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Newspapers and the Web Try to Work out a Reasonable Relationship

By Ben L. Kaufman · June 10th, 2009 · On Second Thought
A local radio station used to read stories from The Enquirer verbatim on its early news segments, back when I still wrote for the morning daily. It was classic “rip and read.” They never credited the paper.

The station’s news reader repeated a story on which I had worked for weeks and left the impression it was somehow their triumph. That angered me.

It went beyond story sharing allowed among members and clients of the Associated Press. Lacking a news staff, the station drew listeners with our work.

Enquirer lawyers explained “fair use” and “plagiarism” to station executives, and that crash course in Journalism Law 101 sufficed. From that day, we reporters got on-air credit for our stories.

All of that is a long way of getting to the growing brouhaha over web sites that use others’ news stories to draw readers and advertisers.

You know the sites. They include HuffingtonPost and DailyBeast, Google and Yahoo. Some are news sites. Some are search engines with their own news “pages.” Some pay licensing fees, some don’t. Some offer original material, some don’t.

Even when they offer a summary and link to the original source, these sites draw readers with news that others produced. Some use more than a paragraph and/or wrap their original content around the core of someone else’s story.

Critics include the AP and others whose work is “aggregated” by web sites’ search eyeballs and profit.

The AP says it isn’t going after bloggers who write about a story and link to it. That’s a “fair use” fight AP doesn’t need, not least because few bloggers make enough money to justify lawyers running the clock.

Even when payment is made for the content, the heart of news media fury is the failure of users to share ad revenues generated by drawing readers to their sites. Again, the AP is at the head of the line, signaling what it hopes is an end to the free lunch at its expense.

There is no unanimity among publishers about the best response to the parasitic relationship. Some news media enjoy or accept unrelated sites that draw readers with brief summaries and link to their original stories. When readers click those links, they increase the papers’ web traffic and drive their ad revenues as unique individuals are added to Internet-defined circulation.

Meanwhile, papers with significant web traffic are trying to figure out how they can begin (or return to) charging for what readers have learned is free.

Some publications, including The New York Times, once charged for what it thought was “premium” content — that is, columnists. It gave it up eventually, and web traffic soared to the delight of editors, accountants and advertisers.

Those gains, however, didn’t equal the loss of print ad revenue. Now The Times is talking again about ways to charge for some content.

The Wall Street Journal charges online, one of the few dailies to give away virtually nothing. London’s Financial Times offers some free content and is looking for ways to charge for views after some free looks. They can do it, given their niche audience and the better than even chance someone else pays for the subscriptions.

Even as national and local publications puzzle over charging for Internet content, technology is overtaking their conversations. Portable Internet reading devices — modified to show magazine and newspaper pages — have come on the market. Whether these gizmos save print editions is secondary to the possibility that they’ll encourage readers to buy content that readers once got for free.

Think about it: Is the daily local news in The Enquirer important enough to pay for if the print edition were reduced to, say, a Sunday paper and all of the paper’s daily reporting and images were put on the web site?

I’m no insider.

I don’t know how many options Publisher Margaret Buchanan is considering as she tries to maintain, recover or expand the paper’s profitability in what might be the worst economic downturn in daily newspaper history.

But production/delivery costs are about half the cost of any copy of the paper. Going online only Monday-Saturday could save a lot of money if advertisers and subscribers bought in or were willing to pay by the story.


Curmudgeon Notes

The Enquirer examined the impact and potential of the University of Cincinnati in the xxxxx Forum section. Here’s a suggestion for the next Forum project on UC: the changing place of faculty tenure and the growing use of qualified, full-time untenured faculty who are called adjuncts, service, field, research or clinical professors. Generally on renewable contracts, they’re ineligible for tenure.

• One of the objections to daily papers converting from for-profit to nonprofit is the limit on partisan activity by nonprofits governed by the federal tax code. Put another way, nonprofits aren’t supposed to endorse candidates. Big deal.

Does anyone really change their vote because of a newspaper endorsement? I know of no media study that says this is a significant impact. Rather, endorsements tend to affirm a reader’s predisposition. Big deal. That doesn’t even mean they’re likelier to vote, and inaction by eligible voters is a bigger problem. So few editorials take a stand for anything more shocking than “time will tell” that it would be smarter to turn those writers and pages over to news. That’s something that could influence Americans’ political activity and smarts.

