Posts about newspapers

Google bigotry

Google has an image problem – not a PR problem (that is, not with the public) but a press problem (with whining old media people). Google is trying hard – too hard, perhaps – not to argue with the guys who still buy ink by the barrel. Google is only causing them to buy fewer barrels. And newspaper people will use their last drops of ink to complain about Google’s success and try to blame it for their own failures rather than changing their own businesses.

What should Google do? I think it needs to become news’ best friend.

* * *

This week, I called The New York Times on internet bigotry. Now I’ll call the French media on a subset: Google bigotry.

Last night, I got email from a Le Monde journalist who said, “I’m on the way to write an article about Google facing a rising tide of discontent concerning privacy and monopoly.” She went on to wonder whether these critics would move to Bing and, at the same time, whether Google would become the next Microsoft with a negative image and government pressure (aren’t those two questions inherently contradictory?).
I wanted to know if it was possible for you to respond to my questions?

I threw out my glass of Bordeaux (it had turned) and poured a nice American cabernet and then responded:

There’s one problem: I do not buy the premise of your story. I’ve seen this story again and again, especially from France. I’m not sure what it is the French have against Google, but it’s some form of national insanity, I think. Most French publishers rejected my book, What Would Google Do?, because they said they wanted a diatribe against Google – that, it appears, is the French reflex. Only after I blogged that did my brave publisher come forward and publish it as La méthode Google.

Do some people complain about Google? Yes, it is often the same people who complain about the internet and about change and technology and simply use Google as their target simply because it is so big and so innovative.

Google is the fastest growing company in the history of the world, according to the Times of London. It is the No. 1 brand for three years running, which means that people not only know but admire it.

So who are these people who you say are part of this “rising tide of discontent” about Google? How do you measure it? How big is the tide?
How big was it? What is its impact? I don’t see it. I see journalists doing this story because they want to.

Google is not a monopoly. It is a competitive company and it took advertising dollars for one simple reason: because advertisers found a better deal there – buying performance, not scarcity, with Google sharing their risk – than they ever found in our old media. It is media companies’ fault that they lost their customers after cheating them for too many years.

Privacy? That is an overused word. The issue is not privacy, as I say in my book. It is control. You should also look at the benefits of publicness, which come when we share things about ourselves and find others like us. If you have problems with privacy then you have problems with every member of Facebook and its clones across the world and the entire generation that made social sites huge.

With all respect, it appears to me that you have already drawn your conclusions and written your story – that there is this “rising tide” you see against Google, that is a “monopoly,” that people are leaving for Bing (introduce me to some, would you?), that it now has a “negative image.”

I don’t see it.

* * *

Last week, I got an email from an Israeli journalist, which said: “These days we are working on an article about Google, focusing on the company’s failures rather than on its well known successes.”

Another reporter decides what to say before doing the reporting. Oh, it’s hardly uncommon. But I decided not to bother with this. I’ve done it too often: arguing with a reporter’s premise and then not appearing in the story because I dared to disagree.

* * *

This week, a Google PR person I met at the Aspen Institute sent me links to a public exchange in editorials in the Seattle Times. It started with an editorial lambasting Google, using Italian newspapers complaints as its peg: “Google is a wonderful thing. It is also a dangerous thing, as it keeps demonstrating in its quietly rapacious way.”

But they got their facts wrong. They said that if a paper didn’t want to be in Google News, it couldn’t be in search. All they had to do was a little research – otherwise known as reporting or fact-checking – to find out that was false. They also suggested that the government should go after Google under the Sherman Antitrust Act. A Google attorney sent a response explaining the law and business to them:

Your Aug. 30 editorial [“Rapacious? Google it,” Opinion] seems to misunderstand both competition law and how Google News works.

Under the antitrust laws, there’s no problem with a company becoming successful, so long as it earns it fair and square. The problem is when companies act illegally to maintain their market position — by foreclosing competition or making it difficult for users to switch. No one has seriously suggested that Google’s success is due to anything other than hard work and constant improvement.

Your editorial also wrongly suggests that news organizations can’t withdraw their content from Google News without also removing it from all Google searches. That’s false. Publishers are in complete control over where and whether their content appears.

