Memo to Newspapers: Stop Thinking Like a Portal

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Updated: The story of homeless radio announcer Ted Williams became an Internet sensation this week, as a video of him got passed around on Twitter and in the blogosphere, and quickly led to appearances on the Today Show and job offers from around the country. But the video that started it all — an interview with a reporter from the Columbus Dispatch newspaper in Ohio — is no longer available on YouTube. In yet another example of a newspaper that can’t see the forest for the dead trees, there is just a statement from the video-hosting site that the clip “has been removed due to a copyright claim by The Dispatch.”

A web editor in the Dispatch newsroom seemed confused when asked why the paper ordered YouTube to take the clip down. “It’s our video, and someone put it there without our permission,” he said. All of which is true; the original clip was copied from the Dispatch site and uploaded to YouTube, and therefore the newspaper had a pretty clear copyright claim. The video can still be seen at the Dispatch website, along with other videos related to the Williams story. But how many people are going to watch the video there? Likely a fraction of the 13 million who watched it on YouTube.

In fact, not only does it make little sense to pull a video after it has already been seen by 13 million people — not to mention the fact that there are half a dozen other versions available at YouTube, including one from the Associated Press newswire — but the Williams story might not even have happened if it wasn’t for YouTube. Although the link to the Dispatch site could have been shared on Twitter and other social networks just as easily as the link to the YouTube video was, the newspaper doesn’t allow its video to be embedded, and therefore, it likely wouldn’t have spread so far so quickly. Williams might never have come to the attention of any of the companies now offering him jobs.

The larger issue here, of course, is one of control over content, something newspapers and other traditional media outlets seem determined to fight for, whether through copyright takedowns or by putting up paywalls, or by shipping iPad apps that don’t allow users to share or even link to content. Few publishers — apart from The Guardian, which launched an ambitious “open platform” last year, and some equally forward-thinking outlets such as the Journal Register Co. in New Jersey, with its web-first strategy — seem to have really embraced the idea that content can’t be bottled up and locked behind walls any more, and that there is more to be gained by letting it be shared than there is to be lost.

In the late 1990s, everyone wanted to become a “portal:” a destination site where users would get all their email and news and entertainment and so on. Yahoo and AOL and Microsoft spent billions building these businesses. Then along came Google, with its single search box and the complete opposite approach: It does its best to send you away as quickly as possible. That’s because the web giant doesn’t think of itself as a “content” or media company. It is simply providing a service — and to the extent that it does a good job of providing that service, readers are more willing to come back, and to click on related ads. Pretty simple, really.

What has the Dispatch gained by removing its video from YouTube? It hasn’t stopped people from sharing the video, and it likely hasn’t convinced anyone to go to its website other than readers who were already going there anyway — and even when they get to the video, there are no comments or any other social or community elements to keep them there. All the takedown has done is make the newspaper look like a company that doesn’t really understand what it’s doing online, or why.

Update: As noted by a commenter here who lives in Columbus (and who wrote a blog post about the takedown of the video), the Dispatch has created a YouTube channel and uploaded a copy of the Ted Williams video — something it probably should have done before, rather than after (the new version of the video had 136 views at last check). The editor of the paper has also written a blog post about the incident.

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