A few weeks ago, Rupert Murdoch of News International accused Google of "stealing" it's content.
Stealing is about taking someone's property without permission. Google doesn't steal of course - it only crawls sites that set their robots.txt file to "allow". To make Google go away, you just need to do the following to the robots.txt file:
You'll be left alone. But do newspapers want Google to leave them alone? Actually no, they want Google to spend billions crawling their site and putting their material in the search results, and they not only want this service free, they want Google to pay them in addition for the material. This assumes that the material the newspapers produce is so valuable that it's worth paying for. But is it?
Most newspapers simply regurgitate press releases, sometimes without even bothering to alter them. Or they regurgitate AP feeds. Sometimes they steal outright from sites like the BBC (which does produce completely unique content) - witness the blurbs about the candidates of the recent series of "The Apprentice UK" running on the Beeb - the newspapers had simply copied and pasted straight from the BBC website, right down to the punctuation. Indeed you can get better writing by ordinary people on blogs and on sites like Newsvine than you can find in the mainstream media. The frustration is that Google still favours the MSM in it's search results, but should it?
The mainstream media used to have a monopoly on news because it was so expensive and difficult to set up a printing press (the first barrier to entry). Then it was hard to get into the newsrooms (the second barrier to entry) - in Britain, this is done on the old-school-tie of fee-paying schools, which meant a dullard from the 7% of the population that goes to a fee-paying school has more chance of becoming a journalist that the most brilliant writer from a state school in the provinces. Then these priviledged newspaper folk paid themselves exorbitant salaries and their expense allowances would make politicians blush. It was a nice cushy number while their monopoly was intact.
But the monopoly is crumbling. The internet is one of the most democratic technologies known to man. Anyone can set up a blog, anyone can write an article - you don't need to know important people to get your work published, you just need some talent and the ability to use the right keywords so that the search engines will find you. And Google helped by introducing Adsense, which meant that even the tiniest publisher has a chance to cover their costs, and maybe make a little extra. And loads of other internet advertisers followed in their wake (Kontera, Adbrite, Bidvertiser, Yahoo etc).
It turns out that Comment is truly Free - anyone with a pulse and an opinion can write a comment/opinion piece. The newspapers have countered by claiming that they do something extremely important, which is break stories. But actually many of these stories are handed to them by citizens. Indeed when something truly important is happening you get a better idea of what is going on from citizen journalists, as the Baghdad blogger proved in the Iraq war, and as tourists proved in the Asian Tsunami. And the traditional newspaper role which was about informing about what went on in Parliament or Congress has also gone - proceedings are now televised, so instead of citizens reading interpretations, we can all go directly to the source (and watching important events live, like the Obama inauguration, is so much more profound than reading second-hand accounts by some hack).
Seeing as most news comes from citizens providing tip-offs, suppose citizens take this further and start to create little local hubs for their areas, where they each post any news or informational piece (and opinion if they want), and they all get compensated in proportion to their work?
Actually such a system already exists - on Newsvine. Unlike other bookmarking sites, we have the ability to write artiicles as well as post them, and we get compensated. So what is to stop us from setting up groups that pertain to our local areas and writing good original content in these groups? Nothing! It could definitely work, especially if we gain critical mass. And the value would be that it would be truly democratic - anyone can post an article and the best would rise to the top - no need to know the right people or go to the right schools. And then we should persuade Google to de-index the rubbish that News International puts out and to give our work a more prominent position. Sorted.
The future of journalism? It's us.