It’s no secret that the newspaper business is in serious trouble. Circulations are plummeting and advertising revenue is in a free-fall. It’s widely agreed that the Internet is to blame, so you might think that newspapers would embrace new technology and work to establish strategic partnerships with companies that could help them deliver news in the manner that their readers prefer it. Instead many in the newspaper business seem to be waging an ongoing battle against all things new media. They’re responding in a way that media dinosaurs have traditionally responded to any new threat — with lawsuits and name calling.
A few weeks back I noted that would-be Tribune Co. owner Sam Zell doesn’t seem to understand the value of search engines. He’s not the only one. A number of European news services have been fighting Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft over links to European news websites. Apparently these publications prefer to limit their readership to the small number of individuals who might actually type the paper’s URL into their web browser. Since advertising revenue on the Internet is directly related to the number of visitors a website receives, suing Google probably isn’t the best business decision.
Earlier this week Google came to a partial agreement with Belgian publisher Copiepresse. According to news reports Google has agreed not to cache Copiepresse’s stories. Presumably the Copiepresse technical staff will also receive training in the use of no-cache meta tags. The result of the agreement is that Copiepresse’s stories won’t be featured on the high profile Google News page — although they will show up in search results. The news agency has indicated that the lawsuit still stands and will not be withdrawn until there is a complete agreement (translation: we will continue to sue Google until there is no chance that readers will ever find our website by using the most popular search engine on the planet).
I don’t mind the fact that Copiepresse wants to kill its own business so much as I object to the genuine hostility this publisher is demonstrating towards the Internet in general and its readers specifically. For example, Copiepresse and other publishers have been complaining about the act of deep-linking (linking to individual stories as opposed to the newspaper’s home page). Apparently we’re all supposed to come in through the home page and click around until we find the news we’re looking for. That sounds suspiciously like wrestling with the Sunday LA Times while trying to find Part III of the Calendar section. That’s just not the way things work on the Internet and it’s not the way readers want to find their news. The irony here is that, in the unlikely event that deep-linking would ever be banned, newspapers would have to make serious improvements to their onsite search engines. Many publishers would likely end up buying Google search appliances, all because they’re afraid Google might make a buck by linking to the latest news.
If the revolt of newspaper publishers against the Internet isn’t bad enough, now journalists are jumping into the battle. This weekend columnist David Bullard detonated a small-scale nuclear device in the blogosphere with a column that, among other things, claimed that bloggers “are the sort of wackos who gun down their fellow students at university”. Bullard goes on to fantasize about creating a website called printrevenge.com where he can publish the names and addresses of anonymous bloggers. Apparently his motto is “if you can’t beat ’em, stalk ’em”. Fortunately, the domain name appears to be safely in the hands of sympathetic bloggers and there will be no print revenge this time.
While it’s likely that Bullard’s column was intended partially in jest, the underlying vitriol towards new media is consistent with the actions of publishers suing search engines and fighting the battle against deep-linking. This is an industry in a state of denial over how rapidly and completely their world is changing. They act as if, some day, the Internet and bloggers will simply go away and we’ll return to the good old days newsprint and the occasional special afternoon edition.
Those days are over and the Internet isn’t going away. But someday soon newspapers just might.