Google as the new pressroom

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 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, 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.

  • Hi Jeff,

    Great idea. Makes perfect sense.

    I just heard that a major newspaper hired 60 programmers to design their new site.

    When I heard that I cringed. I was thinking that there should be some off the shelf solution for these people.

    On top of that, a second phase is going to include local bloggers…

    From my perspective the initial design should have included local bloggers, in fact, make that local citizens…

    They don’t even have to be bloggers to contribute to the discussion or report news… All you are asking people to do is enter in a title and post something.

    It’s not hard.

    I’m looking forward to see what Huffington Post does with their push into local sites.

    Thanks for the great thought provoking post.

  • Great post, very thought provoking. I agree that change needs to happen, but I don’t think it’s not just about journalism vs. distribution. The firth question news organizations will ask is how does this make me money? The problem is generating revenue, not distribution. If newspaper’s can pay their journalists with this suggested format then you’ll have a winner. I think the answer is building online communities around newspapers. Some suggestions:

  • Scott T.


    What are your thoughts on this?

    If staffers get their way, a redesigned Trib might end up with a European feel.


  • Good food for thought… but like Jason says – how will the newsrooms make money in this scenario? A Google revenue sharing scheme? Outsourcing the bulk of the technology building makes complete sense, but sales?

  • Robert

    I’m with you until you get to the outsourcing the copy editing to India or to the readers. I know these are desperate times, but professional copy editors who understand their city and have institutional knowledge are still valuable. I think newspapers who don’t realize this are going to regret it.

  • You are always interesting, Jeff…

    “Concentrate on what a newspaper should do: journalism”

    Except that journalism doesn’t pay the bills. Ads do. Which is what Google does, as you point out. Journalism is just the sideshow to attract an audience to attract the (constantly declining) ad revenue. If the ad revenue is shrinking, it’s because the sideshow is not attractive enough. Google can’t solve that problem.

    I’m with Jason: the problem is generating revenue, and I don’t really see how outsourcing the newspaper’s chief purpose (ads) will help. But I might be missing it.

    (By the way, 60 programmers is a masses-of-asses approach to solving a content management problem. That just means the system is poorly designed.)

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  • Whether they are sold by staff or sold by outside networks there is simply a cost of sale — a commission — that is deducted from the gross. Newspapers use outside networks to sell their national ads now. They are using Yahoo and Monster to sell classifieds. They are using Google to sell AdSense ads. THey’re already outsourcing sales in many instances. One of the big problems for newspapers — rarely discussed — is how print sales staffs can’t sell online, how they are accustomed to managing account lists and not drumming up new business. So there’s nothing at all new in this. It says that we should go where the sales are best. And Google’s damned good.

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  • Interesting idea. I’ll take this a step further though and suggest that newspapers are not really even fundamentally in the “journalism business,” which someone earlier in this thread noted is not a true business since it doesn’t make money.

    I believe local newspapers are in the CONNECTIONS business. We connect like-minded individuals to each other through stories of interest and, more recently, through locally focused social networking. And we connect local businesses to local consumers who are likely to want to buy their stuff locally.

    We think our product is journalism and news because it’s in our name, and defines our values. But really, news stories are just one way that consumers connect with their community, and we provide that service.

    Newspapers and newspaper staffs are uniquely suited to meet these needs because they live and work in distinct geographical communities. Aside from some random interns who drive around taking pictures of peoples’ blocks for StreetView, Google and even Yahoo don’t have that. And that’s why Google and Yahoo are reaching out to newspapers. There is an opportunity for true partnerships because each has something the other lacks.

    I’m not saying that newspapers have always done a good job of leveraging their home-team advantage, but they do have it and some of the smarter newspapers are starting to figure it out.

    So if we’re in the connections business, I have to say that I disagree that we should simply cede the role of connecting people over to Google. They can help us perform connections in ways that we can’t already, but thanks to increasingly cheap or free open source solutions like Drupal we can also help ourselves for not that much money. If we partner with Google it should be in areas where we’re not strong. (And make no mistake — most newspapers are not strong in technology so it may mak sense for them. But the company I work at IS strong in that area, thus it makes no sense for us to outsource that capability).

  • Quote of the day: ‘A rational industry would distribute the journalists and share the platform…’

    Spot on.

    That’s all we do; distribute our journalists where they’re needed – ie in the Press boxes at football clubs, outside baseball locker rooms, etc… and on a common, elegant and single platform distribute/syndicate the content to those that can’t do what we do best…

    Sell sideways; sell upwards. Cos content has value.

