This week brings news that the local papers in the Boston are fighting, and not to break stories, but over who gets to read the first few lines of those stories and where those first few lines are read. Before we begin, I am put in mind of blogger and author David Weinberger's hilarious disclaimer, published on his blog, in which he says,
"No one pays me to write this blog or to say particular things in it. That includes all forms of compensation, including offering to shovel my walk or tell me that I look like I've lost some weight. I don't run ads, no one pays me under the table, and I don't sell JOHO t-shirts or coffee mugs. I don't invest in companies and the couple I did invest in in went broke a long time ago, so I've got nothing to tout except the companies and people I'm enthusiastic about. So, what the hell am spending so much damn time blogging for? Now you've got me all depressed."
In that spirit, before you read on, I want to tell you that I worked at Boston.com, the online wing of The Boston Globe, for the first few months of 2007, and I count many people there, and more than a few people at Gatehouse as my friends. I wrote very approvingly of Gatehouse's decision to use Creative Commons licensing on the websites of many of their papers in Eastern Massachusetts. And, since this is a story about the ethics of linking, we should note that I've spent the last two years working on a site that celebrates and helps people discover local weblogs, and in the process of doing that we show visitors to Placeblogger the title and first two hundred characters of a few recent items from that weblog. You might ask -- why the title and first two hundred characters? Good question. If you click through on this link, you will see a page of Google search results that show results from The Watertown Tab, a Gatehouse paper that covers Watertown, Massachusetts, where I live and work.
Look carefully, and what you see is a list of titles rendered as links, along with a maximum of two hundred characters of text. Now, looking at the YourTown site for Newton, MA, I see links to other sites, accompanied by...two hundred characters of text.
Now, if you're running a hyperlocal site and your site is mostly links to other sites, you might be guilty of needing to do more work on your site to make it compelling to readers...but I'm not convinced that you're guilty of doing anything that Google has been doing every minute of every day for years -- in fact, many web applications are simply search results that stand still, giving us a place to link to and view items on a certain topic.
Silicon Valley Insider's mean and incisive headline on their reaction to the suit, "Dying Newspapers Suing Each Other For Content Theft," is a concise lesson in why the extra two hundred characters are appended, by the way: Most people can't write a decent headline, so the two hundred characters give us, the reader, an idea of which link they want to click on.
Sometimes meanness is called for, and I like a mean laugh as much as the next person (okay, maybe more), but while reading them can be fun, writing them isn't my style. I don't know how many people who are writing about this issue have personal experience of the people involved, but I do. And I am certain that nobody on either side of this is worthy of anybody's derision. So let me say what Silicon Valley Insider and others are saying in a nicer way: You're fighting each other while Google figures out how to make both of you obsolete. You can fight each other. You can fight Google -- but I don't recommend it. What I sincerely recommend is that everyone involved in this realizes that Google is the new God in these parts. And that means that your survival means giving up the destination-site mentality. Why?
Because no matter how fast you grow your destination site, your site will never grow as fast as the Internet grows. In the long run, that means that Google eats everybody's lunch.
You can only put ads on your destination site, but Google can put ads against headlines and teasers from every page on the web -- by placing ads against search results.
So how can destination media survive? First, by looking at who's linking to them, and second, by figuring out how to get those pages to carry your ad inventory, along with the links to your content that will deliver new unique users from regions of the internet (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, placeblogs) whose inhabitants no longer bother to visit the websites of news organizations.