Information wants to be free, reporters want to be paid, Part 22

I’m not sure which is spiraling downward faster, advertising revenues at newspapers or the debate over what to do about it. Well, actually the latter just seems to be spiraling, covering the same tracks over and over.

The latest to posit on the proposition of how to financially support quality and costly journalism are a federal judge and a Cleveland newspaper columnist. They both use the death spiral analogy you’ve seen in this space from time to time. And both give some of the blame to parasitic pests on the Internet who feed off the news generated by the professionals at considerable expense.

Judge Richard Posner

U.S. 7th Circuit Court Judge Richard Posner explains in blog posting the phenomenon this way: “A newspaper with shrinking revenues can shrink its costs only by reducing the number of reporters, columnists, and editors, and when it does that quality falls, and therefore demand, and falling demand means falling revenues and therefore increased pressure to economize--by cutting the journalist staff some more. This vicious cycle, amplified by the economic downturn, may continue until very little of the newspaper industry is left.”

Columnist Connie Schultz
Columnist Connie Schultz

Meanwhile, Connie Schultz columnizes at the Plain Dealer, argues that “parasitic aggregators reprint or rewrite newspaper stories, making the originator redundant and drawing ad revenue away from newspapers at rates the publishers can't match. The inevitable consequence: diminished revenue and staff cuts. …

“It's also a downward spiral toward extinction.”

Posner calls for tightening copyright laws to bar even paraphrasing or linking to copyrighted material on the Internet without the consent of the copyright holder.

This would require a bit of rethinking about what has become known as the Fairness Doctrine, which makes blog postings like this one possible. I take snippets of the original efforts of others, attribute it and, whenever possible, provide a link to the original. The link, rather than being a drain, can be construed as a benefit, especially if the linked Web site is supported by advertising, which benefits from the added views and thus spirals up for a change.

Schultz offers us some thoughts from First Amendment attorney David Marburger and his brother Daniel, an economics professor at Arkansas State University.

She says the Marburgers have suggested changing federal copyright law to allow those who originate news to retain its commercial value by virtue of exclusivity for 24 hours.

David Marburger cites the 1918 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court found the International news Service was engaging in unfair competition by rewriting Associated Press stories and selling them to newspapers in competition with the AP. The issued an injunction but only for the time period in which the news retained its commercial value.

If the case sounds vaguely familiar it may be because I wrote about it in Part 15 of this ongoing series.

Schultz notes that the Marburgers anticipate that critics will charge that newspapers want to monopolize the news. To which the reply is, "No, we want to temporarily stop the unfair practice of those who use the sweat of our brow to compete against us."

Blogger/professor Jeff Jarvis
Blogger/professor Jeff Jarvis

BuzzMachine blogger and professor Jeff Jarvis, of course, pooh-poohs both of the above and misses the point.

Jarvis hypothesizes thusly: “So if the Plain Dealer reported exclusively that, say, the governor had just returned from a tryst with a Argentine lady, no one else could so much as talk about that for 24 hours.”

No, the newspaper should have exclusive rights to its original reporting, its phrasing, its presentation. If others, once alerted by the paper, can independently confirm through their own contacts and sources, then report it in their own words, that, in my view, does not infringe.

If they cannot confirm it themselves, they should very briefly provide their readers with the bare facts, properly attributed to those who did the heavy lifting, and link to the originator. If the originator happens to be The Wall Street Journal, that link might lead to Web page that requires the would be consumer to be a paid subscriber. If the site is free, it is probably supported by advertising.

Jarvis further makes the specious argument that under the Shultz-Marburger-Posner scenario that hot news would become the sole possession of the first on the scene.

“Look at how fast the Michael Jackson news spread,” he says. “Under these guys’ scheme, TMZ would have had exclusive right to publish his death for a day.”

In reality, a number of responsible Web sites, unable to confirm the TMZ’s news (or speculation?), linked to and/or attributed to TMZ. Once their usual sources — L.A. Times, AP, Reuters — independently confirmed the death, those were the ones cited.

Someone does need to find a way to start lynching the rustlers of intellectual property, or we will see it slowly erode and disappear.