The future of newspapers, journalistic integrity and the battle for Google’s soul

In 2005 a major media company with an international presence handed information on the activities of its journalists to an autocratic police state. A few of these journalists were subsequently arrested, tortured, and imprisoned.

One journalist was Shi Tao. The police state is China. And the media company is Yahoo.

Imagine this had been the New York Times?

Judith Miller, a New York Times journalist, went to jail in 2005 rather than reveal her source in the Valerie Plame affair. Here a major media company supported its journalist’s right to protect her source.

It is telling that Internet media companies, which spend so much time complaining that George W Bush is undermining freedom and democracy, is doing its own bit to undermine freedom and democracy. Yahoo hands over journalists and sources. Google censors information that offends governments. Cisco sells specialised equipment that allows police states to monitor the net activities of their citizens.

This is far removed from the “Don’t be evil” proclamation in Google’s founding constitution. The new media web companies don’t just know evil, they’re actively supporting it.

At the same time these companies are proclaiming the death of old media.

Against this chaotic backdrop the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) is holding its annual congress in Cape Town in June. Their focus is on the future of media and numerous presentations will focus on all aspects of the potential and responsibility of the news media.

Gavin O’Reilly, Group Chief Operating Officer of Independent News & Media and President of WAN, is concerned. Not about the future of newspapers; here he is bullish, “Paid newspaper circulation figures grew by 1.9% in 2006. If you include free newspapers, it grew by 4.3%. Newspapers and magazines – the print media – continue to flourish with a combined 42.3% share of the US$ 425 billion global advertising market.”

The newspaper industry appears financially secure; it was Rupert Murdoch who bought MySapce, not the other way round.

What he is concerned about is the gradual undermining of accountability and responsibility.

Laurence Lessig and the Creative Commons movement have done a great deal to campaign for the end of copyright and a “free culture” in which information travels about like water. He, and many in the open-source movement, have forgotten the duty that comes with exclusive rights; the responsibility to accept the consequences.

Social networked blogs and websites depend on a perpetual flow of new content to keep their audiences entertained and the adverts rolling. Most are incapable of producing such high-quality journalism themselves; so they pirate content. And the mother lode of content providers is, of course, print media. The result is that good (and bad) articles circulate the globe, and both media companies and journalists lose out from reduced revenue and brand recognition.

Ill-advised use can also get everyone into trouble. Google “scrapes” news content from all over the world to populate its news aggregation service. The first concern expressed by unwilling content providers is that the content isn’t paid for. The second is that retractions and corrections do not automatically follow and can result in litigation, as the Independent has discovered.

“We had a story about a paedophile in Ireland,” says O’Reilly. “We carried the story on our website and followed the case. Ultimately the case was overturned, the defendant was exonerated through some technical legal manoeuvring and we printed a retraction and clarification. Right afterwards, the guy sued us because he alleged that the content was still on our website as was represented through Google News. We had removed it but Google News still had a cached copy on their servers.”

The ACAP (Automated Content Access Protocol) – an initiative that is being spearheaded by the World Association of Newspapers – is designed to automate this process and create a new standard of what is allowed and what procedures the search engines must follow when carrying others’ content. The copyright must remain with either the journalist or the media company. In either case, we reasonably need a degree of control as to how these search engines unilaterally reuse our content. We don’t necessarily want to stop the process but we do want to know where the story is going and how it will appear,” says O’Reilly.

Google enjoys the fruits of other’s labour, but none of the responsibility. They claim that they cannot be held accountable for information carried over their network any more than telephone companies are held accountable for the conversations their customers have.

It’s a spurious comparison. Telephone companies don’t record your conversations to replay as aggregated entertainment for others. If they did you would be suitably outraged and demand compensation.

The long boom and the relative tranquillity of the last decades has given companies a false sense of security.

A comparison to the anti-Apartheid era may offer some insight. Polaroid, an American company, supplied the South African Apartheid government with the instant film used in identity documents for the infamous passes that all black South Africans had to carry. Anti-Apartheid campaigners singled out Polaroid for protest and consumer-action. Polaroid divested.

Did it help to end apartheid? Probably not. Did it salvage the reputations and moral probity of a few? Definitely.

