Newspapers Still Don’t Get the Net

I continue to be amazed by the inability of big media in general—and newspapers in particular—to understand the internet. This is 2012 after all. The web is more than 20 years old now—old enough to drink. You would think we would have arrived at some basic level of knowledge about how to use the most important communication tool of our time—but no, apparently not.

Let me illustrate exactly what I mean. I’ll start with newspapers, but book publishers, record companies, and movie studios are all guilty too. They don’t seem to want to move forward. For some reason, the internet still confuses them, as though it’s a shiny new phenomenon they are still trying to get their arms around (or ignore, as the case may be).

A couple of months ago while driving to the airport, I listened to The Media Project on WAMC, the public radio station out of Albany, N.Y. The show brings together host Alan Chartock along with a couple of old-school, dyed-in-the-wool newspaper editors.

On this particular show, the guests talked about a case in Germany in which the government proposed that search engines (namely Google, of course) and aggregators should pay newspaper publishers for using their content. In other words, if aggregators or search engines link to the content with a short summary, that’s not fair use; it’s theft in the eyes of newspaper publishers.This is the type of proposed legislation that would make Rupert Murdoch drool.

Publishers’ reactions to this story were comical—at least to me. On one hand, the editors completely agreed. Of course, Google should pay them. The newspapers did the work, and in their view, Google is making the buck. Excuse me while I yawn because I’ve heard it all before. The poor newspapers are being taken advantage of by the big, bad search engine. Wah! Wah!

Every time I think we’re past this tired old complaint, it rears its ugly head again. Even after all this time, newspapers still seem to be missing the part about driving traffic to their stories—or are they? What really got me was, that in almost the same breath, they then complained about how they couldn’t get their content to show up on Google. So on the one hand, they lacked even a rudimentary understanding of search engine optimization and were puzzled why their stories weren’t displaying higher on Goggle’s search results, while on the other hand, they were chastising Google for effectively stealing their content.

Which is it guys? Are you embracing the internet or running from it? I was amazed that they didn’t seem to see the disconnect at all—or that they had ceded the market to Google and were now whining that Google controls their market. But it’s not just the newspapers, not by a long shot.
You could really hold up any big media firm and see the same reactions. Take book publishers, for example. As Mathew Ingram pointed out in an April 18, 2012, post on GigaOM, publishers handed their customer base to Amazon, and then complained that Amazon controlled their market.

See the pattern here?

How about the music industry and iTunes? And don’t get me started with the Motion Picture Association of America, Inc. (MPAA), the organization that brought you the Stop Online Piracy Act/PROTECT IP Act and tried to argue it was about preserving American jobs. The MPAA appears to be seriously hell-bent on taking down the internet and ticking off the people who buy the content they allegedly want to protect.

The string that holds all of these clueless media entities together is that they failed early on to embrace the internet as a delivery channel—or if they did, they saw it as an offshoot from their main business of selling physical papers, books, CDs or DVDs. What they’ve failed to grasp or refuse to understand is that these channels were slowly dying as digital moved in and that digital was faster, cheaper, and easier.

It’s a bit pathetic really to watch big media flail at the internet as though it were an enemy, while  continuing to make the same mistakes again and again. And after 20 years, there’s no excuse left, except perhaps that they are too stupid or blind to see the change that has been going on all around them all these years.

I suppose you could make the argument that industry old-timers would have to retire before the transition could happen. Perhaps you could have made that argument 10 years ago, but it’s now 2 decades, people. Two decades!

It’s time to stop whining about the internet and your lost revenue sources and find ways to embrace the change. Otherwise, you’re dead media companies walking. And it’s probably too late for you already anyway.