Why We Must Shift Our Attention from “Save Newspapers” to “Save Society”

The revolution will not be published


| July-August 2009



Published Newspaper

image by David Plunkert

In 1993 the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain began investigating piracy of Dave Barry’s popular column, which was published by the Miami Herald and syndicated widely. In the course of tracking down the sources of unlicensed distribution, they found many things, including the copying of his column on usenet; a 2,000-person mailing list also reading pirated versions; and a teenager in the Midwest who was doing some of the copying himself, because he loved Barry’s work so much he wanted everybody to be able to read it.

One of the people I was hanging around with online back then was Gordy Thompson, who managed Internet services at the New York Times. I remember Thompson saying something like, When a 14-year-old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem. 

I think about that conversation a lot these days.

The problem newspapers face isn’t that they didn’t see the Internet coming. They not only saw it miles off, they figured out early on that they needed a plan to deal with it, and during the early ’90s they came up with not just one scheme but several.

One was to partner with companies like America Online, a fast-growing subscription service that was less chaotic than the open Internet. Another approach was to educate the public about the behaviors required of them by copyright law. New payment models such as micropayments were proposed. Alternatively, newspapers could pursue the profit margins enjoyed by radio and TV, if they became purely ad-supported. Still another plan was to convince tech firms to make their hardware and software less capable of sharing, or to partner with the businesses running data networks to achieve the same goal. Then there was the nuclear option: educate the public about copyright law and sue those who break it, making an example of them.

In all this conversation, there was one scenario that was widely regarded as unthinkable: that the ability to share content wouldn’t shrink, it would grow.