Google Versus News Organizations: What’s Fair?
A new Columbia Journalism Review opinion piece argues persuasively (in my view) that Google “owes” something to traditional journalism and news organizations. Google, typically, is a stand-in for “the internet” in these discussions. This notion of responsibility to publishers is unpopular among bloggers and Internet denizens more generally. I tend to fault news organizations for […]
A new Columbia Journalism Review opinion piece argues persuasively (in my view) that Google “owes” something to traditional journalism and news organizations. Google, typically, is a stand-in for “the internet” in these discussions. This notion of responsibility to publishers is unpopular among bloggers and Internet denizens more generally.
I tend to fault news organizations for not being faster, smarter and more creative in their online efforts. It’s also the case that the Internet as a publishing and distribution platform has disrupted traditional media models across the board. And pointing the finger at others, such as Google, tends to obscure the fault or responsibility that publishers should accept for their own missteps, failures and omissions.
Having said all that, I found this discussion in the article pretty compelling:
On Saturday afternoon, February 7, 2009, SI.com, the Web site of Sports Illustrated, broke a huge story: Alex Rodriguez, the mega-rich Yankees star, had taken performance-enhancing drugs while playing for the Texas Rangers. Sports Illustrated released the story on its Web site rather than in the magazine, according to the editors involved, in an effort to enhance SI.com’s standing as a destination for fans increasingly conditioned to getting sports news online. Within hours the story was everywhere, but if you went through Google to find it, what you likely got instead were the pickups that appeared elsewhere, summaries or even rewrites, with attribution. Most galling was that The Huffington Post’s use of an Associated Press version of SI’s report was initially tops on Google, which meant that it, and not SI.com, tended to be the place readers clicking through to get the gist of the breaking scandal would land.
This paragraph argues in essence that the source of a story ought to get “credit” in the algorithm vs. secondary sites or pieces that simply summarize or link to it. There’s probably no way to do that without human editors and no way to integrate humans directly into the Google.com algorithmic results. You could do it for Google News; Techmeme has human editorial oversight, so does Yahoo News, as well as most other online news sites. While Google News is often the target of criticism of embittered publishers it’s not the top news destination online.
Neither the “Google is a digital vampire” camp nor the “Google has no responsibility to publishers” camp are entirely correct. There is a middle ground that still needs to be defined. The Columbia Journalism Review article tries to grapple with what that middle ground is by suggesting a set of values and principles: fair conduct, fair use and fair compensation.
Fair conduct in the author’s mind is giving proper credit and visibility to the original source (as in the quoted example above). Fair use is about defining how much of a piece can be excerpted before payment must be provided to the publisher or content creator. This is a difficult and important issue.
Some content creators will be happy to disseminate their work for free. Others will not. The Associated Press is somewhat hysterical about fair use and has attempted to redefine the standard in a very narrow way that exacts payment for very brief quotes and excerpts. The law doesn’t provide any clear guidance but guidelines (that are reasonable and not overly restrictive) should be worked out — somehow. It will probably take litigation unfortunately.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the notion of “fair compensation” presented in the article is equally difficult. To some degree it’s tied to the fair use debate. Separately I’ve argued that Google should be doing more revenue sharing with publishers and content producers on money generated from ads on Google News. And, as everyone knows, newspaper publishers are almost uniformly going to re-introduce pay walls on their sites. This will probably not succeed as a revenue strategy but I don’t fault them for trying it. At this point they need to try everything.
The internet has dramatically changed the media landscape — for better and worse — and nothing will erase that. However, it’s also pretty glib to argue that anyone is free to put up ads against news summaries and profit from the content creation of traditional publishers without some form of compensation to those entities.
I think the framework presented in the article is a good starting point for some collective debate on what’s fair. Making that concrete is the challenge and there needs to be some mechanism to define practical standards that allow free discussion and debate of topics but also enable reasonable compensation of content creators as well.