Okay, so here we are in the midst of the most ruinous time in the history of publishing, a time when long-standing giants of the media are seeing their revenues cut in half from what they were just 15 or 20 years ago. Conversely, there is more information readily available to anyone and everyone than ever before. So, does the publishing industry truly understand the challenges it’s facing? Are the highly paid executives spearheading great efforts of innovation to find a way to use the new tools at all of our disposal to keep from falling completely by the wayside? Nope.
First off, we have this sweet little bit of information. Here we have a potentially catastrophic loss of money due in part to the emergence of new technologies, so let’s fire the cheapest, most adaptable, most able people in our employ who actually understand what the hell a twitter is. Makes sense, if you’re looking to shoot yourself in the foot. Of course, no one with any real knowledge of the inner workings of the publishing industry would expect anything different. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that before too much longer, we’re going to see a rash of new hires at these companies on the highly paid executive level, you know, to develop strategies for the new reality. And don’t expect any of those folks to say, “Well, you should fire my worthless, overpaid ass and rehire the energetic, creative, young, reasonably paid people you laid off who also might happen to have a grasp on how to deal with this stuff.”
And I love the parts where the company representatives trip all over themselves justifying the demographic nature (read: young white guys) of the layoffs. “We’re trying to maintain the diversity in our newsrooms.” This isn’t about diversity, it’s about lawsuit avoidance. When you fire a young white guy, he’s not likely to sue you for discrimination. You fire a black guy, he might. You fire a woman, she might. You fire a crotchety old guy, he might. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about diversity. If a purple hermaphrodite with orange polkadots could do the job, I’d say get him/her in here now! And it’ll help our appeal to the purple polkadotted hermaphrodite community. This has absolutely nothing to do with diversity and everything to do with discrimination lawsuit avoidance. Of course, for a business the size of some of these places, lawsuits like that are a genuine threat. It only makes sense to keep that in mind when you have to fire people. But don’t load us up with this crap about diversity when what you’re really doing is saving on legal fees.
Recently, I’ve been trying to set up some news feeds on The Mariner website. You’ve seen them, these RSS feeds of headlines running down the side of virtually every website out there. I figured it might be a nice touch to add some of that current event stuff to my site. Well, looking into it, I ran into a small problem. Nearly all of these news aggregators have a small line of type in their terms which states: “Use of this service is for individual, non-commercial use only.” Okay, makes sense, but I kept reading.
From Google News: “(you) may not otherwise copy, reproduce, alter, modify, create derivative works, or publicly display any content. For example, you may not use the Service to sell a product or service; use the Service to increase traffic to your Web site for commercial reasons, such as advertising sales.”
Wait a minute, I can set up this feed on my site, but I can’t publicly display any content? What the hell do they think we’re doing with this stuff? It’s posted on a public website! Of course we’re publicly displaying it. And their examples aren’t exactly clarifying. After reading the first part that said non-commercial use only, I thought I understood and was ready to move on, but I’m not selling anything on The Mariner website; no products, no services, I’m not even selling advertising on it, and I’m certainly not using their wire news service to do it. I thought of it kinda like that little icon you see around with the current weather on it; sort of nice to have, kind of useful, but generally not that big of a deal. By their terms, I’m engaging in no commercial activity at all on the site. So, is it okay to use or not?
“If you are uncertain whether your intended use of the Service is permissible, please contact us.”
This line, or a version of it, was in the terms of all three news aggregators I checked out. So I took their advice and asked for permission. I’ll let you know how that turns out. Despite the fact that these sites generally promised prompt replies, I haven’t heard from any of them; yes, no or otherwise. Google didn’t even have an email address, instead directing you to a forum where you could post a question that they may (or may not) ever bother to acknowledge. And I’m not alone in my confusion. A quick web search on what exactly constitutes commercial use for Google News turned up dozens and dozens of people asking the same questions as me. People who wondered if their use of Google Ads on their websites ruled them out, people who wondered if completely non-commercial sites like mine that promoted other commercial things were ruled out, (By the way, the thing I’m promoting is a magazine that absolutely anyone can pick up completely free of charge) and people who wondered if their sites that promoted themselves and their talents without explicitly selling their services ruled them out. Generally, damn near everyone with a website is pushing something, be it a product, themselves or a point of view. What exactly constitutes commercial activity? I have no earthly idea. No money has ever changed hands as a result of anything ever done on The Mariner website. It would have been better if the services had left it simply at non-commercial use.
