Since the dawn of the Internet, news organizations have accepted the notion that the only way to survive the onslaught of the Web is to publish everything online, at no cost to readers, and let anyone in the world synopsize it, refer to it, and copy and link to it. You can't charge for your work—that's rule No. 1 on the Internet. And you can't block others from copying or linking to it—that's rule No. 2.
But those rules are starting to look stupid. All the media companies that follow them are going broke, so now they're casting about for a new business model. Some are talking about making readers pay subscription fees. But the most radical idea, and the one I find most intriguing, is being advanced by Mark Cuban, a billionaire Internet entrepreneur. Cuban's advice: declare war on the "aggregator" Web sites that get a free ride on content. These aggregators—sites like Drudge Report, Newser, and countless others—don't create much original material. They mostly just synopsize stuff from mainstream newspapers and magazines, and provide a link to the original.
Think about this for a minute. The aggregators and the old-media guys are competing for the same advertising dollars. But the aggregators compete using content that the old-media guys create and give to them at no cost. This is insane, right? It's like fighting a war and supplying the enemy with guns and bullets.
But this, we are told, is how the Internet must operate—it's the spirit of the Web, where everything is freely shared. Cuban says that's hogwash. He says the media companies should kill off these parasites by using a little piece of software that blocks incoming links from aggregators. If the aggregators can't link to other people's stories, they die. With a few lines of code, the old-media guys could snuff them out.
Sure, it's brutal. But it sounds like it could work, doesn't it? Yet for espousing such heresy on his blog last month, Cuban was condemned as either evil, or stupid, or both. MARK CUBAN IS A BIG FAT IDIOT was the headline of a response piece by Michael Wolff, a columnist for Vanity Fair and the founder of Newser, one of the aggregator sites that Cuban suggested was ripe for blocking. Wolff claims Newser and other aggregators are "doing a service to news organizations because a portion of our readers click through to the original story." Most Internet gurus agree. Not Cuban. He says that (a) very few readers actually click through to the original story; and (b) even when they do, the news companies don't make any money from them.
The problem with Cuban's "blockade" strategy is that it works only if everybody does it. If your Web site blocks links but your competitors don't, you're basically committing suicide. You'll be cut off from a big source of traffic, while aggregators will survive by feeding off your rivals.
But the embattled news organizations must take some kind of drastic measure. Marc Andreessen, another Internet billionaire, thinks most of the old-guard publishers will start forcing readers to pay subscription fees. But if the old companies do start charging fees, they will drive away readers. Advertisers will go where the audience is—which means they'll spend more of their advertising dollars on the upstart sites. The new guys will start making serious money, and will be able to hire reporters and editors away from the old-guard companies to create their own original material. "That's the thesis," Andreessen says. It's partly why Andreessen has recently invested in two Internet news publications—Business Insider and Talking Points Memo.
So will today's low-rent parasites become tomorrow's highbrow news organizations? That's not such an unusual evolution. HBO started out as a mere distributor of movies made by others, but as revenues grew, it began producing its own shows. Miramax started out schlepping indie flicks to art-house cinemas, then made enough money to start producing its own artsy films. So maybe, one day, the Huffington Post will become the equivalent of The New York Times—perhaps operated by the same writers and editors and sales reps who used to work for the Times. Maybe all of us old-media guys will just end up walking across the street and doing the same job, but for a new, print-less publication.
Or maybe the old-media guys will take Cuban's advice and declare war by blocking links from aggregators, figuring it's their last chance to kill the parasites before they kill the host. I'm not sure it would work, but I'd love to see someone try, just to see what happens. Oddly enough, Cuban doesn't think news organizations will take his advice because it's too risky. "For the same reason that in the 1970s and 1980s no one ever got fired for buying IBM, no one ever got fired for following conventional wisdom," he says.
He's probably right. And that's a shame.