Newspapers need to get a clue – quickly

The Paris-based World Newspaper Association, a body that appears to be almost pathologically clueless when it comes to the Internet, is blustering and grumbling about how search engines such as Google News are “stealing” their content and should be made to either stop or to pay for it. Although the group hasn’t said what it has in mind, it is muttering darkly about challenging the “exploitation of content” that its members feel is going on. In a magnanimous gesture, they admitted that search engines help drive traffic to their sites, but said this didn’t justify the fact that Google and others have built their businesses on “taking content for free.”

This issue has come up before, when a representative of the European Publishers’ Council accused Google and other Web search companies of being “parasites” living off the content of others. Gavin O’Reilly of the WNA has been quoted as saying that the Web companies are engaging in “kleptomania.” Here’s what he told the Financial Times:

Mr O’Reilly likened the initiative to the conflict between the music industry and illegal file-sharing websites and said it was not a sign that publishers had failed to create a competitive online business model of their own. “I think newspapers have developed very compelling web portals and news channels but the fact here is that we’re dealing with basic theft,” he said [snip]. Services such as Google News link to original news stories on the home pages of newspapers and magazines and display only the headline and one paragraph of the story [but] “That’s often enough” for readers browsing the top stories, Mr O’Reilly said.

I must admit that I thought the WNA was out of its mind to even bring this subject up in the first place, but the comparison to the RIAA and its war against file-sharing took the association’s case well past stupidity and into the realm of farce (ironically, as Rafat at PaidContent points out, the WNA has a great blog called Editors Weblog). How exactly is linking the headline and first paragraph of a story to a newspaper’s website the same as people downloading an entire song from a P2P application? The answer: It isn’t.

As for Mr. O’Reilly’s argument that readers are often satisfied with the headline and one paragraph, whose fault is that? Maybe the WNA should try suing every user of Google News in court, the same way the RIAA has — that’ll show them. Or they could block all search engines, and get no traffic whatsoever. As James Robertson notes, this appears to be more about a cash grab than it is about the way that search engines work. Techdirt asks whether newspapers can really be that clueless, and the short answer is: Yes.

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