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.

  • Google is not interested in providing news any more than youtube. Click-driven content leaves no place to cover the news stories that lack the snappy visual appeal of “news mcnuggets”.

    I have little sympathy for the mainstream media monopolies especially after the shameful and continuing debacle of the coverage of Iraq. It seems unlikely that traditional media can limp on for very much longer. But all news is not good news.

  • This guy is a caricature. He’s straight out of a Dickens novel, if Dickens was cranking out novels in the 21st century. Complain, complain, complain, can I have a handout please?

  • Agree. This anger at Google is misplaced. Suggesting that Google News should pay newspapers for displaying their headlines, synopses, and links to the papers’ sites makes as much sense as asking the Yellow Pages to pay those with listings. I’ve written more about this on my post here:

  • If you liked Neil Henry’s we’re-a-public-trust-so-pay-up logic, you’ll love this one even more.

  • 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.

    The trick – or rather as it stands in my case, the hope – is to go away and find someone to build a home-made version of Adify, DoubleClick, etc…

    Arm yourself with that and, ideally, a recently made redundant newspaper ad salesman – there’s 100s of them about – and then go round every small business in the neighbourhood and ask them whether they want to carry on paying so many thousand pounds/dollars a month to Google and the like for their ranking – or else pay a fraction of that money per month to put their own banner ad on a popular local site that has its own exclusive content rolling across its pages.

    My banner ad server was built by the mate of the guy I used to sit on a bus with; yes, might be gawky, yes, it might not be very slick and, OK, so it’s named after my little lad, Tom – but it still tells Ady’s Skip Hire how many times his ad has been viewed and tells my Mrs when to invoice him.

    And that’s all either of them ever need to know.

  • Rob

    So, the San Francisco Chronicle is a “public trust” is it? I wonder what would happen if I showed up and asked for a tour of the newsroom?

    I don’t understand why newspaper websites don’t make money. There are gazillions of ads, ads that pop up, ads that cover the content until you dismiss them ads in sidebars and ads in the articles themselves.

    I think its because the organizations themselves are incredibly heavy. I would think that five well-connected and energetic people could cover and write up most of the news going on in the average-sized city: one for city politics, one for business, one for sports, one for entertainment and gossip and one utility infielder. Add a couple of interns to keep the Calendar of Events and sort incoming press releases and you’re there.

    Instead, they spend a fortune on staff and newsprint to edit the incomming AP wire and give me their take on national and internaitonal stories. A take that is only slightly different from the take of a hundred other city newspapers.

    How much money would the local rag save if they never ran another story on Iraq that didn’t have a local angle? I don’t want national politics or news from them either: I can get that at CNN and FoxNews. If they would just tend to their local business, they could downsize by an easy fifty percent and still give me more interesting content than they do now.

    It’s the conceit of newspapers: we’re a big, important, “public trust”, so we must cover “all the news that’s fit to print.”

    I say: “No you’re not. You’re my local newspaper. Shut up and tell me what is going on around here.”

    And, get some competition already. If you have to, fund a start-up. A business without competition is clearly in the wrong business.

  • Pingback: William M. Hartnett » Blog Archive » Links you probably won’t find on Remenesko()

  • Maybe there is a business model that will support the transition of media companies who happen to own newspapers, and maybe there isn’t. But the larger point is, I think, worth exploring: the new publishers of record create no content and have no journalistic tradition. Isn’t this extraordinary and historical?

    It is more than a little amusing that there are complaints and tsk tsks about the impact on journalism with a Thomson-Reuters combination or a Murdochian takeover of DJ but what seems like reflexive neutrality on what is going on in the business long term.

    I don’t blame Google or Yahoo for being successful or excuse newspapers that aren’t monetizing their inherent and inherited monopoly on local. But when journalists — and I do think that still means something special — are hurting and aggregating publishers regard journalism as just another widget byte it’s clear that something is going to have to give. It is this bifurcation that is revolutionary and I think journalists and newspapers and anyone who depends on a free and flourishing press has to come to grips with it. That requires recognizing the phenomenon first.

