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December 15, 2006

Newspaper Chain Goes Creative Commons: GateHouse Media Rolls CC Over 96 Newspaper Sites

Over the weekend, the Watertown TAB of Watertown, Massachusetts, revamped its website. The result is, for now, strikingly bloglike: a wide center column with items in reverse chronological order. And at the very bottom, a small silver badge with a line of text that reads: "Original content available for non-commercial use under a Creative Commons license."

Special to PressThink
by Lisa Williams

That little badge is news. The TAB is owned by GateHouse Media, a newspaper conglomerate that owns 75 daily and 231 weekly newspapers. And the TAB isn’t the only paper that got a silver CC badge this week. Without fanfare, the company is rolling out Creative Commons licenses covering nearly all of the 121 dailies and weeklies they own in Massachusetts. The CC license now covers 96 of the company’s TownOnline sites, which are grouped within a portal for their many Eastern Massachusetts newspapers.

“I don’t know of any other newspaper or any MSM site for that matter, publishing under CC,” said Howard Owens, director of digital publishing for Gatehouse, in a comment on the TAB’s blog. “It’s really not a big change from how a lot of newspaper sites handle content — free non-commercial use, but generally only if you ask. This removes the middle man of asking, because now it’s explicitly stated that free non-commercial use is permitted.”

Mia Garlick, chief council of the Creative Commons Foundation, concurs: she’s not aware of any newspaper chains or major papers that are releasing content under CC. “For a major publisher with significant numbers of people reading to be doing this is great.”

“For newspapers to give up copyright is a remarkable step,” says Dan Kennedy, who teaches journalism at Northeastern University and is a longtime watcher of the Boston media scene. “We all understand that it’s okay to link to them, but this seems to say that it’s also okay to copy and paste entire articles. Is that what they want?”

GateHouse’s decision to CC license its content may be a response to the cut-and-paste world of weblogs, which frequently quote and point to newspaper stories. Making it easier — and legal — for bloggers to quote stories at length means that bloggers are pointing their audience at the newspaper. Getting a boost in traffic from weblogs may have an impact on online advertising revenue, and links from weblogs also have an impact on how high a site’s pages appear in search results from search engines such as Google. Higher traffic, and higher search engine rankings build a site’s ability to make money on online ads.

CC licensing is only one of three actions taken by GateHouse that point in the direction of greater openness. The CC badge appeared on the company’s TownOnline sites this weekend as part of a sweeping overhaul whose main objective is to move the sites firmly into the two=way web. The newspapers now under CC licensing are gathered together under the umbrella of Both TownOnline and another GateHouse property,, feature user-generated content.

Kennedy worries that user-generated content may mean fewer newsroom jobs: “As interested as I am in Wicked Local, it’s coming online at a time when GateHouse and other newspaper companies are cutting jobs. I hope Wicked Local amounts to a lot more than simply a way for its corporate owner to load up on cheap and free content.”

In a departure from Wicked Local, where commercial software was used to open up the site to user-submitted content, GateHouse is using the open-source web framework Zope as the backbone for the TownOnline operations. Going to open source has obvious “the price is right” advantages, but may also confer stability: small software companies fail at rates comparable to restaurants, a famously tough business. Such business failures leave a software company’s customers stranded on a platform that won’t be updated as time goes on, and which they can’t update themselves, since they don’t have access to the source code.

Sharing content, letting non-professionals submit content, and connecting with a global network of open-source tinkerers reveal a picture of a firm that’s open to the wide world of the web. That doesn’t sound like your average media company, whose value is based on control of unique content, content whose value is boosted by exclusivity, not by contributions from Just Anybody. But instead of plugging leaks, GateHouse has taken out a Creative Commons can opener and put a hole the size of the Internet in the side of Battleship Content.

Yet investors like the sound of what GateHouse is doing, maybe because it sounds a bit more like YouTube than Tribune Co.

GateHouse, which went public in October, saw its stock rise 20 percent in the first day of trading: investors were clearly treating GateHouse like an internet stock, not a newspaper play. The run-up in price made GateHouse the most valuable newspaper company in America, leading Dow Jones, Scripps, The New York Times Company and far above cellar-dwellers Gannett and Tribune. GateHouse’s move towards open source, open licensing, and open conversations is the biggest experiment to date in whether a media company with open source ambitions can walk hand in hand with Wall Street.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Guest writer Lisa Williams runs, a news and community site for Watertown, Massachusetts. User generated content at the Watertown TAB represents head-to-head competition for H2otown. Lisa works for the Center for Citizen Media and has a number of new-media related projects, which you can read about in her bio.

