It is time to think about protecting the newspaper. Democracy is at stake | Anaylsis
The future of news hinges on the interplay of the Press and online aggregators, and survival of the offline Press
Until a few decades ago, the newspaper was not just a source of news for people. It was a medium where community exchanges were facilitated, marriages were announced, wars were declared, and births and deaths were recorded. Triumphs and tragedies of the day were communicated in equal measure. It was, most importantly, a piece of paper which could unite strangers.
Today, while newspapers continue to play an important role in society, online aggregators are rapidly changing the way people consume news. Access to news is now quick, efficient, and often, personalised. Above all, it is widely considered free. While this evolution has benefited readers in the short-term, it poses several challenges to the future of news itself — which hinges upon the relationship between the Press and online aggregators, and the survival of offline Press itself.
The business model of news aggregation has meant the slow death of the newspaper. Entailed within it is the decline of hard-nosed journalism and fearless content generation that has, for over a century, been the credo of the newspaper industry. It is feared that the diversion of readership to news aggregator websites has resulted in revenue losses for media houses, even the ones with a significant online presence.
Statistics from the United States indicate that print advertising revenue has fallen from $65 billion in 2000 to approximately $19 billion in 2016 (Source: NAA/NMA). Further, employment in print media houses has fallen by about 40% in the past decade. In India, while readership of national and local newspapers has witnessed an overall rise, the slow decline of vernacular news dailies, and loss of print advertisement revenue, is not accounted for.
Policymakers across the world are presented with a significant concern — ensuring that newspapers, and traditional and authentic modes of news collection, are not threatened. So far, solutions have taken the form of amendments to existing copyright laws or extending competition law protections to the Press.
For instance, Article 15 of the latest European Union Copyright Directive protects Press publications from unauthorised use by online platforms. The right granted to publishers shall expire after two years. This will ensure that the Press gets statutory protection for the content published by it. However, many fear that negotiating licenses, particularly with news aggregator giants, will be cumbersome for the Press. This move has initiated a robust debate on harmonising interests of the Press and online aggregators.
In the US, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Bill, 2019, seeks to provide a temporary antitrust exemption to print and online press to collectively negotiate distribution of their content by news aggregators. This will help newspapers get a better bargain for protection of news published by them. However, the intended impact of such a proposal to protect newspapers’ 20th century business model in a 21st century industry is yet to be examined.
There is a definite need to begin thinking about protecting the newspaper in India. Aggregators like Google News and Inshorts usually credit the original source, provide hyperlinks, and only provide short excerpts/headlines of content on their feed. Users can then access the original story on the source website. In this context, whether aggregation itself amounts to free-riding, misappropriation or a copyright violation remains contentious, as witnessed through litigation in other countries.
At present, there is little empirical evidence to accurately indicate revenue losses, declining readership, and access benefits. While on the one hand, aggregation websites appear to promote wider access to news content online, many newspapers are becoming financially unviable. Courts are yet to exhaustively examine the application of traditional legal principles to the act of news aggregation.
Any policy intervention in this regard must be adequately backed by evidence, and should ensure that platform growth is harmonised with the interests of media houses, both online and offline.
Making social media platforms publishers accountable, by changing the intermediary liability regime, may be one option that is being discussed. But the real question is much wider — democracy needs fair balance between content generators and content aggregators. Unreasonable restrictions on either will be detrimental to the future of news and access to information.