Far be it from me to defend LA Times editorialists, but I think some critics are missing the attempted irony in their excoriated opinion piece about Google and newspapers — specifically, the new GoogleNews program that enables the subjects of news stories to respond. Robert Niles at the Online Journalism Review lead the lynch mob, performing a vigorous fisking of the Times.
The Times wrote: “Many publishers consider the Internet, and Google in particular, a greater threat to their livelihoods than Osama bin Laden.” And Niles harrumphed in reply: “The Los Angeles Times this morning insulted its readers in a stunning editorial that compared Google with Osama bin Laden and showed why Times editors simply do not understand the medium that is growing to dominate the news publishing industry.”
When I read about this kerfufflement elsewhere, I assumed — as you probably would — that I’d agree with Niles. But reading the Times piece, I think that bin Laden line was so over the top it was intended to mock Luddite ink-stained wretches and distance the wise, newfangled Times from those old fools (including, it would seem, their new owner, Sam Zell, who, the editorial reminds us, “once famously asked, ‘If all of the newspapers in America did not allow Google to steal their content, how profitable would Google be?’ “).
In the end, I read the Times editorial as a defense of Google against frequent charges that it is competitive with newspapers.
The Times acknowledges, albeit without enthusiasm, that this new Google feature may expose news stories’ mistakes: “News organizations have their flaws, and the added comments on Google may demonstrate that.” Indeed. But then they go on to argue that journalism is about asking questions and these sources’ comments will go up not as a result of questions and without questioning in response and so this isn’t journalism.
The Times dismisses Google’s new feature and thus says that Google isn’t competition. I would certainly agree with that. Many of those aforementioned Luddite newspaper publishers who fear Google more than bin Laden would disagree. But I say Google is the new newsstand. It is a way to be found and read. It is a reporting tool. It is a presentation tool (with maps and such). It is now a means of continuing the journalistic process by getting response and with it more viewpoints and facts. Google could also be your ad sales force. Oh, there’s much to fret about Google’s power. But as journalistic competition? No, it’s not trying to compete. And I think that was where the Times was trying to get, if by an odd detour. I think.
Now having said all that, I agree with many of Niles’ criticisms — especially of “stenographic journalism” — and I’d say that the editorial was clumsy at best. Irony — if that is, indeed their intent — is hard, especially in L.A.
But more important — and here’s where I vigorously agree with Niles — the editorial was the wrong response to the Google feature. The proper answer from the Times — and every other newspaper in the country — should have been: “Me, too. Good idea, Google. News source, you don’t have to go to Google to respond to, correct, clarify, or augment articles. You can do it right here at our newspaper.com. We don’t just welcome this new opportunity to listen better and get more perspectives and facts. We will beg you to do it. Because it will improve jouranlism.” That is what the Times should have said.
And that’s in essence what Dave Winer is suggesting when he again proposes that newspapers should host the blogs of everyone they quote. I don’t know that I’d want to be hosted by a bunch of newspapers. But I would want them to open up the right of response there and I would want them to link to my own blog (a process we are starting to see in places such as the Washington Post). That’s what the Times should be doing with its editorial: linking to Niles and Winer and me and encouraging the discussion to continue. That is the real lesson Google is teaching.