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Newspapers need Google, not a fruitless legal war

The news industry, understandably frustrated at the enviable growth rates news aggregators and search engines are enjoying, is reviving talk about trying to lean on the Googles of the world to recoup some of the revenue news outlets feel they are losing to the online portals.

First, Rupert Murdoch raised some eyebrows when he quipped that newspapers need to stop Google and the rest of the Web set from stealing their copyrights.

But maybe that was just Rupert being Rupert. Potentially more serious was the not-to-thinly-veiled threat from the AP that it would sue Web portals and aggregators who didn't pay the freight when publishing its content and that of its member newspapers. That could set the scene for some precedent-setting fights over fair use, but litigation isn't going to get at the root of the news industry's trouble.

The Web-side reaction to the latest round of talk about how newspapers can charge for their content of has run along predictable lines. It's as dismissive as the recent flare-up over micropayments, only far more hostile.

So much venom has crept into the debate. At times, it's gotten downright toxic, like when a newspaper executive says something disparaging about the quality or originality of the content on the Web, and a thousand bloggers and commenters roar back with delight over the demise of the arrogant old-media tyranny.

In both sides there is some truth. Newspapermen, as a tribe, are fond of envisioning theirs as a noble calling, styling themselves as crusaders for the truth when really a lot of what they're doing exercises the same skill sets as the best bloggers -- knowing a beat inside and out, cultivating and talking to sources, combing through stores of information and staying with a story. And it's true that newspapers have been slow to warm up to the changing ways that people like to see information presented (stronger voice, more conversational, pithier, etc.), as Sarah Lacy points out in her shamefully self-indulgent rant.

But it's also true that the best reporting still comes out of newsrooms, and no blogger or industry executive has so far offered a satisfactory model for how the Internet will shoulder the costs of the finest investigative reporting that a handful of papers still produce.

And you don't have to look too far to understand how Google CEO Eric Schmidt arrives at his conclusion about the overall quality of the content on the Web. "It's a sewer out there," he said in a speech at the annual conference of the Newspaper Association of America earlier this week.

At that same conference, newspaper publishers seemed to be strategizing with each other for the coming war against misappropriation of their content on the Web. Schmidt correctly pointed that the meaning of the term "fair use" varies depending on which lawyer you ask.

What they need to do is avoid an ugly legal showdown that's going to dredge up more bile toward the newspaper industry when that's the least productive part of this excruciating debate. Newspapers need aggregators like Google and Yahoo. Not only do they direct traffic to their sites, they also have rich ad partnerships (Yahoo more than Google) that help news sites better monetize their content.

But the worst thing that the news industry could do to itself at this point is embark on an RIAA-style litigation war against copyright infringement.

Schmidt hit on an essential economic truth when he observed that the rules of scarcity no longer apply to information in the Internet age. It's abundant. It may be of wildly varying quality and accuracy, but boy, is there plenty of it.

Schmidt encouraged news organizations to pursue a system of micropayments, but their real hope for sustainable revenue is, as it always has been, advertising. Better targeting, more interactive creative, more personal. Schmidt, ever the technologist, promises that it can happen. But if the problems Google is having selling ads on YouTube are any indication, the ad-supported digital newsroom might just be on the wrong side of the rainbow.

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