Preach it, Jon Carroll:
One day last month, representative of the California Highway Patrol visited classrooms to deliver some bad news: Some classmates of theirs had been killed in traffic accidents. Alcohol apparently was involved. The students, as might be expected, were stunned. Many wept. Some screamed. School stopped as people comforted each other.
Then, a few hours later, the administrators announced that it was all a joke. Well, not a joke – it was an educational experience. The administrators had set up the stunt to make the students understand how very sad death is, and how drinking booze and driving is a bad thing. It was something the students will never forget, the administrators said, and oh how true that is.
The takeaway is: Don’t trust anyone. Grown-ups will lie to you and try to make you feel bad. The world sucks even worse than you thought it did. Guidance counselor Lori Tauber defended the exercise: “They were traumatized, but we wanted them to be traumatized. That’s how they get the message.”
Note that’s a rather lengthy pullquote from Carroll’s column. Long enough for the Associated Press to price it at, oh, $50, which last year constituted about 15 percent of this blog’s revenue. The AP’s proposal to start billing blogs for as little as five words of fair-use quoting has the blogworld in a tizzy, but I’m holding my fire, for now. Far too much hot air has risen heavenward since the beginning of the blog/MSM relationship, and there’s no need to add to it. Here’s a typical comment left on the original story linked above:
Wow. It’s amazing how a major news organization like the AP can be so woefully ignorant on this topic. Charging blogs for the privilege of fair use? Amazing! The AP should be thanking bloggers for linking their way, not trying to tax them for snipping a couple sentences.
I’m not unsympathetic to this argument — I’ve used it myself, when it suited my purposes — but it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how the AP works. As we were taught in j-school: The AP is a co-op. Member newspapers pay a fee to use its content, and agree to contribute in turn. (Some have subscription-only memberships; Wikipedia’s entry is about how I remember it being explained to me as a student.) Content is generated by those contributions, and by a relatively small staff of AP-employed correspondents. The daily call from the AP is a ritual on most metro and state desks, and sending them copy is part of the desk editor’s job. Once upon a time, this worked pretty well — there was lots of money to pay the fees, and lots of copy to keep the wires full, full enough that most papers employ a full-time wire editor just to stand by the sluice all day, directing stories to different departments and keeping an eye on breaking news elsewhere.
The AP doesn’t sell advertising. They collect fees and manage their content. It has no financial interest in eyeballs on their copy, except as it affects their member newspapers and broadcast outlets. The copy — er, “content” in the 21st century — is the coin of the AP realm. Make it too freely available, and it’s devalued.
(There’s another problem presenting itself, and that is the shrinking of its contributing membership. At my old Indiana newspaper, we once had a full-time correspondent in Indianapolis. He covered the state legislature, but obviously he couldn’t be everywhere. The AP filled in the gaps when he was elsewhere, and in turn we contributed his stuff to the wire. When we lost that position, the AP became our de facto Indy correspondent. But even the AP can’t be everywhere, and needs member contributions to be effective. So the AP shrinks, too. Less government coverage all around. You see why this stuff is important to keeping an eye on democracy? And please don’t give me that crap about citizen journalists picking up the slack. They. Are. Not.)
Already, several major papers post virtually everything that comes over the wire on their websites, under their brand and surrounded by their ads. Bloggers pick it up and repost it on their sites, perhaps with a few comments, perhaps not. The AP gets bupkis for this. Which brings us to another comment from that original BetaNews story:
Freedom of the press isn’t apparently. It should be completely free to take and quote from AP as long as it cites its references. Originally I thought it was just an issue of plagiarism but now I see the AP is just a bunch of greedy AH’s.
Astonishingly ignorant, that. “It should be completely free” because…why? Journalism fairies will pay the AP staff’s salaries? And “greedy”? Friend, let me introduce you to a witticism offered frequently by grimly smiling AP staffers, usually when ordering the least-expensive item on the menu: “You can’t spell ‘cheap’ without ‘AP’.” I’ve known a few AP lifers, and believe me, none of them were getting rich, and many were barely middle-class. All had working spouses.
There’s the issue of “fair use.” This it the legal doctrine that says I can quote a limited section from a piece of copyrighted material, in the interest of commenting on it. Fair use is what it is, but I doubt it covers the internet ritual sometimes called “fisking,” in which a blogger quotes a few paragraphs from an outside source, mocks, quotes a few more, mocks, and so on until the entire story is reproduced and the blogger feels very, very proud of himself.
This line in the sand may be a trial balloon. (Block that metaphor!) Or it may be a chicken coming home to roost. It’s certainly not popular. But the day is coming, people: News doesn’t assemble itself into nice 600-word chunks. People need to eat. The AP’s content is worth something, because it cost something to produce. Sooner or later, we have to figure this out. Or the entire blogosphere will be reduced to the equivalent of ham radio: Hi, this is Roberto in Mexico. Who and where are you?
Read that Jon Carroll column. Give the San Francisco Chronicle the eyeballs. Me, I’m off to brainstorm six-minute gangster movie ideas.