When I saw Edward Roussel, head of digital for the Telegraph, on my last trip to London, he said over breakfast that he’d been thinking about my book title’s question — What Would Google Do? — in relation to newspapers and he came up with a radical notion:
What if newspapers handed over much of their work to Google? Edward reasoned that Google already is the key distributor online. He said that Google is great at technology and newspapers aren’t and for the future, where are the best technologists going to go? Google. Google is also brilliant at selling ads and Edward even wondered where the best sales talent would go in the future: there or a paper? So why not hand over those segments of the business to Google and concentrate on what a newspaper should do: journalism?
Edward’s discussion is an elegant way to formulate and answer one of the key challenges I pose in the book: You must decide what business you’re in. As I said at the Guardian the next day, AOL thought it was in the content business and that is what led to the disastrous purchase of Time Warner; it was actually in the community business and should have instead become Facebook. Yahoo thought it, too, was in the content business and that is what led to its Terry-Semel-led fantasies of becoming a studio; it was in the ad business before Google and, if it had realized that, could have been Google.
Newspapers are in the wrong businesses. They should no longer be in the manufacturing and distribution businesses — which have become heavy cost yokes — and should no longer try to be in the technology business. They’re bad at it.
That was the point made by Bob Wyman — a founder of Pubsub who now works at Google and who leaves some of the most intelligent and provocative comments here at Buzzmachine — under my post yesterday trying to rethink newsroom budgets. Bob said newspapers should not be creating technology. I asked whether they should — in Edward’s notion — hand this over to Google. Maybe, Bob said. His advice to a newspaper guy on technology:
Your IT infrastructure is a COST of doing business. It is not a thing of value.
Today’s newspapers invest in their web sites out of vanity and from an inability to get their heads out of the geographically defined markets of the past. They have a “local paper” so they assume they need a “local site.” Bull. Developing and maintaining a web site is expensive and reduces the funds available to support the journalism and community building. All but the largest papers should be sharing their websites, computer technology, etc. If you think you need SQL and HTML people on full-time staff, then you’re probably not understanding what it will take it succeed in the future.
I then asked Bob whether Google could fulfill that role for papers. He responded:
Frankly, I think that would make a great deal of sense. Heck, an online paper isn’t much more than a complicated Blogger.com. If Google can provide free hosting to the “citizen journalists” who are making life difficult for the newspapers, Google should be able to host the newspapers for free as well. The newspapers would certainly generate more revenue than cat pictures! The idea would be to have each “newsroom” focus on whatever it does best and then link them all together into a larger whole which is greater than the sum of the parts. Google has search engines, alert systems, video serving, annotations, database services, AppEngine, more scalability than you can imagine, etc…. Ideally, every newsroom would be able to think of Google, and all its capabilities, as their own. It just doesn’t make sense for hundreds or thousands of newspapers to try to craft their own versions of all this stuff.
But, if Google doesn’t do this or, because of political issues can’t do it, then Yahoo! or Daylife or even the AP should do it instead. The point is that someone should provide a technology platform that serves as the “paper” for the new journalism and takes the “web site” expense line out of journalism’s budget. The web should be where a newsroom makes money — not where it spends it! . . . .
So, while we might have once needed one press for each newsroom, today, we can serve them all with one or a few web sites. On the other hand, we *still* need journalists scattered all over the place since the news is, and always will be, highly distributed.
A rational industry would distribute the journalists and share the platform.
Whether it’s Google or someone else, the idea is right: Newspapers should concentrate on what the are supposed to do and stop trying to differentiate themselves with technology.
Part of the problem is institutional ego. Newspapers have long thought they are — in your head, hear Dana Carvey as SNL’s Church Lady saying this — special. When publishing systems arrived in the ’70s, papers wasted millions of dollars each specing and sometimes building their own customized systems, refusing to admit that what they did — typing, hooking graphs, fitting heads — was no different from any other paper. After I left the Chicago Tribune in the late ’70s, they created a one-of-a-kind CMS that was such a disaster the company dispatched its own vaunted Task Force investigative journalists to probe the failure.
So take the advice, papers: Get out of the manufacturing and distribution and technology businesses as soon as possible. Turn off the press. Outsource the computers. Outsource the copyediting to India or to the readers. Collaborate with the reporting public. And then ask what you really are. The answer matters dearly.
And a note to others — Google, the AP, et al: There is an opportunity here to be the platform for news. Takers?
(You’ll be seeing a lot of posts like this as I gear up for the New Business Models for News conference at CUNY in the fall. Please keep the great conversation going.)
: LATER: Via a Jay Rosen tweet, I see this post by David Sullivan lamenting newspapers’ logistical roots: “But newspapers are essentially a logistics business that happens to employ journalists. That’s why newspapers didn’t invent Google.”
: LATER STILL: Adrian Monck fears that we’re setting up journalists as merely suppliers and then — as he knows from the TV biz — that becomes a business of controlling costs. I didn’t express it well enough then. In this view, Google would not run the site; the paper would run the site and still control the content, advertising, brand, and relationships. Google would just be the backshop, the infrastructure.
Others fret about ad revenue. Same point: Newspapers now outsource some of their sales: national to networks, classifieds to Monster or Yahoo or Cars.com, online to various other networks — and Google. Whoever sells the ads, there’s always a cost of sale — commission to sales person or salary. So there’s really no difference. The ads go on the newspaper’s site and the newspaper gets the profit from that. Note also that newspaper ad sales teams are a problem; they don’t know how to sell online (I still think they could be taught but in most places of which I’m aware, that hasn’t happened yet) and they are accustomed to managing lists of existing business rather than drumming up new business. So outsourcing could be an improvement.
: I’m causing confusion aplenty. James Joyner frets about getting rid of print. I’m not saying they have to. I’m saying they should get out of the printing business.