The New York Times and Washington Post are in informal talks about the online news business. The obvious subtext: The newspapers want Google to pay for their headlines. They're going about it all wrong.
The morosely moribund newspaper industry is looking for a bailout. The government and Google are the only people with cash on hand these days; even superstar investor Warren Buffett, who owns stakes in the Post and the Buffalo News, says he won't put more money into the business.
A government handout to watchdog institutions is unseemly, so the papers are understandably targeting Google. Howard Kurtz reports in the Post that his employer is talking to Google about "improved ways of creating and presenting news online." Timesblogger Brian Stelter has Twittered that his bosses are doing the same.
Oh, so the newspapers want preening, self-important executives like Google VP Marissa Mayer to boss around their Web designers the way they do underlings at the Googleplex? Unlikely. They want cash, and soon.
It's sad that their writers are resorting to tactics they accuse bloggers of, like inventing facts out of whole cloth to serve their arguments. Take Times columnist Frank Rich, who insulted every non-newspaper journalist on the planet with this fabrication:
Just because information wants to be free on the Internet doesn't mean it can always be free. Web advertising will never be profitable enough to support ambitious news gathering. If a public that thinks nothing of spending money on texting or pornography doesn't foot the bill for such reportage, it won't happen.
Tell that to to CNET News, the tech news site which has won awards for its reporting. Or the citizen journalists of the Huffington Post, whose scoops shaped the last election. Or the experienced ink-stained wretches of Politico, some of whom worked not long ago at the Times and the Post. For that matter, the implication that journalism only happens when readers pay is nonsense. Look no further than the decades-old traditions of deep, original reporting found on radio and TV institutions like NPR and 60 Minutes, whose broadcasts come absolutely free of charge.
Kurtz, too, indulges in the occasional unreported fiction posing as fact:
Hanging over the talks is the reality that the search giant, while funneling vital traffic to news sites, vacuums up their content without paying a dime.
This "reality" is more of a collective delusion shared only by the newsrooms of America.
Then there are straight-out guilt trips: If Google doesn't pay for journalism, who will?
None of these tactics — begging, propaganda, guilt — seem to be working. That's because Googlers are smart, and they see that the newspapers have absolutely no leverage. We have a simple proposal for the executives of the Post and Times: Sue Google.
If they believe in their arguments, that Google is doing something improper with their content outside the bounds of fair use, then they should make their case in a court of law. Yes, they'll get brickbats from the blogosphere, but they're already losing in the court of opinion. And until there's a threat hanging over Google's head, there's absolutely no reason for them to open up their pocketbook.
It's a risky course. Google might respond with an alternative proposal: Instead of paying for the newspapers' headlines, why doesn't it charge them for the traffic it sends to their websites? There's ample precedent.
Larry Kramer, the newspaper executive who founded MarketWatch and now works as a venture capitalist, once told me a story about his company's dealings with Yahoo Finance. The stocks website was sending MarketWatch tons of free Web traffic through links on its site. MarketWatch executives were thrilled. But as it readied itself to go public, MarketWatch's investment bankers got nervous. What if Yahoo pulled the plug on the links? MarketWatch ended up signing a contract to pay Yahoo, in exchange for a guarantee.
Google has long resisted such pay-for-play links in its search results, segregating out commercial links as clearly marked ads. But the newspapers' whiny intransigence might test its morals. We'd like to see both sides put their money where their mouth is, and act to back up their stances — the newspapers, that content is worth paying for, and Google, that links have value. Better than this namby-pamby talk of talks.