    For forthcoming proof of that, I would keep a very close watch on what Martin Moore and Sir Tim Berners-Lee are up to with their $350,000 worth of Knight funding; in particular how that might re-insert value into what those at the coal-face do; and how everyone from good old Google News to AP to SEOs etc etc may have to re-calibrate and re-configure the way that they find and serve up someone else’s stories.

    Particularly if those stories now arrive at the web-face with a certificate that says: ‘I was actually there…

    As for the old ad chestnut, love Google Search to bits, but entrusting them to serve me up enough relevant local/niche ads to keep me in business…


    Before you know it, you’re left to keep your fingers crossed that there’s a whole, click-happy Jewish community out there looking to access both love and new media news.

    At the same time.

    Me? I’m going to place my faith in local/niche advertisers – entrust and enpower them to have the wit to place their local/niche adverts themselves.

    When it comes to earning me a journalistic living, ad-wise WTFDGD?

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  • Brett Rogers writes: “Except that journalism doesn’t pay the bills. Ads do. ”
    What pays the bills is selling audience. You build audience with good journalism. Ads are simply one mechanism for monetizing that audience. You can have journalism without ads, but you can’t have ads without audience. The papers should focus on building audience through journalism while selling that audience to the highest bidder. Journalists should focus on what they do best while letting others pay dearly for the opportunity to do the specialized work of selling and serving ads. As Jarvis says: “Do what you do best…”

    In the old model, a newspaper sold its audience directly to advertisers but in today’s market, you sell audience to ad broker specialists who create a secondary market for your audience via ad sales. From an economic point of view, the transaction is the same as it was before although it should result in higher net revenues to the original seller. The difference is that instead of an in-house sales team who is limited in the scope and quantity of product they can sell, you are now selling through a highly skilled external team that is able to gain operational economies of scale and breadth. Unless something is wrong, relying on the specialists to sell ads should result in higher net revenues to the original seller… Any argument that selling direct results in higher net revenues must be wrong — or, such an argument simply indicates that audience providers (like papers) are not receiving fair value for their product.

    Of course, if newspapers aren’t receiving fair value for their audience, it is probably because they have no pricing power. The online newspaper business is so terribly fragmented that only a tiny number of newspapers are able to assemble an audience large enough to be treated distinctly by ad brokers or be recognized by advertisers. If, on the other hand, the business were to share a common platform and thus build a large, shared audience, even the smallest newsrooms would be able to share the pricing power of the combined entity. With less fragmentation in the business, the net revenue from audience sales should increase dramatically… It’s ECON 101 at its simplest…

    In unity there would be strength — and higher net revenue…

    bob wyman

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  • Roe

    Oh, yes, you’re totally right. Let’s just give everything to Google. Give ’em the whole world wrapped in silk with a golden bow.

    Sometimes I think people actually want Google to be the only company on the Internet. They already run advertising, blogging, news, video, etc. Why not let them have the rest for free? I mean, what good did healthy competition ever do for anyone in a free and just society? The world would be much better if Google could filter and censor all the news. Then we’d never know what they’re up to.

    The best part is they have virtually no transparency. I mean, who really wants to hold a company accountable for their actions and practices anyway?

  • Roe is obviously not happy with “giving everything to Google”…
    Don’t let Jeff’s suggestion that Google be a shared platform confuse matters here. The point is that newspapers should reverse the tragic fragmentation of their online business by sharing common platforms. Focus on the idea of a shared platform first. Then, as a second matter, consider who should or should not be the platform provider. The second question is a waste of time if the first idea doesn’t make sense.

    bob wyman

  • Jeff – great article. I think it comes down to first principals. Caveman chisels story on stone, gets people to read it. Ads came later because Caveman needs to eat so he can’t quit his day job hunting the saber tooth until he can buy cat meat with ad$…

    Journalism is not about connections or local social networks (Dan Pacheco) – it’s about finding timely, relevant content we want to read, hear, or see. The Boston Globe is relevant because it has content I want that is more local than NYT, WSJ etc. Most of the Globe’s national and global stories come off the AP wire and can be found anywhere. The Lexington Minuteman understands this – all I get there is news from Lexington, MA and some surrounding communities. No national or even state-level news.

