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All right, AP—go ahead and shoot yourself in the foot

April 11, 2009
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So AP plans to go after Google. Add them to my list of “I don’t get why you don’t get this” Old Media people/organizations.

Perhaps AP needs to hop into the passenger’s seat of the DeLorean and look at how things were to better understand how things are and how things should be (because that’s really what’s at stake here…for them). AP and other misguided Old Media drum beaters seem to be under the impression that there was a time when people paid to read their stories. Not so. People paid for a newspaper to be delivered to their doorstep because it was the fastest way to get news on demand. Said person decided on said newspaper based on probably any of a few factors: (1) Proximity (if I’m in Seattle I get the Seattle Times); (2) Cost; (3) Preference (yes, to some small degree, some people probably cared about individual writers enough to subscribe to an entire newspaper); and (4) Convenience (I never read the New York Times in print (still don’t) because they went to press before most west coast baseball games were finished).

Whatever the case, they really weren’t paying for any of these factors—they were paying to have whatever paper they decided on dropped on their doorstep each morning. Therein lay the problem, because when news went online and readers followed, they were still paying to get the news, they just weren’t paying the company that owned the newspaper. Rather than paying the Seattle Times to deliver a print product to his door step every day, the average news consumer was paying AOL to hook him up to the Internet. This is why the idea of pay walls is so ineffective. Setting up a pay wall online is the equivalent of dropping off a newspaper at someone’s doorstep, then ringing the doorbell and asking them to pony up an extra $0.99 to read each article. The consumer is getting charged twice and no one likes that.

As much as newspaper companies—and particularly editorial staffs—are loathe to admit, the bulk of newspaper industry profits came/comes from advertisers. When Woodward and Bernstein were covering Watergate, they may as well have been doing so in NASCAR-like jumpsuits (why the hell not—that’s what any newspaper looks like). It’s an uncomfortable thought and to be fair, I’ve railed against similar scenarios before, but someone’s gotta pay the bills and customer subscriptions just can’t do that.

Which brings us back to the present. According to the Times story, AP wants to allow links to circulate around the ‘Net, they just want to be able to control the dissemenation of said links and they want to be able to share in the profits. Good luck. I don’t know what leverage AP thinks they have—maybe they’ve deluded themselves into thinking that all the information on the Internet actually does come from them—but it’s Google that’s holding all the cards. Let’s put ourselves in Google’s shoes; in the worst case scenario, AP does take legal action and by some miracle it results in Google being forced into some kind of profit sharing model. But if I’m Google, why the hell do I want to share any profit with the organization that just sued me? So I cut off the flow—no more links to AP on Google’s search results. And sure, that’s a bit of a hit for Google, but it’s a much larger hit for the AP. Google’s search will still be populated by smaller bloggers who link to AP stories (and good luck tracking down and prosecuting all of them) while traffic to AP stories (on AP sites) is going to have a huge slice of pie taken away (if anyone’s got numbers, please link in the comments).

Long story short: The AP needs Google way more than Google needs the AP.

So I say, let AP take legal action and see what happens. When the bottom falls out of their traffic flow, it’ll serve as a lesson to everyone else who wants to build a wall around their Web site with mircropayments or some other crazy idea. After that, we can stop all this B.S. about how to control the Web and get down to the business of how best to use it to promote knowledge and democracy—which is really the point of journalism in the first place.

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