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Notion of banning links misses a link in why readers go online

Submitted by on Sunday, 28 June 2009 No Comment
In about an hour each morning, I can browse five newspapers - two national, two state and one local - without killing a single tree.

When I'm finished with that, I survey a dozen or so updates on issues I'm interested in, mainly health and education. Some are from government agencies, some are from interest groups, some from trade journals, a minority are from evil aggregators.

If something happens during the day, at least three of the five papers are going to send an alert, though chances are I will have already seen a link to the coverage via Twitter.

And that, Judge Richard Posner, is why someone who spent 30 years writing for newspapers no longer subscribes to a daily newspaper.

You're wrong when you say newspapers are struggling because content is free online, because it's not. I paid for my computer - several computers, in fact - and I pay for Internet service - three times  if you count my Blackberry and my husband's dumb phone.

I read online because it's convenient and efficient. The smart papers let me chose what I want, and I pick politics, general news and business. I couldn't care less about entertainment or celebrity "news."

So there goes the first working theory Posner laid out in, ironically, a blog post suggesting that maybe the only way newspapers can survive is by making it illegal to quote from or link to copyrighted content.

Note to anyone who wants to link to me: Feel free. Just don't run my posts through a copy spinner and rip them off, though it was amusing the time that "Big Guy was green with envy" became "Big Guy was environmental with jealousy." That's what I get for using a cliche.

Another notion of Posner's is sort of true: "In the case of a newspaper, the marginal cost of providing content online is virtually zero, since it is the same content (or a selection of the content) in a different medium."

And that, in a nut shell, is why many newspapers have struggled online. For years many insisted on posting flat regurgitations of the print version without adapting the content for online readers. They shouldn't have - there should have been a marginal cost higher than virtually zero. Steps as simple as rewriting headlines to make them more useful for  the Web audience were resisted as too time consuming.

And sometime this year, linking became evil. Newspaper publishers rail against Google, Huffington Post and others, though their online leaders dance gleefully every time a story gets Farked because they know it will drive a traffic boost for days. An artificial one - Fark readers largely aren't repeat customers - but a boost nonetheless.

All of which led Posner to suggest turning copyright law and fair use doctrine on its ear because a single industry has been unable to successfully adapt to technology.

As Erick Schonfeld's post at Tech Crunch quite correctly points out, Posner's proposal extends far beyond legal goofiness. If adapted, it would in essence outlaw online public dialog.

To paraphrase Schonfeld, there's no difference between discussing a story in the barbershop and talking about it on a forum or blog, except in the latter you can easily click on a link and read the original article.

Yet there's a chance Posner's idea could catch fire among newspaper publishers once they finish colluding against Google.

Go ahead. Give it a try. I promise you'll miss Fark when it's gone.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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