Information Access in the Balance

There were two items that came out today that I just felt compelled to write about. The first is about the New York Times and the second is about the database service company EBSCO.

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It was announced today that the New York Times will be moving to a system in 2011 in which users will be allowed a certain number of free articles per month before having to pay for further access. In its present form, people would be allowed to view 10 articles per month before incurring a $3.59 charge per week. There are many unknowns in the business plan, but as can be expected, there are some aspects that should concern librarians as this is a potential barrier to information access.

First and foremost, as most libraries are subscribers to the print edition of the New York Times (a noted exception to the article limit), does that give us one unlimited access license? Will there be an institutional licenses or accounts? I am hoping there is consideration taken for school and academic libraries as their students turn to the Times for accurate and timely stories for their research and projects. 

Second, this creates a small but distinct financial barrier of access for the  working poor and others living below the poverty line. Unless there is some kind of institutional access available, I fear that these people will be prevented from accessing additional articles. While the current fee is relatively small, for those on a tight budget could quickly add up and be better spent on gas, bus fare, and other necessities. As the economy evolves into one based on a person’s knowledge, I am concerned that this could lock out or inhibit those who cannot afford it if it is based on individual accounts.

Third, I’m curious as to the timeline under which an new article will move from a recent story to an archived one. I’m also curious as to whether this archived content will be counted as an ‘article access’ against the monthly quota as well as whether or not this content will be embargoed from various databases. I would hope that there would be a finely balanced timeline under which an article could move from being behind a paywall and into the general archives.

Fourth and last, I’m wondering what this will do to the “link economy”. Content sharing drives people to websites through PLNs and other discovery network tools. While the NYT is not moving to the extremes of the AP, I fear it will put a damper on linking to some of the good journalism and content at the Times. I’m not certain what the impact will be, but I have a hunch that it will result in people finding other links to stories or simply look for a pirated versions of the story on the internet. Since e-books have started to be traded by pirates, I can’t imagine stories behind paywalls would be terribly far behind either. It creates its own disruption for those who use NYT articles for their blogs, research, and other in-depth studies as not everyone who wishes to see the cited articles will have access to them.

On Twitter today, I called this move the “Jay Leno of newspaper moves”. While I recognize the need to provide revenue so that the reporting can continue, I don’t think it will yield the profit margins they are hoping to gain. Furthermore, I think this creates potential customer service headaches as people take issue with article accesses that are not the ones they are looking for, potential inaccuracies in their indexing, and basic disputes as to what constitutes an access. Make no mistake that the journalism industry needs to figure out a business model to remain viable while providing the best possible access to information. This is the first of many movements that will be coming out of a business that has failed to innovate over the last 15 years since the dawn of the internet. The ripple effect remains to be seen, but this is one change of many to come.

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During the ALA Midwinter Meeting, EBSCO announced that they have become the exclusive full text content providers for a myriad of popular magazines. Simply put, if you do not have a subscription to EBSCO databases, you will not have database access to current or previous articles. While most of the magazines carry content for free on their websites, there is no guarantee that this practice will continue in the future. This kind of content monopoly is rather disturbing as a threat to information access (especially in school libraries with shrinking budgets). There’s an excellent post on the GALE blog about EBSCO’s previous exclusive agreement to carry content. They really hit some of the feelings I have on this news and I could not have said some of the concerns any better. Exclusive agreements do not help the previously diverse marketplace nor the library customer nor the end user.

At the moment, I’m fairly uncertain what can actually be done about this. With content residing on the sites of the magazines, does it arise to a monopoly? What are the recourses one can take? Do libraries have viable alternatives? If libraries are the facilitators of information access, are we simply relegated to buying it without challenging the circumstances under which it is given?

If there was any time to act upon either one of these issues, the time would be now. (NYT contacts, Letter to the Publisher or President) (EBSCO contacts)

If Links Are Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Have Links

The Associated Press is mad as hell and they aren’t taking it anymore.

While whom they remain angry at is somewhat nebulous, the venerable pillar of news reporting is looking to get a piece of the new media revenue pie by asserting greater control over their content. The current status quo is one where various types of web entities (such as Google, Yahoo!, and The Huffington Post) arrange licensing agreements in which they pay for the right to link to AP stories, audio, and videos. It is from here that the gray areas of the web emerge as sites, bloggers, and other aggregators link to the content that is generated through these AP licensees. On these tertiary sites, people can generate revenue from either ads or services that they provide while linking to AP product.

While stealing content is pretty straightforward, the trouble begins with linking of photographs, stories, summaries, and other copyrighted content. Such sites look to invoke the “fair use” for their use of the copyrighted materials since their argument is that they do not take substantial portions of the original works. While copyright law defines a “fair use” exemption, the criteria for determining such a case is less than crystal clear. By their own admission, there are no set parameters and it would require a case by case analysis of the works to determine whether “fair use” applies or not.

