Photo: Associated Press
Google just issued a response to the Federal Trade commission’s staff discussion draft on potential recommendations to support the reinvention [read: preservation] of journalism [read: newspapers]. (here was my reaction). It’s a wonderful document that takes the FTC — and the news industry — to school on the First Amendment, copyright, fair use, antitrust, media history, business, and technology. The government and publishers should be embarrassed to need such remedial education.Highlights:
This says it best:
The large profit margins newspapers enjoyed in the past were built on an artificial scarcity: Limited choice for advertisers as well as readers. With the Internet, that scarcity has been taken away and replaced by abundance. No policy proposal will be able to restore newspaper revenues to what they were before the emergence of online news. It is not a question of analogue dollars versus digital dimes, but rather a realistic assessment of how to make money in a world of abundant competitors and consumer choice.
Google’s doc leads off with promotion of its efforts to work with news organisations: Living Stories, traffic sent to news sites, technology help, and so on. They might as well just have linked to James Fallows’ paean and Eric Schmidt’s Wall Street Journal op-ed. You’ve heard these points before. My problem with them, as I’ve said, is that Google is trying to make friends with an industry that only wants enemies to blame for its failures. But at last, Google stops pulling punches and slaps down the industry’s self-deluding myths and the FTC’s dangerous ideas.
“[T]he current challenges faced by the news industry are business problems, not legal problems,” Google says,”and can only be addressed effectively with business solutions. Regulatory proposals that undermine the functioning of healthy marketplaces and stall the pace of change are not the solution.”
Google points out that newspapers’ circulation peaked between 1890 and 1920; that newspapers declared radio would kill them and only newspapers should hold the sacred and hallowed mission of news; that newspapers declared TV would kill them and characterised broadcast reporters as “parasites” (a lovely tip of the hat to Rupert Murdoch). We won’t buy that again. “The internet, rather than being the cause of journalism’s downfall, provides a unique opportunity for news organisations to renew and reinvigorate journalism,” Google says.
Google lectures the FTC and the industry on internet business basics: “Unfortunately, the Discussion Draft does not acknowledge the basic economics of search engines and similar services and instead erroneously suggests that search engines are somehow cannibalising newspaper advertising revenue rather than serving as an important connection to potential consumers.” Aggregators, Google points out earlier, send traffic and business opportunities to publishers. And Google does not make a significant amount of revenue from news … just as newspapers do not (subsidizing it with more lucrative verticals).
Google lectures the FTC et al on the unbundling of news. Fact o’ life. It then offers a primer on how publishers should be treating the readers who come to them via links.
Google restates the FTC’s dissection of newspaper revenue: 80% advertising, 17% newsstand, 3% subscriptions. “Pay walls,” it says, “could be an effective way to raise the 3% revenue figure.” A zinger for publishers. But Google’s fine with pay walls if publishers want them. It’s just not fine with government regulating them. “Innovating to create products and services that consumers want to pay for,” Google says, “is the only way to guarantee long-term subscription revenue growth, and none of the policy proposals are designed to foster that kind of innovation.” A zinger for the FTC (one I wish Google had dwelled on more since it does know innovation.)
Another zinger to the industry and the FTC comes as Google points out that classified revenue implosion had “nothing to do with copying or free-riding and everything to do with the emergence of a new, more effective and more efficient product into the marketplace. The FTC would ordinarily regard such a situation as a cause for celebration – consumers are getting a better product at a lower price – not an opportunity to slow down that innovation through regulation.”
Google salutes the flag the FTC raised on making government information more accessible — but then Google went the extra step to suggest “harmonization of state and federal law relating to copyrightability of government information.” There, the agreement ends.
Google decries proposals to extend copyright law and limit fair use and repeats its fine arguments against the antiquated notion of hot news from its FlyOnTheWall brief. “Facts, hot or cold, cannot be protected by copyright since there is no author of them,” Google instructs the FTC. “This has been the law of copyright since its inception….”
Google goes after proposals to establish taxes and fees to support legacy news operations. And it attacks efforts to let news organisations fix prices and charge aggregators. The doc makes the FTC eat its own words: “The FTC’s long-standing position regarding antitrust exemptions properly subordinates a desire to advantage individual firms (here, print news organisations) to the need for a competitive, even playing field that offers the maximum good to consumers.”
Bottom line: There’s no need for the FTC’s meddling:
….Google continues to work with publishers to find ways to ensure that journalism survives and thrives on the Web. We remain optimistic about the future of journalism: The Fourth Estate is too crucial a part of a functioning democracy, and the Internet too powerful a medium, for journalism to die in transition to a Web-first approach. News organisations have more readers than ever, more sources of information than ever, more ways to report and tell stories than ever, and more potential ways to generate revenue than ever. Journalism will change, but the free market and free society will ensure that it won’t die.
Amen and good night.
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