The modern web 2.0 companies permanently claim to be inventing a new future; one filled with common values, common decency and respect for human rights.

All we’re seeing so far is a pursuit of freedom from responsibility. How much like children.


14 replies »

  1. A few things.

    1: I agree with the principle being laid out here. As we transition away from “press” and into a world of “content,” the very language begins to make clear that media is serving commodity, not journalism – a thing that aspires to the higher call of the public interest. Obviously the rules and ethics pandered by content companies are going to differ from the ones promoted by news and information agencies. Expect this to get worse before it gets better and expect it to get better when pigs fly.

    2: While I get your point, I strenuously object to any suggestion that Judith Miller was anything other than Karl Rove’s typist.

    3: Newspapers are on the rebound? Boy howdy, I’m going to need to see some evidence, because I suspect that this number is relying on some sleight-of-hand with what’s being counted and how it’s being counted. But for the sake of argument let’s say this is correct. If this is true, it’s misleading to read this as good news for the news. As any number of insightful analyses from our own Dr. Denny have demonstrated, the financial “viability” of papers has been accomplished as a result of massive firings (heck, we just saw a few more whackings at the Star Trib this week) and not as a function of providing more or better “content.”

    So, in sum, bad news as far as the eye can see?

  2. 2. I don’t know enough about the Plame affair to comment on Judith Miller – I was simply fascinated by the parallels taking place simultaneously: Yahoo shopping Tao, and Miller going to jail to protect her source. There are plenty of other stories of journalists, and newspapers, refusing to compromise with government demands for information. I’m sure you can come up with a few.
    3. Newspapers have been predicted to die so many times, I’ve stopped counting. Thing is, look at who has the money, and how much. If an online media company really started to make a noise, it would get bought by one of the big old media companies right away.

    The tabloids have never been more popular. The number of newspaper titles available continues to rise at unbelievable rates. Free newspapers are growing rapidly – consider the ones dropped in public transport every day.

    Newspapers are sensitive to their readers and are following them. Maybe you’re considering only the demise of the dreary old broadsheets that have stuck to producing preachy and patronising copy? They were dying anyway.

    There will always be a market for well-written news and analysis – it’s what we’re hoping, after all.

    And then there’s Rupert …

    Murdoch is no one-off aberration. He is a media genius who knows how to tie all the different angles together. Others in the “old” media are watching. When they see how he does it, they’ll follow and mop up the rest.

    Do you really think all those websites attracting readers are going to remain single for long? You know that every web-entrepreneur is just waiting for the right offer.

  3. I think your answers on this last part actually serve my point a bit. Tabloids are thriving. Free newspapers. Etc. These aren’t NEWS. They’re content. Commodity. Yes, they’re giving their readers what they want, but – and here’s that public interest component – what about what we need?

    The sorts of free and open societies – and markets – that libertarian thinkers imagined in centuries past are built on some assumptions about an informed populace. After all, one can’t act in accordance with rational self-interest – and that IS the underlying assumption – without being educated and informed. If you want to see the results of rampant UNinformed self-interest, look around. People WANT to hear about Anna Nicole’s baby and Britney’s frightening up-the-skirt shots and all things Paris. They don’t want to hear about global warming and anything on the Project Censored list because, well, that’s not really entertaining.

    Over time, this sort of society undermines itself. Unless something remarkable happens, I can’t imagine how anything remotely like democracy will exist in 100 years.

  4. Ah, but now you’re being a snob. We’re discussing the future of newspapers. Newspapers are thriving. Newspaper companies own both the hard-news and the tabloids. People decide by their purchasing decisions what they want to read.

    And even if you’re not a snob. The Economist, Wall Street Journal, Financial Mail, even Time (which is really a tabloid) are all doing extremely well. How many deeply brilliant international newspapers do we need? I’m quite confident that many will thrive.

    That a few bad ones die? Well, that’s the nature of capitalism. There are smart people who will pay for smart news and take it quite seriously. And there are those who don’t.

    What do you think Newspaper Companies are supposed to do? Print it anyway and force you to buy it?

