Newspapers and IP Business Models

A hypothesis:  The dynamics of social and institutional change are affected the presence of intellectual property rights and, importantly, by the rhetoric of intellectual property rights.

It is instructive to compare the firestorm that is currently engulfing the newspapers that house some of this country’s most respected journalism — the Rocky Mountain News (gone), the San Francisco Chronicle (being sold or closed?), the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (about to go web-only), the Christian Science Monitor (web-only) — with the firestorm that has been raging around copyright-intensive industries (music, motion pictures, book publishing, and software and videogames in particular) for the last decade or so.  Cries that we should try to save newspapers (see Swensen in the Times, and Baker at Balkinization) are now being met with a “you have no newspapers, but you can get the news” response that very closely resembles the early cyber-libertarian responses to claims that traditional business models made on the internet.  See Clay Shirky (“Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable”):

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

When we shift our attention from “save newspapers” to “save society”, the imperative changes from “preserve the current institutions” to “do whatever works.” And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.

We don’t know who the Aldus Manutius of the current age is. It could be Craig Newmark, or Caterina Fake. It could be Martin Nisenholtz, or Emily Bell. It could be some 19 year old kid few of us have heard of, working on something we won’t recognize as vital until a decade hence. Any experiment, though, designed to provide new models for journalism is going to be an improvement over hiding from the real, especially in a year when, for many papers, the unthinkable future is already in the past.

For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.

And read Steven Johnson’s similar diagnosis at SXSW.

Note how the basic dynamics of the two problems — newspapers overtaken by technology and economics; copyright publishers overtaken by technology and economics — are essentially identical, but rhetorically the responses are framed differently, and — more to the point — the persuasiveness of the responses is likewise quite different.  Is the result that the possibility of institutional change is more acceptable in one context than in another?

In the U.S., no one owns the news (with the narrow and occasional exception of a “hot news” misappropriation claim).  So, whatever the solutions to the dying newspapers problem may be, they are primarily policy problems:  Should newspapers be subsidized, and if so, how?  This is a long-standing debate (the links lead to contemporary and older coverage of the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970).  (In practice, subsidies strengthen the rich and weaken the poor.  In the end, even the strong are dying.)  But rhetorically, there seems to be no question that newspapers are on their way out.  The only question is what will replace them and when.  At the end of the day, what society wants more than newspapers is news.  It’s revolution, not evolution, and the revolution is upon us.

Copyrighted content is owned, at least in a manner of speaking.  So the rhetorical response to failed and failing business models (bundling music in record albums, for example) not only has been grounded for years on the rhetoric of theft and free-riding, but in my view that rhetoric has largely succeeded in framing the debate.  How will the record labels/motion picture studios/software developers survive if consumers, competitors, and overseas pirates are stealing their content?  Rhetorically, it is far from clear that the current IP business models are on their way out; IP observers still spend a lot of time thinking about “adaptation” of existing models to the new techno/economic environment.  It’s evolution, not revolution.

2 thoughts on “Newspapers and IP Business Models

  1. Hey Mike —

    You may have a false dichotomy there. If you compared, say, the 8-track tape or the player piano with news reporting, the former would be dead and the latter would be evolving. The newspaper is a technological form, whereas copyright is a legal form.

    I think what worries people about the current plight of newspapers (Shirky and Johnson seem strangely upbeat) is that professional journalism of the sort we value (at least some of us do) is going to see a inevitable decline that corresponds with the decline of newspapers. And among other reasons, that’s because people are getting information from the Net rather than from reading tangible papers.

    I’m as interested in this transformation as anyone, and at times I’ve even praised it. But I’m actually somewhat worried about what is going on with the news. If we lose, for instance, the war reporter or the professional coverage of local politics, I think we really do lose something important and socially valuable that probably can’t be replaced by, e.g., Gawker and a collection of special interest blogs. I love blogs, but there’s a certain value in the press as a social institution that I don’t see mirrored by amateur practices.

    Actually, on the copyright front, if we lose the blockbuster movie and the prospect of the next Madonna, I have more confidence that we’ll figure out a constructive way to handle that situation. I don’t think we should abandon copyright, but I think some major rethinking — a newer, simpler, more user-friendly Act — is overdue.

    In other words, if I could pick between the two, I’d really rather have the evolution occur with journalism and the revolution occur with copyright.

  2. Maybe the post wasn’t clear enough; I was trying to contrast the challenges that face newspapers with the challenges that face things such as recording companies and motion picture studios. Copyright is a legal form that plays a big role in the economic and social construction of the latter; it plays a very small role in the economic and social construction of the former.

    Your comment highlights something different about Shirky’s piece, which is the degree to which a specific social practice (journalism) is bound up with a specific organizational form (the newspaper). One might easily wonder about the extent to which a different social practice (such as the popular song) is bound up with a specific organizational form (such as the recording company). I haven’t checked, but I suspect that this kind of comparative work has been done. At least I hope that it has.

    Both as to newspapers and as to recording companies, we see a lot of concern that the former (the social practice, which we like) can’t exist without the latter (regardless of our feelings about it). Could journalism take a different organizational form? Shirky says: yes, but no one has any idea what that form might take. Some people say no. People differ widely in their willingness to risk having to find out.

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