Newspapers are in trouble. Few dispute that. The question on the minds of industry participants and observers is simply: “How do we save them?”

In an effort to desperately find a new source of revenue for its members, the Newspaper Licensing Agency (NLA) is making a bone-headed move: charging PR agencies for links to newspaper websites that they send to clients. 

It is nothing short of preposterous.

The NLA was formed in 1996 and represents 1,400 newspapers in the UK. Its purpose: to authorize and collect licensing fees for “paper and digital copying of press cuttings“.

As the NLA sees it, a “press cutting” now includes a link to a newspaper website where content can be viewed for free. And it wants PR agencies to pay for sending such links. Not surprisingly, this has sparked ire among agencies.

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations has called the NLA’s plan “absolute nonsense“. Hector Proud of PR firm Idea Generation describes it as “a ham-fisted attempt to extract the largest amount of money from the softest target it can find“. And Tim Downs of Brahm sees this as one of the “tenuous ways” the NLA is attempting “to protect its income“.

They’re all calling it for what it is: a shake-down.

Now I’m not unsympathetic to the plight of newspapers (and their representatives). I’m a staunch supporter of copyright and think that in many ways, publishers are slighted online. But the path the NLA is taking is not only dumb, but dangerous. The idea that sharing a link to newspaper content that is freely available on the web should result in compensation is quite absurd.

For its part, the NLA doesn’t see anything wrong with what it’s doing. Not surprising. “Our aim is to protect the rights of publishers and help the web monitoring market grow” is the official line. That’s all fine and well but protecting the rights of publishers and charging PR firms for sending a link are two very different things.

At the end of the day, this debate comes down to the flawed business models most newspapers have adopted online. Here, Francis Ingham of the PRCA makes a very good point:

If the newspapers want to make their content available for free, and
then live off the advertising revenue, then good luck to them. If they
want to charge for web content, then –again-that’s their choice. But
charging for links to publicly available, free material is utterly

Bingo! If a newspaper willingly makes its content freely available on the web and a PR agency sends a client a link to it, why should compensation be paid? There’s no automated aggregation. There’s no republishing of content.

Newspapers that freely choose to make their content available online can’t have their cake and eat it too. If they’re not happy earning a fraction of a cent every time somebody visits a page on their websites, they should charge for their content. Problem solved: PR agencies would have a legitimate reason to pay a licensing fee (eg. republication) or their clients would have good reason to subscribe to major newspaper websites (eg. so they can read articles they’re sent links to).

The problem for the newspaper industry is that it has quite unwisely devalued its own content. It’s now dealing with the consequences and unfortunately, the actions it’s taking aren’t getting any wiser.

Photo credit: fireflythegreat via Flickr.