitors.
Similarly, Microsoft has competed with free software in part by offering free versions of some products to hobbyists and Web developers.
There has to be something better than trading links and lawsuits.
Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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