My first job as an editor was at a weekly newspaper. My parents and I had pooled our funds (read: my college savings) and bought a couple of failing small-town newspapers. One of the things I did every week was scan other weeklies and dailies in the region and write a summary of their high-school sports coverage, citing and crediting each source, of course.
It was a different time. Back then (when I had long hair and a motorcycle), most of the publications I cited weren't generally available in my community. There were no computers. There was no Internet.
Most weeklies were independent, occasionally grouped in twos or threes, not owned by some out-of-state chain. Weeklies generally exchanged free mailed subscriptions -- comps, they were called -- and liberally borrowed from one another, especially for the editorial pages. It was practice begun in the 19th century.
I had forgotten about that repurposing of others' content until this morning when I was thinking about the recent round of ranting about Internet parasites.
Should what I did in the 1970s be illegal now?
- MSNBC's Morning Joe crew often displays front pages from a bunch of newspapers and discloses the basics of their lead stories. Back when Aaron Brown was at CNN, his evening show often did the same thing. Should that be illegal?
- Generations of US foreign correspondents have relied on foreign press reports, posting translated summaries. Should that be illegal?
- The fledgling InDenverTimes rewrites ledes and heds from an array of national and world news sources, linking to the originals. Should that be illegal?
As Slate's media writer Jack Schafer points out, "Borrowing, sponging, lifting, scrounging, leaching, pinching, and outright theft of other publications' work is firmly in the American journalistic tradition."
AP has said this is not about fair use, but of course it is exactly about fair use -- and also very much about money. All the craziness about this and the calling Google "the tapeworm of the Internet" stuff all is being amplified by a sour economy.
Much has changed since I was a teenage newspaper editor in a small town in Illinois. As predicted when we started down this road about 15 years ago, the Internet has erased the space that used to separate us, and suddenly we all think we're in competition with one another. Maybe we are.