Plucking the already tense string that binds new media and old, the Associated Press announced an initiative Monday to protect online versions of its news content from what it called "misappropriation" by a variety of online news outlets.
At its annual meeting in San Diego, AP Chairman Dean Singleton said the news syndicate would pursue "legal and legislative remedies" against entities that it believes are unfairly borrowing its content.
"We can no longer stand by and watch others walk off with our work," he said.
At the heart of the AP's complaint are websites -- not named by Singleton -- that provide editorial services to users by picking out and featuring the day's most important, interesting or sensational stories.
The Drudge Report, a news site with a conservative bent, is one of the Web's most successful aggregation sites; the Huffington Post provides a similar service for liberal-minded readers.
But it's Google News, the search giant's automated and constantly updating digital front page, whose relationship with the AP and its member newspapers is so complicated that distinguishing the harms from the benefits may be a matter of perspective.
From one viewpoint, Google News has been a boon to the imperiled newspaper industry, driving huge numbers of readers to the websites of the publications whose stories it features. Google also pays an undisclosed fee to the AP for the use of its material.
"We send about a billion clicks a month to newspaper publishers," Google Inc. spokesman Gabriel Stricker said. "That means that every single second, you have 400 openings of newspapers stories that come from Google."
But just as a newspaper reader may casually glance at headlines without reading every story, readers of Google News may go to the site specifically to scan the news without clicking through to the originating site. Google News recently started running ads.
The stories behind headlines such as "Four killed in Iraq" aren't free, said Sue Cross, a senior new media executive at the AP.
"You have millions of dollars go into just having people there to report that and no small amount of risk to people's lives just to get that headline," she said. "If someone's making money off the news, it needs to tie back and be shared in a way that it supports the newsgathering."
Less clear was how the AP plans to capture that value. Cross said the syndicate was wary of blocking search engines, a move that would shrink both its pool of online readers and the stream of advertising revenue they bring along.
Rather, the AP will try to create a system for tracking the use of its content online.
"I think it would be premature to get into the mechanics of how it might work," Cross said. "We simply aren't that far along."
But no matter the implementation, attempts to police content on the Internet are both costly and leak-prone, especially for news articles, in which the underlying facts are not subject to copyright.
"A large amount of what the AP covers is covered by other sources internationally and nationally," said Mike Vorhaus, president of Magid Advisors, the media consulting arm of Frank N. Magid Associates. "They're trying to protect commodity, non-exclusive content."
For its part, the AP is trying to relieve economic stress on its members. Along with the content control initiative, it announced plans to substantially lower the cost of its services -- saving some members more than 25% on subscription fees.