    What happens when there isn’t the structure to do enterprise? When institutional knowledge dies? When the public sees my take on the Supreme Court as valuable as Linda Greenhouse’s? When there isn’t anything unique to link to?

    I think it is possible to take a macro view of all this without taking the bait when one argument overextends, or when lawsuits are threatened (thanks, Jay for that link. Sigh). I am worried about what may happen to journalism if its custodians fail, and I will take no consolation if it is their own damn fault. I lose either way.

  • BW

    I would like to know where the voice of the paperboys is these days? As a former one we should also unite against Google for taking away some subscriptions.

  • Judge Crater

    These rants lose me as soon as they drop the “public trust” bomb.

    The First Amendment calls for freedom of the press, not a monopoly via barriers to entry.

    It’s a big changing world out there and some classes (like mainstream journalists) are losing their previously privileged positons. Those that are talented and flexible will adapt and do well.

  • Newspapers have disappointed their ad clients for decades. I know. I’ve listened to the complaints. And when newspapers were told that they were disappointing clients (and given a prescription for a cure) they said, “No thanks.”

    Now they want consumers to subsidize their prideful and neglectful ways.

  • Eric Gauvin

    First, second, third, fourth, and fifth… It appears you’re strongly in defense of new business models in journalism (yet to be determined). But don’t you think Henry has at least a little bit of a point? Don’t you think it’s a problem if a company like google makes money directly and indirectly from news sources that it is either directly or indirectly threatening economically? What are the new business models you’re proposing?

  • Pingback: bojo » Our own worst enemy()

  • John: I had an answer to you, but Buzzmachine won’t let me post it. Or it thinks I already posted it. Or it has me as a spammer, or something.

  • John

    As a computer scientist, I like what Ned^h^hil Henry had to say. I kind of like the idea of all you journalists being my personal moneybringing slaves. Just remember, Neil, when bringing that money, please don’t bother with smaller bills than $1000s. It’s just not worth it. ;-)

    Google will next take over local retail advertising. So we need to get off our asses and build a competitor.

    Except, she’s wrong about you all being computer scientists, so give it up. Actually, your true failing is as a businessman: good luck beating a well-done, FREE service.

    Look, there is no such thing as a job in which you don’t need to innovate every once in a while, just as some of you did as that TV thing evolved. Railing against Google will get you as far as Detroit’s railing against Japan. Remember how that went down? Who’s #1 now?

    Don’t you think it’s a problem if a company like google makes money directly and indirectly from news sources that it is either directly or indirectly threatening economically?

    No. provides a more powerful service in many ways to the local newspaper. Banning it would be like banning the automobile to preserve the buggy whip manufacturers. Or banning economical automobiles. You need to spend time on think how to go forward, not think about how evil the Internet is.

    What are the new business models you’re proposing?

    There are several quite successful now-online magazines and papers. Check out what they did.

  • Jay, if Jeff is “moderating” against *your* posts… I’m out of here for good… D.

  • God, no, I’d pay Jay to post here. I don’t know why the spam thing is cranky with his post. Jay emailed me the post so here’s an attempt to get it published….. This is from Jay Rosen……

    John: I don’t have any answers to what the business model is for sustaining the good and necessary journalism that you and I want to see. I agree that this is everyone’s to worry about.

    But my reply would be: read what he says ( . Douglas McLennan, editor,, reacting at Romenesko to Neil Henry’s column and to that right-on, Neil, sue-the-bastards letter I linked to earlier, puts it all very well (

    …Look at the digital operations of most newspapers. While they say they’re working on it, their investment has been far behind the curve, and virtually every meaningful innovation in the digital delivery of news and building of usership has been made outside the newspaper industry. Most newspaper websites are dull, confusing and difficult to read, violating long-established principles of reader usability. At a time when social networking sites are showing how to build massive loyal communities, news organizations’ interactivity is rudimentary at best. Companies like Google have raised digital advertising to an art, making it easy for advertisers to find the customers they want. Where have newspapers been? Asleep, while Craigslist and a host of other competitors have eaten their lunch.

