Over the weekend, David Carr of the New York Times lost it. He published a piece in the Sunday New York Times in which he suggested a last ditch survival strategy for newspapers.
- Put up a pay wall
- Shut out the search engines
- Say no to cut rate digital ads
- Merge weak papers in local markets
The emotion in the piece felt like an anguished cry from someone cares passionately about the civic role of the newspaper as well as its economic viability.
I am sympathetic. It takes informed citizens for a democracy to thrive. Newspapers used to be the dominant source of news. The whole point of laws agaisnt the consolidation of news outlets in local markets is based on the need to preserve multiple voices. Yes, it is important that information be broadly accessible. Yes, it is important that voters have access to multiple points of view. But no - that does not require that newspapers as we know them continue to exist.
The reality is that the newspaper industry, despite its long, important, even noble service to our democracy is no longer too big to fail. There are already enough news outlets to ensure access to information and to multiple points of view. There will be more in the future.
So I’d be ok if the newspaper industry adopted all of David suggestions and would be happy if the FCC waived all the media concentration rules to make it happen. It would, unfortunately, have the effect of accerating their irrelavance. That would be too bad because, there is still an important role for news gathering and analysis, and the best reporting would be lost to us during a period of transition before new models emerge.
David’s righteous indignation over the role of search engines in the newspapers demise is way over the top. His peice suggests that search engines have unfairly appropriated the content of newspapers and undermined their business models. He suggests that if they all band together and refuse to allow search engines to index their content, the problem would be solved. He says this as if it is completely obvious that the appropriation of their content by search engines is at the very least immoral and should be illegal. And that newspapers should have every right to collude to deny search engines access to this content.
To me, it’s not so clear. What if sources were to come to the same conclusion. What if everyone who supplies information to a reporter decided that newspapers were unfairly capitalizing on their information and insights. What if they decided collectively to withhold that information so that news papers could not continue to unfairly profit from thier information.
Looked at that way, it seems like the value in newspapers is less about the facts and more about the aggregation (and interpretation) of those facts. That search engines are now aggregating newspapers seems less like the heist of the century and more like the natural, inevitable, and ultimately positive creative destruction of capitalism.