    If my “local” paper was a set of local, regional and national journalism “channels” presented online but also printable as a PDF I can spit out locally for offline reading (or printed and delivered by a third-party P&D shop in my town vs. the big plant in another part of the state), that would be ideal. I could create my paper from journalism channels from WSJ, NYT, Boston Globe, Lexington Minuteman, Techcrunch, Wonkette, etc. I would pay the local guy to print it based on page count minus value for ads he can have inserted from Google or other ad networks he gets paid by, etc… Imagine sitting on my deck with my coffee and bagel reading a printout of all of the news I really want to read…

    As for ads, each of these content providers must get paid – and if they want to sell the ads I don’t care. As you point out they don’t do this a lot today anyway. I can see NY Times ads next to NYT content, etc. The printed version would have ads and could even include coupons for things I buy, etc. I can even tell the site that aggregates all of this (hint – it’s called a newsreader) that I like cars, golf and gadgets so I get targeted ads and coupons.

    I’m with you – newspapers should get out of the manufacturing business. And the tech business. Economies of scale will favor a federated approach with a few mega providers of technology and perhaps a large number of micro-providers of manufacturing (perhaps Kinkos or Staples can print and deliver my paper every morning…). did a huge CMS project in 2003 that resulted in the CTO getting pushed out when it was late and buggy. Google, Yahoo or some other ultra CMS can do it better, cheaper (free?) and that would let the local news outlets focus on news.

    Local ads won’t be as efficient on Google and the regional and town papers may still need to keep some local sales presence for the foreseeable future. But even that can be federated with a sales force selling ads for a network of local papers (which is how the Lexington Minuteman gets a lot of their ads).

    Should be interesting to see if someone can make this happen. Old habits die hard, and newspapers are typically not the most forward thinking organizations…

  • RIght, Bob:
    Roe, Google is merely a metaphor. As Bob said in his original post, this function could be fulfilled by the AP — indeed, that would give them a raison d’etre, which they very much need.
    The real point is just to look at things differently and see what really matters and find new ways to accomplish that.

  • I think what you are looking for is already happening. Sites that are trying to mimic traditional print media like Talking Points Memo and Huffington Post seem to be doing quite well.

    Then there are all the sites trying to replace broadcast and cable with their own video. Here’s an example, although I don’t know how successful they are:

    Traditional newspapers provide a package, there is news and commentary and, increasingly fluff. But readers know the reporters and columnists and can read their work through the proper filters. It is the credibility and consistency of the product that makes it valuable.

    It may not make any difference who does the payroll or caters the corporate cafeteria, but it makes a difference who writes and edits the stories. Many firms, not just in information, are becoming shells with a brand attached. Perhaps this works for sneakers, but I’m not so sure about news.

    How would you feel about a “newspaper” which is just an assemblage of freelancers, stringers and wire service feeds? What have they to offer than the next provider doing the same thing isn’t offering as well?

  • Sebastian

    It always kills me when people give Google godlike status outside of anything besides Adsense/Adwords. Now they’re gonna provide backend services? Hilarious. Run that development/backend idea by the Dodgeball founders.

    As for the idea that it can ‘anyone’ not just ‘Google’, that’s fine. But once you give up everything besides the content creation, you’re at the mercy of all sorts of things beyond your control. Perhaps Darth Google (or whomever) will alter the deal. Pray he doesn’t alter it further.

    • We need to remember that Google is just a metaphor. A content maker can distribute their stuff on many channels. For example you can post on and it automatically distributes across many networks. In a way you become diversified if you broadcast like this so if one channel becomes too much of a pain all you have to do is flip a switch.

  • Well, that’s the case now with staffs, unions, shutdown costs and all that. In a competitive landscape, outsourcing can be much more flexible and more in your control. Cuts both ways .

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  • @ Jeff
    Sounds like your suggesting a system that college newspapers have had available to it for a while –

    As someone who works with the the CP system, I can say that it significantly reduces the amount of in-house IT work needed. It also eases the business side – CP takes care of much of the ad sales. Like Google might, CP provides all of these services to college papers for free.

    A system that works like CP would be a boon to newspaper budgets. Your initial post however, does seem to suggest a media conglomeration under Google. Thanks for clarifying in the comments.


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  • Jeff’s principle of “do what you do best and link to the rest” extends beyond news gathering.

    The reality is that newspaper groups – individually – will never have the best web technology. And that has huge implications not only for the quality of news gathering and distribution, but also for revenues.

    Pitting your average classified salesman against Google is like an average club chess player taking on IBM’s Deep Blue. The machine will win every time. Hence, newspapers’ classified advertising is taking a hammering.

