By Linda Killian, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Media baron Rupert Murdoch and aspiring baroness Arianna Huffington had a bit of a smack down Tuesday in Washington with Murdoch calling Internet aggregators, and by extension Huffington and her Post, thieves who use the content of traditional news organizations like Murdoch's Wall Street Journal "without contributing a penny to its production."
But Huffington countered that aggregation "is part of the Web's DNA," essential to the free flow of information and a benefit to news organizations by driving traffic to their websites.
"Promiscuity is not a good thing in relationships but it's a great thing in news," she declared.
Whether it's a good thing or not, Murdoch wants to see it stopped and he wants freeloaders, whether they be aggregators or readers, to start paying their way.
"There's no such thing as a free news story," Murdoch told a room full of media leaders, economists, academics, and others gathered at the Federal Trade Commission for a two-day symposium on the future of journalism in the Internet age.
He said not only the Wall Street Journal but eventually all of his other newspaper websites will also begin to charge for content.
Huffington was skeptical that the strategy would work and said people won't pay for news online. "People are only going to pay for specialized financial news and weird porn."
The exchange between the two media titans sounds a little more exciting than it actually was. It didn't happen face to face. They were both in the same room at the same time but their remarks were separated by several hours and Murdoch had already left the building by the time Arianna got to the microphone.
The whole thing was part of a symposium in which the FTC invited more than 70 people to weigh in with panels and speeches about what should be done to protect journalism at a time when advertising revenue and subscribers are disappearing, forcing traditional media organizations to make drastic staff cuts and content reductions.
The statistics thrown around by some of those who have spent a lot of time thinking about this are pretty frightening. In the past 10 years, newspaper staffs have shrunk by 25 percent and in the past three, advertising revenue is down almost 50 percent.
And while most newspapers are still profitable, they are not as profitable as they once were and they are finding it hard to service the debt they took on to buy other media outlets when times were great for media properties.
The FTC is gathering information in an attempt to determine whether they should weigh in or the government should take action on some of the suggested remedies to the media's predicament including easing anti-trust and cross ownership laws; changing copyright and fair use rules, proposing government subsidy of news organizations or allowing them to go non-profit and seek foundation support.
Many people, including Murdoch, cited the First Amendment and the media's vital role to democracy. And there are plenty of proposals being thrown around, but no one really has an answer to the fact that now anyone can call themselves a journalist and all it takes is a computer and Internet connection.
"The old business model based on advertising is dead," Murdoch declared. And while he inveighed against government involvement in the news business, he had some kind words for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and made it clear he does want the government to loosen the cross ownership rules and change the copyright fair use laws.
Whatever you think of Murdoch, he does pay his journalists and unlike Huffington is not reliant on what she calls "citizen journalists" or celebrities, politicians, and activists who are more than willing to write for free in exchange for the exposure and chance to express themselves.
The brave new world of journalism is pretty scary for those who have made their careers as journalists and are facing buyouts, layoffs, and closure of their news organizations.
To quote Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight, "If you're good at something, never do it for free."