How can newspapers help Google?

By Steve Outing

What goes around, comes around. … Sometimes when you’re having trouble coming up with a solution to a difficult problem, it helps to turn things upside down and get a new perspective.

I’d like to see the newspaper industry, especially the big metro dailies which are in the most trouble and closest to collapse, look at things differently. Stand on their heads. Ditto for the Associated Press, which has been saber-rattling lately about closing off some of its content, even some headlines and blurbs that most reasonable people would consider to be “fair use.” (See this video exchange on the Charlie Rose show between AP CEO Tom Curley and HuffingtonPost.com’s Arianna Huffington, where Huffington makes a strong case that AP and other saber-rattlers (Walter Isaacson, Rupert Murdoch, et al) are trying to go back to old times of walled gardens for media content, which are destined to fail today.)

So here’s an idea for newspapers, the AP, et al: Think through how you can help Google make more money! Figure out how to spread your content much more widely instead of focusing on how to restrict its flow.

Stop looking to the Recording Industry Association of America’s beyond-belief-stupid approach to the spread of music on the Internet (“Hey, I know! Let’s sue our customers!”) as a role model. Stop pointing the gun at your own head!

There’s a hint of why I say this in my previous blog post about Google’s Google News, the popular news link aggregator. The search giant just recently began dipping its toe in the water in terms of adding contextual ads on searches via Google News, but it’s held back on opening the ad spigot fully. You can guess why: It would cause even more of an uproar among news providers, some of whom would block their content from Google and likely get pushed toward putting price tags on their content (hello, again, walled gardens!).

What the AP and newspaper publishers really want is money from Google (their “fair share”). As the new middleman between the consumer and the news provider, Google is able to handily scoop up so much ad money for its role that there’s not enough left over to support the type of strong news media we’ve been used to. Ergo, newspapers are being cut back in size and quality, journalists are laid off, and investigative reporting can no longer be afforded by the institutions who used to do the bulk of it.

In my last blog item, I urged Google to come up with a revenue-share plan using Google News as a platform and opening the ad spigot. It would benefit itself by turning on another revenue source, and help news publishers by paying them according to the number of clicks through to their content by Google News users. Everybody (not just newspapers, but any website publisher that produces news and is tracked by Google News) wins, and publishers have less reason to saber-rattle and threaten to commit hari-kari by walling off some of their content.

Will Google do this? I’ve used my contact network to try to get the idea in front of Google CEO Eric Schmidt; I know at least that his personal PR rep has it and I hope passed it on. I’ve tried unsuccessfully to reach Krishna Bharat, Google’s chief scientist and the original developer of Google News, but he’s ignored me so far (despite that I met him a few weeks ago at Stanford as he and 4 other people interviewed me for a fellowship). Apparently my powers of influence at mighty Google are nil.

The AP and the newspaper industry (still) have power. How about if instead of threatening Google, the news industry joins forces to approach Google with a plan that would allow it to fully turn on the Google News ad spigot; financially support the entire community of news providers, new and old (this is NOT just about newspapers); and provide a way to improve Google News by establishing new methods for identifying the original sources of news so that they can be put at the top of relevant Google News pages and search results?

Newspapers’ and the AP’s approach to Google cannot be adversarial. It must be designed not only to help the news industry, but to benefit Google’s shareholders!

Yeah, I know, AP’s Curley “says,” as he did on the Charlie Rose interview and elsewhere, that the AP is not targeting Google. (Google is a paying AP customer, after all.) But it’s not difficult to read through the lines.

When I read comments by people like AP Chairman Dean Singleton, who told the Newspaper Association of America recently, “We can no longer stand by and watch others walk off with our work under misguided legal theories,” and press baron Rupert Murdoch say, “Should we be allowing Google to steal all our copyrights? Thanks, but no thanks,” visions of the RIAA ring in my head. Those guys need to stand on their heads and look at the situation from a new perspective.

If they can achieve an intelligent dialog with Google and come up with a plan that benefits both sides, then newspapers can follow Huffington’s advice (of which I concur, 100%), and do everything they can to get their content everywhere possible online. Monetize it not just within your walled garden (website), but on every blog or website that your content appears on.

Newspapers and other old-mindset news providers are panicking. They need money! Now! I think they might find it if they stand on their heads.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!

13 Responses to "How can newspapers help Google?"

  1. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 8 years ago .Reply

    I didn’t want to make this item even longer, so I’ll use the comments to emphasize that I’m not an “all information should be free!” advocate. There may be content produced by newspapers and other news companies that’s worth locking down and getting people to pay for. The Wall Street Journal is successful at that with its website, but its content is niche and some of it fine-niche and thus worth some people paying for.

