Byte Rights: Et Tu, Reporters?

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Like the other media industries, newspapers are having a hard time finding people that still want to give them money. Unlike music and film, newspapers aren’t selling to the customer so much as selling the consumer to the advertiser. But with circulations dropping and basically infinite new ad space becoming available on the Internet, advertisers aren’t signing up in droves. This being the news biz, there’s no lack of people to talk about why or what to do.

Some media pundits think readers who might pay are defecting to blogs. Others think Google News is being evil. Still others blame Craigslist.org for the death of classifieds.

Whatever the cause, my colleagues are running to the government for a bailout. Unlike car makers and banks, they aren’t asking for huge piles of money. They want a legislative bailout.

The newspapers are asking for (among other things) changes to copyright law. Some, like The Washington Post , want to restrict linking to or summarizing stories for some period of time. Now, the point of news is to get your story out fast and accurately to make the biggest impact you can. Copyright-reforming newspaper folks are looking to change the law to give them a special right to stop their stories spreading.

When you’re asking for a law to be rewritten to make your ultimate goal harder, something has gone terribly wrong.

Worst of all, there’s scant evidence that rewriting the law would save the papers’ dying business model. Many of their readers have left for good, and online advertising has lowered ad prices across the board.

Just like the RIAA isn’t saving music, and the MPAA isn’t saving cinema, newspapers aren’t going to save journalism. Journalism turns out to be doing just fine in the age of the Internet, where people read blogs and Twitter and watch video clips and even sometimes go to newspapers’ websites to get their news. Newspapers have conflated their industry with their field of endeavor, and their business model with the only way of doing it.

Quinn Norton writes about copyright for Wired News and other publications. Her work has ranged from legal journalism to the inner life of pirate organizations.

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