11 April 2011

UK Newspapers Confirm Digital Death-Wish

I thought I had plumbed the depths of the UK newspaper industry's stupidity when it came to digital. The idea that putting up paywalls in any way strengthens the readership, reputation and brand of a publication was so far off the mark that I thought it was not possible to go beyond it in sheer wrong-headedness.

I was wrong:

The UK government is abandoning plans that would have compelled publishers of content behind “paywalls” to make that content available for free through Britain’s main libraries.


“The government is committed to delivering regulations that cover non-print content and therefore propose to develop the draft regulations to include only off-line content, and on-line content that can be obtained through a harvesting process.”

The fact that the government was bamboozled into believing that it was impossible to "harvest" online content behind paywalls shows how little it understands about technology: it would be trivial to allow external access through a VPN to the editing/versioning systems that newspaper journalists, subs and editors have access to internally. It would probably cost nothing - as in zero. The idea that it would require "£100K per annum per publisher" as some were suggesting, is absurd.

It's also disappointing to see the Guardian Media Group making idiotic statements like this:

“A random patch work of snap shots will “plug the digital black hole” which the British Library (BL) states threatens the nation’s digital heritage ... it poses a real threat to our ability to safeguard our commercial interests. The threat arises from the BL itself.

If they really think "snapshots" are enough, they, too, have not understand the deep changes being wrought by the shift to digital, despite their relative success there compared to other even more benighted publishers. The whole point is that for the first time in history, we have the possibility of capturing everything, and finding unguessed-at connections between them at a later date. This is unique, invaluable data about not just newspapers but the world they purport to mirror that cannot ever be obtained from "snapshots."

This comment also confirms once more that copyright is a canker, eating away even at the heart of one of the few "serious" newspapers with a vaguely liberal attitude to re-use. The fact that the Guardian Media Group thinks that its "commercial interests" somehow outweigh the rights of posterity is a terrible comment on the state of media thinking in this country.

Bear in mind, that this is stuff that theoretically is supposed to enter the public domain after some (long) but finite period: so does that mean all the newspapers will be progressively releasing their files down the years? I think not - it will doubtless be "too expensive" again, and that presupposes that the newspapers are even still around, which I strongly doubt based on their current reading of and response to trends.

And this is the real tragedy. By refusing to allow Legal Deposit Libraries to do their job - to capture culture as it is made, and store it safely for the future - they are inevitably consigning themselves and their production to oblivion at some point, when they close their doors, or the servers crash and the backup copies can't be found or don't work. They are throwing away not just our past, but theirs too.

Update: seems the UK government hasn't swallowed the UK publishing industry's ridiculous claims. Let's hope it perseveres here.

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@ajkavanagh said...

This era is going to a be a bit of a 'dark' ages to the future. So much content being produced, so little of it being preserved in an open, machine-readable format that can be preserved through the ages.

And copyright does seem largely to blame. To think that future generations might not be able to look back and read what the newspapers were saying about this age.

Still, as the traditional newspapers slide into obscurity, blogging, the HuffPo and other platforms we haven't yet thought of will replace them; people will continue to release content freely in spite of the ridiculous copyright extensions that are currently being debated.

I guess all technological transitions are messy; our's is simply following a well-worn pattern.

Glyn Moody said...

@ajkavanagh: yes, they are messy, but is it forbidden to learn from the past? or just to be slightly logical about all this?

@ajkavanagh said...

glyn: in a way we are learning from the past, as we are debating these issues! Surely, it's just that those immersed in the old way of doing things are using everything (including past monopoly rents) to try to sure up their vision of the world, and can't see the damage that they are doing to our culture.

It's like large companies that can't cannibalise an existing product for a new market because they have so much 'invested' in the the existing product. It seems to always be the newer, more nimble, companies that disrupt the market.

Equally, in a 'new' content era, it certainly won't be the large, monolithic, publishing industry that comes up with the new rules!?

I can't remember who said it, but it goes something like this: "It's not the large that beats the small, it's the fast that beats the slow."

Naturally, I'm preaching to the converted because you are way ahead of me around this stuff anyway!

Glyn Moody said...

@ajkavanagh: yes, that's an important point - at least this time we have a voice.