Quality and timely news reporting is in peril as an increasing segment of the public is turning to the television, radio and Internet for news reports which “borrow” from print media for some of their content – especially local and regional news.

Historically, newspapers have used their advertising revenues to pay the salaries of the reporters and the editorial staff. In the last few years, the economic problems of newspapers have increased as many former readers now rely on television, radio and the Internet for news.

The decline in print advertising has produced a decline in the amount of local news as newspaper reporting and editorial staffs have been reduced to save money. The impact of the economic realities is easily measured by the reduction in the size of most newspapers and the increased reliance upon part-time reporters, freelancers and stringers.

The U.S. Constitution expressly provides for protection of the unique work of authors and artists: “Congress…shall have the power…To promote the progress of Science and the useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

Pursuant thereto, Congress has enacted the Copyright Statute which precludes persons from unauthorized copying so that the author can derive benefit from his/her skill and efforts in creating the work.

Nothing precludes others from reporting on the same subject matter; the facts are available to all. A newspaper or television news team could have reporters pursuing the same story. However, copying of the original text is a violation of the copyright laws. Moreover, the practice of copying the work of other publications is not limited to newspapers – radio and Internet reporting is also taking much of its content from newspapers.

Some copying of portions of publications can be accommodated under the doctrine of fair use, but not an entire work, or any significant portion thereof, except as provided by statute.

For many years, there has been tension as to the “fair use” of copyrighted material. Generally, this “exemption” for limited copying of stories from another publication has been tolerated so long as it is not excessive and the copying publication includes attribution to the original source. With or without such attribution, such copying clearly violates the copyright laws.

Recently, the Journal Publishing Co. of Manchester brought a copyright infringement action against the Hartford Courant for its unauthorized copying of local news stories which first appeared in the Journal Inquirer of Manchester.

Initially, the Courant had justified its copying of Journal Inquirer articles as an aggregation or “compiling” of stories or portions of stories from multiple sources on a particular matter. Ultimately, the Courant apologized to the Journal Inquirer for the failure to attribute the copied materials to the Journal Inquirer. The Courant has stated that it will stop its “aggregation” in print but not online, where links can be provided to original sources.

The excuse advanced for aggregation is that the copier is gathering “articles” from multiple sources to produce a composite story in which the copied story is only a portion. Attribution does not really offset the loss of the expected exclusivity under the copyright laws for the reports generated by the struggling reporting and editorial staffs. Instead, the copier is unjustly enriched by its copying of the articles from a competitive publication.

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch, chairman of the News Corp., testified at a workshop of the Federal Trade Commission: “Producing journalism is expensive. We invest tremendous resources in our project from technology to our salaries. To aggregate stories is not fair use. To be impolite, it is theft…Without us, the aggregators would have blank slides. Right now, content producers have all the costs, and the aggregators enjoy [the benefits]. But the principle is clear. To paraphrase a great economist, [there is] no such thing as a free news story.”

Murdoch has said that making the reader pay is the only way to create future revenue streams: “The business model that relies on advertising-only is dead. Online advertising is increasingly only a fraction of what is being lost from print advertising, and it is under constant pressure.”

Print, television, radio and Internet media must work together to develop a regime which compensates those who generate the reports which are utilized by others. Paid online subscriptions are currently being tested by some print media. If other newspapers and online publications adopt or continue the practice of “aggregating” the work of others, they will ultimately cause the remaining originators of such news stories to reduce their local news coverage and/or affect the nature and quality of the published reports. This is not in the best interest of an informed community.