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So the latest debate on the demise of newspapers hovers over copyright law. Thinkers out there are saying that if only the feds enhanced news outlets’ ownership of scoops, then they’d be able to net more Web traffic and thus more revenue, thus staving off insolvency.
Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Connie Schultz wrote in support of the plan and ended up in a nasty spat with guru Jeff Jarvis. The stupid and frivolous part of the spat stems from Jarvis’ out-of-nowhere spitefulness and anger, about which we’ll say no more here.
The substantive part of the spat, however, is worth some reflection. Schultz and others who feel likewise blame the troubles of newspapers in part on Internet aggregators—-all those free riders—-who steal the hard work of news outlets for their own Web hits. The columnist quotes an expert to this effect:
“Free-riding is ubiquitous. These parasitic aggregators are capturing the heart of the stories so that readers have no need to visit the site of the original story.”
Damn those free riders.
Now, there’s a lot of back-and-forth about this point—-about whether tighter copyright rules would even be practical or whether they’d really help newspapers thrive. Opponents of the legal fix point to the Michael Jackson news of last week, arguing that it’d be crazy to suppose that TMZ, via tighter copyright rules, could somehow have retained sole custody of the information that the King of Pop had died.
Good point. A better point to rebut Schultz & Co.: We, the newspapers, are free riders too! We free-ride-aggregate all day long. That’s what our blogs are all about. We, the newspapers, have spent millions upon millions of dollars trying to become more efficient, more diligent, more comprehensive free riders. We, the newspapers, spend untold hundreds of thousands of dollars at conferences and seminars in the quest to improve our free ridership. We, the newspapers, love free-riding as much as the classic sniveling, pajama’d blogger. We, the newspapers, will automate our free-riding if that’ll help. We, the newspapers, will hire people to free-ride, if that’ll help. We, the newspapers, will free-ride to a dead end in an industrial zone if it means more pageviews.
The Washington City Paper may be the kind of news outfit that tighter-copyright advocates seek to help. We have a reportorial staff, though it’s small. We occasionally break stories. And we can use all the traffic we can get. But we also free-ride all day long. Check out today, for instance: We free-rode the Washington Post, multiple times. We free-rode ESPN. We free-rode AP. We free-rode the Examiner, just about every local TV news station, csmonitor.com, the Washington Times, and ourselves! And all of that free-riding took place before noon.
And just what does all that free-riding get us?This.