Journalism Still Matters

A debate over content aggregation has pitted Google against several of Germany’s biggest publishing houses. Many online activists have sided with the search giant – and seem to forget that their natural ally are professional journalists.

Google strikes back. Several German publishing houses have been advocating a so-called “Leistungsschutzrecht” (which might roughly be translated as “performance protection claim”), which would require search engines to obtain special permission and pay licensing fees before publishing excerpts on websites like Google News. Proponents of the idea argue that Google makes money off its data aggregation services – and should thus pay those who provide the content. Last week, Google launched its counter-attack. Online, in print, and by highlighting the issue on its German portal google.de.

Google’s offensive is not surprising. If we believe the warnings of the search engine giant, at stake is nothing less than the freedom of “my” internet. We’re all part of this fight, whether we want it or not.

In “my” personal snippet of the internet, i.e. in my newsfeed and among the people I follow on Twitter, emotions run high indeed. Two topics dominate the discussion: for several days, the “death” of newspapers and concerns about a world without printed broadsheets have been on the rise again. The other hot topic: the “freedom of the internet” and the alliance that users like myself apparently ought to forge with Google to defend the web against German publishers.

The “death of the newspaper” is less threatening to many online opinion leaders than, say, the death of endangered species or forests. Many online activists seem to believe that newspapers falter because the product they offer is no longer in demand. Reports from the far-flung corners of the earth (including their analysis and relevant background information) can be accessed more quickly and more authentically online. Print journalism appears lethargic and outdated by comparison. Many suggest that the current struggle of media companies is a clear sign for the superfluous nature of their products and cannot be blamed on anyone except publishers themselves. Hence the lack of empathy.

Those same people naturally hold the “freedom of the internet” in high regard. That’s why they don’t understand why search engines and news aggregators should pay for the use of text fragments that were produced (and paid for) by others.

What services are we talking about? We’re talking about the products of newspapers and magazines, about news, reports, analyses, and press photos. But wait: aren’t those the same products that have supposedly become superfluous in the brave new world of the internet, and which can be produced and distributed much more quickly and more efficiently without aging print outlets? Why is the “freedom of the internet” in jeopardy when publishers demand money from Google for products that have seemingly fallen out of use? If we follow this logic, shouldn’t we argue that nobody would notice it if Google suddenly dropped aggregated journalistic content from its website?

The current uproar hints at the misleading nature of the argument that professional journalists and the work they produce have become redundant. Instead, it almost seems as if online activists cannot quite let go of their old enemy: print journalism. What drives the formation of opinions online isn’t the range of known facts but the consensus that the enemy of the digital age is always to be found in professional for-profit journalism. Those who fall into that category must be fought regardless of the topic at hand, and regardless of the alliances that emerge as a result.

Online portals of large newspapers remain the most important reference points for discussions – even online. Social media debates are sparked and shaped by the commentary articles and analyses of journalists who work for mainstream news outlets. The internet community cannot function without professional journalism: in order for something to become the focus of public discussion, journalists must cover it, on air, on TV, in print, and on the web. At the end of the day, even committed digital natives care less about what is written in blogs or on Twitter than they care about the day’s newspaper headlines. Printed broadsheets still matter.

To really change something in society, new technologies aren’t sufficient as tools. What is required is a connection to society, which is provided by newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV. Professional journalism is the natural ally of online activists – and not a multinational corporation whose business model is based on accidental clicks on advertising banners. A corporation that is too afraid to share a fraction of its fantastic profits with those who still provide most of the content on the internet.

Read more in this column Jörg Friedrich: Local is the new digital

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