• If President Obama wants to use email to tell me what he’s doing, he should tell his aides to get cracking. His email arrived almost 12 hours after he announced his choice for Supreme Court. Is it possible that someone with enough interest to receive his missives hadn’t known all day what Obama’s email revealed at 8:20 p.m.?

Commentary magazine published a book excerpt that says the late I.F. Stone, a leading left-of-center muckraker for much of the latter half of the 20th century, was “a Soviet spy” before World War II. It also says “the documentary record shows that I.F. Stone consciously cooperated with Soviet intelligence from 1936 through 1938.”

I was a fan of Stone and a subscriber to his newsletter. The Commentary article is unconvincing because none of what its authors say is “documentary record” involves Stone passing national security secrets to KGB agents. Rather, Commentary suggests that in the 1930s, when the Soviet Union appeared to be the most credible alternative to Nazis in Europe, a leftist American journalist traded information with KGB agents.

It was a time when the Nazis and fascists were on the march in Spain. Important right-wing Americans supported Hitler, Mussolini and Franco as bulwarks against “godless atheistic communism.” Americans who opposed Nazis and fascists abroad and at home made common cause with anyone who’d join what they hoped would become a popular front. If Stone did all that Commentary says, it was what journalists of all political leanings do all of the time: trade information with anyone who appears useful to us.

• On the other hand, just because a reporter is accused of being a spy doesn’t mean the charge is fabricated. Journalism is a wonderful cover for espionage, given our tradecraft involves gathering information and talking to insiders. Some famous and effective modern spies also were skilled journalists, including Kim Philby and Victor Sorge. Other journalists have been used as “back channel” diplomats, keeping confidences and carrying messages that could not be transmitted openly or officially.

• In her NPR interviews, freelance reporter Roxana Saberi did little more than debunk claims about her arrest by Iranian authorities earlier this year. She suggested that explanations by one of her Iranian lawyers were false or fantasy. At best, she said she didn’t know why she was arrested, jailed for more than three months or released. Maybe she’ll write a book.

• Has any other Cincinnati publication or writer been acclaimed the best in the world? An international award was won recently by Streetvibes, the local monthly paper, and its editor/writer, Greg Flannery, for his June 2008 story, “We Are Their Slaves.” The Enquirer and CityBeat reported the award last month.

Streetvibes, which goes biweekly next month, is sponsored by the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless. At the ceremony in Bergen, Norway, at the International Network of Street Papers convention, Glasgow-based INSP said the story “highlights an appalling case of the mistreatment of immigrant Puerto Rican workers in Cincinnati. Uncovering a shocking scheme of calculated exploitation and severe social control, the article resulted in a groundswell of outrage and a federal investigation of the company in question.”

The convention was cosponsored by Reuters, the international news agency. The awards were chaired by David Schlesinger, editor-in-chief of Reuters News and INSP's honorary president. He said, "As a member of the official judging panel for two years running, I can attest to the continuing quality and depth of these entries, across the board-a fact most certainly due to rather than in spite of the diverse contexts, languages and geographies from which they have come." Other finalists for Best Feature were German, Canadian, Dutch and American papers.

Alister Doyle of parent company Thomson Reuters told the audience, “As chair of the judging panel, David (Schlesinger) called this an ‘exceptionally strong category,’ citing tight competition between two standout contenders, as well as an impressive overall quality, depth and emotional energy across the board.

“After much debate, the winning feature was chosen on the basis of its fearless investigative reporting and its remarkable success in bringing about concrete action to address a pressing, and growing, social problem. Tackling combined obstacles of public apathy and corporate intimidation, this piece personalizes the horrors of labor exploitation faced by a Latino immigrant workforce in the U.S. and shows readers just how close to home the injustice really is."

Individual vendors buy Streetvibes copies for 25 cents and sell them for $1 to help support themselves. Since Flannery became editor on St. Patrick’s Day 2008, it has experienced unprecedented circulation growth. It sold out three times even after increasing the press run from 4,000 to 6,000 copies.

Before taking over Streetvibes, Flannery was CityBeat news editor.


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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