If you think American publishers are clueless when it comes to the Internet, just look abroad. This week, Brazil's National Association of Newspapers blocked Google News from aggregating its members' articles. That means that almost none of the newspaper articles published in Brazil will make it to Google News.
stories have been published at all. French newspapers last week took a
similar tack, demanding that Google News pay them for linking to their articles.
Publishers are left with two basic choices: They can cast their lot with the open web, trying to attract as much traffic as possible to derive revenue from ads; or they can wall themselves off, requiring readers to pay for content. There are compromise steps, such as the semi-permeable paywall the New York Times has erected, giving readers access to 10 free articles a month before demanding payment.
There's nothing wrong with electing to go with a paywall. The Times, the Wall Street Journal, and some other publishers have seen success with it. The real test will be when more regional and local publishers erect paywalls, as Gannett has done with its local and regional papers and the Chicago Tribune is getting ready to do. Given that online ad rates are too low to finance newsgathering operations, and print circulation is continuing to fall, publishers have to come up with some kind of solution. (Of course, this hasn't stopped digital-triumphalist types from opposing all such attempts on principle, and against all reason.)
But if publishers do choose to play on the open web with no barriers at all, it is absolutely irrational for them to shut themselves off in any way. The Brazilian and French newspapers seem to believe that the people who see their headlines on Google News and don't click through to the story would otherwise have gone straight to the newspapers' own sites. But there's no evidence that this is the case. The only strategy that works on the open web is one that encourages the most traffic, from whatever source: social media, other sites, and aggregators like Google News.
Indeed, the Brazilian newspaper group pretty much says that it gets a traffic boost from Google News. "We believe [the loss of traffic] is an acceptable price to protect our content and brands." This "protection," though, isn't quantified or defined. The publishers simply see that Google is benefiting from their content, and they don't like that, even if they're benefiting as well.
Google responds with the perfect analogy: Demanding payment from Google for linking to news articles is like "taxing a taxi driver for taking tourists to eat at a particular restaurant."