UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

April 13, 2009

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS AND ASSOCIATED PROBLEMS

Sam Smith

Watching Tom Curley on the Charlie Rose Show, I began to feel really sorry for him. The horrible things that were happening to his company, the threat to his business model, the vicious dogs yapping at his legs. He was a sad, dreary and bitter man, the sort of guy who might have a hard time knowing it was a new morning if his alarm didn't tell him.

Tom Curley is CEO of the Associated Press and the terrible things he was confronting included Google, news aggregators, blogs, and online journals like, well, like mine.

I kept trying to connect his misery to reality but I couldn't get out of my mind how many people come to our site each week because they've asked some question and Google has given them one of our links as a possible answer. Or how many times reporters and bloggers have sent us stories with the request or hint that we give them a virtual boost.

I got into this internet business 14 years ago when there were only 20,000 websites worldwide. Now there are more than 150 million. No one used the term aggregator back then. That was a couple of years before the Drudge Report went on the web and it was before the Washington Post had recovered from its first Internet failure.

One of the things I liked about the web was how it encouraged both competition and cooperation, not unlike the way those who do business on the water or in small communities work. They understand that part of progress involves helping others, which Americans generally accepted until the corporate greedsters took things over in the 1980s.

When Matt Drudge went online in 1997, I became fascinated by his use of links to other stories. I had initially seen the web just as a place to put all the stuff we didn't have room for in our print version, but Drudge encouraged another approach. After we started running news clips and links, our readership doubled in each of the next four years.

Part of Drudge's cleverness was that he had created a place where others wanted to be featured. What drives his audience is not his personal conservative views, but an understanding that his site is one of the best places to go for breaking news. Journalists understood this, hence the number of stories based on advance notice of a hot piece to which the reporters wanted to drive readers and impress their bosses. In at least one case, it seems one or more reporters had another objective: to get their publication to stop suppressing a story. Which is how the Monica Lewinsky story, which Newsweek was withholding, finally broke. The AP's Curley may not understand this, but plenty of good journalists have.

Yet I also realized that some publications would not understand the Internet and would not want to be linked. Our rule was simple: we would never link to or mention them again. In 14 years and more than 30 million article views, we have had exactly five such complaints. And when the AP began making threatening noises some months ago, although not specifically against us, we sent them into oblivion as well, despite the fact that their legal position thumbs its nose at the laws of fair use.

The fact is we don't need them all that much. As the song goes, "Got along without you before I met you, gonna get along without you now." Here are a few good reasons:

- The AP isn't all that good a news source for a journal with a section called Undernews. It doesn't break many interesting stories or shed new light on them. It is more like a daily Wikipedia of what's happening. Quite useful but far from indispensable.

- Many AP stories are based on press releases or testimony or public speeches that are easily found elsewhere. One of our new hobbies has become to find alternative sources for AP stories. It's not that hard at all.

- You can not copyright facts or history. If Karl Rove tells the AP that Joe Biden is "a liar," the only way it can claim copyright over those words are if Rove sold the rights to his comments to AP, which would be a big story in itself. If 35 people die when a bridge collapses, that fact does not belong to AP even if it reports it first.

- It is therefore relatively easy to simply present facts and quotes in new language without the slightest copyright infringement. All you have to do is to be able to type fast.

- The Review started as an alternative journal in 1964 with no conventional material, and certainly none from AP. A few years later we are joined by over 400 underground papers in the U.S. We still didn't need the AP; we just shared with each other. And in the process we changed America, including helping foster the civil rights, anti-war, environmental, women's and gay movements. Not even the Internet can make such a claim, and certainly not AP.

The fact is that the archaic media is just not as important as it thinks it is. And where it should be important, such as covering our imperial wars objectively, it has allowed itself to become an embedded mouthpiece of the government.

