In defence of National Newspapers of Ireland

“‘scraping’, summarisation, and aggregation”

Here is usually the last place you’d find a defense of a body like the National Newspapers of Ireland (or anything at all for that matter, given the level of activity of late). That possibility is made all the more unlikely given NNI’s now well publicised legal harassment of Women’s Aid, which lays out a demand for hundreds of Euro in recompense for linking to their newspaper member’s content. Targeting charities for money on the basis of an obscure reading of law is pretty abysmal behaviour, but there’s slightly more to this story than a case of big business bullying.

It is certainly not, as has been described, a challenge to the very sharing of ideas, this is not an attempt to roll back the renaissance. This episode is fundamentally about a newspaper industry frustrated by the new business environment it has been plunged in to since the advent of the internet. A frustration which has caused it to lash out in a slipshod and counterproductive manner.

It goes back to the traditional media’s (particularly in Ireland) collective failure to grasp the transformation brought about by the web, both intellectually and economically. Examples abound, from regurgitative Twitter trolling from the likes of John Waters and David Adams in the Irish Times, which are tellingly promoted over and above the incisive views of their less branded contributors, to the crass and lazy photoshopping of bikini titillation by the Irish Independent, who seem to conceive of the internet as merely a tool to refine objectification of women and celebration of celebrity.

The control and monetisation of links is after all in no one’s interests. Charging for referring to content is the surest way to make yourself invisible on the web. Unless that is you envisage the net evolving towards a compartmentalisation of content creation, like magazines on a newsstand. Which is possibly exactly what NNI conceives of, but it’s a false conception, a vanishing memory, one that will lead them down a very dark alley.

The drawn out demise of the print industry brings with it many challenges, the most obvious (and most welcome) being the gradual usurping of media monopoly over public discourse. Millionaires are no longer the only ones who get to be publishers, though they of course still overwhelming dominate. Anyone with internet access and some free time can be a publisher or, less interestingly, a re-publisher. Which relates to the news industry’s most important challenge, the fundamental loss of control over distribution of content. A loss the industry has for the most part failed to adapt to. The commodifying of links is an attempt to reclaim that control, ensuring content is only consumed, not recycled.

The industry’s escalating dependency on advertising is, it is argued, compromised by Google and other news aggregators, who profit from the distribution of other people’s content. This response, admittedly of such poor calibre as to make you laugh, should not simply be dismissed as ludditry or greed (though of course there’s a strong whiff of that). Operating a news organisation, much like operating a bus service, is an expensive operation, which, if run correctly doesn’t just service the major interurbans, it services the back roads, the housing estates and journeys outside of rush hour. It reports on often boring subjects, the kind of reporting that doesn’t attract viral viewing, but that fundamentally opens up the institutions of power, public and private. Of course the news industry often does all of this very very badly, as we have documented again and again.

However, the question that is posed by this episode is important, because how do we plan to finance quality, in-depth content production without kotowing to advertisers or relying on wealthy oligarchs? And if there is a solution, does the industry really have the guts to turn it’s back on it’s marketing partners?

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