Reinventing the Newsroom

Thursday Reads

Posted in Creating Context, Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on April 9, 2009

I spent the morning doing a demo of our software for a potential customer, and while it’s always exciting to show off our stuff (particularly to editors who are being ground to bits by their existing systems), demos leave me exhausted even when they go off without a hitch. So, with mild apologies, a tour of interesting recent thoughts on digital-age journalism and the challenges it faces:

Ken Doctor offers a wide-ranging examination of Google, fair use and the link economy that I found intriguing and refreshingly fair-minded, an attempt to restart the conversation by staying away from both “Google is ripping us off” and “the link economy is all.”

For my part, I find the idea that Google is ripping off news organizations thoroughly ludicrous — Google delivers news organizations huge amounts of traffic, and news organizations have failed to take advantage of that traffic by creating new context to turn drive-by readers into repeat visitors. I’m not saying that’s easy to do, just that news organizations have done very little to address the problem, acting as if the context of a news story within the overall site is enough. That failure is in no way Google’s fault.

But there are reasons to potentially ask Google to do more, and they stem not from some bedrock unfairness in how the relationship between Google and news organizations has evolved, but from Google’s own mission statement. Part of what makes Google breathtaking to its admirers (I’m certainly one) and faintly ludicrous to its detractors is the company’s insistence that it has ambitions beyond being a technological colossus. This dates back to the company’s April 2004 IPO filing, in which Sergey Brin and Larry Page envisioned a corporate foundation and imagined that “someday this institution may eclipse Google itself in terms of overall world impact by ambitiously applying innovation and significant resources to the largest of the world’s problems.” The foundation exists and funds efforts to predict and prevent pandemics; empower the poor with information about public services; invest in small businesses in the developing world; accelerate electric cars’ commercialization; and make renewable energy cheaper. (For a nice overview, see this WSJ article by my former colleague Kevin J. Delaney.)

Now, a couple of points:

  • It would be pretty cheeky to equate a helping hand for the news industry with preventing pandemics. Let’s keep some perspective.
  • Google has always resisted the idea of getting into the news business itself, bluntly noting that content isn’t what it’s good at. I think it should continue to heed its own advice.
  • The fact that news organizations may serve a public good is no reason that the laws of market physics should be bent.

That said, I firmly believe newspapers are a public good and contribute to the health of democracy and the free flow of ideas. (Which isn’t the same as saying a post-newspaper ecology of news organizations and sources couldn’t also serve that valuable role.) And given Google’s proud evocation that it has corporate values that go far beyond P & L statements, that seems like grounds for the kind of conversation with Google that Ken Doctor suggests, with Google serving as a proxy for search engines in general and the overall link economy.

It’s foolish to try and stuff Web genies back in their bottles, as some newspaper captains with ships on the rocks seem to want to do. But you can reject that without assuming that the current models for Web monetization and content production/aggregation are perfect and eternal, handed down by God with Tim Berners-Lee as his prophet.

But if we have that conversation with Google, let’s approach it honestly, putting aside jabs about Internet parasites and arglebargle about Google needing a license to help consumers find information. Let’s acknowledge that what we’re talking about is, at its core, philanthropy and admit we’re appealing to Google’s sense of social mission. There’s no shame in this — Google is in the philanthropy business, after all. But let’s call it what it is.

Three more posts to check out:

At Nieman Journalism Lab, Martin Langeveld takes the idea that the topic should replace the article as the basic unit of digital-age news a step further, discussing how reporters would work in what he calls the “content cascade.” Simultaneously high-minded and practical, and very interesting.

Steve Yelvington offers the results of an anecdotal survey of newsrooms that have intergrated their print and online arms, and finds some lessons, including ones that I found disturbing but all too familiar: Too often, what results is less an integration than a takeover of online by print, with new print bosses who know nothing about the medium running online shops like it’s 1998. This is the exact opposite of what newsrooms ought to be doing, and is making an already tough transformation much harder.

At Saving the Media, Gina Chen brings the conversation about new media right down to earth by examining how the recent Binghamton shootings played out in the online news world. All of the lessons Gina draws are worth reading and re-reading and thinking about.

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  1. […] up on his post from last week seeking a new deal between newspapers and Google — an idea that got me thinking that one way to approach Google is to argue that its mission statement supports the idea of […]

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