Reinventing the Newsroom

The AP Reinvents Pathfinder

Posted in Branding, Creating Context, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on April 13, 2009

The argument over how or whether the newspaper industry ought to approach Google is continuing, with the two camps (which can be dubbed, with only mild oversimplification, Google Is a Thieving Parasite and Google Is the Lifeblood of New Journalism) digging in and anyone trying to stake out middle ground ducking pot shots.

First, the new stuff.

On Rough Type, Nicholas Carr looks at Google as middleman, arguing that while Google absolutely brings traffic to newspaper sites, “when a middleman controls a market, the supplier has no real choice but to work with the middleman — even if the middleman makes it impossible for the supplier to make money.” (The italics are his.) Yes, newspaper sites can opt out of Google by invoking robots.txt — but it would be suicidal for them to do so. Linking to an argument by Tom Slee, Carr paints Google as the Wal-Mart of links — everything is voluntary, but it’s Google’s way or the highway. (Carr notes that he isn’t criticizing Google — the company is just acting in its own self-interest.)

On Content Bridges, Ken Doctor also portrays Google as an inescapable middleman, and follows 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 newspapers as a public good that ought to be supported. (Yes, that’s an appeal to philanthropy — but Google does have a philanthropic arm it’s very proud of. And isn’t it a better starting point for a conversation than calling Google names?)

Steve 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 spigot” completely on and sharing revenue. It’s an interesting idea — don’t miss the give and take in the comments.

This has been a long-running drama in the newspaper industry, one that took a dramatic turn last week, when the Associated Press began muttering darkly and vaguely that it was going to do … something vis-a-vis its relationship with aggregators such as Google. (Witness Dean Singleton, whose chosen metaphor I found distressingly off the mark.)

Saber-rattling aside, what’s the AP going to do? For one thing, they’re going to build their own “search-friendly landing page” for AP members’ content. (David Carr discusses this and reviews the whole brouhaha in today’s New York Times.)

Really? That’s the answer? For Google News, substitute a … portal?

This is yet more distressing evidence that the asteroid that’s hit the newspaper industry is ushering in a dreadful reverse Cretaceous: The Web mammals are dying (murder weapon: pink slips) and leaving shivering dinosaurs who are trying to survive by coming up with ideas that the Web mammals sorted through and applied or discarded more than a decade ago.

Remember Pathfinder? It was Time Warner’s 1994 umbrella site for its various print titles, and Pathfinderitis should be shorthand for an unfortunate affliction of brand myopia that still causes big companies to walk smack into the lamp posts and brick walls of the Web world. Pathfinder was a great idea provided you knew that a given title was published by Time Warner. That passed muster with Time Warner executives, since this was the way they dealt with the world every day. And when you don’t get out of your own building enough, it’s easy to think that consumers see the world that way too.

The problem, of course, is that they don’t. Consumers don’t have the faintest idea what conglomerate produced their favorite magazine, published the book they’ve been reading, distributed a band’s MP3s, produced a TV series or bankrolled a movie. The brands that matter are the magazine, the author or title, the band, the name of the show, and the name of the movie. Even a quick conversation with most any consumer could prove this, yet various rights holders spent unfathomable amounts of money in the early years of the Web imagining consumers thought otherwise, or could be taught to do so. (Witness Go, Disney’s dopey attempt at a portal — now reduced to pointless additional letters in Web addresses such as ESPN’s. Or the various stillborn attempts by record labels to set up their own digital-music sites.)

The AP has now developed what sure looks like an acute case of Pathfinderitis. The AP is a business brand, not a consumer one — if news consumers are aware of it at all, it’s probably as a behind-the-scenes entity that bulks up regional papers with news from elsewhere. (And that’s something regional papers are increasingly realizing isn’t worth their time or money now that they can just link to the likes of the New York Times.) Trying to transform the AP from a business brand into a consumer brand is folly. Trying to do it by creating a portal in 2009 is folly upon folly. Who does AP think will visit this landing page? What dramatic shift in behavior will cause them to do so?