    General-interest newspapers can do this, too, but it’s difficult to find any of their content that many people would pay for. They’ll have to develop new types of content in order to find something unique that online users will pay for.

  2. […] by virtualjournalist on April 12, 2009 Forget walled gardens of content: Steve Outing says the newspaper industry can help itself by working with Google, not against it: So here’s an idea for newspapers, the AP, et al: Think through how you can help […]

  3. Ryan Tate
    Ryan Tate 8 years ago .Reply

    Google spent the money to develop the code behind Google News, which is not trivial. Newspapers didn’t have the foresight to do this.

    If Google took the risk, alone, why should it have to share up the upside?

    Why should Google have to pay when competitors like TechMeme (and its non tech flavors like Memeorandum) don’t have pay?

    If Google pays, doesn’t that set a precedent that anyone who wants to innovate in this area should have to pay, too? What does that do to news startup funding?

    Not sure you’ve thought this through.

  4. […] How can newspapers help Google? […]

  5. Chris O'Brien
    Chris O'Brien 8 years ago .Reply

    Interesting idea. Just to follow it through, it’s also worth noting that despite all the hype Google News receives, it’s still an also-ran compared to Yahoo News in terms of traffic. So…it would seem Google could actually use some help here.

  6. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 8 years ago .Reply

    Ryan: As I tried to make clear, this is not about Google “having to pay.” It’s about the newspaper industry being desperate, and therefore deciding to talk with Google and come up with a plan (not a demand, not a threat) that allows Google to monetize Google News and grow it and improve it. If news companies get in on the discussion stage of development of such a program, they’ll be more likely to talk Google into giving news providers (ALL, not just newspapers) a workable slice of the pie. Both sides benefit. If Google monetizes Google News without cutting news providers in on a reasonable revenue cut, the biggest media companies (the ones stuck in old mindsets and unable to view Google as friend and not foe) will either send in the lawyers or opt out, and Google News becomes a less valuable service, and less valuable an asset to Google.

    If all Eric Schmidt has to offer is, “We figure out ways to send you even more traffic, then you news guys monetize that,” the based on the sentiment of old-school publishers who remain in power, the biggest news companies will remove themselves from Google News’ reaches and build pay walls. You can argue that that would be a dumb move (and I’d argue that), but it looks like the news industry is dead set on going that route.

    “Why should it have to share the upside?” Because if it doesn’t, everybody loses, including Google, and including the public. (I view news as a public good, and the current online news landscape means that more people have access to more news and knowledge.)

    As for “setting a precedent,” so what? It doesn’t have to have an impact on any other entity. They’re free to implement similar programs IF IT BENEFITS THEM. But just like Google, those other entities operate in the interests of their shareholders and investors, not news providers. They’ll act to benefit news providers if it is in their interest.

    Let’s keep the lawyers out of this (since they’d have a dubious case suggesting that what Google and other aggregators do is a violation of “fair use”). Google has the money to fight hard against any legal precedent that would tighten what we regard as the definition of fair use. I doubt struggling news companies could afford to put up much of a fight.

    As long as a revenue-share plan is mutually beneficial and not coercive to anyone, it shouldn’t affect start-ups in this space. That would only happen if this thing turns the wrong way, the news dinosaurs decide to sue to tighten fair use online, and we get a bad court ruling that upsets the link economy.

    I find the mindset of the AP (as expressed by its CEO) to be archaic, and also dangerous. If we could “please just all get along” and find a plan to works for both sides, then we reduce the risk of damaging the Internet and high value of the link economy. I would hate to see old thinking by powerful interests ruin a good thing.

  7. Chip Kaye
    Chip Kaye 8 years ago .Reply

    “I find the mindset of the AP (as expressed by its CEO) to be archaic”

    No doubt – Tom Curly has brought a desperate sounding, ham-fisted voice to the table – “beacons”, “fair use”, “policing”, etc. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a fundamentally important issue here. Unfortunately, the issue is being misunderstood as everybody enjoys a debate driven by emotion, personality and the specific question of Google (bad) vs. AP (dumb).

