A Brazen Proposal to Re-Monopolize Newspaper Stories


My new definition for “brazen” starts with a pointer to a column by Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Connie Schultz, who says that “Tighter copyright law could save newspapers” — a tirade against online news aggregation that fails in logic and honesty.

Maybe her Cleveland readers know this, but you might not, and there’s no disclosure in the column (though you will find it buried in a Schultz bio on the Plain Dealer website): Schultz is married to U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat who is in a position to do something about her proposal. And if the column doesn’t qualify as lobbying, it’s awfully close. (UPDATE: My friend Jeff Jarvis discussed this issue in his blog post, where Schultz responded in the comments and drew this response from Jeff.)

Other people, notably Kathy Gill, have ably deconstructed some of the more egregious elements in Schultz’s piece. My own disgust with it is the sense of entitlement it reflects, from a journalist whose career rose in large part on the monopoly business model that enriched a few newspaper companies while ultimately impoverishing true public debate about important matters.

And a commenter on the column noted what appeared at the end of the column online, namely a list of links begging readers to send the story to the attention of friends and, ahem, online aggregators and social-networking sites, plus a permalink that further begs folks to link to the piece:

aggregators list

The entitlement Schultz expresses stems from her belief — also apparently irony-free — that newspapers have some fundamental right to survive, and her evidence of this is a (wonderful) series of articles by a Plain Dealer reporter that led to the ouster of a corrupt local sheriff):

(M)any of us wondered aloud how much longer newspapers could support this kind of journalism. It’s an anxiety that is graying hairlines in newsrooms across the country.

Journalists are not broken, but the business model that used to sustain the work we do is toeing the cliff. The Internet poses challenges we never anticipated. The question is: What will save us?

Her answer, relying on advice from brothers David and Daniel Marburger, respectively a newspaper lawyer and an Arkansas academic, would require a severe rewriting of copyright law. They’d let newspaper publishers and other content “originators” have sole rights to exploit the information, which sounds simple but is absurd on its face?

It’s not just impractical, given a world where we all have multiple ways to talk about what we’ve seen and multiple ways to find what others talk about. It’s also dangerous, because it would wound or wipe out much of what gives the Internet its journalistic value in the first place, namely linking and citation, which the the Marburgers call “unfair competition with unjust enrichment.”

To save newspapers’ monopoly profits, and to thereby save what’s left of newspaper journalism, these meddlers would severely wound journalism and crimp academic research — and create all kinds of other mischief in the public sphere.

Why? Because as newspaper journalists and editors have been doing for years, we all stand on each others’ shoulders in the creation of information that, at some point, becomes journalism. We observe. We discuss. We cite. We point. We quote. Then others pull together various pieces of this and we have news, commentary and more.

We are all “parasitic,” in the deliberately inflammatory word of the Marburgers and their credulous scribe. This is the very nature of how journalism and scholarship happen.

Schultz, whom I met several years ago and found intellectually impressive, shows none of that here. She demonstrates a shallow understanding of her own craft, and no grasp whatever about how a networked world can work for us all. As a former newspaper columnist, I’m embarrassed for her.

3 thoughts on “A Brazen Proposal to Re-Monopolize Newspaper Stories”

  1. Isn’t everyone allowed to pursue a story, an investigation, to the best of her ability? If Drudge breaks Lewinsky and Newsweek cries foul, do we side with Newsweek (which sat on the story instead of publishing it)?
    Journalism has never been a chess game in which one waits for the other guy to move first.
    After The Plain Dealer prints the story about the sheriff, are you, or am I, forbidden to blog about it? Forbidden to mention the sheriff and his deeds? By publishing a big investigative package, does The Plain Dealer claim to own the rights to the facts of the case?
    It’s insupportable, isn’t it?

  2. Why is the female column writer referred to on second ref. by her last name, while Jeff Jarvis chummily becomes Jeff on second reference Not liking the Boyz Klub tone there. Your style manual has different second reference rules for the genders? Really?

    1. I’ve known Jeff Jarvis for many years, and he’s a friend. I’ve met Schultz exactly once, as far as I know. No club, just familiarity.

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