“Google and the AP Should Reveal Their Licensing Terms”. Should They Really?

The always canny Danny Sullivan has a piece that calls for the Associated Press and Google to reveal the terms of any business agreements they may come to. He notes that the AP and Google first made a content licensing agreement back in 2006, and lately the AP has been making noises about extracting more dough from Google, making all kind of disingenuous accusations that Google “steals” AP content when in fact Google is helping AP subscribers by sending them traffic. (Danny and I are both former reporters turned web guys; we have both written extensively about this situation in the past.)

Information about Google/AP hookups would obviously be nice to have, but there are a lot of potentially more interesting private business agreements that it would be nice to have access to, as well. For example, I want to know what Bill Cosby got paid for doing those Jell-o Pudding Pops commercials we all remember from our childhoods. But just because I’m curious about this, it doesn’t mean I’m entitled to the information I’m after.

What makes Google/AP agreements of special interest? Google is a big technology company that is distinguished principally by its near monopoly control over search monetization. The Associated Press is a newsgathering collective that is distinguished principally over its near monopoly control over certain types of national and international news. What these companies do is of interest principally for those reasons. But I’m concerned about our impulse to treat the business of journalism differently than other kinds of businesses. I don’t think it helps consumers of news, and I don’t think it helps journalism, either.

Certainly, as Danny points out, journalism is necessary to support a vibrant democracy. From that springs forth the notion that journalism is a special activity that ought to be protected — call this Journalistic Exceptionalism. For example, we have laws (known generally as “sunshine laws”) that cover the disclosure of information to the public. Journalists are given special access to politicians and corporate bosses, and so forth.

It’s easy to conflate the democracy-enhancing nature of journalism with the dysfunctional news business. But assigning a special status to the business of news (as distinct from the process of newsgathering, which may or may not be coupled to an actual for-profit business) seems wrong to me. Let’s not treat Google or the AP specially because of journalistic exceptionalism. If you agree that Google and the AP should be more up-front with the terms of their licensing agreements, then that should take place because of those organizations’ unprecedented power over the marketplace, not because they happen to be involved in the business of news.