Do you know “Newser”? It’s a news aggregation and filtering service that is, in its way, even more threatening to the established order than things like Google News or Memeorandum. The latter two services are entirely automated: they find and organize news stories from all over the web and quote just a snippet of the story to tell the reader the gist. Then they link through to the original source. This procedure is frustrating newspaper publishers everywhere. They believe traffic is a good thing, and these aggregators drive a lot of traffic. But, in many cases, a user might find all the value they need in the aggregation and snippets and never click through. And those who do click through are not likely enough to explore the rest of the site of the organization that reported and created the original story. So originating publishers raise the question as to whether these links and snippets constitute “fair use” of their copyrighted material.
But Newser doesn’t quote snippets; Newser rewrites — they “digest” — the story. So there’s no copyright issue at all, since copyright protects the form of presentation, not the actual information. You get the summary of the stories on Newser’s web site or email blast (the equivalent of Google News or Memeorandum) and then, when you click through, you get Newser’s rewritten version of the story. Then you get another click opportunity to go to the “source”, which is the original reporting that gave rise to the Newser rewrite. Of course, there is no legal requirement for them to do that, and a “good reporter” would write their story from several sources and synthesize, but nonetheless, Newser does get you through the gist of a bunch of stories very quickly.
What’s the business model here that pays for this rewriting and technology? I haven’t got a clue. There are lots of ads, but we all know that very few internet businesses not called Google will be adequately sustained by ads.
I like Newser and find it useful, but I have no idea how they’ll make money if they don’t start asking me for some. And while I can certainly see paying for a level of aggregation and curation, there’s no way I’d pay for Newser.
One interested party in Newser is journalist Michael Wolff. I first met Michael a dozen or so years ago when he had a business creating books that showed you how to find what you needed on the net. (You read that right; it was before Google was invented.) This was a successful publishing operation for a time. Michael and I have had the occasional check-in lunch since then. But in the past few weeks he has been putting up a daily column for Newser and I’ve become a huge fan. His writing is crisp and his thinking is out-of-the-box. And his politics, like Newser’s (apparently) and mine, are pretty liberal.
Wolff had a column this week about the futility of trying to get people to pay for content on the web, the latest strategy articulated by Rupert Murdoch (about whom Wolff has written a biography and a man he really knows well), Steve Brill, and others. Wolff sees the prospects of making that work as just about hopeless and suspects that the purveyors of the strategy inside publishers know this as well. He says some of the people advocating the idea of subscriptions and micro-payments inside the big publishers know it won’t work:
“And finally, it is a process for so many of these guys of trying to run out the clock. Many people will keep their jobs through the next phase, failed though it will ultimately be, of making shareholders and partners and content makers believe that there might actually be a strategy and a way out of this intractable mess. Indeed, many will be retired before everybody concludes the traditional media game is done and the Internet people take over.”
I have suggested that we’re in a shift from paying for content (IP) to paying for context (community.) This is being enabled by vertical development on the web. But we also see that development as a long-run process, not an immediate solution.
So our question, for which Wolff may have an answer that he hasn’t given us (but, then, neither has anybody else), is what happens “when the Internet people take over?” And by what miracle do they deliver us from this “intractable mess?” In the short run, what will replace it? Where will Newser go for stories to digest?