I have known Dave Krieger for close to 15 years now, which appalls me to no end: Neither one of us should be that old. Dave is one of those people who says stuff that makes you think, “Man, that is SO obvious; why in the heck did I not think of it?” He has more or less played every position you can play in newspapers -- news-side reporter, NBA beat guy, columnist, general assignment reporter, and so on. I’ve always thought of him as the Kiki Vandeweghe of journalism, not because I see any similarities but because I like saying “Kiki Vandeweghe.”
Dave also lived through the last days of the Rocky Mountain News. Here are some of his thoughts about newspapers and the Associated Press, and he wonders: Who is helping who?
* * *
During the hospice phase of the Rocky Mountain News, I read every diagnosis of newspaper ills I could find. By and large, they weren’t very helpful. They spent an inordinate amount of time castigating the newspaper industry for failing to anticipate the technological and economic upheavals now destroying its revenue base. Not only were these critiques of little or no value in prescribing a way forward, they carried the implicit assumption that what capitalists call creative destruction can be anticipated and avoided, or at least in some way accommodated. The buggy whip makers, if they'd had a brain among them, would have started mass producing automobiles before Henry Ford beat them to it. Right.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve come to the Joe Poz Journalism Cogitation Page not to offer any brief for newspaper management or ownership. They were every bit as short-sighted as the critics suggest. Not only that, many journalists, unhappy with the pattern of publicly-traded conglomerates siphoning profits for shareholders rather than re-investing in the business, have been pointing this out for decades, which was slightly more useful than today’s hindsight, although, it turns out, not much.
In any case, reviewing the road to ruin is not especially helpful as we peer over the precipice. Neither are endless explications of the role of technology – the secular problem – or the collapse of auto, housing and employment advertising – the cyclical problem. It is as if we are all Lions fans now, reading the sad results, blaming Matt Millen.
I was one of a number of Rocky folks who engaged the public, in print and in person, about the paper’s survival. As a sportswriter, I talked about what I knew. I mentioned that the amount of primary-sourced information on the Denver Broncos – Colorado’s state religion – would be reduced considerably if the Rocky went away. This was a feeble attempt to convince readers of the sports page it was in their interest to save the newspaper. The response I often got demonstrated just how little the public knows about the process of news dissemination.
“I don’t get my Broncos coverage from the Rocky,” I was often told. “I get it from ESPN. They do a better job covering the Broncos than you guys.”
Naturally, I rushed down to Broncos headquarters to see where ESPN had set up its bureau. But no, the press room was still occupied by the usual suspects from the Rocky, Denver Post and Colorado Springs Gazette.
In other words, “ESPN wires.” When I explained to people that ESPN.com, SI.com and the many other sports sites like them manage to cover local teams by running wire service rewrites of local newspaper stories – and that those rewrites would disappear when the newspaper stories they rewrote disappeared – they shrugged. For them, this was like being told how the sausage is made. There’s no shortage of outlets pouring Bronco news. The Rocky would be missed, but not that much.
After three months of this conversation, the Rocky died. I was lucky enough to hook on with Denver’s surviving daily, the Post, the publisher of which also happens to be chairman of the Associated Press. In that role, Dean Singleton gave a speech the other day in which he said the newspaper industry has done a lousy job of defending its copyrighted material and suggested it would have to do better to survive. This set off the usual debate about whether Google helps or hurts newspapers. A Google executive blogged about it, producing that rarest of species, a piece of Google original content.
But Singleton’s speech also prompts a question I haven’t seen discussed to the point of nausea, a failing I propose here to correct. The question is about the AP: Why should any newspaper in the internet age be a member of an organization that takes that paper’s original material, rewrites it and distributes it around the world without attribution or compensation? In fact, an organization that charges the newspaper for the privilege? Inasmuch as the AP is a creation of the newspaper industry, is it not accurate to say we are complicit in the theft of our own material? Aren't newspapers the agents of their own destruction every day?
The AP now “throws down gauntlet to online news aggregators,” according to Ecommerce Times, but what is the AP but the biggest news aggregator out there?
With the Rocky gone, let’s say the Denver Post and Colorado Springs Gazette severed their relationships with the AP. Not likely, the publisher of the Post being the chairman of the AP, but work with me here. When the Post and Gazette covered each excruciating detail of the Broncos' recent quarterback soap opera – if you don’t know what this is, I suggest you return to your home planet immediately – no one would be legally authorized to rewrite their stories and hand them out to American Online and Fox Sports. Legions of Broncophiles would be unable to find their news at sites that don't actually cover the team. The only way to get it legally would be to read the Post or the Gazette.
ESPN would no longer have access to our material for the relative pittance of an AP membership, certainly a small price to pay to pretend to cover 120 teams in four major pro sports on a daily basis when it does no such thing. In this fantasy world, the Post and Gazette would have an opportunity to charge a fee for access to certain material on their web sites, just as they do for subscriptions to their newspapers, because no one would have the legal right to rewrite their material and post it for free elsewhere, as the AP and ESPN, respectively, do now. The papers might then be in a position to defend their copyrights by suing any entity that reposted their published material, as some no doubt still would.
What about the downside you ask. No more AP copy in the paper or on the web site. Back in the day, this was disincentive enough. How else to get national and international coverage and, more important, news of Madonna?
These are no longer the benefits to local papers they once were. Few have the space to run much national or international news anymore, and most have realized that’s not their role, anyway. Before the Internet, the local paper had to provide a little bit of everything. Now, readers can get their national and international news from outfits that specialize in it, providing original reporting and analysis, not the same wire story a thousand other papers are running. Besides, so many journalists are now out of work it is possible to contract freelance help on any subject and in any location imaginable, and for very reasonable fees, too. As an added bonus, you get original work. You pay for it out of that substantial AP fee you’re no longer paying.
No, I have no personal beef with the AP or any other wire service. In fact, I have many friends who work for them and I wish them no ill. Nevertheless, given the state of the newspaper industry, it seems to me this consortium no longer benefits its member papers nearly as much as it benefits the outfits that take and repackage their work, eliminating any trace of the originator. Why should Google or Yahoo get access to rewrites of all our original material – not to mention benefiting from the advertising that accompanies the search pages that link to it? It’s perfectly understandable that Google wouldn’t want to underwrite the expense of generating content when it can appropriate ours. The growth of Google News augurs an increasingly self-contained news structure, increasingly dependent on wire copy, for a company that produces no original news content whatever but does know how to take the first advertising swipe at news-hungry eyeballs.
Perhaps the inter-related, inter-dependent nature of newspapers and wire services explains the relative paucity of discussion on this topic. Or maybe it's been discussed and dismissed, and I missed it. In that case, sorry. Still, it seems fairly obvious that newspapers cannot charge for online content so long as rewrites of that content are being given away by its partners down the street.
It seems to me the function of the wire service has changed from sharing content among equals in the old media world to distributing newspaper content to outsiders who have the technology to skim off much of the advertising revenue in the new media world. The wire services as they exist seem obsolescent as far as newspapers are concerned, their role having morphed from supportive to destructive of newspapers' value proposition.
What if the publishers of America’s remaining major metropolitan daily newspapers (and those of other papers that wish to participate) withdrew from the AP en masse at the soonest practicable date and began charging subscription fees for access to certain parts of their web sites? What if they invested in software to detect the theft of their original work and aggressively defended their copyrights in court? What if newspaper publishers took back ownership of their proprietary local content in this way and then proceeded to monetize it?
Seriously, what would they have to lose?
Moral Authority as a Platform
2 months ago