For anybody who cares about the future of magazines and newspapers, James Fallows’ cover story in the latest Atlantic (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/06/how-to-save-the-news/8095) is a must read.
Fallows has spent a lot of time at Google, and he’s passing on how they view the situation. Interestingly, Google has been involved with helping many news outlets as they struggle through trying times. And surprisingly, Google is quite optimistic.
Google is looking at the long term, which is quite different from the view trying to meet payroll. Fallows reports a profound lack of interest in the question that fascinates news people—whether anybody will pay for news on the internet. “Of course people will end up paying in some form—why even talk about it? The important questions involved the details of how they would pay, and for what kind of news.” According to Google’s Neal Mohan, “The audience is there, and the dollars will follow. I would argue that publishers will ultimately do better in the digital world.”
That’s because delivering news over the internet is so much more efficient—no paper, printing presses or delivery trucks—and because the internet offers greater flexibility in the kind of news stories you present.
“One Google employee… mentioned [a] report on journalism’s future and pointed out a section called ‘Focus on the User.’ ‘They just mean, “Get money out of the user,”’ he said. ‘Nowhere do they talk about how to create something people actually want to read and engage with and use.’”
In the long run, bloggers and videographers and a million young entrepreneurs will figure out how to present more compelling content, with more varied approaches that target the interests of individual consumers. Google people spoke of the herd instinct that rules in many news outlets. This may sometimes increase the buzz around an otherwise disinteresting story—if everybody is writing about Michael Jackson, they may even get me to read a story about him. More likely, though, herd journalism represses readership. The more variety, the more likely I am to find something I care about.
In the short run, newspapers and magazines are going through a terrifically difficult transition. Readership is down. Reporters and photographers get laid off because advertising has vanished. There’s nobody left to cover the city council meeting, or the insurance committee of the state Senate.
According to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, “Newspapers don’t have a demand problem; they have a business-model problem.” Newspapers and magazines are in the throat of an erupting volcano, moving from print to internet, from a “bundled” approach that joins news, sports, movie reviews, and Ann Landers, all paid for from a single budget, to some yet unknown way of linking stories and payment.
Fallows details a number of ways Google is trying to help newspapers through this transition. Why? Because Google needs a strong journalism sector. “Google is valuable, by the logic I repeatedly heard, because the information people find through it is valuable. If the information is uninteresting, inaccurate, or untimely, people will not want to search for it.”
It’s encouraging to read this, because the more usual attitude of web-oriented folk is to dance gleefully on the grave of the “old media.” This article doesn’t shed much light on the next five years. But Google’s optimism, and their faith in innovation, inspires hope. If they think journalism has a future, maybe it does.