  5. Snob? How about “intellectual elitist”? As bad as I know that term is going to piss some people off, there’s no point arguing it. I believe in smart, I believe in education, and I believe in serving the public interest. I believe that not doing these things is nihilism.

    Your point that media agencies are thriving is beside the point. So are whorehouses. The question is TO WHAT END? What good does it do a society when powerful media elites are making cash hand over fist and in the process are paving the way to that society’s destruction?

    I KNOW that media companies are making money, regardless of how we define “news” and regardless of how corrosive their impact on the culture really is. Not arguing that at all. I’m saying that we’re asking the wrong questions.

  6. Media companies don’t lead the public. If the public wanted to buy “smart” news, they’d sell it (and they do – to the small group of people who buy; you realise The Economist’s readership is only about 1 million people WORLDWIDE).

    It’s almost a clich

  7. And here’s where so much modern-day libertarian thinking breaks down. Whatever sells, is right. But note what I said earlier about the ASSUMPTIONS of the system.

    The market argument works fine so long as the assumptions upon which it’s built are in effect. BUT THEY AREN’T. The market works so long as we have a world of informed self-interest. Ignorant people are not informed and thus cannot reliably act in their own self-interest (Southern voters demonstrated this in spades during our last election over here).

    When we mistake ignorant action, which is random at best and counterproductive at worst, for the rational interest engine upon which market theory is built, it’s like dynamiting the foundation of a building and expecting it not to fall.

    Of course, empires fall more slowly than buildings – sometimes so slowly that it’s barely noticeable (and not noticeable at all to the ignorant majority that’s being pandered to).

    To use another popular metaphor, this kind of approach is boiling the frog. And we’re the frog.

  8. There are reasons why I listen to NPR and read the BBC – I get real news.

    I hate to say it, but sometimes people have to do things that they don’t want to. And if people only spend money on the news equivalent of cotton candy, it’s time to take it away, give them a tooth brush, have them read their broccoli and lean ground turkey, and then kick them out the door to take a 2 mile walk.

    A little cotton candy is fine, but sugary news only makes our brains and opinions as flabby as sugary foods make our bodies.

  9. For me, the issue is not whether the news is “smart”; it’s whether I get the news I need at all.

    American newspapers have, for the past centure, served as the “paper of record” for their communities. That’s enshrined in tradition, law and government practices. (All those “legal notices” in the classifieds fulfill a governmental requirement to alert the populace.)

    That means their bread-and-butter has long been local news. Google may aggregate from around the world, but I doubt its algorithms seek to scour every last bit of news from the little hamlet I live in.

    Economic forces of the past three decades

  10. I agree with everything said here; but we do need to differentiate all the competing endeavours:

    1) Newspaper and media companies must run at a profit to do anything at all – it’s no good producing high-quality news no-one wants to read; that’s just a way to go bankrupt. If consumers want to read fluff, and there’s no way to profitably do anything else, then that is what must be done.

    2) Consumers don’t like analysis; ever seen one of those reports on what pages are read in the average newspaper? It’s these three: lifestyle; entertainment; and sport. That’s it. Even if they’re buying it, they ain’t reading it. Health experts around the world have been telling people to eat less and exercise more. Suing McDonalds isn’t going to change consumer behaviour.

    3) There is certainly a need for high-quality insightful news. “Need”, not consumer “want”. Where is the real news on GM foods, rather than the populist claptrap that says it’s bad for you? It’s in specialist magazines like Nature, Science and all the other industry-specific journals. There is more news than ever, finding it is another story.

    In part two of this article I’ll write about how Gavin O’Reilly sees the future of news. I think you will all find it very encouraging.

  11. What you note here is accurate, but it also makes clear the dramatic limitations of the free market. As much as I’d love it if people naturally gravitated toward substance and media companies poured as much effort in developing and marketing things of value as they do fluff, I live in the real world, too. So I get it.

