As the baying crowd gathers around Old Journalism – creditors on the left, bloggers on the right – the Associated Press makes a desperate lunge. Behold, a new direction that will provide revenue and copyright protection for press agencies while letting those tech-heads… um… mash-up their RSS content beacons! Or something! Or, as the digerati have interpreted it: Someone just sold the Associated Press a bag of magic beans.
But let’s stay with the idea of a technology-based strategy for staying relevant rather than, say, doing better work. What would we digerati, being clever people of taste and distinction, choose as a non-laughable course of action?
Okay, so, a big swirly mass of press agencies wants to peddle their content over the internet under a unified schema. How about…
- At the very least, an open internet standard to keep the playing field level
- … based on existing open, popular standards, like RSS or Atom
- Use of microformats in published content that maintain all the metadata (viva semantic web!)
- Some method of encoding rights data, ideally using the hippest content licensing scheme there is
- Rights enforcement using the actual law rather than even the merest hint of DRM-crypto-insanity
- And while we’re reaching for the stars, maybe even a way of encoding the author’s journalistic principles in the metadata too?
Let’s take all that, stir it up with a big dollop of XML, bake it into an Internet Draft and call it hNews. Whoa, look at that! And look at which organisation’s behind it – the Associated Press! How’d that happen? And more importantly, what about the magical beacon wrappers?
The answer lies with the other organisation responsible for hNews, a British registered charity called the Media Standards Trust. Their latest non-profit project is Value-Added News, aimed at both promoting the use of hNews and creating a search engine that will help creators track the re-use of their work. (And the other other organisation in the picture is the WSRI, which is led by Sir Tim Berners-Lee.)
Now we’ve replaced the money-grabbing DRM dreams of the Street Of Shame with the ivory-tower idealism of the semweb crowd. That’s a definite improvement, but it’s still lacking some of that salty pragmatism we cynics demand. So I got in touch with Mark Ng, one of the names on the hNews spec. His first response contained the line
This isn’t “DRM for text”. That would, clearly, be stupid.
… thus giving me a glimmer of hope for the rest of the conversation. So I asked: tracking content via micro-semantic-metadata-tags is lovely in theory, but surely those who are seriously ripping off your content are just going to remove those tags, no? (I suppose one could resort to searching for key phrases instead.)
Mark made it clear that the A.P. representatives he’s been dealing with – such as those named in the hNews spec – are very much on the tech side of things, rather than the business side. Nonetheless:
To do my best to explain how *they* have explained APs motivations, I would compare them much more closely to what The Guardian are doing with their content API. They have their own content API, which is currently in private beta and uses this format. They see the rights stuff as an opportunity to allow third parties of various types to work with their data and make interesting software, but for them to come back and ask for some advertising/cash if the stuff that’s built becomes successful and/or useful later on.
re: searching, speaking to those people closer to the tech reveals they’re more concerned about wholesale spam blogs. Searching can help these be found, and the removal of things like the beacon or rights information they’re setting up makes intentions clearer.
That’s all great, but this plan to tag content with statements of journalistic principles still smacks of idealism. Who’s going to define, and more importantly enforce, the tags and their correct use?
Principles, I can speak more authoritatively for, as I’m almost entirely responsible for that. The existing set of proposed values is a link to the set of principles or code of practice a journalist operates under.
In the UK, journalism by newspapers (including their online editions) should be covered by a minimum of the PCC’s code of practice. Many organisations have their own supplementary codes also. For bloggers, independent journalists and citizen journalists, it would be nice to see them begin to publish the principles they choose to operate under.
As a social effect, it’s hoped that linking to principles from articles will have a few effects :
- give people an opportunity to be aware of the standards they should be able to expect from the journalism they’re reading
- make sure people are aware of how they can complain before seeking legal recourse (or to solve things that are not open to legal recourse).
- encourage news producers to publish their principles where they do not do so already
Regarding who decides whether a news producer sticks to their principles, ultimately, you do! That said, codes like the PCC code often offer recourse themselves. Also, it’s completely possible for external services to be written to collaboratively judge how closely a producer sticks to their principles. Of course, these are exercises for the reader or the rest of the internet, and not things we would choose to “regulate” ourselves.
It is an intention for us to work towards a standard for actually making statements of journalistic principles machine readable themselves, but is work we have only just begun. This would potentially allow you to filter based on news that claims to reach certain standards (and perhaps, further still, filter based on some external judgement of whether that organisation actually meets their standards, too).
I’m still somewhat skeptical, but agree that it’s worth a shot if only to see what happens. As for the A.P.’s plans, there’s reason to be skeptical too – especially given their trigger-happy record in the legal and business departments. The Tech and Law blog has a good take on this (and is the only blog I’ve found that’s given hNews a proper look): the A.P.’s business side may try and milk this as a way of squeezing cash out of Google, Yahoo! et al, but in the end an overly-restrictive policy is sure to backfire. Meanwhile, less profit-hungry independent journalists (and bloggers) who pick up these magic beans may end up with a very nice beanstalk and a dead giant.
Whatever the A.P. is planning it’s clear that they don’t have a properly-formed cross-organisational picture. This isn’t too surprising, given that they’re a giant non-profit currently taken up with trying to keep a thousand smaller agencies from committing suicide. So far I give them ten out of ten for technology design, minus several million for good communication. The business side seems to think they’re getting something far more magic than mere microformats can provide. The bloggers, meanwhile, have clearly been too hasty in their vaporware accusations. The business of Old Journalism may be yelling for the doctor, but it’s the principles that really need it.