Last week, a U.S. Senate committee engaged in the sort of navel-gazing about the future of journalism that is usually confined to, well, journalists. And this week, the usual suspects are pontificating about what the hearing meant.
There's a lot that could be said, but my attention was caught first and foremost by a sharp exchange between James Moroney, publisher and CEO of the Dallas Morning News, and Google Vice President Marissa Mayer. Moroney showed himself to be particularly well-informed about a certain legal doctrine, created for The Associated Press and recently reinvigorated in a lawsuit brought by that journalism organization: the "Hot News" doctrine.
Committee chairman Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) teed up the exchange between Moroney and Mayer by asking the latter if she thought news organizations were paid enough for readers finding stories through a news aggregator like Google News. Kerry said:
"If you're you're out there doing the footwork and you've got a top level reporter in a bureau somewhere in the world, or you're doing a major investigative story and you put the pieces together... that takes money, it takes time, it takes skill... They're not going to get remunerated, for the level they put into that ... Is there a fairer way to try to spread the cost here?"
There are ads on the newspaper's page, Mayer pointed out. And very often, users do click through to that page to read the full story: "Snippets alone, what we show on Google news or Google web search, aren't a complete picture," said Mayer (right). "Users do need to click through to actually read the story, and in fact they do. They click through at the rate of at least one billion clicks per month."
Arianna Huffington, publisher of The Huffington Post and another witness at the hearing, agreed with Mayer, and reminded senators that aggregators aren't, in fact, copying the articles they point to—or at least not much.
"There are already laws in place, fair use laws," said Huffington. "So no aggregator can actually just take a story. They have to take a small part of a story, to give a taste to the consumer of what the story is about. But in order to read the full story they would have to go to the content creator. Monetizing that is really the future."
But that still doesn't cover the cost of journalistic "boots on the ground" in places like Islamabad and Afghanistan, said Kerry. "This parasite issue is real, to the degree that people feel that the Internet is providing their work without an adequate level of compensatino compared to what it cost them to produce it."
Kerry let senior Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison ask the next question. The Huffington Post and Google News are "fabulous," said Hutchison, "for so many different reasons." And yet... "I would like to also make sure that there's a level playing field."
That's when Moroney (right) chimed in, saying that newspapers needed a "fair return" on their investment in journalism. "I would agree with Miss Mayer that there has been an atomization of news. She says it's down to the article level—I believe it's down to the first four lines of the article. That's why, what she calls a fair use of our content, I don't believe is a fair use. They're making plenty of money off those first four lines."
If you don't think those are fightin' words, Moroney was just getting started. He's obviously been studying up on litigation trends:
"We have, as was established in the 'Hot News' case that was done in the early ... 1900s, and reaffirmed in the New York state courts in the last year ... a quasi-property right to breaking news, and I believe we need to look at that standard, as for what it is that newspaper companies [do], and how they can get a fair return for the investment they're making in the journalism we're publishing digitally."
Kerry and Hutchison both seemed very sympathetic to the newspapers' arguments that they aren't receiving a "fair" level of revenue because what they do get doesn't cover the operating costs of their current newsrooms—even though the newspapers could, of course, stop providing content to Google at any time.
Both Moroney and David Simon—a television writer best known for creating Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire who retired from the Baltimore Sun in 1995 and has somehow become a Congressional expert on journalism in the Internet era—seemed most interested in an antitrust exemption that would allow newspapers to collude on pricing and putting their content behind a paid "wall."
While Kerry and Hutchison seemed receptive to these arguments, Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, struck a cautionary note. Cantwell pointed out that it might just take time for old-school news organizations to make money on the Internet: "The technology can be there one day, but sometimes it takes 25 to 30 years before the business models develop."
Said Simon: "In that window, the talent pool and the institutional memory that was the journalism that we saw over the last 50 years, the modern American newspaper, is leaching out, its gone."
There were several other (sometimes rather confused) mentions of copyright and intellectual property at the hearing that I plan to cover in a subsequent post. But first and foremost, it was interesting to learn that a prominent news executive is clearly having some enlightening conversations with his lawyers about potential IP claims—and 'quasi-property' claims—that could be made against Internet companies.
The whole hearing is available as a webcast. (The hearing takes a long time to start; the quotes in this post start around minute 130.)
Photos: F. Schulenberg / Wikimedia; Marissa Mayer / U.S. Senate; James Moroney / U.S. Senate