Newspapers are currently involved in a struggle to protect and monetize their content online. The Associated Press, especially, has been on the offensive when it comes to trying to get paid for articles online. To that end, the AP board announced a plan today to tag and
track every piece of text content for the co-op and its members — and
eventually photos and video.

The move could be excellent step for the AP. If they can figure out how and what to charge for licensing their content online.

The company is already struggling to find the right price for its content in print. AP content is licensed to a large number of newspapers internationally, that pay a fee to put all or part of AP articles in their pages. But declining revenues across the board in print media have put that agreement under strain. Already this year the AP has rolled back fees to U.S. newspapers.

The struggle has been exhacerbated online, where many blogs and websites cite AP articles for no charge. Last year, AP sued The Drudge Retort blog for using its content without proper attribution. But the case was dropped and AP is still struggling to find the right model for content online. 

In April the Associated Press Board of Directors announced that AP
would be working to protect the industry’s content against
unauthorized use. And today they’ve announced a new registry that will keep track of their content online. From the AP News Registry FAQ:

“A content registry is a fundamental and powerful means to protect
valuable and costly news content to assure that news organizations like
AP can continue to support original journalism. The Associated Press,
for example, spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year
gathering and reporting the news, from bureaus in 243 locations around
the world.”

Now, when anyone takes AP content to put on their site, the co-op will be able to track it. And eventually, charge for it. 

More from the FAQ:

“The initial focus of the news registry will be to encapsulate all AP
content in an informational “wrapper.” The content within the wrapper –
an open source microformat called “hNews” that AP developed – would be
tagged with critical information about the story, such as who wrote it,
the headline and the usage rights associated with it. In addition, a
tracking device will be contained in the wrapper that follows usage of
the content.”

It’s a good step towards giving publishers more control over their content online. The AP hopes that it will be a useful addition to paywall models: “Because a news registry gives publishers the means to track and protect
all content, it can serve both models, by enabling opportunities both
outside of and behind pay wall environments.  Indeed, a registry
enables a multitude of business opportunities and services, from
supplying usage metrics, to enabling a range of models for paid content.”

But tracking and charging for content could be a double edged sword for publishers. While the AP can wring some money out of blogs and other sites with a service like this, they could also silo themselves by charging a prohibitive fee. Bloggers looking for articles to cite may simply skip over content that charges in favor of free news. Especially in the case of AP articles that house content that often found elsewhere, that’s a problem.

The trick is to make the rates fair, a task more easily said than done. Another, perhaps more blog friendly option, would be using tracking technology to create new advertising models. Technology that tracks online content cannot be far away from a service that allows advertising to be served within pasted copy. Other sites like Politico are already imbedding links in their text (try to copy and paste content from a Politico story into a Word document to see how that works).

The New York Times has hinted that it might start including ads within its content. And this week AdBrite became the first ad network to sign on to the Fair Syndication Consortium, an online publishing group that plans to broker deals with ad networks to track content online and split ad revenues between parent sites and publishers whose content gets cited by aggregation or syndication. 

It’s all still unclear how this will shake out for publishers, but keeping better track of content online is a first step towards makng some more money from it.