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Judge Posner is a respected law and economics thinker, but I think he is a bit off on this one. It is a form of protectionism for the market of information. Basically he endorses the idea of extending copyright law such that newspapers could block bloggers and others on the web from linking to their content. Then once the information is protected newspapers could feasibly charge subscriptions to online content.

Below the fold we'll see why this doesn't work.

The market of information, like all markets, does not really lend itself well to protectionism. The far better long term solution is to always adapt to changes in the market so that you can remain constantly competitive.

Obviously the market of information's most prized asset is speed. Newspapers are probably the worst mode of information for that asset. But this has been true ever since radios became prominent in every home. News will break on radio, television, and now especially the internet first. But we must always keep in mind that the market for information is not solely based on speed of information. This is how newspapers have survived TV and radio and they will have to adjust and adapt again to survive the internet.

What are other commodities that are important in the information market? Accuracy, quality of analysis, topical interest, etc etc. On these fronts newspapers still have something to offer.

Newspapers, theoretically, are the branch of information media most trusted by the other branches of the information market and the public. Bloggers, and I love blogs and the internet, are often perceived to be and are ideological to the point of not being completely trustworthy. Some blogs are attempting to change this perception, and are working to become more ideologically balanced, but it is safe to say for now that blogs are usually speaking to a certain audience of a particular political persuasion. It is advocacy. And it is true that they link often to print media sources online. This of course does hurt the newspaper industry in that it means they can't charge fees for online content and basically seem to be churning out content for bloggers. Free linking to content does mean that no newspaper can charge online and there is no incentive to purchase papers. But we must also keep in mind that linking to papers is free advertising of the paper. It is possible that people follow the link, like the paper, and become readers...maybe even subscribers. Not to mention the fact that by linking a blogger is showing the disparity between the two sides. Bloggers paraphrase and add additional information to suit their purposes (which is legit and the role of the blog and the internet), but at the same time this is contrasted to the newspaper article which theoretically for competitive newspapers is more measured, and professional.

Television, more than any other niche in the information market, is visual. This is why TV always has to the split screen of the two talking heads. It is a visual reminder of the opposing sides. The flash graphics, the weighty introduction music, etc. TV is combative about news and has to be. It also has to feed the 24 hour news beast which requires lots of fighting and bells and whistles. Again there is a place for television and it isn't going away. But again newspapers have survived television and have actually benefited from it in comparison because it shows where newspapers can offer something TV cannot. TV has also given newspaper journalists and publications more credibility because TV news has so frequently used them on air and offered free advertising to their publications.

Further, we can't forget to mention the potentially disastrous ramifications of extending copyright law such that it applies to even linking to and discussing articles produced by others. There is no way to apply it just to papers and as such it would restrict the flow of information to a very low drip. In an information age that would cripple the US.

So how do papers survive?

  1. Adapt to the market and your strengths. They have to focus on producing the quality analysis and information from vetted articles produced by professional journalists committed to getting it right. Where papers thrive will be where they offer this type of information. It isn't fast like the net or flashy like television, but it can still be a valuable commodity.
  1. Adjust their supply to the demand. GM was making more cars than they could possibly sell. Newspapers are producing more content then required. Very few papers should be dailies anymore in this market. Weeklies should be the norm with updates online. If the updates are particularly special then they could probably charge a small fee to get people to read it due to the decreased supply of the information.
  1. Adapt to the demand and change content. A small weekly paper that focuses just on that area will do better than a small daily paper trying to get locals to pay to read what they see on TV and on the internet. Give them information about the city council, the chicken that gave birth to a live chick down the road, the local spelling bee winner...etc etc. As TV and the internet get bigger they are expanding what they cover to national areas which frees up papers to cover the local things that matter most to locals. As for big dailies like NYT and WSJ they need to focus more on analysis and in depth investigative reporting of issues that TV and the blogs rarely have the resources and time to do.

You can do all of this without trying to expand copyright law into a protection racket for newspapers.

Originally posted to Common Cents on Tue Jun 30, 2009 at 11:15 AM PDT.

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