Now, a caveat. Pathfinder dates back to the Web era when search engines were generally terrible, and umbrella brands made marginally more sense. The dominance of effective search in today’s Web has served as a partial cure for Pathfinderitis — it doesn’t eliminate the affliction, but it does prevent it from being immediately fatal, because consumers can find what they’re looking for without having to make their way to a landing page.

In fact, search’s central role in the Web experience has led to the creation of “bottom-up brands” such as, YouTube, Wikipedia and Hulu. These brands have identities of their own and traditional brand trappings such as landing pages, but many of their users have never visited those landing pages and wouldn’t think to do so.  That’s because they encounter bottom-up brands through individual slices — slices which they find via search.

It’s possible to build consumer awareness of bottom-up brands through repeated exposure to these bits and pieces — some of those bottom-up brands are now pretty well-known in their own right. But that’s almost a byproduct of success — the traditional method of brand-building turned upside down. And that success depends on search. Which is to say, on Google.

Could the AP succeed this way, or at least not fail? Maybe. But to do so, it would need for its content to do well in search and be repeatedly found by consumers, who would slowly learn that the underlying AP brand was a winner and possibly begin to seek it out. Is there a mechanism for driving that process in the news business? In fact, there is. Unfortunately for the AP, it’s called Google News.

Oh, by the way — Pathfinder still exists. It lives on here as a forlorn, unlit beacon for a grab bag of Time Warner properties. (Incredibly enough, Coastal Living is “the Web site for people love the coast.”) If you want a sneak preview of the AP landing page come 2019, look no further.

4 Responses

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  1. Steve said, on April 14, 2009 at 5:15 am

    Jason – that was a good article. I think of the two viewpoints of Google – either as Thieving Parasite or the Lifeblood of New Journalism – it matters more that Google ‘is’. It’s there, will be for a long time, and is even possibly (probably?) agnostic as to how it’s perceived. Trying to batten down those hatches waiting for this hurricane to blow over is pointless – better to go out and build windmills and put the new force, even if it can’t be controlled directly, to effective use.

  2. David Roth said, on April 15, 2009 at 12:12 am

    It seems to me that Steve — and you — are both right on about this, but it also sometimes seems like the same point is being reiterated over and over again in this space: fighting the future, which seems to be the first impulse here, is just not a good look. I feel for the career newspaperfolk who are dealing with the decline of paper news by, to borrow Steve’s metaphor, attempting to build and batten better hatches. But I have to think that, sooner than later, the obvious futility of that goal is going to hit home, right? How many more awful quarters and rounds of layoffs can it possibly take?

    The sunny side, it seems to me, is that everything about the internet’s abundance suggests that the market for information is all kinds of healthy (making money off that hunger is a different story, but I’m a literary genius, not a business guy). Demanding that things continue to be done a certain way — on your terms, with only you getting any revenue from it — seems shortsighted, but a swallowing of institutional pride (for the AP and the big papers with their mighty hatches) seems like it’d do a lot to move the whole deal towards viability. No one’s going to topple or stop Google and what it represents, but the AP (and the Times and whoever else) still does something Google doesn’t, and there’s an obvious value in that, even if they can’t quite make money off it yet. It’s just kind of a sick feeling, for those of us who depend on these goofs for a living, waiting for someone in the biz to have the epiphany that swimming with the tide is going to make getting wherever we’re going that much easier.

  3. reinventingthenewsroom said, on April 15, 2009 at 10:56 am

    Hi David, at the risk of making you sicker, Eric Schmidt has a killer quote in Maureen Dowd’s column from yesterday: “Incumbents very seldom invent the future.” That one’s pretty t-shirtworthy. (So, by the way, is “Fighting the future is just not a good look.”)

    I think Schmidt is right, but what that means might depend on which incumbents you’re talking about. The NYT is doing a pretty good job at future-engineering, for instance. And some of the other big newspaper brands ought to be able to survive the storm and take advantage of others’ innovations. (No shame there — it’s the human way.) But will regional and local papers emerge intact and able to adapt? I hope they will, but too often fear they won’t.

  4. […] which at least sounds better than suggested by the initial reports I reacted to somewhat savagely here. But the fact that these pages will be largely automated sets off all kinds of alarm bells for me […]

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