    But editorially, too, poor technology is hampering conventional news companies. Websites that are reliant on editors who manually embed relevant links will lose to those that are supported by the best search technology as an era when RELEVANCE – editorial and commercial – rules.

    And then there’s the cost. Newspaper groups have historically spent as much as three-quarters of their total costs on manufacturing, sales and distribution. But why should their digital businesses be weighed down by such cost structures, when the digital equivalent of manufacturing, sales and distribution can all be done more efficiently by Google, leaving more money to be spent on content?

    As Bob Wyman rightly points out, the issue isn’t really Google. The issue is newspapers trying to build their own web platforms with technology that is inferior to Google’s in an era when they should be focused on “what they do best” – creating compelling content that drives audience growth.

    • The first sentence of your comment is most important to me : “Jeff’s principle of “do what you do best and link to the rest” extends beyond news gathering. ”

      In a way this article isn’t about newspapers or Google. It’s about any company investing a lot of resources doing something that someone else could do for them for much cheaper or even free and with much better results. It’s about stopping these activities and focusing your resources on the things you do well.

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  • Edward Roussel writes: “The issue is newspapers trying to build their own web platforms with technology that is inferior…”
    It not just about the technology… Sharing a platform also makes it easier to build a compelling “news experience” by making it easier and more affordable to build the kind of thing that John Treadway describes in his comment: “a set of local, regional and national journalism ‘channels'” that can be combined and mixed in ways that make the news experience personal and relevant.
    As a news consumer, I should not be forced to go first to one site to read “local” news, another site to read “regional” news and yet other sites to read national, international or industry news… It’s just too hard… What I, and many others, want is a single “news reading experience” that combines all the news that is relevant to me. Such an experience is best built using a common platform.
    But, even though I want a common platform for my news, I also want to receive the highest quality news. That, of course, implies that the platform must be supported by a host of news bureaus that each specializes in and builds expertise in some focused area or point of view. Thus, I want the platform to provide content generated by many news bureaus that are each local, regional, national, international, industry or issue based. For me, what is an “newspaper” today, really should be a “news bureau” tomorrow. (Bureaus don’t run printing presses…)

    A rational industry would distribute the journalists and share the platform…

    bob wyman

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  • I don’t disagree when it comes to commodity functions. Of course newspapers shouldn’t be building custom CMSes over and over.

    But I think the conversation here overlooks the fact that these days, technology is content.

    Think of Adrian Holovaty’s terrific databases. Think of interactive narratives. Think of Current’s hourly news show created by its audience. Think of Lee Byron’s kinetic infographic in the NYT. That’s all code; it’s all technology.

    I’d argue that it’s deeply old-fashioned to think of newspapers as purveyors of blobs of text, and maybe some video to go along with it, that you can just stick into any ol’ CMS system. In fact, I’d say that if, as a news organization, your content fits into any ol’ CMS then it’s a warning sign.

    Newspapers shouldn’t hire 60 programmers to build a new CMS.

    They should hire 60 programmers to invent whole new kinds of content.

  • What if one day you publish something that Google doesn’t like (say a critical article about um… Google) and suddenly you’re out of the search results. With no explanation, no appeal process.

    Do you we really want Google in charge of the world’s press?

  • Take a look at the number of stories in a typical daily paper that originate with AP or Reuters or some other such company. How many column inches are produced by the employees of the Daily XXX and how many by other agencies? News is already a commodity or AP and Reuters would be out of business.

    At this stage in our technology, producing a printed newspaper makes little sense. Much of this morning’s news has either changed, or been proven wrong in some respect. We have the technical ability to produce news in real time and if the newspaper wants to survive as an industry they need to discover this fact.

    CNN and Fox News both make use of video and photos sent by their viewers and when news breaks the results can be amazing. And, curiously, they are getting that up to the minute content for free.

    Here’s the finale. Newspapers have to go real time, have to embrace technology and have to give up the horse and buggy or they will not survive.

  • It’s a great vision and matches what we’ve seen other organisations do – focus on their strengths and outsource their weaknesses.

    I’ve written a blog post drawing from this article, looking at what government should be doing online in much the same way. It will be live in my blog ( on Monday.

  • While I like the idea of using Google, and the cloud as a whole, to handle content creation, storage and distribution, for many cost cutting reasons as well as having easily tapped markets to grow in, I certainly do not like the idea of complete ad outsourcing through Google or any other mega ad network with vague revenue sharing platforms (meaning you have no idea what your cut actually is every impression and clickthrough).