While it is true that we are small enough that the AP doesn't need us either, the same can't be said of Google as Jeff Jarvis, writing of the recent Newspaper Association of America meeting, put it:

"Yesterday, you delivered a foot-stomping little hissy fit over Google and aggregators. How dare they link to you and not pay you? . . . Beware what you wish for. You'd lose a third of your traffic overnight. If other aggregators and bloggers and Facebook all decided to follow suit, you'd lose half your traffic. On most of your sites, only 20 percent of the audience in a day ever sees your homepage and its careful packaging; 4 of 5 readers instead come in through search and links. In the link economy - instead of the outmoded content economy in which you operate - Google and aggregators and bloggers are bringing value to you; they should be charging you for the value they bring. "

Shane Richmond in London's Telegraph phrased it well: "Should plumbers complain if they can't make enough money from the business they get from the Yellow Pages?"

This from Sarah Lacey of Business Week: "Old Media's indignation is akin to a parent who tries to punish a kid by taking away the Glenn Miller records. Let's be honest: The traditional media is threatening to cut off access to an asset that's declining in value, and in many cases, no longer brings in profits. Think about that. What exactly is the "or else" here? Or else, we won't take your free traffic, and we'll just watch our subscriber rolls dwindle and ad revenue shrink all alone? . . .

"It's not just that Old Media is wrong, it's that they've played this sad hand so badly. They spent years nakedly trying to get more and more traffic from search, portals, and aggregators, and now they suddenly strike a victim pose once they realized their business models are broken beyond repair. . .

"There's always been a lot of pride associated with the Old Media world. There had to be -- we didn't make much money, we worked long hours, we had to ask uncomfortable questions and report things people didn't want reported. And then there's that endless stream of deadlines. But this week is the first time I can think of that I'm embarrassed for my profession. Once you're reduced to legal threats and whining, you're one step away from admitting total defeat. Just ask the music industry. What's next, suing our own readers for clicking on Google links?"

Danny Sullivan wrote of a complaint by the Guardian which is also on the warpath against Google:

"Gosh, it was about a year ago I sat at a panel at the Guardian, designed for its reporters, and talked about ways they could (and they wanted) to generate traffic from search engines. Doing keyword research, looking for trends, all that. And Google was by far -- by far -- the biggest referral of traffic the Guardian got. If I recall, it sent something like 3 million visitors to the Guardian per day.

"Seriously, the Tribune and the New York Times saddled themselves with debt, and that problem is somehow Google's fault? The Guardian's had a decade to figure out how to earn off the internet, and it complains to the UK government that it can't succeed?"

That AP and the Guardian don't understand this is just sign of the degree to which business is run these days by those who don't play well with others.

They don't understand that how much of success - business, political or social - is based on symbiosis and viral activity. Consider the Internet, the Obama campaign, or a thriving downtown district with a mix of business, entertainment and service all dependent on others in the same 'hood.

Instead these media run to their lawyers as an alternative to creativity and new ideas.

This seldom works because lawyers are not natural lodes of creativity and new ideas. They can put you behind a wall but that's seldom a good way to find new customers.

Arianna Huffiington summed up the situation well:

"Take online video. Not that long ago, content providers were committed to the idea of requiring viewers to come to their site to view their content -- and railed against anyone who dared show even a short clip.

"But content hoarding -- the walled garden -- didn't work. And instead of sticking their finger in the dike, trying to hold back the flow of innovation, smart companies began providing embeddable players that allowed their best stuff to be posted all over the web, accompanied by links and ads that helped generate additional traffic and revenue.

"Or go to any college, as I often do, and ask a group of students how many of them, during the campaign, saw Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin. It's usually 100 percent. Then ask how many saw it on Saturday Night Live. It's usually no more than one or two. Yes, SNL could have said tune in to NBC Saturday Night at 11:30 or don't see it at all. But Lorne Michaels and Jeff Zucker obviously don't want to go the way of Rick Wagoner and his Detroit buddies."

Or consider the fact that I didn't see the aforementioned Tom Curley video clip thanks to AP or because I watch Charlie Rose, but thanks to Huffington Post, whose boss was the other guest on the show. Huffington Post ran the clip even though it clearly disagreed with it. On the Internet even your foes can help you.

