Google wants to save journalism

Interesting piece in next month’s The Atlantic on efforts by Google to save high-quality journalism.

Publishers would be overjoyed to stop buying newsprint-if the new readers they are gaining for their online editions were worth as much to advertisers as the previous ones they are losing in print. Here is a crucial part of the Google analysis: they certainly will be. The news business, in this view, is passing through an agonizing transition-bad enough, but different from dying. The difference lies in the assumption that soon readers will again pay for subscriptions, and online display ads will become valuable.

“Nothing that I see suggests the ‘death of newspapers,'” Eric Schmidt told me. The problem was the high cost and plummeting popularity of their print versions. “Today you have a subscription to a print newspaper,” he said. “In the future model, you’ll have subscriptions to information sources that will have advertisements embedded in them, like a newspaper. You’ll just leave out the print part. I am quite sure that this will happen.” We’ll get to the details in a moment, but the analytical point behind his conviction bears emphasis. “I observe that as print circulation falls, the growth of the online audience is dramatic,” Schmidt said. “Newspapers don’t have a demand problem; they have a business-model problem.” Many of his company’s efforts are attempts to solve this, so that newspaper companies can survive, as printed circulation withers away.

10 thoughts on “Google wants to save journalism

  1. You can’t click off a print ad like you can and everyone does with online ads.
    And you don’t have your online ad lying around the kitchen, living room,family or bathroom all day for someone to happen upon like you do with 22″ static print ad. In that way the print model still trumps the online model for ad dollar value.

  2. Schmidt is one of the few people I trust to actually identify the light at the end of the tunnel. I was at Novell when he turned that company around (briefly, before identifying the light as an oncoming train) and I’ve been nothing but impressed with what he’s achieved at Google.

    I strongly believe he’s got the right read on this situation.

  3. I’m with you, Jeff. Unless some entirely new model of web ad emerges that we haven’t seen yet, print ads will always be more expensive because they simply offer better value and return to advertisers.

    @Howard: As countless newspaper employees and readers have learned, the news business is a hard nut to crack. I can’t think of a single example of an industry outsider coming into a news company and turning it in a positive direction. In other words, Schmidt may be a genius–but he doesn’t know the news business. I think he couldn’t be more wrong here.

    Besides, Google doesn’t care about providing content providers with income. We saw that when they pulled off the biggest theft of intellectual property in human history. Google’s board should be in prison for what they did to the book business.

  4. Is the rest of the article about saving high-quality journalism, or, like your excerpt, is it about saving the print editions of newspapers? From someone with experience in the industry, these are two different things to me.

    To me, the biggest threat to high-quality journalism comes from three areas:

    1. Loss of standards ? It used to be that every experienced or would-be journalist maintained standards of integrity, content, and style. The very structure of a story was dictated by the AP Style Guide, which well-practiced journalists knew inside and out. Today, there seems to be little demand that these standards be upheld, judging by the lack I see in paper after paper.

    2. A shift in paradigm for what’s valued by newspaper ownership ? Corporate owners are interested in the business of newspapers, not the craft of its content. It used to be that the bean counter was in a small office on another floor away from the newsroom, while the newspaper was interested in hiring the best journalists possible. Now the corporation is interested in hiring the best bean counters possible, and those bean counters are dictating which employees come and go by measuring the hit against the bottom line, not by how good of a journalist they are.

    3. Blogging and Tweeting ? Only a very small percentage of bloggers practice the craft of journalism. As corporations have watched what is happening in the online world and have told employees “We have to have a blog,” we have seen the bastardization of what makes for quality in writing. The affect to the world of journalism is that it dumbs down the demand ? by paper ownership and readers alike ? for quality. And of course, those bean counters are the first to notice that, so why hire quality journalists? They’re too expensive and besides, who cares about quality ? just tell me how many hits they generate or how many followers they have.

  5. @Jeff, the relationship between print as a medium and high quality journalism is economic. Aside from TV and radio, print is the only other medium that shells out real income to hire real journalists and finance real stories. The Internet can’t and won’t, at least not consistently.

  6. It’s worth remembering how Google asked a bunch of top illustrators to design skins for Chrome for free. When some asked for pay, Google refused, claiming their pay would be in “exposure.” Even my smallest print clients do better than that — and Google is one of the richest companies in the world.

    They may be interested in “saving journalism” — as long as that journalism attracts readers online — but they don’t seem too concerned about writers and artists getting paid, to put it mildly. We’re inconvenient that way. Personally, I look at interesting print ads, while I try to tune out web ads as much as possible.

  7. “From someone with experience in the industry …”

    Whoops! There you go, Jeff … don’t you realize that, according to the rules of the Internet, you’re disqualified from commenting on this topic?

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