    Jeff said it in the comments: “print sales staffs can’t sell online.” You don’t need a staff to sell online. You need a Web form, a good strategy, a support staff and a decent audience.

    However, Bob has some other really interesting points in the comments here.

  • Dan Pacheco

    John: Journalism, and local news (content) is about connecting people. I read a story about someone in my community and I learn something about them. We are closer than we were before, just as I am closer to the people in this discussion because of it, or in Twitter. Without that type of effect, news and journalism have no value. But on the flip side, if you can capture all those connections you can sell the resulting audiences to local businesses. That’s the future and it’s what Google and others see. It’s why they value news, community, social networking, search, you name it.

  • Andy Hecht

    60 programmers? To do what? Those must be talentless 9-5ers. You don’t need 60 people to write a CMS. Try 5?

  • The idea about a shared platform is great, since even though they may claim otherwise, most media CMS systems are totally alike. However, I don’t think a company should handle a common platform.

    What about open sourcing it and make it a project of the Mozilla org? Hey, they build the Firefox browser anyway, so why not let them build a common platform to generate the content you use the browser to browse? Makes sense to me.

    On another note, a positive side effect of media not thinking about technology would be that they would actually have more time to think about content and how to stay relevant to their customers. They could surely need some time to reflect on this.

  • KP

    The whole idea makes perfect sense.

    But when you suggested AP could be the IT platform provider I couldn’t stop laughing. Ok, I don’t know any specifics on AP – but I guess they are pretty much comparable with dpa in Germany (where I come from) which is owned by newspaper publishers as well and, that will be the point, is in the journalism business. It’s journalists who work at AP and dpa, not engineers. IT is a cost at AP and dpa, not a solution provider.

    You’re right, AOL, Yahoo (partly) failed because the didn’t know what business they were in. But why would AP and dpa be able to change their business? Because they don’t have another chance? Well, this is definitely not the way Google is driven. And I’m not very confident that news agencies like AP or dpa will be able to manage a strategic turnaround like this. Even if they wanted to, would their owners let them do this? I’m not sure …

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  • I agree that newspapers have generally done a terrible job with tech and am all for cutting costs that aren’t related to core journalism functions.

    But this discussion ignores a central fact about today’s online environment: It’s mind-bogglingly easy to build and maintain a website, as Bob Wyman admits.

    We built our CMS, which includes a bunch of geotagging and mapping features that I haven’t yet seen on Google (or any other news site), in about two days using the open-source Ruby on Rails framework. There’s other tools in wide use that reduce that time to a couple of hours.

    Sure, the industry could abandon responsibility for determining how readers access and interact with news content in the future.

    But given the already low and rapidly falling cost of doing that, I can’t imagine why we’d leave such an important task to non-journalists.

  • As someone who is (along with many others) responsible for building one large media company’s large CMS I’m naturally going to react to this. So here are some random thoughts from first hand experience…

    (1) I suspect the answer to the question “What would Google do?” is always going to be “Let Google deal with it”. By an amazing coincidence I suspect the answer to the question “What would Microsoft do?” would be “Let Microsoft deal with it”, etc etc. Well, that’s the flippant part over with.

    (2) Of course, on some level you’re right, people and organisations should concentrate on what they do best, and let others do the rest. And yet we see outsourcing even in news gathering, with the use of Reuters, AP, freelancers, and so on. So even when a competency is core some of it is still outsourced. This means technology may still be a media organisation’s core competency, even if there is some outsourcing.

    (3) Any organisation is always going to seek a competitive advantage. Much of the time a news organisation’s competitive advantage is going to be in enhancing its news-gathering, and in those cases it’s best to use easy, off-the-shelf technology so as to not be distracted from the core work in hand. But sometimes you’re going to have enough stability and corporate headroom to seek competitive advantages in other areas, and inevitably some of that will be through technology. At these times you will want to break out of off-the-shelf technology and invest (that’s a carefully chosen word) in a technological advantage. That’s very difficult to pull off successfully, and as you observe, it’s very often not achieved. But I believe it is achievable, and it will never be achieved if it isn’t attempted.

  • Pitting your average classified salesman against Google is like an average club chess player taking on IBM’s Deep Blue. The machine will win every time. Hence, newspapers’ classified advertising is taking a hammering…


    I had effectively the same conversation with the BlogAds lad I shared a revenue platform with at Jeff’s NewsInnovation gig last autumn; that we were all engaged in ‘a race to the bottom…’ and before we had time to react, there would be a Google ad sales-person in every town and city in the UK…

    Go run a Britney Spears blog and pray… was the implication.