So, here lies the current dilemma: how does a link fit into the equation? The controlling document here is the Digital Rights Millennium Act, an act that was written and amended (and re-amended) before the current wave of web technology of the last two years. While current court cases provide a limited fair use protection to certain forms of linking (such as thumbnails and  inlining (linking photographs from other servers)), there is a still a universe of circumstances under which links exist. There is no way that the current version of the DRMA addresses these new circumstances to any degree of satisfaction; in fact, I would agree with the Electronic Frontier Foundation that the inadequacies of this act create a internet ripple effect which do not reflect the current web reality. While I as a content creator am completely sympathetic to people who wish to control the fruits of their labors, the current laws and regulations apply obsolete or ill-fitting rules on those who wish to share content with the new tools and technology in use today.

There are those who say (and I am one of them) that the news print media has had over a decade to adapt to the new web environment. The signs that the current business model would not hold have been there with the reduction of readership and shrinking subscription base. It is only now that a new revenue stream has become apparent that the AP has determined itself to exercise control over the content. But this genie is out of the bottle, and the technological and social norms of the internet have done nothing but to make the sharing of information easier and more accessible. Once again, it is an industry that should be pushing innovation in technology by developing new methods of information delivery that will generate revenue and provide news while still embracing fair use as a means to increase site traffic and readership. For the AP to try to put the breaks on the link economy (which does exist) would be akin to trying keep a litter of puppies from escaping from a box; the constant effort to retain everything will prove to be exhausting and ultimately fatal to an flawed business model. There is nothing to fear in linking; if anything, it is a medium that should be embraced by the AP.

(Posted at LISNews)

the faulty model of newsprint media

At the end of last week, the New York Times Company threatened to close down the Boston Globe unless the employee unions agreed to $20 million in cuts. This comes on the heels of comments by NYT executive editor Bill Keller speaking to an audience at Stanford in which he stated “saving the New York Times now ranks with saving Darfur as a high-minded cause.” (He clarifies his statement to relate it to the relative level of interest in the survival of the Times, not as a human rights intervention. This doesn’t change the extraordinarily poor choice of comparative terms.) It’s not the only newspaper in trouble within recent memory. The Tribune Company (owner of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times) filed for bankruptcy at the end of 2008. The Philadelphia Inquirer filed in late February and the Rocky Mountain News (Denver) closed its doors just shy of 150 years of printing. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer dropped the print edition in favor of a web only edition.

While this traditional type of media is reeling financially, I think that newsprint media and technology have reached a crossroads of opportunity. The best example of this opportunity resides in the newspaper subscription service for the Kindle. The device is capable of downloading and updating content (such as newspaper subscriptions) automatically through available technological networks. This means you can wake up in the morning, roll over, hit your alarm, pick up your reader off the nightstand, and have the paper (so to speak) in your hands. In addition, it satisfies a push for greener technologies that will reduce a carbon footprint such as materials (paper and ink) and fuel. This is the sort of technology that the newspapers should be pushing the market to develop: a cheaper media reader (much cheaper than the Kindle’s $360 price tag) that can allow people to subscribe to their web content.

While there are arguments that print media is a victim of the economy or the public’s reading habits, I personally don’t find them compelling enough. The lack of movement towards digital content represents a lack of innovation on the part of the newspaper companies. And it’s not like they didn’t see it coming with the rise of Mobipocket Reader or the Kindle. We are becoming a “fingertip society”, for we expect information to be found at our fingertips when desired. While I cannot deny the pleasurable sensory experience in the feel of newspaper, the smell of the ink, or the crinkles of the sheets when turned, it is the content that is the selling point. A searchable digital format is what people have come to expect in their information experience. While there is much lost from the lack of serendipity browsing in these formats, there are greater gains to be made here in preserving these journalist institutions.

This reasoning also covers readering habits as it relates to how people are perceiving the information around them. Awhile ago (and I can’t remember or find the source now), I remember a  study that indicated that leisure reading is down across all age groups. However, this is an incomplete analysis for it fails to mention that the number of information mediums has gone up. Whether it is the web, text, video, or peer to peer referral, the increase in the types of media and means for people to get information has pushed newsprint media from being one of a few to one of many choices. In part with the aforementioned instant access that society has come to expect, this makes the current newspaper format a dinosaur of the information age. It does make me sad to say that I believe newsprint is on its way out; I have tons of memories of reading the comics with my father or the things I’ve discovered by thumbing through a section. But I cannot deny the financial situation nor the information trends which are moving away from it.

They are late off the starting block, but traditional news media can catch up. The technology is here or a few innovation generations away from where it needs to be for newspapers to fully take advantage of it. I will hope that there is some companies left to take advantage of it.

(Posted at LISNews)