Media Experts Agree: Not Much Hope For Legacy News Companies

Copyright and fair use doctrine are at the heart of the debate about how news organizations are going to make money in the digital age -- if indeed they are. And they were also the topics of discussion, at least nominally, at a conference held Wednesday in Manhattan by the Copyright Clearance Center.

Jay Rosen, the New York University professor and blogger, pooh-poohed the idea that either enforcing existing copyright laws more rigorously or rewriting them, as some have proposed, will rescue a business model that depends on monetizing breaking news. The problem, he said, is that a copyright protects a specific text, while readers are only interested in the information contained within that text -- something they can quickly distill and re-distribute via Twitter, Facebook, etc. "How do you prevent that knowledge from spreading across the culture?" he asked. "Do you think the law has an answer to that? Good luck!"

Srinandan Kasi, vice president and general counsel at the Associated Press, also seemed pessimistic about the possibility of a legal remedy. "The law clearly has a view, but if the law does not see things the way we see it and also takes a long time to resolve things, we'll be talking about the industry we once knew," he said.

Kasi offered an example to illustrate his point: When South Carolina governor Mark Sanford's infidelity was making news last summer, the AP posted an exclusive about the story on one of its member paper's sites. Within an hour, the full text of the article had been illegally republished in 23,000 places across the web.

Can Old-School Journalism Change Its Ways?

The discussion then veered off into yet another debate about the future of journalism: whether old-school print journalists, or the companies that employ them, can survive in a world where the success of every article can be instantly measured and a gusher of advertising no longer keeps everyone afloat. "I do not have much confidence that the current generation in charge of the news industry knows how to produce a product people will pay for," said Rosen. Part of the problem, he said, is older reporters who want to do what they've always done, even if it's not what readers value. "It's very hard to say to a professional journalist of a certain rank and status that you produce commodity news. The person who's producing commodity news doesn't know it's commodity news. He thinks it's unique, and that his byline is the good."

Gaby Darbyshire, vice president of Gawker Media, agreed. "The people who've been doing this for 15 or 20 years, with the mortgage and the big house in Brooklyn and the kids in private school -- they're staring into the abyss," she said.

Darbyshire singled out The New York Times (NYT) as an organization that is having trouble adapting to the market-based realities of the online world, where readers can easily separate the stories they're not interested in from the ones they are, and advertisers can spend their money solely on the latter. "Do [news organizations] have the luxury any longer to produce material they think the world should want when the evidence shows pretty clearly the world doesn't want what they're producing?"

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