    Last time I looked around Norwich, Fakenham, Beccles, Ipswich, Colchester, the person with the DeepBlue intellect and the personaility to match had failed to show up; in the meantime, my old fashioned ad man with the human touch was mopping up with his pay-per-month model… that and the open, ad network that tells your little publisher just what they’re actually getting for their money.

    Again, the Google ad salesman walks through the door of BuzzMachine and asks Jeff how his advertising is doing this month…

    And if I’m Jeff, I’d say: ‘You know what, call me Mr Picky, but this Jewish singles ad campaign you’ve been running… not been doing it for me…

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  • Most thought provoking post you’ve ever written (at least in the past year that I’ve been reading your blog). One dead-on comment that caught my eye:

    “Journalism is just the sideshow to attract an audience to attract the (constantly declining) ad revenue.”

    Yes, although calling journalism a side show is a little harsh–but the point is well taken.

    Taking this a step further, I might suggest that journalism of the future needs to look at adding value through “services.” Perhaps you’ll see more advocacy journalsim, or even perhaps you’ll see more expert professionals whose core competencies may involve finance, real estate or legal counsel, but who also bring quality content and insiight to consumers as professionals as well as journalists. The quality of their writing (or video) will determine how many people use their services. The will demonstrate and prove thier value to consumers daily.

    In this scenario, journalism transforms into services–and the revenue will not come from the act of producing content, but from the residual business that is derived from putting forth the effort.

    This is how I see the future of my business in real estate (I know you don’t like realtors Jeff, but perhaps the future efforts in demonstrating our value via quality reporting will allows those commited full time proefessionals to raise the bar in our profession to an acceptable and justifiable (commission) level–even for you Jeff.

    In other words, excellent and transparent content creation that rivals journalsim in terms of quality is what would draw people to use our services–but it is the service we get paid for, not the conent.

    Also, Google would reward us in terms of driving traffic our way for providing excellent content to their users.

  • That’s right, keep fiddling while Rome burns all around you. The longer you argue about the why, wherefore and how come – the faster it will all burn down around you. I know that I am only a journalism teacher, but I worked in both print and video. We need to embrace web-first publishing as fast as we can. The cost of printing on paper, keeping all those printers employed, ad staffs, etc. is weighing down the business. It is as simple as that. The CMS debate is a canard – it is not that hard to find off the shelf CMS products that can handle a newspaper online. The real problem is selling online ads better. That is a paradigm shift from print. You don’t just sell space, you sell specific kinds of content to specific advertisers. And yes, you will either have to partner up with large entities like the AP, Google, Yahoo, etc. for national and regional coverage plus tech savvy ad sales. Another possibility would be for newspapers to create their own entities to handle CMS, online ad sales, national, regional coverage, etc. But that will come with higher costs, but more control. And they better do it fast. High schools and colleges are already headed online – see and ASNE’s as examples of how this can and is already being done.

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  • Bruce

    Interesting that almost exactly the opposite opinion is voiced by people who have experience of designing and developing news websites –

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  • Outtanames999

    Guys, this is all a total crock of sh**. Your thinking sucks. I’ll prove it.

    If you think newspapers should share a common technology platform then why don’t you also think that Google and Yahoo and MSN and AOL and WordPress and MyS and FB should all share a common technology platform? Let the internet pure plays share one first. Then if it works, the old media will try it. In the meantime, you are wrong.

    Now get out of the way while different companies try different things to find the right innovative approach. If one wants to hire 60 programmers who are you to say they shouldn’t. Don’t be a pussy. Neither the world nor the media nor the Internet revolve around Google. Why should the newspaper business? If your ideas are so great, why don’t you convince Google to hire 60 journalists and start publishing a newspaper on the net instead of spidering the papers’ content.

    Today, any idiot can write a spider. Not just any idiot can cover the news, serve as the journal of record and deliver in-home advertising relevant to a local market in compelling long form, large size graphic format that impacts and motivates consumers to take action. Nor can any idiot serve as a voice of reason in local community issues.

