Why I want my newspaper to go out of business

I am old enough to be a newspaper reader. I actually subscribe to a paper copy that gets delivered physically to my doorstep six times a week. And if I ever managed to finish the Saturday paper on Saturday, I might even consider subscribing to the Sunday issue, too. I read what they call a quality paper, a classic broadsheet that actually caused quite a stir when it introduced one single photo, in colour no less, to its front page only a few years ago. I stick with my specific paper for convenience rather than conviction, though; there is a choice of a handful of other quality newspapers which would work just fine for me as well, irrespective of their slightly different political slant.

Two main qualities render the paper attractive for me.

The joy of old news

First, it is finite. I know – in the Internet age, there is no deadline, just a stream of news at all times of the day, and what I get dumped on my doorstep every morning is effectively yesterday’s news. But that is actually a kind of consolation. Mind you, I follow online news during the day, but I usually do not have the time to read up on what happens to any kind of depth. But my newspaper provides me with a kind of finalized interim account of current affairs as per some arbitrary point in time last night. It summarises what transpired and usually gives a bit of background. The selection of news is curated in a way I certainly not always agree with, but the fact alone that it is curated helps. After all, I can and do use the Internet and radio for different perspectives to my heart’s content.

Second, and ridiculous as it may sound, the information printed on paper just stays there and waits for me until I am ready to read or decide to give up on it and eventually throw the latest issue out (and yesterday’s issue, and the one from two days ago). In contrast to that, too many things compete for the limited real estate of the screens of my notebook computer and smart phone (and, inevitably, rather sooner than later, my tablet). This fact generates a pressure that more often than not makes me ignore a news report or article on the Net – after all, I know the story will be in the newspaper tomorrow anyway. One of my favourite online innovations in this respect is, by the way, Read It Later. The opportunity to just tag some interesting post or article for later perusal, and to be allowed to forget it for the time being, provides immense relief.

And yet, I feel an increasingly strong desire for legacy media such as my newspaper to go out of business already.

So much that is wrong today with the Internet and with all kinds of electronic devices, and what keeps an entire branch of the legal profession busy, is the fault of legacy media such as my newspaper. Their way of doing business and their desperate attempts to conserve the status quo from the time before personal computers and the Internet were invented puts the brakes on the full-fledged development of the online public sphere.

Online piracy’s backdrop

Just look at UC Berkeley’s recent paper that is aptly titled “Piracy is the Future of Television”. With all the restrictions and imponderabilities the entertainment industry puts on the approved channels of watching TV, in the end it is just easier and overall more convenient for the audience to download a pirated copy, even if that same content is legally available at little to no cost. The industry does not want you to watch the programme whenever you like, but when it is scheduled; it does not want you to save and store the video for multiple watching; it takes older content randomly off the market; it does not let you skip ad breaks; it makes you wait for ages until the new season of your favourite show finally appears in your country; you are not supposed to buy a receiver that does what you want, but one that is hard-coded with the industry’s copyright protection interests; and so on.

In Germany, the press publishers now want Google and other search engines as well as content aggregators to pay for displaying their articles in search results or for creating summary digests of them. Some publishers keep filing lawsuits against online ventures based on backward interpretations of copyright and ancillary rights, while others resort to major lobbying efforts. To me, this feels a bit as if supermarkets were charging their customers admission to see whether there is fresh milk on stock. Besides, the greater portion of all media output is derivative to begin with as well; the press covers actions and events which were created by third parties without paying a dime. There is even European regulation to safeguard that media can freely report about exclusive commercial events such as sports matches or rock concerts.

Then there is all the whining about the for-free mentality of the Internet. Ostensibly, since the advent of the Web, people are not ready to pay for valuable content any more. I certainly understand why the entertainment industry wants to uphold the movie theatre paradigm: Each individual must buy their own ticket. DVDs, on the other hand, can be watched by entire families for a lump sum and people might even share them with their friends – all without paying extra. Same with newspapers, in particular tabloids: Market surveys indicate that each copy of a tabloid has on average up to four readers; people hand them to their colleagues during break or leave them on the train for the next passenger. This seems to me like a for-free mentality all right, and it has been in place forever. It is just that the associated business model works differently in the online realm.