    What this points up, though, is the ESSENTIAL role of government – if people will seek only the empty calories and businesses will only respond to pure profit motive, then it all comes down to the state to account for the NEEDS. If you’ve read me a bit, you won’t be the least surprised to hear me circle back around to education. It’s incumbent on the public sector to provide education that informs and enlightens – you can’t require adults to watch what’s good for them, but a good educational system broadens and deepens their minds in ways that make meaningful content more marketable. Further, state agencies must assure the viability of agencies that are willing to speak to the need for intelligent content – public broadcasting, for instance, and it wouldn’t kill anything to similarly supported national general interest newspapers. (Supported, not controlled. Although I’ve watched the GOP’s attempt to hijack PBS by reframing “intelligent” as “liberally biased,” so I’m at least aware of the issues here.)

    An informed, enlightened citizenry can be trusted when it comes to things like media consumption patterns. And it’s the government’s job to subsidize and assure that we’re as informed and educated as we can possibly be. Talk about a compelling national security issue.

    This is why I also have my Dr. Slammy in 2008 presidential campaign project. There are no magic bullets for a society’s ills, but education comes closer than anything else.

  12. I have worked for many different newspapers in a 27-year career and each one was profitable and had a growing circulation. The problem with large papers such as the L. A. Times is not that they are losing money; it is that they are corporately owned and so have to maintain a very high profit level. Several years ago Knight-Ridder’s profit margin dropped to about 20 percent and they cut staff because they feared a hostile takeover. Smaller independent newspapers continue to make a profit without any need to cut staff.

    In my experience, the consolidation of media by corporations is the biggest threat to the newspaper business. For over 30 years, weeklies and small dailies have been gobbled up by newspaper chains that milk them for profit, but otherwise care little for their vital role in the community. These chains see newspapers as commodities to be bought and sold, not because they are profitable but because they greatly increase in value over time. The result is that courageous local editor/publishers who were not afraid to speak up on community issues have often been replaced by former advertising directors whose primary mandate is protect the investment.

    Corporate ownership is the greatest threat to journalistic integrity in newspapers. One need only look at what has happened to television and radio “news” in the wake of the FCC’s abject failure to perform its role as public advocate to see the effects of prostituting news for profit.

  13. I’d like to comment mostly on Mr. C’s original article- yes these major media companies are guilty of violations they claim only the president to be making. Creative Commons is a bad idea, because it further divorces content from the people who make it. Perhaps I could just claim all of Mr. Lessig’s thoughts, and his degrees, as my own in lieu of the New Openness? However, “stealing” in all cases is not evil, and in some cases, usually musically, actually helps the artist you originally stole from. The entire notion of intellectual property is in flux.

    That said, in general there is far too much piracy coming from every direction – who wants to rip you off more? Government, or private interest? It’s a tossup. Chuck Klosterman’s “4” Collection of essays has a lot to say about this – did anyone else go to a “pirate party” in the late 90’s? I did -arr! But, when Morrissey sang ‘shoplifters of the world unite’ we don’t know exactly if he meant we should steal everyday articles as a way to magnify personal power, or steal reputations and art as a way to increase business profit margin? So far, it looks like everyone is following through with the second option. What most Americans don’t understand is that the Europeans, Chinese and Japanese (and now Indians also) have caught on to this flaw in the American psyche and have been, taking turns, slowly beating us at our own game. So the ‘responsibility’ you’re looking for, or maybe its regulatory effect, is being taken up by foreign bodies. Meanwhile both parties take what they want and send the bill to the future.

    I don’t know if I want to answer the question of ‘to what end?’ All we can do is vote, protest, petition representatives, write, and seek out sympathetic hearts.

    Right now, with the Democratically-controlled congress in place, there is an opportunity to repeal acts that led to corporate conglomeration, such as the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

    However, media companies Do lead the public, and the public leads back – the relationship is symbiotic. Letters to an editor Do get heard, but there’s a portion of people who believe, for either religious or leftist reasons, that the government is hopeless, and so then we shouldn’t ask for accountability. We call those people ‘non-voters’ or ‘tax-evaders’. If they could just get all the taxes collected that are owed, the educational problem would look far less daunting within a few years. “Gaps” are not protected by the government. The essential role of government is to protect our freedoms and defend us from foreign attack – we have many freedoms but we don’t have the freedom to maintain civic insititutions that make our lives easier, except with tax and possibly the efforts of well-meaning moms.

    Which is why Hillary will be president 🙂