Newspapers: Can We Please Stop Talking About What's Fair?

by: Jeff Bercovici

Like sports fans who fixate on the officiating only after their team starts losing, newspaper boosters have a new shibboleth: fairness.

It's a word we've been hearing a lot in the seven days since the Associated Press declared its intention to stamp out online "misappropriation" of news content by aggregators and bloggers. Even those who question the wisdom of AP's plan seem to agree that something ought to be done to address the injustice of the situation. As David Carr puts it Monday, "The taking of one company's content and selling ads against it for the benefit of another company is simply not fair, no matter what the lawyers stipulate."

That sounds awfully reasonable. But, in practice, it's not what most of us actually believe -- or not when it works out in our favor, which is plenty often.

"The taking of one company's content and selling ads against it for the benefit of another company" is far from a new phenomenon, or a rare one, or one whose occurrence is limited to the internet. Practically every TV or radio news broadcast consists at least in part of telling the audience what's in the papers that day. Pat Kiernan's daily "In the Papers" segment, which consists of nothing more than the NY1 anchor skimming through newspapers and wryly summarizing their contents, is so popular that he's spun it off onto the web. Then there's The Week, a magazine made up entirely of tidbits culled from other magazines, newspapers and websites.

The Week is a great magazine. I love seeing one of my posts quoted in its pages; the longer and more detailed the summary, the more generously my prose is excerpted, the more I love it. But neither I nor my employer derive any tangible benefit from it. I'd be shocked if more than a handful of people who've read something of mine in The Week bothered to go online and seek out this blog. But is Condé Nast about to send an angry letter to Dennis Publishing demanding a share of their ad revenue? Of course not. So why do we call it "promotion" when a magazine does it but "misappropriation" when a website does it? Double standards -- now that's unfair.

And that website, lest we forget, is almost always providing a link directing interested readers to the original source article -- more than any print magazine or TV show can offer. The value of that link -- and thus the fairness or unfairness of the arrangement -- is largely in the eyes of the linkee. The New York Times (NYSE:NYT) may well be annoyed that an unknown but probably high proportion of Huffington Post readers use the site's "Quick Read" feature to skim the first couple paragraphs of the article without bothering to click through; each "Quick Read" box contains an ad, meaning any reader who behaves in this way generates cash for Huffpo but none for the Times. I'd be annoyed at that, too, except a front-page Huffpo link represents a traffic bounty that, for a blog of Mixed Media's size, has real value, however many page views Huffpo may skim off for itself.

Without a doubt, there are plenty of websites out there that operate in a way that no publisher should tolerate. Scraping the entire text of an article, or even a sizable chunk of it, is blatant copyright violation, whether there's a link or not. But the point in those cases isn't that it's unfair -- it's that it's illegal. Suing, not whining, is the way to stop law-breakers.

The newspaper industry wasn't overly concerned about fairness all those decades when it enjoyed special anti-trust exemptions that allowed publishers to wring 30 percent profit margins from their virtual monopolies. Now's not the time to start.