    Google will never be able to do anything more than deliver an ad to someone who is looking for that ad by typing in words. There is nothing wrong with search marketing, but it is not scalable, you can’t increase or even maximize reach with it, you can’t build frequency, it’s not intrusive, it has limited targeting, you can’t…. I could go on at length about the limitations. It’s not the newspaper model. It’s the Yellow Pages model. And thus, it’s only ever going to be a small part of the ad media mix. To the extent that it is becoming any larger than that is testimony only to the rigged bidding environment and willing overspending on search by foolish advertisers.

  • Hmm. Newspapers are capitalized to pay for heavy machinery, newsprint arriving by the train car load and all the labor it takes to deliver newsprint to the doorstep.

    Newspapers are not in the journalism business, newspapers are in the newsprint delivery business.

    It does make blue-sky sense to suggest a common Web app could host and pay for all locally-produced, professional and amateur journalism.
    That is the easy part – to dream. The pieces certainly seem to be in place as far the technology. (Think of massively collaborative tools like Google docs and YouTube)

    The culture remains the biggest hurdle
    How to get the buy-in from the top U.S. players who are facing enormous pressure to push back from the brink of bankruptcy?

    If past history is a guide, newspaper owners will quickly follow the first outfit that proves they can make more money with this approach.
    So who wants to go first?

  • quirkyalone

    Hmm.. I propably woudn’t want to read newspaper where readers are the copyeditors, sorry.

    I also has reservations regarding the claim that “Google is also brilliant at selling ads”. Yes, its Adwords/Adsense technology is good enough to make good money, especially for Google itself and some types of websites. But for newspapers, it doesn’t work that well – the substantial revenue just isn’t there.

  • Jeff: I’ve always liked the shared-platform model, but all past efforts at news organizations joining forces or sharing platforms have had their own difficulties: the New Century Network of the mid-1990s; the PoliticsNow partnership (Washington Post, Newsweek, ABC News, TimesMirror/National Journal) of 1996-97; the mass-adoption of the Zip2/AltaVista Homebase and CitySearch platforms in the face of Microsoft’s failed Sidewalk project. Even Knight Ridder’s Real Cities network (which lives on in different form as part of McClatchy) and the seemingly endless efforts to join forces selling classified advertising (the Yahoo group being only one of the most recent).

    With so many dead partnerships and platforms lying around, some forensic work is needed to explain why these efforts have failed or struggled. In some cases, the technology was not ready for what it was trying to do. But some of the industry forces you describe also played a part — and still would today.

  • Mark,
    Yes, I lived through being a part of and competing with various of those. Newspaper cooperation is a disaster.
    That’s why I think it has to work on one or both of two models:
    * Vendors who already have stuff (Google, SixApart, etc.)
    * Open Source
    Neither is or can be dependent upon newspapers actually being organized. They will die first. And I mean that.

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  • Brian Cragin

    Forgive me if this tracks over some of the previous posts (I didn’t read them all).

    The number one cost for newspaper businesses isn’t the mechanical costs, its the personnel costs. While it does take people to build the mechanics, those folks are far fewer than all the other folks — news, advertising, circulation, etc.

    I think the solution google provides is cheap open homogenized Web machinery and plugs the news business into a successful advertising base. But there are others that have proffered the idea that newspapers should create their own network.

    I think something down this road makes more sense for a couple simple reasons — the ethics and policy involved in a google+news collaboration.

    First, a news organization couldn’t be considered objective when reporting on a company that is completely running its Web operations.

    Second, a government subpoena to google asking for all sensitive information held by google for the newspaper company. Very scary thought. Reporters are often told to destroy their notes. But in a googled news environment, what about chat logs, gmail records, source information, etc? These are communications and information that a newspaper doesn’t want the government to get their hands on. But in a googled-newsroom, the paper wouldn’t be the holders of that information.

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  • I’m late to this party, but I would offer a slight tweak to one of your points. You wrote, “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 don’t agree with that. If Google were to take on your challenge, it would do so by doing what it does best — API’ing the heck out of the technology. And smart newsrooms will need skilled developers to work with the APIs to do things that play to their specialities and audiences.

    Other than that, Jeff, I think you’re on to something here. I’m for anything that frees up resources to put more reporters and editors to work.


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  • Ughhh!

    Thought provoking ideas, but, I can’t get around to accepting them. A few contentious thoughts come to mind:

    First, the natural consequence of the arguments would have Google control –monopolizing– newspapers’ printing and distribution… and advertising platforms.

    Doesn’t it strike anybody that maybe… just maybe… this is too much power on anybody’s hands? Google will play with most of the cards… Why wouldn’t it impose reduced sales commissions and salaries to journalists? Where else would the sales people and journalists go to work under such a monopoly?

