Papers kill papers

There’s been a ridiculous and unproductive debate of sorts lately about who killed papers, Google or craigslist. Answer: neither. Papers will kill papers. James Fallows got a great email from someone at Google that points to where the real dangers lie:

It’s not at all about blame-casting. It’s about proper diagnosis for treatment and recovery. If papers are critically ill from classified revenue woes (Craigslist, eBay, informal email, …) but they falsely self-diagnose as being sick from over exposure in Google News, then they’ll end up closing their borders by withdrawing from news aggregation sites at Google, Yahoo, MSN, and elsewhere. That won’t hurt Internet companies [like Google] at all, but it will leave publishers with fewer new visitors, less online monetization opportunities, and still obliviously infected with disappearing classified revenues. They will get sick faster, and journalism as democracy’s conscience will weaken. That will hurt every other company, every citizen, and nearly every country.

The only blame belongs to the publishers. . . . Newspapers will never be about selling your old BBQ again. Ads at random, scattered between unrelated stories, are not part of the future of shopping. . . .

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  • http://www.permissiontechnology.com Dave Hendricks

    That Atlantic article is indeed interesting.

    I agree that papers are killing papers. But there is a kevorkian in the room.

    Google (and all aggregators) use their sites to monetize visitors. That’s totally fair. But the cost of their content is ZERO. They claim innocence, but are parties to what is going on. That doesn’t make the failure of newspapers to innovate around their classifieds any less pathetic.

    The newspapers are just plain dumb. They bought the ‘make up for losses with volume’ story that is part of the early internet gold rush mentality. Pageviews and non-monetized users are only useful if you are going to sell yourself to the larger entity. So far I have not seen Google buying any papers, merely aggregating their content. Like Dick Cheney on Torture, a good offense is the best defense.

    Classifieds were a cash cow for newspapers. That is pretty much gone. We saw what happened with Careerbuilder and Cars.com – not much. Craigslist has simply done a better job and crowdsourced it. The papers never had the chance once users realized that there were better options. Their model was based on buggy whips, but they also tried to build gas stations. They didn’t do the latter well enough or fast enough.

    At some point papers are going to have to turn the digital dimes into at least digital quarters or fifty cent pieces. They won’t be able to do that if their content is ubiquitous and available off their site for free. If their content is aggregated (or worse, fetched and repurposed) they will never be able to use better targeting on their own sites to present better ads. They won’t even know who is reading their news. They can shape their experience, and even be helpful for shopping (not just brand awareness) if they know who is reading them.

    Who cares who is at fault. If newspapers can’t charge for their proprietary content it only makes sense that the Journalists have to fend for themselves. They count on the business leaders at papers to manage this for them, and they have failed. There is no economic model for reporting that has replaced the newspaper.

    And if Google doesn’t know that it is part of the problem, and not yet providing a solution, then I would be pretty surprised. I think that Eric Schmidt knows how culpable they are. Without the content of the papers, they would have jack to aggregate. Bloggers (like you and me) commonly drive their posts in reaction to something found in the dying newspaper realm.

    See the second half of the email contains the most interesting nugget “….Hearst, were he living as a ‘Rupert Murdoch’ of today, would own Craigslist by now, would have an industrywide micropayment system, would have recruited legions of readers as hyper-local bloggers, and otherwise employed the tools and resources of our day to advance his cause just as he brought cartoons, drawings, and later photographs and color to his readers in his.”

    In the great words of SNL’s ‘Hans and Frans’, hear me now, believe me later there will be some form of micropayment, if not outright subscription in the next two years. Without the classifieds to fund the papers, they will have to do this or shut down. Simple economic fact.

    • Andy Freeman

      > Google (and all aggregators) use their sites to monetize visitors. That’s totally fair. But the cost of their content is ZERO.

      Actually, the cost of Google’s content is enormous – it’s billions of dollars a year. To say otherwise is either ignorant or malicious.

      On the off chance that folks don’t understand what Google’s content is, it’s their indices and the whole process that makes it possible for a user to type in a query and get results.

      Yes, it costs Google billions of dollars to run their search engine. Their bill for crawling content alone is significant, but it’s a small part of their costs. They then have to analyse said content, generate indices, and provide all of the mechanism to support search over said indices.

      In a sense, it’s like free advertising – it’s telling people about what you have to sell.

      Is anyone else helping readers find newspaper content for free?

