Steal this headline

Around the time that I landed my first job in publishing (the one that may have forever dragged me away from the physical part of Red Sox nation), the New York Post ran a page-one story with arguably its best headline ever:

Headless Body in Topless Bar

Wow. Five words, tells the whole story. There’s more to know, of course; that’s why we buy the newspaper itself. But before someone would know to buy the paper, they’d want to know the hook.

These days, the Associated Press wants me to pay them $12.50 and up for the privilege of using a headline, even if only to link to a story. In the view of AP, “fair use” is now “bare use”, limited to four words. I’ve said, half-jokingly, that the AP will soon ask people passing newsstands to pony up if they actually read the headlines along the way. (This also led me to think out loud that bookstores may soon remove any comfortable furniture to discourage people from reading before they purchase anything, but we can save that for the book portion of the blog).

The joke, of course, obscures a discussion that is taking place between content creators and content aggregators and distributors. Where and how people get paid for content is shifting across every media platform. Newspapers may have been the canary in the coal mine, but trade magazines, now consumer magazines and soon book publishers ($9.99 ebooks, anyone?) are all feeling the effects of a new approach to valuing and paying for content.

Much as organizations like the RIAA and the AAP have responded to perceived threats from piracy by stepping up enforcement, newspaper and magazine content producers have begun talking tough about enforcing rights, building pay walls and in general shutting down unauthorized uses of existing content.

It’s natural that an industry facing significant, even disruptive change is going to respond by working to preserve what has worked for it in the past, but I haven’t met too many people who think that’s going to work for content producers. This is an era in which (to quote Clay Shirky) “Every URL is a latent community.” Media can offer content, the ante that starts or sustains a conversation that we no longer control.

The “convening value” of content is a long way removed from the control-and-distribute mindset of established media businesses. In his recent book, What Would Google Do?, Jeff Jarvis talks about newspapers as platforms for many-to-many conversations. Putting up tollgates for every headline or link seems like the wrong way to encourage the conversation.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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