Wednesday, 4 November 2009

SLA Europe: Free v Fee, the Future of News

Attended a really interesting panel discussion on the future of newspaper content hosted by SLA Europe last night. There's a debate going on at the moment as to whether news outlets should charge for online content or continue to provide it for free, now that advertising revenue has dropped so dramatically. The Murdoch clan are all for charging, while Alan Rusbridger prefers to focus on the journalistic changes that need to occur to avoid newspapers becoming obsolete.

Andrew Hughes from the Newspaper Licensing Agency and Jeremy Lawson from Dow Jones represented the traditional news industry, while Larry Rafsky, CEO of Acquire Media, stood up for web aggregators and solicitor Laurence Kaye gave the legal perspective. The evening was ably moderated by Don Roll, of Alacra (thanks for picking my question!).

Although the panel didn't achieve a consensus (and with such opposing views from Larry and Andrew it was unlikely), everyone made some good points. What I took from the discussion is that with web technology developing so fast, newspapers (and copyright law) are playing catch-up. Business models for online content are untested and it's only once papers begin to charge that we will see whether such a model is successful. What is certainly true is that unless newspapers come up with a new approach they will struggle financially in the future market.

Below are my notes from the evening; Neil Infield at the British Library has blogged his notes here, and you can join the discussion on LiveWire.

Andrew Hughes, NLA
  • NLA is working towards a licensing agreement for B2B paid-for web content
  • web content is often unique - NLA study found 31.5% of online content hadn't appeared in print, and 38% of print content never makes it to the web
Laurie Kaye
  • "It takes time to change the law, business models, cultures..."
  • media is global so may eventually have a global legal framework, but have to begin by working within existing national copyright laws
  • "copyright provides the framework for a creator to decide how their content is made available" - whether free, fee or a hybrid model
  • B2B copyright is much more clearcut than personal
  • need an "effects-based" approach to copyright - look at the commercial effect of republishing in the real world, and base law on that
  • different tyes of intermediary require different approaches - individuals providing links between the user and the content vs people taking the content and republishing it
  • "fair use" - there are about 30 exceptions for research, private study, reporting etc. Google argues fair use because they only reprint snippets of articles but it's for commercial gain so may not be
  • there's a lack of infrastructure to police online content at the moment
Larry Rafsky, Acquire Media
  • "there's no going back once you taste freedom...this toothpaste is not going back in the tube" - newspaper content is already free online, can't reverse it
  • different definitions of free - difference between content that is written professionally and provided free but where the writer will be paid (what aggregators are interested in), free content written by non-professionals (user-generated, personal blogs etc) and professional content that is "gifted" (given away with no interest in payment)
  • bad definitions - content that is free to some but not others, and content that shouldn't be free but is made so illegally
  • Acquire always links to the publisher and gives sparse summaries so users have to follow the link to read the article (Google provides enough info that the reader has no need to click through)
  • there is no difference between a user accessing content directly and getting it through a proxy, as long as the content provider gets the same emolument
  • the web is run by links - RSS feeds, librarian recommendations, email links to friends - so "site cite" (what a web aggregator does) is not protectable
Jeremy Lawson, Dow Jones
  • Dow Jones are supporting publishers and their right to decide how content is used and what the rights covering it are
Did papers start to dig their own grave when they suggested they might charge for content?

Larry Rafsky - whether papers charge depends on their existing market and where they can make money (need to analyse all models), so there's no right answer
Andrew Hughes - papers started digging their own grave when they gave content away - "free is a four-letter word"
Jeremy Lawson - papers who will have to change their business model from free to fee have an awful lot of work to do to make it viable

Do web aggregators really pose a serious threat to revenue when some argue they are increasing traffic to sites by posting links?

Laurie Kaye - linking is part of the way the web operates, but there is some potential commercial bad effects from aggregators
Andrew Hughes - "Russian doll" situation - yes, aggregators increase traffic but that doesn't necessarily lead to an increase in revenue; the NLA isn't asking to license links to friends, only those who charge and benefit financially from linking; newspapers need to assert their rights over the investment they are putting into editorial content; less than a tenth of 1% of newspaper web traffic comes from aggregators, most comes from Google
Larry Rafsky - as 85% of news traffic comes from Google, why not charge Google if you want to charge aggregators?

Is Kindle the future of newspapers?

Larry Rafsky - papers will be web-only in the future, and paper will become a novelty item like candles now, special editions and gift items; advances in flexiscreens by Microsoft will mean the death of newsprint by 2030
Andrew Hughes - no, the future lies in providing streamlined content to individual users (Liverpool fans just want sports news about Liverpool), not in recreating replicas of the print edition online

With web advances, do you foresee the death of newsprint?

Andrew Hughes - no but there will be trouble sustaining the pagination
Jeremy Lawson - print medium will become a much smaller fish in a much bigger pond but won't become irrelevant

What can the industry do to help users distinguish what is fair use and free to access and what isn't?

Laurie Kaye - we're still working through what is commercial or non-commercial but the law will reach that point
Andrew Hughes - we need to make it easier for users and businesses to know what they can and can't do
Larry Rafsky - you need to add value to content, beyond what Google provides, to make B2B paid-for content viable


  1. I do think there is more acceptance recently of the idea of paying for things online, be it news or other services so there is some hope I think to start charging (and hence put the toothpaste back in the tube). But, do you think UK papers will be able to charge when the BBC is producing online news for free?


  2. That's the big question at the moment - if the BBC scale back their online content then maybe, but unless you offer something completely unique no one will pay when they can get it elsewhere for free.

    I think once one starts charging though (probably Newscorp) many will follow (as happened with the move to tabloid size).