Time to Take a Stance on the Future of Journalism

[qi:085] OK, I admit it. I’ve become one of those snooty guys who is telling the rest of us what the future will look like. Case in point: I’m one of the authors of the “Internet Manifesto,” a collection of positions about the future of journalism that was published yesterday. The original manifesto was in German, collectively written by 15 journalists and bloggers more or less known in the German new media landscape, but it has since spread well beyond the krautosphere. Journalist Jeff Jarvis tweeted about it yesterday, an official English version was published earlier today, and users have contributed Finnish and Romanian translations.

The manifesto is a collection of 17 declarations about the future of media production online. At the core of the text is the claim that the Internet is a different medium with a disparate social and cultural impact than traditional mass media, and that publishers need to acknowledge these differences, rather than pretending they don’t exist or trying to make them go away. “Tradition is not a business model,” we wrote, arguing that we need new forms of journalism rather than regulations to protect the old. Fine by me, you might think, but why would anyone need a manifesto for that? Well, let me tell you why.

Newspaper publishers all around the world have been mounting attacks against search engines, aggregators and bloggers in recent months. Germany’s news industry has been no exception. German publishers have been advocating for stronger intellectual property rights, demanding revenue-sharing agreements from Google and even envisioning a world in which anyone would have to pay a licensing fee just for quoting from an article. All of this culminated in the Hamburg Declaration that was initiated by German publishing heavyweights such as Der Spiegel and Die Zeit, but has since been signed by Wall Street Journal publisher Robert Thomson, News Corp.’s James Murdoch, and others. Here’s a short abstract:

“Numerous providers are using the work of authors, publishers and broadcasters without paying for it. Over the long term, this threatens the production of high-quality content and the existence of independent journalism. For this reason, we advocate strongly urgent improvements in the protection of intellectual property on the Internet.”

In other words: Outlaw fair use, make people pay for quotes and give us the right to define who links to us. This is the same kind of mindset that led to the AP’s demands to be paid every time its headlines show up on Google and that causes many publishers to consider putting all of their content behind pay walls and shut out any kind of public discourse.

Compare that to what we wrote in our manifesto:

“Copyright is a cornerstone of information organization on the Internet. Originators’ rights to decide on the type and scope of dissemination of their contents are also valid on the net. At the same time, copyright may not be abused as a lever to safeguard obsolete supply mechanisms and shut out new distribution models or license schemes. Ownership entails obligations.”

I can’t speak for every author of the manifesto. We’re a diverse bunch. Some of us are full-time bloggers, while others, including myself, actually make a fair amount of their living working for traditional mainstream news organizations. We all may hold slightly different beliefs about the future of monetizing professional journalism, and one can certainly have a spirited discussion about charging users for some types of content online. (GigaOM offers up free content on a network of ad-supported blogs, but charges for our subscription-only research and analysis service.)

We are, however, united in the belief that stronger copyrights and regulations against linking, quoting and indexing online content are not only the wrong way to go, but outright dangerous for both the future of online media and society as a whole, and we felt the obligation to stand up against these ideas now.