'T'-icked Off: Font Front In The Information War

We know what's in a name, but what's in a letter? What if that letter is an icon that hasn't changed in more than 150 years? If you are The New York Times Co., scrapping for your place in a new world, the answer is: quite a bit.

Maybe the Times Co. was still a little touchy after announcing that it was cutting back T, its glossy style magazine, which uses the familiar Old English letter as its logo, from 15 issues to 12. But the company's lawyers got awful huffy all of a sudden about Web news aggregator Newser using said letter to denote content from the Times.

Newser founder Michael Wolff responded to the cease-and-desist letter the paper sent to his offices with a protracted attack post that accused the Times of--among other things--being paranoid, running "long and windy" stories that can only benefit from his summaries, and having ripped off Newser with its "article skimmer" interface. (In the interest of full disclosure: MediaPost received a similar letter from The Times' lawyers claiming that our synopsis of Times stories accompanying links to them constituted infringement and asked that we not encapsulate the paper's stories on our Web site - a request we've honored since it was made in August 2008.)

Despite an effort to incorporate open-source initiatives into its API releases, heralded by the much vaunted New York Times Open, the company seems reluctant to extend this model elsewhere--although they have largely had no choice when it comes to content. Walling off their stories would cost readers. The two are not equivalent, but it's fair to say that an "open source" information model that gathers and skims stories--adding commentary here and there, like Newser--is broadly analogous to open-source code. However, the Times Co. has had a tenuous relationship with aggregators, such as Newser and Huffington Post.

"They have a closed model in terms of control they exert over both the information they create and the information they allow into their ecosystem, so to speak," Wolff says. "It's as old-fashioned and as top-down as you can get."

The Times Co.'s grumbling about their letter seeping out over the Web amounted to little more than saber rattling; it seems like a rather tepid effort to staunch seepage of its content. Newser still uses the "T," but Wolff has acidly offered to replace it with a skull and crossbones if it pleases the Gray Lady.

"I think the 'T' business is mostly about their continuing discomfort with a flat or open-source information structure," says Wolff. "No matter that they've invested bazillions into this medium, it's not their natural habitat."

Then again, Wolff, a respected journalist and author, has a dog in this fight. "Their world is ending," he wrote in his response to the lawyer's letter, "but not before everybody gets a chance to make a fool of themselves." The question still remains: Even if they can get that "windy" story down to a snappy blurb, what happens when the aggregators have nothing left to summarize?

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