To Eric Schmidt: What happened to ‘Don’t Be Evil’?

By Steve Outing

I’ve tried to make the case in the last couple of blog posts that it’s in Google’s interest to share ad revenues with news providers, by opening up Google News fully to advertising and offering a story-clickthrough-based rev-share program for participating publishers tracked by the service. Without throwing a good-sized financial bone at the news folks, putting more ads on Google News (there are very few currently) will create an uproar among news companies and give Google a black eye that will tarnish the company’s golden reputation.

I haven’t had the chance to meet or interview CEO Eric Schmidt (working on it), but seeing his public speeches I’ve generally had a good feeling about the guy. But after reading New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd’s column on interviewing Schmidt, “Dinosaur at the Gate,” I’m beginning to wonder if he’ll end up with a Bill Gates reputation. (That’s Gates the ruthless businessman before he turned to philanthropy.)

Writes Dowd:

“Why can’t Google, which likes to see itself as a ‘Don’t Be Evil’ benevolent force in society, just write us a big check for using our stories, so we can keep checks and balances alive and continue to provide the search engine with our stories? After all, Schmidt acknowledges that a lot of what’s on the Internet is ‘a sewer.’ He told me people don’t come to Google for ‘crap,’ but for what’s ‘useful.’

“He declines to pony up money, noting that newspapers could opt out of giving their content to Google free and adding, ‘We actually like making our own money for obviously good capitalist reasons.’

“He says: ‘The best way to get out of this is to invent a new product. That’s the way Google thinks. Incumbents very seldom invent the future.'”

Dowd didn’t ask the question the way I would have, but many of her commenters on that column got the point right. Wrote one Dowd reader:

“Google should somehow partner with the content providers not out of charity but because they won’t have anything worthwhile to search for in a few years if they don’t fork over some of their profits.”

And another…

“News, analysis, opinions, etc. need to be created on an ongoing basis. If as a consequence of Google not sharing any revenues with newspapers, the latter cannot operate any longer, then in essence Google would have slayed the goose that lay the proverbial golden egg.”

As I’ve said in my last two blog items, it’s in Google shareholders’ interest for the company to share its ad revenues with news providers. (And I don’t mean only newspapers and other big media companies; such a program as I’ve proposed would cover even the tiny new-media start-up news sites that Google News tracks and links to.) Schmidt’s unwillingness to come up with a mutually beneficial sharing strategy is just about to push the best journalism behind pay walls, a panicking-publisher movement that appears unstoppable. That’s not exactly in Google shareholders’ best interest.

So what’s the deal, Mr. Schmidt? Have you deleted Sergey Brin and Larry Page’s “Don’t Be Evil” mantra from the corporate mission statement? Because by not helping maintain a strong press (and this has NOTHING to do with saving newsPAPERS; it’s about saving quality journalism), you’re allowing a once strong watchdog press to lose its fangs.

This isn’t about charity to news companies that didn’t have the smarts to reinvent themselves for the digital media era. It’s about turning one of Google’s assets, Google News, into a profit center that also happens to serve a public good: financially supporting news organizations from big to small.

If Schmidt has his way, as expressed to Dowd, it’s not just dinosaur media like newspapers that will suffer. The news entities being formed today to replace newspapers will have less of a chance of making it, because there’s not enough advertising money to go around (and Google grabs so much of it now).

Schmidt told the Newspaper Association of America recently, “Let me just say precisely: It’s a sewer out there.” So I guess he’s willing to allow pissed-off and scared news executives to put the quality content of theirs that Google News tracks to go behind pay walls and the content universe that Google News tracks to get a bit smellier, rather than come up with a plan that prevents that and helps to reverse a journalism (NOT just a newspaper) crisis.

C’mon, Mr. Schmidt, do the right thing. Don’t be evil. It’s even in your best interest!

(Note: I have specifically suggested that a news-provider revenue-share program be limited to Google News, because it tracks a limited and select number of news providers. Sharing revenues on web searches that lead people to news sites is more troubling; it could mean that all manner of websites want their cut. Let’s not go there just now.)

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!