Marketplace Scratch Pad

Dear Rupert Murdoch,

Scott Jagow Dec 2, 2009

Sir, in this post, I will be linking to a variety of source material, which I found through Google News. I’m not paying one red cent for it, and neither are my readers. That’s because the content is free. If there is paid content, I will also cite it as source material, provide a link to it and from there, it’s up to you. Yours truly, not a bloodsucking parasitic news tapeworm.

The subject at hand is whether readers of Google News should be able to link for free to articles that require payment. Murdoch has threatened to pull his companies’ content from Google News unless Google stops the practice. This week, Google threw Murdoch a bone and amended its First Click Free program. The program allows people to access one article and after that, they’re directed to a registration page. But there’s a loophole, as the New York Times explains:

A well-known loophole has allowed readers to return to Google News and get access to more (Wall Street) Journal articles. In many cases, a search for the article’s headline on Google News produces a link to a free version.

In a change that Google announced in a blog post Tuesday, the company will allow publishers to limit non-subscribers to five free articles a day.

Like I said, it’s a bone, a small but unnecessary one. If the pay sites were truly concerned about people stealing content via Google, they’d follow through on their threats and make the content completely unavailable. There’s a way to do that. But they want the traffic.

As Google announced the change yesterday, Murdoch and Arianna Huffington were doing battle at at an FTC forum on journalism. Murdoch went first:

“We believe fiercely that the key to competing during difficult times is to invest more in journalistic content, not less,” Murdoch said. “Quality content is not free. In the future, good journalism will depend on the ability of a news organization to attract customers by providing news and information they are willing to pay for.”

Huffington’s retort:

“It amazes me that Murdoch and Brill and the paywall team at the Times continue to believe that people are prepared to pay for news online, despite the recent survey showing that 80% of US news consumers say they wouldn’t bother to read news and magazines online if the content were no longer free.”

Huffington also addressed Murdoch’s complaint that bloggers are parasites, “tech tapeworms” and thieves:

“Plus, let’s be honest, many of those complaining the loudest are working both sides of the street… The Wall Street Journal has a tech section that’s nothing more than a parasite–uh, I mean, aggregator–of outside content. FoxNews.com has a Politics Buzztracker that bloodsucks–uh, I mean aggregates and links to–stories from a variety of different sources, including the NY Times, the Washington Post, MSNBC and others.”

Murdoch and others are frustrated because they charge for content, but they’re also still allowing it to be accessed for free. They don’t have the courage to go all in on the “pay” business model. Other sites that’ve tried have failed miserably.

Most credible bloggers aren’t parasites, just as college students who include references to source material aren’t plagiarists. Unless all news sites on the web collude to charge for content, it’s a wide-open new world that traditional media companies have to figure out how to navigate.

It’s a business challenge that won’t be solved by complaining about it.

Will it?

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