Jul 1 2009

Did Google Kill the Newspaper Star?

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/FindYourSearch

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/FindYourSearch

While the Internet in general is sometimes fingered as the newspaper industry’s problem, these days the search engine Google seems to get more attention, and vitriol, from corporate media. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd (4/15/09) summed up the media industry’s complaint:

Robert Thomson, the top editor of the Wall Street Journal, denounced websites like Google as “tapeworms.” His boss, Rupert Murdoch, said that big newspapers do not have to let Google “steal our copyrights.” The AP has threatened to take legal action against Google and others that use the work of news organizations without obtaining permission and sharing a “fair” portion of revenue. But what’s fair will be hard to prove.

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz (5/11/09) wrote that Google, “while funneling vital traffic to news sites, vacuums up their content without paying a dime.” The Times’ David Carr wrote (4/13/09): “The taking of one company’s content and selling ads against it for the benefit of another company is simply not fair, no matter what the lawyers stipulate.” At the Washington Post, Dana Milbank (5/7/09) complained that Google is “keeping the lion’s share of ad revenue before directing readers to newspaper sites”—as if it’s unusual for a website to keep its own advertising revenue.

While there are, no doubt, corners of the Internet where entire stories are re-posted, the complaints are much broader than that—and more difficult to comprehend. Google does post Associated Press content, but they pay for that (AP, 8/4/06). The real problem to these media watchers would seem to be services like Google News, which prints a headline and sometimes the first couple of lines from news stories, with links to the full versions of those stories on the news organizations’ websites.

It’s hard to figure how this is stealing from anyone, given that the small amounts quoted are surely covered by the fair use exception to copyright laws (Extra!, 5-6/06). Newspapers have TV listings of similar nature, naming and sometimes describing available programs; by running ads next to these, are newspapers stealing revenue that rightfully belongs to TV? More broadly, the entire enterprise of journalism is based on reporting the doings of uncompensated newsmakers; should newspapers be offering to share their ad revenues with Barack Obama or Britney Spears, since readers’ interest in their doings surely sells papers?

But such speculation about the ethics of profiting from others’ activity is beside the point; if newspapers feel that on the whole they don’t benefit from Google listing their stories, the search engine gives them an easy way to opt out. Tellingly, few have taken this step; perhaps the newspaper industry isn’t being killed by Google directing readers to newspaper websites after all.

This piece is a sidebar to Fearing the Future: The corporate press makes the case for being saved