    Newspapers started out with enormous advantages going into the digital age (remember “content is King”?) and have squandered it while others innovated. To take even one small example: there isn’t a single newspaper that has figured out a really usable way online to find out what’s going on tonight without lots of clicks and searching. So dozens of upstart online companies are finding a big audience. What a missed opportunity.

    How many newspapers have reconfigured their staffing to reflect the new hybrid print/online reality? Why are high-paid editors and reporters uploading jpegs and podcasts when digital assistants ought to be doing the mechanical tasks? Fast-moving web companies have learned to move with audiences and make those audiences part of a community. Newspapers, for the most part, hold on to rigid models and jump on new tools (everybody blog now!) without understanding how those tools can be used.

    …Google is an infrastructure, potentially the best friend any content producer has at the moment. Google sends floods of traffic around the internet in search of content its users want, presented in ways they can use it. Newspapers have always been about finding a readership and advertisers who want to reach those readers. There shouldn’t be a conflict here. Google is a reality. Any news organization that wants to make it in the new digital world better find a way to work with companies like Google and the next YouTube rather than thinking about “class-action suits.” Jeesh!

    The giveaway for me in Neil Henry’s column is the sense that someone else should solve our problems because we are a public trust.

  • Pingback: BuzzMachine » Blog Archive » Newspapers need Google()

  • Pingback: bwl zwei null » 2007 - 2012: Die nähere Zukunft des Internets (1)()


  • Jeff,

    One day, when I was at Columbia, I meet the University President and I congratulated him for the brilliant Faculty…

    He gave me a great lesson when he said:

    The secret of any great university, Mr. Giner, is not the Faculty but the quality of the students. If you don’t get the best students you will never hire the best professors.

    Well… I hope that Berkeley is not an exception, but it´s hard to believe that brilliant students can have teachers that produce this kind of stuff.

  • Jeff right on.
    this guy is shooting the messenger’s messenger!!
    It also proves that “media fat cats” includes the hired help as well as the moguls.

  • Guy Love

    When companies fail to adapt to marketplace conditions, they usually pass into the dustbin of history. Those multimillionaire CEO’s of the newspaper business apparently didn’t realize it was their turn for adapting. The traditional media has been so full of its own self-importance, totally ignoring their customer’s or advertiser’s input, that they are basically now an antiquated form of news gathering and distribution. This is totally their own fault tied to their own arrogance that comes from running a monopoly business for decades.

    For the last ten years they have blamed everything for their eroding market share, now the axe is actually falling on the workers. The same reporters who coldly inform everyone that progress marches on and they need to retrain to be relevant (from autoworkers of the 70’s to computer programmers of the 00’s) now seem incapable of practicing what they preach.

    Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Here is a news flash, 100 years from now, the news will still be a commodity irregardless of whether current traditional media companies survive. Maybe it is time to bring in new talent to run these companies as the current crop can’t seem to make the necessary adjustments to be successful in today’s marketplace for news.

  • Jeff, I got your email (I tried to reply to it — so you’d know I got it — but it keeps freezing my computer for some reason) D.

  • Rick

    Guy Love said it well.

    Also: “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.”
    In what way is that already not the case, never mind Google? Who needs basement bloggers when you have Fox News? Why is it I get more relevant news about the US from the international english press than our media oligopoly?

  • Rick

    (proofreading soon to be a lost art)
    meant to write ‘In what way is that not already the case …’

  • Thanks for persevering, Jay (and for the workaround, Jeff).

    The whole newspaper vs. new media topic is a fascinating one. Do not get me started.

  • Juan, the students I’ve met at Berkeley are pretty brilliant and many have said Neil Henry is one of the best teachers.

    You can see some of his and their work at

  • Pingback: BuzzMachine » Blog Archive » Entitlement and reparations()

  • Pingback: Provide links to context, please - Daniel Bachhuber()

  • Pingback: NewsCred Blog » Blog Archive » Newspaper websites can reduce their traffic by 32.08% by simply asking Google to stop sending them traffic.()

  • Pingback: Blog für den kritischen Fußballfreund | » Weniger Selbstzufriedenheit, bitte!()