It’s turned into the silly season here in future-of-journalism land, what with the AP’s muddled new campaign to try to stop websites from linking to its content and the latest wave of cockamamie plans to save newspapers by (take your pick) putting them on the government dole, seizing some of Google’s profits to pay their bills, or organizing a sort of journalistic OPEC to begin jacking up the price of news online.
There are a few important facts that always seem to get lost in the broadsides that present these save-our-papers plans. One of these regards Google, which is widely seen among old-school journalists as the evil force that ate the newspaper industry’s profits by stealing its headlines without paying for them. The truth is that any newspaper website — indeed, any website at all — can stop Google from linking to it by adding a simple line of code to their “robots.txt” file that tells the Googlebot to go away. If you don’t understand what that means, it doesn’t matter; all you need to know is that participation in Google is voluntary.
Participation is also pretty much universal, because of the benefits. When users are seeking what you have, it’s good to be found. Newspaper sites, like most sites, don’t generally go the “robots.txt” exclusion route because they want Google to send people their way. But no one, Google or otherwise, is forcing any news organization to allow Google to link in.
The Google traffic is generally welcomed because it’s usually newcomers — site visitors who aren’t already part of the regular audience but who might become regulars if they like what they see. Over at the Wall Street Journal — the one major newspaper that has built a significant business out of charging for its articles — this influx of Google-directed eyeballs is apparently so valuable that the newspaper will actually slice a hole in its pay wall for Google-referred visitors to walk right in.
None of these realities seems to weigh in the scales for the new wave of “stop giving away the news” visionaries. Today’s entrant, newspaper consultant John Morton, writing in the American Journalism Review, is no different from his predecessors. Morton wants to see all American newspaper websites decide to shut their gates to non-paying visitors on July 4. Just organize this cartel and watch the profits return.
In reality, such a move would be suicidal: it would decimate these sites’ traffic while only marginally increasing their revenue. It would also hasten the evolutionary development of alternative, Web-only news organizations and business models that will be entirely disconnected from the old world of paper.
What all such plans fail to understand is that no website can succeed unless it is participating in the core activities of the Web — linking and sharing. These activities are not diverting bells and whistles; they are the heart of the medium. When you cut yourself off from the rest of the Web you’re not just giving up some minor side-benefit; you’re abandoning the fundamental distribution model of the medium — like publishing a newspaper but leaving it on the truck.
This is dead-end thinking. If you don’t believe that, ask the Wall Street Journal’s editors why they let you in for free when you click on a Google link.
- April 9, 2009 @ 17:26:28 [Current Revision] by Scott Rosenberg
- April 9, 2009 @ 14:34:36 by Scott Rosenberg