Growing pains

The list goes on, and probably the majority of such issues are just the growing pains of an entirely new media economy and content ecosystem. After all, the Web is by all standards still a pretty new phenomenon. It spawns innovations at such an astounding rate that its actors rarely have time to settle on some commonly agreed practice before the next big thing topples the entire equilibrium yet again. It is as if television had been introduced only a few years after Gutenberg invented the modern printing press, while in actual fact humankind had about 500 years to thoroughly accommodate to print before first trying TV.

I am certainly not against legacy media defending their accustomed revenue models for as long as they can; rather, I am all for letting the market determine whether they are viable any more.

However, the entire debate is somewhat lopsided. The notion of intellectual property resonates with the idea that the original authors – journalists, writers, translators, photographers – deserve protection. However in fact, a substantial part of the copyright regime is in place to protect an intermediate industry that feeds off the creativity of the original authors.

For example, I have published a few books. Whenever a copy gets sold, I receive royalties between naught and four percent of the publisher’s net revenue, which is less than 60 percent of the retail price. The remainder goes to book shops, book wholesale distributors, discounts, and VAT. So in the very best case, my share of the book’s total value chain amounts to less than 2.5 percent of the price paid by the end customer. Meanwhile, the publisher (owned, incidentally, by a private equity company and the state of Singapore) keeps reporting earnings in the region of 33 percent of turnover (EBITDA).

Mind you, I value the service provided by the publisher and the bookselling trade. If it had not been for them, the books might never have been written (for whatever that is worth). But I share the conviction that with the exception of a few bestselling writers, book authors usually are not in this for the money. The blogosphere, Creative Commons, Wikipedia, open science, and many other initiatives are testimony to the fact that this attitude prevails and even flourishes in the absence of publishers as we know them.

Legal backlash

But of course, full-time journalists, for instance, need to make a living – and a living good enough to attract bright people to the profession at that. Still, I think we need to differentiate between paying journalists properly to do their jobs, and keeping increasingly obsolete intermediaries in money. The former might be achievable once the latter stop throwing their weight around to forestall or monopolise structural innovations with government support.

The international ACTA treaty negotiations are to a significant extent about copyright enforcement; many individual countries already implement or are pondering stricter surveillance of online piracy; many readily discuss law proposals brought forth by the media industry, which are intended to add additional layers of intellectual property protection. I would argue that many of those may turn out counter-productive when you look at the bigger picture.

I am wondering whether the fact that media are concerned might be the very reason for the restrictive legal backlash we are facing. To my knowledge, nobody tried to prohibit telephony to save telegraphy or regulated mobile phones in favour of landlines. It was rather the opposite – in order to boost competition and innovation, landline operators were regulated in a way that kept them from nipping mobile services in the bud.

Yet media are, apparently, special. Berlusconi’s Italy is only the most drastic example of an entanglement between government and legacy media that exists, albeit perhaps in lesser manifestations, in many other countries, too. And to many politicians, the limited number of legacy media seems more easily manageable than the often fragmented and confusing Internet. I suspect that, accordingly, aspirations to conserve out-dated practices in the media receive way more support than, say, incumbent telecommunications companies did.

It would be tough on me to do without my printed newspaper, and I intend to enjoy it as long it lasts. But if it eventually cleared the way for a different and newly sustainable kind of media economy, the loss might actually turn out not be too bad at all.

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Thanks Flickr user Marion Doss for the photography.

This article was also published by the European Journalism Centre. And there is a Ukrainian translation at telekritika.ua – thanks for that!

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Doc Searls approaches television in a similar fashion (Doc Searls Weblog). Please see also Jon Evans: In Praise of Piracy (TechCrunch).