By Eric Pfanner in The New York Times:
When Axel Springer, the founder of the German newspaper publishing business bearing his name, laid the cornerstone in 1959 for a high-rise headquarters in Berlin only steps away from the tense line separating East from West, people called him crazy, arrogant or both.
While the Berlin Wall has come and gone, Springer executives are looking into another ideologically divided realm — cyberspace — with a similarly stubborn mien.
Springer, which publishes the biggest daily in Europe, the tabloid Bild, as well as other newspapers in Germany and Eastern Europe, says it wants publishers to get paid for their work on the Internet, at a time when many people assume that online news should be free.
“The meta-philosophy of free — we should get rid of this philosophy,” said Christoph Keese, Springer’s head of public affairs and an architect of its online strategy. “A highly industrialized world cannot survive on rumors. It needs quality journalism, and that costs money.”
Springer is not the only publisher looking for ways to earn money from digital sources, as readers turn away from printed newspapers and the promise of Internet advertising fades. In the English-speaking world, Rupert Murdoch, the chief executive of News Corp., has been telling anyone who will listen that he plans to erect so-called pay walls for his company’s newspaper Web sites. Other publishers, including The New York Times Co., which owns the International Herald Tribune, have also said they were considering charging for online access.
But while newspaper companies elsewhere have generally been vague about their intentions, Mr. Keese, during an interview at Axel Springer’s headquarters in Berlin, provided a detailed overview of the company’s digital ambitions.
Instead of separate pay walls around individual newspaper Web sites, Mr. Keese wants publishers and Internet companies to work together to create a “one-click marketplace solution” for their online content. In that system, Google or other Internet gateways would display links to newspaper articles, videos and other content from a variety of providers, as search engines do now. But some of the items would include something new: a price tag.
What kind of content would come at a cost? Any “noncommodity journalism,” Mr. Keese said, citing pictures of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy cavorting poolside with models at his villa in Sardinia — published this year by the Spanish daily El País — as an example.
“How much would people pay for that? Surely €5,” he said.
A single mouse click would allow the user to pay for and view the pictures. Readers could also buy flat-rate packages providing access to content from a variety of media companies, Mr. Keese said, just as they can subscribe to unlimited data access plans via mobile phone networks.
Axel Springer’s plans are contingent on cooperation with Google, a company that Mr. Murdoch has accused of “theft,” contending that it earns billions of dollars of advertising revenue on the back of newspapers’ journalistic endeavors. But Mr. Keese said Axel Springer was happy to work with Google, acknowledging that publishers could not match its expertise in monetizing digital content.
Josh Cohen, senior business product manager at Google, said an online marketplace like the one envisioned by Mr. Keese was an “obvious extension” of the company’s previously announced plans to create an Internet store for digital books. He declined to comment specifically on talks with German newspapers.
“It’s safe to say it’s a global discussion going on with a number of publishers,” he said. “Publishers are still in the exploratory stages of this.”
While German publishers are talking to Google about collaborating on a system for selling their content online, they are battling it in another area. They want the company to pay for the use of snippets of their articles by Google News, which compiles extracts from a variety of sources and links to the full stories.
Mr. Cohen ruled out any such payments, saying publishers benefited from the links by generating increased traffic to their Web sites, allowing them to sell more advertising.
“We have no intention to pay anyone for indexing their content,” he said. “If publishers don’t want us to show their headlines or snippets, they can already opt to take them out.”
Publishers say pulling their contents out of Google News, or the search engine, is not a fair choice because of the company’s powerful position on the Internet, leaving them with nowhere else to go; in Germany, Google accounts for roughly 80 percent of Internet searches.
To try to improve their leverage, German publishers have lobbied for a new kind of copyright preventing the secondary use of journalistic content online without express permission. The governing coalition headed by Chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged to enact such a law, though the timing remains unclear.
Mr. Cohen said the measure was unnecessary because Google abided by existing copyright laws, showing only portions of published works on Google News, unless it had agreements in place to display full articles.
Some analysts say, however, that the proposed copyright law could cover even the use of excerpts. That, they add, could have a chilling effect on aggregators, bloggers and others who now freely cite newspaper articles online.
“It’s a backward-looking way of dealing with the problem,” said Robin Meyer-Lucht, a digital media consultant in Berlin. “Publishers should be looking at aggregation and collaboration with their users, rather than wasting money on legalistic solutions that don’t work.”
Mr. Keese said, however, that the proposed law was an important prong in German publishers’ plans for digital business models.
With the copyright in place, businesses that used newspaper content online, including aggregators, might be required to buy licenses, much as restaurants, nightclubs or hair salons now need licenses to play recorded music. A new agency, modeled on the collecting societies that gather royalties for record labels, composers and artists, would administer the licenses.
Mr. Keese said he did not know how much revenue such licenses, or the other plans, could generate. But he noted that GEMA, the main collecting society for German music copyright owners, raises more than €850 million, or $1.3 billion, a year.
The proposed copyright has broad support among German publishers, and Mr. Keese said they also generally agreed on the need for an industrywide approach to the development of future digital business models. In the United States, some newspaper publishers have been wary about that kind of cooperation, citing antitrust rules.
While Axel Springer is often seen as one of the most pro-American of German newspaper owners, Mr. Keese had some sharp criticism for his U.S. counterparts. American publishers, he said, have been too timid in dealing with threats to their future — a problem that he attributed to a lesser cultural appreciation of the importance of the print media in the United States than in Germany.
“The Americans don’t give a damn if the newspapers go down,” he said. “This is very different in Germany. This is Gutenberg’s country. We invented this.”