Speaking of Huffington Post and the AP, it is perhaps instructive to see what's been happening to their page views according to Alexa, with HP first and AP below it:


There is another problem with the blame-it-on-the web approach, which is that the stats don't back it up. For example, Forbes reported last year that "in 2007, Internet advertising accounted for 7% of the industry's total revenue, up from 5.4% in 2006, according to the Newspaper Association of America." And writing in the Neiman Journalism Lab, Martin Langeveld finds that, contrary to the popular impression, "whether you look at page views or time spent reading, only around 3 percent of newspaper reading happens online."

Further, the problem blamed on the Internet actually started well before the internet began to flower. The NY Times' circulation, for example, peaked in 1993 and has been falling ever since. Google didn't even start until 1996.

In 1989, the same year that the World Wide Web began, I was invited to a community meeting to discuss the Washington Post, called by its publisher Don Graham. I couldn't make it, so instead wrote up a few comments in the Review such including:

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What are we doing as we sit glazing our fingers with your ink? At one level we believe we are educating ourselves. But at another, and very important level, we are developing an impression of the day and of our city that will affect our mood, our conversation and our actions for the hours to come.

And how does the Post serve us at this critical juncture? What sort of day and city does it prepare us for? Basically it says to the reader: you are about to go out in a city which has a wealth of problems that you can't solve, pleasures which you're not important enough to enjoy, and people who, when they are not just being dull, are deceitful, avaricious or mean. . .

The Post seems at times almost maniacally determined to drain the life out of the city. What remains is a bureaucratic memo on the last 24 hours from the perspective of that small minority of people who wield power in this town.

So if I had been able to come to your meeting I would have accused you of being a wet blanket on my mornings and, by consequence, on the rest of the day. To my mind, this is as serious a charge as one can make against a daily newspaper.

I think this is so not because Post writers and editors are inherently dull, indifferent, or lack humor or emotion. Many, I have found, consider themselves more prisoners than collaborators. I think the problem stems from the fashion in which the Post attempts to rule, benignly and with noblesse oblige, from its monopoly position. Its methods, as I understand them, are not strikingly different from those of McDonald's, that is to say they depend in no small part on quality control. This control, aimed at preventing bad things from happening, has the inevitable result of preventing a lot of good things from happening as well. You end up with a product not unlike Muzak, in which both the low and high pitches are removed leaving the listener with the bland middle range.

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As it turns out, not only is the Post in financial trouble but Muzak has filed for bankruptcy.

Seventeen years later I tried again to help out the Post:

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- Newspapers early surrendered the image battle to TV when, in fact, TV only shows images for a few seconds at which point they are gone forever. Newspapers should go back to the approach to photos that made Life Magazine so appealing: images that made you stop and look either because of the quality of the photo or because of the story that a series of photos told. When, for example, was the last time you let a photographer edit your page design?

- Dump the Pulitzer porn such as your recent series on black men. That dreary combination of abstractions, stats and not all that interesting stories makes for poor journalism, especially over breakfast. Besides, you can't make up for years of ignoring the problems of black men with an occasional series even if it does win a prize.

- Put news on your front page. I define news as something that has happened, something that is happening or something that is going to happen. News is not what someone said about what is happening nor what someone perceived was going to happen nor what the editors thought the impact of something happening would be on its readership.

- The one exception to filling the front page with news would be a story or two that are just interesting, which is to say ones about which readers will ask their friends, "Did you see that story about. . ?"

- Use the "holy shit" principle of news editing. If your reaction to a story is "holy shit" and the story is true, many of your readers are going to feel the same way.

- Run more and shorter stories. You can get the edge over both the Internet and TV through quantity rather than just style of news. And the more names the better.

- Run more local stories, more stories affecting different ethnic groups, and more stories about sports people play rather than just watch.

- Go back to pyramid style reporting or at least get to the point within the first paragraph or two.
- Stop burying stories that affect ordinary readers in the business and real estate sections and put them in the front of the paper where they belong.

- Run more stories that affect ordinary readers. Handle your news from the viewpoint of your readers rather than from that of your advertisers, sources, or journalistic staff - few of whom live in some the toughest yet newsworthy parts of town.

