Paying for news

newspapersSpeaking of newspaper publishers, a group of leading news industry executives held a hush-hush meeting in Chicago today on the topic of “Models to Monetize Content.” In the room were top execs from The New York Times, Gannett, E. W. Scripps, Advance Publications, McClatchy, Hearst Newspapers, MediaNews Group, the Associated Press, Philadelphia Media Holdings, among about two dozen others (including, one hopes, one or more anti-trust lawyers).

Sessions included one on something called the Fair Syndication Consortium/Attributor, which was described in the program as a “presentation on technology/service to track content on the Web and to extract payments from third-parties and ad networks that have appropriated newspaper content.”

Another session was captioned, “Journalism Online: Presentation on proposed service to charge for access to newspaper content and to license that content that (sic) online aggregators.”

News of the planned meeting, held under the auspices of the Newspaper Publishers Assn.Newspaper Assn. of America, was broken by former ChicagoTrib managing editor James Warren on his Real Deal blog for the Atlantic and later confirmed by Editor & Publisher (h/t Ben Sheffner of Copyights & Campaigns).

Not too hard to figure out what was on the attendees minds. But if simply putting everything behind a pay-wall is all they’ve got I don’t think it’s going to answer all the challenges (or grab the opportunities) confronting the industry.

It’s not a good sign that they were talking about third parties “that have appropriated newspaper content.” If that’s all this was about they could have spared themselves the flights in and out of O’Hare.

Another term for those who “have appropriated newspaper content,” is “applications developers.” They may not have asked for permission when developing their applications–and thus perhaps could be accused of “appropriating newspaper content”–but it’s not as if newspaper publishers could have given them a meaningful answer if they had.

Where are the Assoicated Press or New York Times development tools? Where are the API’s that developers could use to better aggregate AP content? Who should VCs talk to at the Times about business models for potential start ups? Where are the search engines? Where are the databases? What does the metadata look like?

Unless and until news organizations focus on those questions, putting everything behind a pay wall is merely an impediment to people reading their stories–and a blueprint for irrelevance or terminal insularity.

Aggregators aren’t “appropriating newspaper content” they’re creating new value propositions around it. Figure out how to help them do it better and share in the value created. Then I’ve got your back against those who are generally ripping you off.

I should probably disclose here that I was recently laid off, after 17 years of service, by a traditional publishing company that couldn’t begin to figure out what was going on around it or why applications are important, even as went back and forth on whether to maintain a pay wall. In a very real sense, that failure cost me my job, and I can’t claim to be happy about it.

But it gave me a pretty good idea of what won’t work.

More on the Chicago assignation in a future post. — PS