Print news was suffering in the United States and Europe long before financial crises took hold in recent years, its business model eroded by television and the Internet. As print advertising revenues have declined, more media organizations are trying to boost circulation and earn more through subscriptions, including charging for online content.
The New York Times is among the most prominent news organizations with a website paywall. The Associated Press and Google have a long-standing business agreement that includes Google licensing of AP content as well as joint efforts to improve news products and services.
European publishers have seen less rapid change in readership patterns as a result of the Internet and have been able to stave off the dramatic losses that gutted American print journalism. Still, competition has grown fiercer and profits slimmer with the onset of the European debt crisis. In France, the once-iconic newspaper France Soir went into liquidation in July. In October, dapd, a major Germany news agency, filed for bankruptcy protection.
German publishers already are getting some government support: A measure is headed through the legislature to force search engines to pay for links that include excerpts of content.
And in Italy, publishers say they are willing to risk leaving Google if the search engine refuses to pay, citing a study that indicates that clicks from Italian readers would drop by 6 or 7 percent — "a very low percentage," said Isabella Splendore, lawyer for the Italian Newspaper Publishers Federation.
The European publishers insist they are not trying to keep readers from getting information, but that they deserve compensation for use of their intellectual property. But Jeremie Zimmerman, of the French Internet liberty group the Quadrature of the Net, described engaging in the dispute with Google as "idiotic."
"It shows that the industry hasn't understood anything about the Internet and is fundamentally conservative about its future, and defending private interests rather than adapting to technology," he said.
Emma Llanso of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology said that, at least for now, the dispute among governments, Google and publishers is a loss for readers.
"When we're looking at the free flow of information online, how much relevance do national boundaries have?" she said. "As the Internet becomes a primary source of information around the world, governments see a threat or a way to benefit. I think we are seeing a lot of national governments struggling to think of what they want it to be."
Associated Press writers Bradley Brooks in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Frances D'Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.