- Have a labor section as well as a business section. After all, you have more employees than employers in your circulation area.

- Slash the number of stupid, spinning, or sophistic quotations from official sources used in your paper.

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In the end, I suspect, it was the pretensions of what was once a trade but turned into a power-partying profession that has done a lot of the damage to the conventional media.

Richard Harwood once remarked of the journalism in which he began his career: "We were perceived as a lower form of life, amoral, half-literate hacks in cheap suits. Thus I was assigned to a Chamber of Commerce meeting in Nashville in the late 1940s and, with other reporters, was given lunch at a card table set up in a hallway to protect the dining room from contamination."

Moving from this dubious trade, a majority of whose practitioners hadn't gone to college, to a profession graced by graduate schools and thence to a status that was part actor and part apparatchik of a rising corporate uber-culture, journalists became ever more prominent and self-referential even as they were losing touch with both their purported constituency and their purported purpose. They became the first group in human history to dramatically improve their socio-economic status simply by writing about themselves, self-casting themselves among the very elite from whom they had once been expected to protect their audience.

So it was not surprising that this crowd met the Internet with contempt. In my 2001 book, Why Bother?, I gave a few early examples:

- Cokie and Steve Roberts wrote a column, headed 'Internet Could Become A Threat To Representative Government,' warning against the direct democracy of the Internet and saying it could threaten the "very existence" of Congress.

- A commentator on Court TV argued that acceptance of government regulation of the Net was the equivalent of growing up.

- Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes called for the removal of undesirable information from the Net. Asked on what grounds, Stahl replied, "That it's wrong, that it's inaccurate, it's irresponsible, that it is spreading fear and suspicion of the government; 10,000 reasons."

- A writer in the Washington Post warned that without gatekeepers of information -- e.g. the Washington Post -- "our media could become even more infested with half-truths and falsehoods."

- On Crossfire, Geraldine Ferraro breathlessly warned that "we've got to get this Internet under control."

And it hasn't changed all that much. The Atlantic reported recently:

"In a poll of prominent members of the national news media, nearly two-thirds say the Internet is hurting journalism more than it is helping. The poll, conducted by The Atlantic and National Journal, asked 43 media insiders whether, on balance, journalism has been helped more or hurt more by the rise of news consumption online. Sixty-five percent said journalism has been hurt more, while 34 percent said it has been helped more."

In short, the archaic media has never liked the Internet, never learned what it was about or how to use it, and now wants to blame it for all their troubles. That's probably not a great business model.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Free news and free expression. Yes, applause and much exhilaration for sure -- but the market is finished and real journalists cannot make a make a living at it. . .

April 14, 2009 9:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Journalism, like politics, is best left to the amateurs. Didn't you read the piece?

April 14, 2009 3:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks for censoring comments... asshole

April 14, 2009 4:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I said thirty years ago there's not one goddamned word in the St.Louis Post Dispatch that's not bought and paid for. I already know what Civic Progress thinks so why buy the Post. Recently Green candidate for St. Louis mayor, Elston McCowan's van was firebombed. Not one word in th Post about it...or any local tv news either. And they wonder why people laugh at journalism. If you need a model for a real journalist check out Sander Hicks.

April 15, 2009 5:38 PM  
Blogger Daro said...

AP doesn't disseminate news, it filters it. And so does the rest of MSM. When was the last time you saw AP or the TV news publicly expose a conspiracy or any other scoop in the last 10 years? Twice? Once? Never?

AP disturbs me on many levels. In their attempts to avoid controversy and criticism they fail to report properly on matters such as the Gaza atrocities. It lends credence to claims that they act at the behest of powerful interest groups. I won't rant here about AIPAC and all the usual suspects, but AP's timidity lends itself to maintaining the status quo and in turn, being the apparatchik of "the powers that be."

April 16, 2009 5:31 PM  
Anonymous Mairead said...

A Britsh "press lord" (Northcliffe?) summed it up perfectly, it seems to me: "News is what someone, somewhere doesn't want you to know; everything else is advertising".

April 17, 2009 11:14 AM  

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