A recent series of investigative stories in The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, where I work, illustrated the best that journalism has to offer, which is why so many in our industry responded with mixed emotions.
One of my colleagues, Plain Dealer reporter Mark Puente, unearthed a festering scandal at the Cuyahoga County sheriff's department the old-fashioned way. He developed relationships with longtime county employees, met sources at all hours of the day and night and weeded through pounds of documents to run down rumors about 32-year Sheriff Gerald McFaul.
Here's a smattering of headlines on Puente's stories:
Jan. 4: Sheriff laid off 21, but kin, friends promoted.
Feb. 4: McFaul assigned 2 cars, has deputy do driving.
Feb. 12: Appraisers hired by sheriff helped fund campaign.
Feb. 19: McFaul told how to dodge subpoena in '86.
Feb. 20: Special Prosecutor to Investigate Sheriff McFaul.
March 26: McFaul resigns amid new PD investigation.
It was quite a day for Puente — and for our newspaper — when McFaul stepped down. This was watchdog journalism at its best and a victory for local reporting.
Still, many of us wondered aloud how much longer newspapers could support this kind of journalism. It's an anxiety that is graying hairlines in newsrooms across the country.
Journalists are not broken, but the business model that used to sustain the work we do is toeing the cliff. The Internet poses challenges we never anticipated. The question is: What will save us?
David and Daniel Marburger think they have the answer: changing the federal copyright law. I think they are right.
David Marburger is a First Amendment lawyer at Baker Hostetler who has represented newspapers, including The Plain Dealer, for nearly 30 years. Daniel is an economics professor at Arkansas State University.
A panel discussion about newspapers' future sparked David's idea on how to save them.
"I heard (Plain Dealer Editor) Susan Goldberg talking about how revenue from online advertising is pathetically low and newspapers can't recoup their investment. As soon as she said it, the wheels started turning. You have all these free riders like Daily Beast and Newser and local television stations aggregating your stories online while diverting readers and advertisers from your site. And they're doing it for a fraction of the cost of the newspapers that generated the original copy.
"And it hit me. All those theories out there on how to prop up newspapers — why isn't anyone saying this? Why aren't we talking about how this free riding by aggregators affects the market rate for everyone?"
Marburger shared his theory with his brother. The more they researched how aggregators siphon newspaper resources the greater their outrage.
"Free riding is ubiquitous," David says. "These parasitic aggregators are capturing the heart of the stories so that readers have no need to visit the site of the original story."
The contrast between the business models for aggregators and originators is dramatic. Newspaper publishers need the same number of journalists to produce one newspaper or 400,000, which is the PD's Sunday circulation. Advertising revenue depends on producing and circulating 400,000 newspapers. While advertising has declined, production costs have not.
Meanwhile, parasitic aggregators reprint or rewrite newspaper stories, making the originator redundant and drawing ad revenue away from newspapers at rates the publishers can't match. The inevitable consequence: diminished revenue and staff cuts.
"It's unfair competition with unjust enrichment," Marburger says.
It's also a downward spiral toward extinction.
"If the copyright law doesn't open the way for originators of news to stop the free riding, newspapers will die," he said.
The Marburgers propose a change in federal law that would allow originators of news to exploit the commercial value of their product. Ideally, news originators' stories would be available on only their Web sites for the first 24 hours.
There is precedent for this change, David Marburger says. In 1918, The Associated Press sued International News Service for essentially the same problem now posed to newspapers by Web aggregators. INS was copying or rewriting AP stories and transmitting them by telegraph and telephone to papers in western U.S. time zones.
The Supreme Court ruled that INS engaged in unfair competition that ultimately would drive AP out of business. It enjoined INS from reproducing the AP stories, but only for a brief period while AP's dispatches had commercial value.
The court decision was diluted over time. In 1976, Congress further weakened the ruling with a new section in the copyright bill that didn't anticipate future problems of the Internet.
The Marburgers recommend amending the federal Copyright Act to provide two remedies for unjust enrichment:
1) Aggregators would reimburse newspapers for ad revenues associated with their news reports.
2) Injunctions would bar aggregators' profiting from newspapers' content for the first 24 hours after stories are posted.
Marburger anticipates the rebuttal: "Newspapers want to monopolize the truth."
His response: "No, we want to temporarily stop the unfair practice of those who use the sweat of our brow to compete against us."
Newspaper industry leaders are marinating in a brew of inaction and indecision. John Sturm, president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America — the chief lobbyist for newspaper publishers — says his board of directors is considering various plans of action and hopes to agree on a plan "by the end of the year."
That is six months from now, which is a lifetime in an industry that in the past six months has slashed thousands of salaries and jobs. How much more time can we waste before we're no longer an industry worth saving?
Newspaper owners, publishers and journalists across the country — and that includes everyone from the NAA to the Society of Professional Journalists to The Newspaper Guild — must do the previously unthinkable: organize and then lobby the same elected body we are duty-bound to cover.
In taking our cause to Congress, we should borrow from the strategy of successful political campaigns: Agree on message, sum it up with a catchy phrase — "No Free Ride" maybe? — and then pound the drumbeat for change.
I implore fellow columnists to add their voices to the chorus and nudge not only elected leaders but also leaders in our own companies. Plain Dealer Publisher Terry Egger backs the Marburger plan. Other news organizations should join him, including Advance Communications, which owns The Plain Dealer and 25 others.
The chance to save newspapers fades a little more with each passing day. Journalists know that a deadline missed is an opportunity lost.
This time, there will be no second edition to get it right.
Read David Marburger's full proposal at http://www.cleveland.com/schultz/blog.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the author of two books from Random House: "Life Happens" and "… and His Lovely Wife." To find out more about Connie Schultz ([email protected]) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.