Lisa Williams, If I Didn’t Build it, They Wouldn’t Come: Citizen Journalism is Discovered (Alive) in Watertown, MA. PressThink, Nov. 14, 2005.

Charlene Li, VP and Principal Analyst at Forrester Research, responds to the CC licensing of TownOnline sites. She’s got a special perspective, since she was one of the principal architects of the TownOnline sites in the 90’s:

It’s pretty cool. Note that they are using the most restrictive of the Creative Commons license. The license is to freely share the content — as long as there is attribution, and the use is non-commercial. The right to create derivative works is not allowed. This is how CC describes this license:

“This license is the most restrictive of our six main licenses, allowing redistribution. This license is often called the “free advertising” license because it allows others to download your works and share them with others as long as they mention you and link back to you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.:

This is all very reasonable and recognizes that in an online world, the copyright claim for “all rights reserved” doesn’t really work. So kudos to them for doing this.

Howard Owens, now director of digital publishing at GateHouse, previously served at the Bakersfield Californian, home to three notable hyperlocal experiments: Bakotopia, The Northwest Voice, and the Southwest Voice. He’s advertising his Bakersfield home for sale via his blog. GateHouse HQ is in Fairfield, NY.

Dan Kennedy teaches journalism at Northeastern University and writes about the Boston media scene at his blog, Media Nation.

In a pre-IPO buying spree fueled by capital from Fortress Investment Group, GateHouse acquired the Community Newspaper Company from Herald Media, which owns the Boston Herald. Only a few weeks later, the company snapped up Enterprise News Media, which owned two dailies and 11 non-dailies south of Boston. Here’s a timeline of the deals. Fortress has some colorful clients: they own pop king Michael Jackson’s debt.

GateHouse is using the Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 license. As of this writing, there’s also a Gatehouse copyright notice in the footer, presumably a forgotten artifact of the site overhaul. In a comment on the TAB’s blog, Owens confirmed that they are going with CC licensing.

From GateHouse’s prospectus: “We operate in what is sometimes referred to as the ‘hyper-local’ or community market within the media industry. Media companies that serve this segment provide highly focused local content and advertising that is generally unique to each market they serve.”

Enterprise NewsMedia, which was bought by GateHouse in May, operated two dailies and 11 weeklies south of Boston. They had their own hyperlocal experiment: Wicked Local, whose name is a nod to the local vernacular that uses the word “wicked” as an intensifier. Wicked Local combines user-submitted stories, events, and photos with staff content from the Old Colony Memorial newspaper of Plymouth, MA, and added unique online features like the Wicked Local Girl videoblog created by Courtney Hollands, who’s moved on to a new position at Gatehouse Media. Bob Kempf, who helped build Wicked Local, now works for, the online spinoff of the Boston Globe. They just rolled out a new local search tool.

TownOnline adopted the local search and user-submitted photo platform Wicked Local uses, but chose open source content management framework Zope; Wicked Local currently uses a blog/community platform package created by Prospero Technologies. Wicked Local allows user-submitted stories, events, and photos; TownOnline is photos-only, for now.

Three of the most successful efforts to wrap an online community around a traditional news organization websites have something in common: the news organizations that sponsored them are now software companies. The Lawrence Journal-World now sells Ellington, the software they developed to create; you can buy Participata, the social-networking software behind Bakotopia, from the Bakersfield Californian; and the photo platform you see on Bluffton Today was created by Morris Digital Works, a subsidiary of the company that owns Bluffton Today and many other news organizations.

In choosing Zope, GateHouse has the opportunity to follow suit and become a software provider. Zope itself is open source, but the Zope license does allow people to build products on top of the Zope platform without assigning copyright to the Zope Corporation.

I share Derek Powazek’s aversion to the term “user-generated content.” He says: “They’re words that creepy marketeers use. They imply something to be commodified, harvested, taken advantage of. They’re words I used to hear a lot while doing community consulting, and always by people who wanted to make, or save, a buck.”

Posted by Lisa Williams at December 15, 2006 8:35 AM