    I think the question we need to consider is a general one: how will content providers charge content aggregators for content links – who, when, and how much. Especially how much. Forget about “walled gardens” vs. “linked economy” – we get it: inbound links must not greet users with a paywall. But that has nothing to do with the financial arrangements between bussinesses like Google and AP. But, you say: Google has a “multi-million” dollar licensing deal with AP? WOW – you mean “wahn MEEELYON dollars”?!! How about we try some other figures – how about, say, $500M annually? And Yahoo – how about another $300M annually? And HuffPo – how about $5M? And your local community news site – how about $0? Point being, I have no clue what those specific figures should be or how the scale should be applied, but it seems clear that whatever amount is currently being payed by successful aggregators is too close to zero.

    None of this is to suggest the news industry should be off the hook for past failures or working to innovate going forward. But AP does have a legitimate argument around the specifics of licensing content aggregators. “If we could ‘please just all get along’” is a nice idea, but this is about cold, hard business – the syndication business in particular. Content aggregation players are enjoying a bonanza for the moment b/c there is little or no cost for the raw material (and a headline link *is* a valuable raw material). And that is a good thing – for now – b/c it gives rise to innovative new models like HuffPo’s link-journalism + added commentary. But things eventually have to change enough to support the cost of producing that original content. Call it a system in chaos starting to find economic equilibrium. Call it whatever you like, but as the dust settles, and the bottom lines come into focus, there are going to be adjustments.

  8. […] AP may be dumb, but they’re not wrong 2009 April 13 by Chip Kaye NOTE: this post is a response to the blog post How can newspapers help Google? […]

  9. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 8 years ago .Reply

    Chip: The big problem, though, is that newspapers have lost their power. Through inaction and inability to transform, they’ve ceded it to the newcomers. A new news infrastructure is rising from entrepreneurs and laid-off newspaper employees, who are trying for- and non-profit models to become newspapers’ successors. It’s still tiny now, but since newspapers at the metro level are now sinking so fast, the little guys will grow faster to fill in the holes.

    So I don’t feel like the newspaper industry has much bargaining power any more. They hesitated too long, and they basically blew it.

    The argument I’m trying to make is that the full gamut of news providers — from legacy institutions like newspapers, to underfunded start-ups like VoiceofSanDiego and Minnpost.com, to promising news sites like Politico and Talking Points Memo — do not have enough money in the overall pool to support an effective press for this new age. Google and other successful aggregators and search companies need to help this situation, or else their news assets (Google News, et al) will lose value.

    I just don’t see the AP’s growling as being loud enough any more to force Google to cut them in on the deal. Better to make the case that the situation for news providers is so bad that it will hurt Google if it doesn’t help out.

    We’ll see how it turns out. I strongly suspect my advice will be ignored and we’ll quickly see a bunch of papers step backward and erect pay walls.

  10. […] Outing, finally, suggests turning the Google-and-newspapers picture upside down, with newspapers cooperating with Google to fully monetize Google News by turning the “ad […]

  11. Ryan Tate
    Ryan Tate 8 years ago .Reply

    Steve, I hear you about it being a way to keep the newspapers from excluding Google News via (say) robots.txt. Interesting angle. I guess I just assumed that the newspapers/publishers would never dare do that. But their attitude does seem to be evolving rather quickly.

    Google has to worry, though, about getting outmaneuvered by the competitor I mentioned and others. A Google Newsish aggregator can be built strictly on totally free new media sources right now (Twitter, blogs, professional Web publishers) and be very powerful without paying a cent. Does adding newspapers+AP+Reuters etc. really give enough of an edge financially to justify the payouts? That’s the tough calculus Google must now do. Far from an easy call IMHO.

  12. Ryan Tate
    Ryan Tate 8 years ago .Reply

    PS The cynical answer is that if adding those sources was financially justifiable, they’d be profitable on their own, online.

    The more optimistic answer is that their content is worth a lot more than they’re fetching, they just need Google’s packaging skills.

  13. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 8 years ago .Reply

    Ryan: Wouldn’t calculation be, which brings in more $$?
    1. Allow most credible (established brand) media to back out (which they seem poised to do) and keep all ad money on Google News.
    or
    2. Share ad money in order to keep Google News as leading news search/aggregation service because sources and best content don’t dry up, thereby making GN a better ad-revenue generator.

    Without doing the “calculus,” I’d guess option 2 is more profitable. And it has the bonus of serving a public good (financing journalism at a time when it’s beginning to fail our society).

    Maybe Google is too big now and just another Microsoft. But I think of it as a different kind of company that wants to do the right thing. “Do no evil.”

    Google letting journalism badly decline because it chose option 1 would be “doing evil,” no?

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