    In the same vein why would any newspaper owner get into such a dead end alley?

    Then, as someone has already commented, technology is moving in leaps and bounds, it gets easier and easier for the end users: jounalists. Just think of how easy it is to setup a newspaper around a blog…

    In order to solve the problem that is diminishing the printed newspaper role, we must understand it. I think it boils down to two main issues:

    1) Technology has allowed companies to advertise themselves inexpensively. Any company can setup an attractive website for a couple of $’000s, which combined with the ease of searching, makes it an extremely inexpensive way to reach their potential buyers –and even sell directly. Eroding the old newspaper exclusivity –there are literally millions of websites catering to consumers and competing with newspapers.

    2) Again, someone already touched the subject of journalism excellence and integrity; unfortunately, this has not received the business value it deserves, newspaper managers cater over and over to circulation numbers, not quality journalism.

    If people stop believing in the god, then advertisers will shy away from the totem where they used to hang their ads; the quality, reliability, assurance effect, is no longer there to trickle down to their companies. Hence, the ads have little advertising value left to them.

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  • I hope I’m not skipping over somebody’s whose already suggested this analogy:

    make newspaper companies like real estate companies. Realtors are independent contractors who pay the company for infrastructural support and get a commission from the clients.

    Advertisers could pay the commissions to the best performing or their favorite news writers who could then pay the newspaper companies for the information gathering support.

    This would encourage good reporting, however that’s defined by different advertisers and the public in the end who buys what the advertisers are paying to promote.

    The newspapers could then outsource the distribution as real estate companies do usually to local title companies who create flyers and print brochures. Google could easily certainly be a main online distributor.

    Integrate horizontally instead of vertically.

    Indeed as way up there in the comments, newspaper companies would be the keeper and creator of connections. A worthy purpose.


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  • Today the Daily Telegraph anounced their Change from MS to Google:

    The future came faster than I thought.

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  • What an elegant solution. I wonder if the New York Times would have the humility to think this way and offload all their non-core tasks to Google or Yahoo! or Microsoft. Many major newspapers have cut their reporting and editorial staff dramatically. I expect this to further detract from their core – finding and reporting on newsworthy stories. Unfortunately, I think they want to find ways to compete against Google rather than partner with it.

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  • Fox

    just like the new and creative site that generates true reporting!

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  • Matt Terenzio

    Nothing could be cheaper than running a blog.

    Give every reporter a blog and if it’s not popular enough to pay for itself (including the reporters wage) then it is not a viable business.

    Unfortunately, I think we will find that the old fashioned model of pairing ads with content is not in and of itself a business any more except for the elite like TechCrunch.

    Just because it’s not a viable business doesn’t mean it has no value. It does, but the business model of the future is not going to be the traditional publishing model.

    At least not for the small to mid size publications.

    What is the model you ask?

    I let you know at the conference.

    • Abram de Bruyn

      “Give every reporter a blog and if it’s not popular enough to pay for itself (including the reporters wage) then it is not a viable business.”

      I guess we’re not even going to debate the fact that this attitude would undoubtedly lead to mass lay-offs of ‘un-economic’ reporters and journalists and what that would mean.

      Google states ‘do-no-evil’ as one of its truths of the internet. I know its all a marketing white-wash, but I’m sure that the ‘value’ of some reporters goes beyond their direct economic returns. What about ‘cultural capital’? Investigative journalism COSTS A FORTUNE but generates value akin to scientific research. The best journos are the ones that eventually create their own niche. EVENTUALLY.

      Check out Andrew Rule and John Silvester – they created an entire market of news and entertainment based on their deep research on the crime world in Melbourne, Australia.

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  • Great article. Very thought provoking.

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  • This is recomeded reading for a course I am taking. Do you know of similar articles where I may expand my reading?

  • JD

    So Google eventually morphs into an all encompassing news gathering, distributing entity? At what point will governments begin to dicker, and in some cases, control Google content and other assets?

    • Anthea

      well, we know that dickering has already begun…the extent of it is not yet known, and may never be

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  • Totally agree with last statement ” Newspapers… should get out of the printing business.”- use the ad money to hire great journalists, allow them to write in-depth pieces; its not like you will run out of bits and bytes. so much can be done on a website that can’t be done on paper. Updating articles, videos, stuff we haven’t even thought of yet.and we save paper thus trees. Right now getting news online is a pain unless you subscribe #googlemedia

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