      Yes, Google does pose a problem for newspapers, but it’s not that Google gives away “their content” (which it doesn’t), but that Google makes it possible for someone to know that a given news source doesn’t have anything of relevance without said someone buying the newspaper or visiting its site.

      Do you really want to argue that a newspaper is owed revenue from/on behalf of someone when said newspaper doesn’t have relevant content for said someone?

      > Without the content of the papers, they would have jack to aggregate.

      Google search is not an aggregator – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aggregator . If you want to argue that headlines and ledes are the only valuable content to readers, then Google News is a problem. Otherwise, it’s just another way that Google helps folks find actual content, the stuff that isn’t in your headline and lede.

      That said, news searches are a small fraction of Google searches and Google News probably isn’t a significant contributor to Google’s revenues. In other words, don’t flatter yourself – Google would do just fine if it ignored newspapers.

      > They won’t be able to do that if their content is ubiquitous and available off their site for free.

      True, but irrelevant because Google doesn’t make newspapers’ content available off site (with the exception of headlines and ledes). It does, however, point to other sources for comparable content. Commodity news is now a low-margin biz, but said commoditization is coming from newspapers and news sources, not Google.

      > [Newspapers] won’t even know who is reading their news.

      Huh? Search results are links to content with a brief explanation as to why said content is relevant to the query. Search results aren’t said content.

      The links that Google provides (in search results) are just like other links – they don’t stop a site from knowing who has clicked a link to see the content.

      Outside of newspaper folk, I’ve never run into anyone who confused the card catalog with the books themselves.

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  • http://www.Leebow.com Ken Leebow

    Newspapers did not kill newspapers…the same thing is happening to TV today (and other industries). So, when TV “dies” in 5 to 10 years, will we be saying: “TV killed TV?” I hope not. It’s a totally new environment that killed it. It’s called the Internet.

  • http://www.lectroid.net Marc Matteo

    “The papers never had the chance once users realized that there were better options.”

    Never had the chance? Take a look at your local newspaper’s online classified offerings and compare them to Craigslist. Looks at the functionality differences, speed and ease of use, that kind of thing.

    Then note the year.

    It’s not that newspapers never had the chance, it’s that they never took the chance.

  • http://editor.blogspot.com Howard Weaver

    Some news companies – McClatchy is one – make much more money online than Craigslist. Onlin revenue at McClatchy is something more than double the annual take by Craiglist, and that’s just one company.

    Q: How would have adopting the Craigslist model have helped?

    A: It wouldn’t have made any material difference.

    Providing totally free online classified with a slow transition to charging on a tiny percentage (eg Craigslist), would not have helped news companies weather the erosion of revenue or audience they face.

    The anonymous Googler emailer is right about many things. You may note that giving away advertising isn’t part of Google’s plan, either.

    I do wish people who drop this misleading and sometimes simply foolish example of news company failures. It is a great success for Craigslist and a big win for classified advertisers, but the failure to adopt it manifestly IS NOT a newspaper mistake. Quit it.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Howard,

      The starting point is not what you make now. It’s what the service is worth to the marketplace. Craig didn’t start with how much he made or had to make. He started with how much he could make. That it was much less than you make was immaterial to him. Once the internet came and it was apparent that buyer and seller would connect directly, cutting out middlemen, newspapers damned well should have figured out how to adapt their businesses. Not doing so is what has led them to the precipice they stare over now.

      Please quit telling me to quit it.

  • http://editor.blogspot.com Howard Weaver

    Ah, actually Jeff, that comment was addressed to the comment ahead of mine, which specifically references classifieds and suggests lack of Craigslistishness was a miscue by newspapers.

    It ain’t always about you, buddy.

    And why would I want you to quit anyhow? What would I write about?

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Whew. What a relief.

  • http://www.freegoldxboxlive.com Fred gold

    At some point papers are going to have to turn the digital dimes into at least digital quarters or fifty cent pieces. They won’t be able to do that if their content is ubiquitous and available off their site for free. If their content is aggregated (or worse, fetched and repurposed) they will never be able to use better targeting on their own sites to present better ads.

  • http://blog.autotrafficconverter.com Traffic Converter

    It is always too easy for any business to blame everyone and everthing else, rather than look at their own performance and what they could do to try and fix it. Online news is growing at a phenomenal rate and newspapers in general have made no attempt to combat that.

    All you need to do is look at the Huffington News, which started as a small news blog and is now values in the millions basically because of its exposure. I have no idea if there is anything “real” newspapers can do, but they need to try something, and fast