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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Google to the Rescue

Can Google Save Journalism?

James Fallows, the talented and insightful writer for The Atlantic, has a great piece in the current issue that might – just might – give hope to those of us who worry about the future of “real” journalism. It turns out that Google, thought by many to be helping speed the death of old line journalism, is actually devoting serious time and resources to strategies to help quality reporting survive and thrive when the old business models finally creak to a halt.

“It’s the triple whammy,” Eric Schmidt, the Google CEO told Fallows, that is killing newspapers. “Loss of classifieds, loss of circulation, loss of the value of display ads in print, on a per-ad basis. Online advertising is growing but has not caught up,” Schmidt said.

At the same time the smart guys at Google, clearly much more tech savvy than old-line news folks, realize that the value of the search engine is that it can – and must – supply quality content. Without quality reporting, no quality content.

Here’s Fallows on what Google is up to: “After talking during the past year with engineers and strategists at Google and recently interviewing some of their counterparts inside the news industry, I am convinced that there is a larger vision for news coming out of Google; that it is not simply a charity effort to buy off critics; and that it has been pushed hard enough by people at the top of the company, especially Schmidt, to become an internalized part of the culture in what is arguably the world’s most important media organization. Google’s initiatives do not constitute a complete or easy plan for the next phase of serious journalism. But they are more promising than what I’m used to seeing elsewhere, notably in the steady stream of ‘Crisis of the Press’ –style reports. The company’s ultimate ambition is in line with what most of today’s reporters, editors, and publishers are hoping for—which is what, in my view, most citizens should also support.”

I’m the guy who has often joked that I will be the last person in America to buy a newspaper. When everyone else has moved to the iPod or whatever, I’ll still be prowling around an airport or a newsstand looking for ink on newsprint. But even I must concede the old newspaper model is fading fast. Maybe even faster than anyone thinks.

Here’s how one Google strategist describes, not incorrectly, the current newspaper business model: “Grow trees—then grind them up, and truck big rolls of paper down from Canada? Then run them through enormously expensive machinery, hand-deliver them overnight to thousands of doorsteps, and leave more on newsstands, where the surplus is out of date immediately and must be thrown away? Who would say that made sense?” It doesn’t any more.

“It’s obvious that in five or 10 years, most news will be consumed on an electronic device of some sort,” Schmidt told Fallows. “Something that is mobile and personal, with a nice color screen. Imagine an iPod or Kindle smart enough to show you stories that are incremental to a story it showed you yesterday, rather than just repetitive. And it knows who your friends are and what they’re reading and think is hot. And it has display advertising with lots of nice color, and more personal and targeted, within the limits of creepiness. And it has a GPS and a radio network and knows what is going on around you. If you think about that, you get to an interesting answer very quickly, involving both subscriptions and ads.”

That is the key: how to generate the ad revenue – and remember most newspapers have always been a platform to sell ads, the news content was secondary.

Read Fallows piece and see if you don’t agree that Google gets the content piece and may just be smart enough to help the real journalists figure out the business approach, too.

Not everyone agrees, of course, but can anyone doubt that the way journalism is financed, distributed and packaged has already changed in rapid and remarkable fashion. I can’t see ahead to next year let alone ten years, but I’m confident we have only seen the beginning of the transformation. My hope is that the daily, hourly need for quality content will help drive the technological transformation.

You might want to Google that notion while reading your ink on newsprint…while you still can.

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