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By Thomas Baekdal - February 2021

When should the media be paid?

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

Welcome back to the newsletter. It has been a crazy couple of weeks due to the discussion about what happened in Australia. I wasn't originally planning to write about it, but things just got out of hand, and several of my readers asked me to provide some perspective to it.

So, let's do that.

I have two things for you today.

Facebook vs publishers: What is really going on? And why is it bad?

To start off this discussion, I have written a lengthy article about why the publishers and the politicians are acting the way they do, and provided my analysis of whether that makes any sense or not.

I also try to provide some perspective about what this means for the media industry as a whole. Because, this isn't just about what big newspapers owned by Murdoch are doing. What about independent publishers? What about individual journalists who want to start something on their own?

So take a look at: Facebook vs publishers: What is really going on? And why is it bad?

When should the media be paid?

One thing that annoys me as a media analyst is that the way publishers talk about being paid lacks critical nuances, because there are so many different ways content can be shared and used. To explain when that is, let's look at all seven different ways content is shared/used.

In the traditional media industry, what they are saying at the moment is that the first three should be paid, the next three should be free for all, and the last one should only be paid if it's other media, but the public don't get the same courtesy.

This, of course, doesn't make any sense. But let's look at this, and specifically let's look at it from the perspective of 'who benefits'.

Manual links are when you yourself post a link, when one of your readers posts a link, or when a member of the public posts a link. In other words, this is the type of sharing where one person tells another group of people: "Hey look at this!"

This form of sharing drives amplification. In other words, it increases your reach beyond anything that you could have achieved directly. And this form of sharing is responsible for all organic growth online (the other form of growth is paid-growth, where you place an ad).

So, this is extra traffic.

Because of this, this form of sharing should NEVER be paid for. You want as much as possible of this because it helps you grow. And if you were to ask platforms to pay for it, then they would be incentivized to reduce it. And if you reduce it, you get fewer people where you want them to go.

And this is where Facebook is. Facebook is a platform for manual sharing, and so the very idea that Facebook should pay for allowing your own readers to expand your reach is utterly insane.

Automatic link aggregation, however, is very different. Here no people are involved. Instead, the platform automatically goes out and grabs all the links, which are then used for different things.

This can be good or bad. With Google Search (which is an automated aggregator), for instance, this too is driving extra traffic to publishers because they are providing people with functionality that publishers don't provide on their own.

Again, they are providing extra traffic. But there are plenty of examples where this isn't the case. Let me mention two very simple examples just from my site.

A few years ago, someone created a site that automatically found all the 'unlocked links' to my Plus articles, which they provided to people on their site. This meant that instead of people coming to me, they started going to that site instead, and then they could read all my Plus articles without ever paying me anything.

Another example is a huge number of bots that index sites in ways that are really not beneficial to me as a publisher. In fact, the ones below made so many requests to my site that it cost me money.

This should not be allowed.

If a tech company wants to automatically index and use information from us as publishers, they should get permission first. Specifically, the robots.txt file should be opt-in instead of opt-out.

Here is the problem though. If we were to push for this change, it would have a large number of other consequences. For instance, researchers and even data journalists would also be blocked.

There is a bot on Twitter that keeps track of how many times the newspaper mentions the US president on their front pages. Something I have used in my analysis. If automated systems were blocked, bots like these wouldn't exist.

Also, it would make Google even more dominant. Because if the robots.txt was opt-in, every site in the world would allow Google to index their site, but if a new search startup came along, nobody would allow them because we don't know who they are.

So, this is another one of those problems where the solution just creates more problems for everyone.

Then we have snippets. Whether snippets are good or bad for publishers really depends on what they do. One of the areas where we have a problem is with Google's 'Featured Snippets'.

A featured snippet looks at what question people are asking, then it finds an article that provides the answer, and extracts that specific part from the article, to show it in Google Search.

This is not okay. This is taking specific value that we as the publisher provided, extracting it from the articles, and then presenting it to people so that they don't even have to click on the link.

And, over the years, we have heard about several examples of publishers, especially smaller publishers, who have noticed a direct decline in traffic after Google started snipping their articles.

This needs to stop! Google should not be allowed to do this without first getting permission from each individual publisher, and agreeing to pay for it.

But remember, not all snippets are like this. Most snippets are fine ... even on Google. For instance, the snippets underneath normal Google Search results are fine. They are helping people understand what they are clicking on, and are still directing the traffic to the publisher's sites.

This is fine, and it's very important to understand this nuance.

Then we have quotes, and with quotes, almost no traffic ever goes to the original source ... which is really, really bad. In fact, it's worse than Google's Featured Snippets.

But wait a minute, the tech companies aren't quoting, publishers are. Every single publisher is using quotes almost all the time. And the problem with quotes is that, even if you link to the source, practically nobody ever clicks on it. Ever!