Aggregators are, of course, the great bane of the publishing industry. They want people to read their work, but only on their terms. To me, and a whole bunch of other highly informed and educated individuals, aggregators provide much needed exposure to information available on the web. To fight them, to me, seems foolish and potentially suicidal. It’s sort of like what would have happened to network television in the ’70s if the three big networks had gotten together and declared that TV Guide was a parasite that had to be stamped out. Certainly, TV Guide made heaps of money publishing network television schedules, but without them, no one would have known what the hell was on. This is the same thing. People needed an organizing approach to finding information they wanted on the net and the aggregators stepped up, making a nice buck in the process (while the publishing companies sat on their hands, I might add, wondering what the hell a Craigslist is). If the publishers coordinated their efforts to use these aggregators to their own ends instead of bitching about them, the before-mentioned massive drop in revenue might have been avoided.
Which brings me to Mark Cuban. Now, most days, I like Mark Cuban. He’s an exceptionally intelligent, resourceful, self-made billionaire who found a way to use the internet as it existed to make a sizable fortune. And he owns an NBA team. How cool is that? But recently, he’s advocated a position that publishers should do whatever they can to stomp out aggregators, going so far as to suggest some code on their websites that blocks incoming links. This will suffocate the aggregators who, according to Cuban, are unfairly benefiting from publisher’s content and opening up the door to allowing these media giants to sell access to their work. I’m sorry, as much as I like Cuban, particularly his frequent rants against NBA Commissioner David Stern, (read: jackass in glasses) I gotta call bullshit when I see it.
Aggregation is what makes the internet world go round. Cuban has to know this. Hell, without aggregation, most people wouldn’t have even heard his opinion on this issue. Did his blog get tons of click-throughs due to linking on the subject? I don’t know, and that’s not the point. The reason these publishers are having trouble selling their work is because they suck. They’ve spent the past 40 years or so moving people away from the concept of paying for their content in order to up circulation and generate more lucrative advertising revenue. Want somebody to blame for your inability to sell your articles online, look in the mirror. And the recent massive layoffs have done nothing but further erode the base of employees capable of producing work people would be willing to pay for. Look at Rupert Murdoch. One side of his mouth is espousing the benefits of charging for their work and the other side of his mouth is espousing the fiscal benefits of the cutbacks, shutdowns and layoffs while ignoring the fact that those same choices are gutting the number of quality content producers in his employ. Want to charge for your content? How about you try to create something someone actually wants to buy before you bitch about links?
I would put a link here to Cuban’s blog where he details this suggestion, and he does go on with some rather interesting thoughts on how someone like Murdoch could find ways to sell his content, but screw you, Cuban. And the Mavs suck. Sorry, I don’t really mean that. I like the Mavs. Dirk Nowitzki is great. But if Cuban hates aggregators so much, go find his blog yourself if you want to read it. Sure, that’ll take all of thirty seconds to locate it with Google, but ask yourself this, would you even be looking for it if you hadn’t read about it here or on someone else’s pointless rambling blog?
My point is that aggregation is not evil. Aggregation is one possible tool that developed on the internet that publishers could use to reinvent themselves and once again appeal to what the people actually want. And when they do that, they might actually be able to sell them stuff. To do otherwise will just further marginalize them, as if that’s not already happening, and disconnect them even more from a linked-in world of information. Major publishers want to return to a time when they held almost total control over what people saw, heard, read and even thought to a degree. But that time is gone. Their behavior with regards to the internet is like that of the yuppie out-of-state couple that buys a summer home in your neighborhood. You’ve lived here for 30 years, but because they spend 5 weeks a year here, they believe they have the right to tell everyone else on their street how to trim their bushes, cut their grass and where they can park their cars.
Publishers didn’t invent the internet. Hell, they didn’t even use it until they noticed that people were figuring out the extrememly profitable scam they had been perpetrating on us for the better part of the last century. So your business model is suffering? Do what everyone else does when hard times hit, adapt. You want to move in to our neighborhood? Shut up and learn the rules.