It seems like media giants are starting to play the blame game now about why their sales are plummeting. Matthew Yglesias over at ThinkProgress put up a post today about an Op-Ed that ran in the Washington Post blaming the internet and search engines for falling revenue and asking Congress to step in and dial down antitrust regulation on newspapers. Like Yglesias, I think this is a terrible idea.
As I said earlier this week, I believe that one of the biggest problems with journalism is that many of the media outlets are not offering readers any information that they can't get on the television or by browsing around online for just a couple of minutes. For the most part, they're spitting out press releases and relying on wire copy to fill up a newspaper and draw some ads in. But instead of focusing on improving content and looking inward to fix the industry's problems, journalists, like the writer of this Op-Ed, prefer to point fingers and cry foul at the internet and ask the government to come in and help them out.
Let's take each bullet of this Op-Ed individually. First, the writer says that search engines should be forced to obtain the copyright to all the news articles that they accumulate on the internet. The piece claims that this is in violation of fair-use and is taking away ad revenue from the media Web sites. If this were really completely true, I would agree with it. But unless they are referencing something else, this claim seems off base. Google News does troll around the internet and get stories from all kinds of different sources, but they only publish snippets and provide links to the original articles on the original Web sites. So, if the reader wants to learn more about the article, they can jump over to the Web site and read it. If they don't want to go to the Web site and read more, I guess the content isn't interesting enough. Is that Google's fault?
The writer makes it seem like the search engines are taking this content and claiming it as their own. This is just false. They are sorting the content and making it searchable by readers who are redirected to the publication's Web site.
The second bullet addresses "hot news," which is the idea of essentially stealing the idea of an story and taking all of the intellectual property -- even if the story is not republished -- without giving credit to the original source (for more information about it, check this out). Again, this is a legitimate concern if it were focused on bloggers or Web sites who steal stories and don't give any credit, but what this writer is focusing on is linking, or "linksploitation." This, as I understand it, is the use links by blogs to post new content. Again, this just sends readers to the original article. Sure, the blogs may sell ad space and make money off of this, but if readers are coming to the blogs first instead of the publications Web site, the blog must be doing something better.
The last three bullets focus on the business side of newspapers. The writer believes that Congress should cut taxes on newspapers, get rid of ownership regulations and cut back on anti-trust legislation. Cutting taxes on papers would be nice and help in the short term, but if people still aren't reading, or, more importantly, if businesses stop buying advertisements, newspapers and magazine are just going to face this problem again in the future. The other two points are just absurd. Papers being bought out and creating larger media companies is part of what brought the media into this predicament in the first place. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it's the big companies that are in debt from buying so many newspapers that are causing all the staff cuts. Kirk Ross of the Carrboro Citizen said that this is the main problem with newspapers now. The News & Observer in Raleigh is a great newspaper in a great market but is facing tremendous cuts because its parent company is in so much debt. That is why small, independent newspapers are fairing better right now.
The bottom line is that media companies seem to be missing the point entirely. By pointing fingers and asking for handouts, they are sidestepping the problem. Mass media needs an overhaul and it needs it now. There is a reason that readers are bypassing traditional media and going to blogs and other Web sites: they're doing it better. They have a better model that people like. Now newspapers need to adapt. If Congress were to pass a law diminishing the antitrust regulations on media, and all the publications worked together and set prices it would just further their demise. As Yglesias points out:
"Papers would take advantage of the new cartelization situation to restore profitability based on their existing readership base. But younger people would continue to read non-cartelized media—everything from Think Progress and Talking Points Memo and the Huffington Post and the Center for Independent Media to the BBC and NPR. Newspapers would find themselves even more deeply locked into a business model dependent on a literally dying customer base."
I agree that traditional media holds an important role in American life. But, at the same time, it's on the media companies to fulfill this responsibility to play this role and provide the people with the information, entertainment and analysis that they desire. You can't just get mad at people who are doing it better. Do something about it.