But, in the media industry, we have decided that this is okay because it's part of the 'journalistic process'. But think about how strange this is. Newspapers are saying that links should be paid for, even though they are providing them with extra traffic, while quoting should be free for all, even though it is taking away traffic.

And publishers know this. For instance, here in Denmark, several newspapers were annoyed about how the big public service companies were often quoting stories from other newspapers, so they made a set of rules to minimize it.

The rules are:

Mind you, most newspapers still break these rules, but the intention is good.

But think about this. In the press, we have decided that linking is bad, but quoting is acceptable because everyone is doing it ... even though this is a really big problem for the industry. Every time someone posts an exclusive news story, it only takes a few minutes before 100s of news sites are publishing the same thing.

That makes no sense.

Then we have 'summarizing'. Summarizing is worse than snippets in that, if you summarize an article from another site, there is no longer any need for that person to ever visit the original.

We have seen this problem with a number of news aggregators. They would take the news story that we wrote as publishers, and then summarize it for the public. This totally destroys the traffic potential of the original article.

Now, if this is only done on rare occasions, like a newspaper wanting to summarize what happened at a conference, or what a report had found, we might say that's okay-ish. But any site that does this regularly needs to pay for it. They need to partner with the specific publishers they are including, get permission to do it, and arrange a pricing scheme that compensates the original publisher and their journalists.

And remember, this is not just for other news articles, if you as a newspaper summarize the work of others then you need to pay them too.

We also have paraphrasing. Paraphrasing, meaning that a journalist took the information from one article, and then rewrote it without adding anything of their own. This should be illegal.

If you take all the information, you also take all the journalism that the original publisher created. And just because you rewrote the words doesn't make that okay to use. It's still theft.

This is also true when it happens across languages. Here in Europe, we often see a newspaper from one country, translating and then bringing an article from a newspaper in another country. You can't do this unless you paid the original publisher for their work.

But the problem is that paraphrasing is not only accepted but practiced across the media industry every single day. It's the most destructive form of publishing we have ever done. It makes it so no newspaper can stand out, it erodes our subscription models ... it's just bad!

So paraphrasing should be illegal. Pure and simple.

Finally, we have republishing. This is when the full content is republished on another site. This is never acceptable unless you have permission and you are paying for it.

In fact, in the media industry, we have companies like Reuters and other news agencies who exist entirely to allow other publishers to buy their news reports so that it can be republished on other sites.

It's the same for photos. If you include a photo in your article, you always have to pay the photographer. Everyone knows that.

The problem is that many newspapers pay for other media, but they often steal from the public. For instance, I have friends who are YouTubers who have had their videos stolen by newspapers, who have uploaded their videos to their own sites and then quoted it as "credit: YouTube".

This is not okay. This is 100% copyright theft. Not only should the newspapers have asked for permission, they should also have paid the YouTuber in exactly the same way that you would pay Reuters for a video clip or pay a photographer for a photo.

Here is another example.

I tweeted this a while back:

I have a question to all the newspapers and magazines who have done this: Have you paid the teacher who knitted these for Bernie Sanders?
Knitting recipes are copyright protected too. And if Google should pay for 'snippets', as publishers, we should pay for this.

As far as I could tell, none of the publishers I checked had paid the original creator, but it was worse than that, they hadn't even gotten permission in the first place. Instead, many of them had reached out to a person who had stolen the design, got permission from her, but then they took that, translated it to their respective languages, and published in a way that far exceeded what they had permission to do.

And, while doing all of this, they still paid the photographer for the Bernie Sanders photo.

As I wrote:

Also, what I find even more astonishing, is that, while most newspapers don't seem to have paid for the knitting recipe, all of them have paid the photographer for the Bernie Sanders photo they are using in the articles. Why do you think one should be paid for but the other not?

This is theft. And it's theft that we are doing in the media industry every single day. There is an idea in the press that you should pay other media people (only occasionally), but you should never pay people outside the media industry.

In fact, here is another example that happened just three days after Facebook blocked publishers in Australia. Publishers were screaming at Facebook for not paying for linking to them, and then they did this.

This is not okay. You need to pay everyone if you reuse their content (and get permission). It doesn't matter what it is or where it is from. Pay for what you republish!

So think about this list again:

Why would anyone say that links and snippets should be paid for, but the rest is fine? This makes no sense.

This illustrates that the whole discussion that we see in Australia and in other countries is not what it appears to be. They say that Facebook is stealing traffic, but they are not. They are expanding your reach. They say that this is about copyright, but it isn't because if you truly cared about copyright, you would be focusing on those cases where content is reused, not when it's linked to.

This is the problem with these discussions.

Anyway, again, if you want a bigger perspective on all of this, check out my much longer article: Facebook vs publishers: What is really going on? And why is it bad?

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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