Shooting red herring in a barrel

Neil Henry, a journalism prof at UC Berkeley, sets loose a school of red herring in a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed lamenting the layoff of a quarter of the edit staff at the paper and throwing blame at Google. I’ll go after just that fish. Says Henry:

I see a world where corporations such as Google and Yahoo continue to enrich themselves with little returning to journalistic enterprises, all this ultimately at the expense of legions of professional reporters across America, now out of work because their employers in “old” media could not afford to pay them.

First of all, I don’t see how Google is directly making a fortune off news. It has no ads on GoogleNews. Yes, it includes headlines now in its universal serach results and there are ads on those pages. But those headlines all link directly to the journalistic institutions that produce them. They should only wish that Google would put more headlines on that page.

Second, these companies actually help news organizations: Yahoo pays syndication fees for the content it runs. And Google is far and away the most productive means of sending audience to news sites. Even more than Drudge.

Third, it’s up to the news sites to then make the best of that audience. One way to do that is to put Google ads on the page. That’s how brings in tens of millions of dollars a year: Google sends it traffic and sells targeted ads on the pages where they arrive.

Fourth, it’s our own damned fault in publishing — and next, broadcasting — that we have handed over the advertising marketplace to Google. We can sell better targeting around people and not just words. But if we sit back and do nothing as an industry, Google will next take over local retail advertising. So we need to get off our asses and build a competitor.

Fifth, I sympathize, of course, with the people who are being laid off but I also say that the Chronicle, the LA Times, and other newspapers that are moaning woe is me are at fault for not long ago seeing that this was coming and reorganizing around their new post-monopoly reality and new collaborative possibilities. Don’t blame Google for your bad management.

Henry continues:

Indeed last week, at a conference on the state of American newspapers at Stanford, Google Vice President Marissa Mayer reportedly made this argument quite clearly. She said simply: “We are computer scientists, not journalists.”
While that may be true, the time has come for corporations such as Google to accept more responsibility for the future of American journalism, in recognition of the threat “computer science” poses to journalism’s place in a democratic society.

How about considering the immense possibilities that “computer science” (why the quotes) brings to both journalism and democracy? He goes on:

It is no longer acceptable for Google corporate executives to say that they don’t practice journalism, they only work to provide links to “content providers.” Journalism is not just a matter of jobs, and dollars and cents lost. It is a public trust vital to a free society. It stands to reason that Google and corporations like it, who indirectly benefit so enormously from the expensive labor of journalists, should begin to take on greater civic responsibility for journalism’s plight. Is it possible for Google to somehow engage and support the traditional news industry and important local newspapers more fully, for example, to become a vital part of possible solutions to this crisis instead of a part of the problem? Is it not possible for Google and other information corporations to offer more direct support to schools of journalism to help ensure that this craft’s values and skills are passed on to the next generation?

So it’s a pitch. Give j-schools money. Oh, I’d love to see some Google money come to my school (and I have a few proposals I can send their way) but I don’t think they owe us reparations. Hardly. One more:

Is it not possible for these flourishing corporations to assist and identify more closely with the work of venerable organizations, such as the Society of Professional Journalists, in support of their mission and to preserve this important calling? I like to think such things are possible. Meantime, I can’t help but fear a future, increasingly barren of skilled journalists, in which Google “news” searches turn up not news, but the latest snarky rants from basement bloggers, fake news reports from government officials and PR cleverly peddled in the guise of journalism by advertisers wishing only to sell, sell, sell.

Or you could decide how to bring those damned bloggers into your fraternity and work together. You could be looking for new business models for news that take advantage of these new possibilities. You could be finding new efficiencies in newsrooms and among all those who do indeed make money off the work of journalists — like truck drivers. You couuld be looking to the future, not the past and you could be looking within to find blame for why news organizations are in this mess.

Far be it from me to be Google’s apologist; they don’t need me. And note well that I believe we need to find more ways to compete with Google. But they’re only doing their job. And we in journalism should be doing ours.