James Fallows writes an important cover story for The Atlantic on how Google wants to help save the news. It doesn’t break a single new nugget of news. It’s the piece’s attitude that makes it must reading for everyone in the news business, in the U.S. and even moreso in Europe.
Google is not the enemy. But don’t take my word for it if you don’t want to. Take Fallows’.
Fallows, who has been admirably forward-thinking and curious in his coverage of technology and media (see his test of Bing v. Google, for example), comes at the question of Google’s relationship to news as neither enemy nor fanboy. He simply wants to understand what Google’s attitude is toward the news and then what the company is doing to back up its expressed sentiments about helping save (or I’d prefer to say, advance) news. He writes:
Everyone knows that Google is killing the news business. Few people know how hard Google is trying to bring it back to life, or why the company now considers journalism’s survival crucial to its own prospects…. But after talking during the past year with engineers and strategists at Google and recently interviewing some of their counterparts inside the news industry, I am convinced that there is a larger vision for news coming out of Google; that it is not simply a charity effort to buy off critics; and that it has been pushed hard enough by people at the top of the company, especially Schmidt, to become an internalized part of the culture in what is arguably the world’s most important media organization. Google’s initiatives do not constitute a complete or easy plan for the next phase of serious journalism. But they are more promising than what I’m used to seeing elsewhere, notably in the steady stream of “Crisis of the Press”–style reports.
Fallows says that the three pillars of a new online business model for news, in Google’s view, are “distribution, engagement, and monetization.” My equivalents are the conveniently alliterative engagement (for the public), effectiveness (for advertisers), and efficiency (in the operation). That is to say, Google doesn’t touch — nor should it want or need to — the fourth and vital leg to sustainable business models for news: cost. That’s what will make it easier to get Politico’s local product, TBD.com, to profitability more easily than the competitive Washington Post can stay there. That’s why I am looking more at the entrepreneurial than institutional future of news. That’s why I think this quest Google and others are on is about more than saving newspapers and more than saving news; it’s about finding new opportunities. But nevermind that.
What Fallows finds inside Google is people who care about news, who are working to try to create new forms for news and structures for the companies that produce it, who are indeed making it a priority. He finds people who want to work together. I say news companies are fools not to at least listen.