News organizations can use a universally honored technical standard called “robots.txt” to block their content from being indexed by Google and other search engines. And if they want to be removed only from Google News, they can just tell us directly, and we’ll remove them.

Still, of more than 25,000 news sources, only a handful have chosen to be removed. Why? Because Google News sends news organizations more than a billion clicks each month, which they can use to win loyal readers and generate more advertising revenue.

The Times wasn’t at all embarrassed about being so wrong and came back against Google again. Just because they wanted to. Just because they felt like it. Just because they need an enemy to blame for their own failing business.

* * *

Google is far from perfect. It ain’t God. In my book, I complained about its opaqueness while demanding transparency from the rest of us and about its policies in China. There’s plenty to criticize.

But these media people are going after Google’s success for no good reason other than their own jealousy. It’s not just that they dislike the competition – and they do, for it is a new experience for too many of them. If they were smart, they’d use Google to get more audience and make more money but they don’t know how to (or rather, they’d prefer not to change). No, the problem is that Google represents change and a new world they’ve refused to understand.

What should Google do?

I’m not sure but I’d start by using Google’s platform to enable the new ecosystem of news, the entrepreneurs who will build the future of journalism – and that could include the incumbents, if they have any sense. That framework could include promotion (via GoogleNews and more), revenue (via Google advertising), technology (publishing, content, and measurement tools), consultation and education (on maximizing attention, on using new tools), and R&D (Google Wave for news, the hyperpersonal news stream….).

Google should position itself as the friend of news and then maybe it won’t matter if it is newspapers’ friend; they’ll just come off as the whiners they are.

: LATER: Google News published a video explaining some of what goes into its scraping and ranking and how to improve your chances of getting good links. It’s a first step:

Note that Google News is now trying to understand, through others’ citations, which publications are first or early on a story so it can link more effectively to news at its source.

Internet bigotry – again

I was growling at my iPhone on the train this morning as I read a prominently promoted New York Times story about the rumored Chelsea Clinton wedding that didn’t happen. Sixth graph:

The persistence of the rumor despite the lack of tangible evidence says something about today’s free-for-all Internet media culture, where facts sometimes don’t get in the way of a good story. It also says something about the Clintons and the mistrust they have engendered over the years that so many people do not take them at their word, even over a question like this.

It’s bad enough that the reporter, Peter Baker, made two such gross generalizations but it’s worse that there was no backup for either in the story.

Who spread the rumor according to Mr. Baker? Here’s every attribution in his story:
* “The wedding rumor mill got started by the Boston Globe…”
* “Then New York magazine picked up the ball…”
* “In July, the New York Daily News said…”
* “’There is no truth to that,’ Mrs. Clinton said on Fox News…”
* “The Washington Post reported…”
* “The Post followed up…”
* “On Sunday, the New York Post reported…”
* “The New York Post concluded…”

I don’t see a damned thing about “internet media culture” there, do you? Not one snarky, unreliable, rumor-mongering, content-stealing, value-sucking blog. Nope, not one mention of Gawker. Just big, old newspapers and magazines. Indeed, the only refutation of the rumor – the fact-checking of it – appears to have been on Fox News. (I also saw no editor asked whether they continued to spread the rumor because they didn’t trust the Clintons.)

This is the sort of internet bigotry that pops up in The Times like clockwork.

Mind you, The Times as a whole is doing lots of innovative things online: The Local (in which CUNY is involved), its blogs, its twittering, its API – plenty to praise.

Yet this snarling about the internet still bubbles up from the newsroom, from reporters and from the many editors who choose to publish it. That’s the newsroom culture – as opposed to that damned internet media culture – you keep hearing about as an impediment to change. This is how newsrooms fight it, using the one weapon they have: the keyboard. They may be forced to blog and podcast but they can always get their revenge in print. Good, old, comforting – though unsubstantiated, rumor-mongering, never-let-the-facts-stand-in-the-way-of-a-good-story – print.

What crisis?

At the Aspen Institute FOCAS event, where we presented our CUNY New Business Models for News, there came to be an unspoken debate – that is, an idea thrown out but never really engaged – about whether there is a crisis in news and journalism.

I now say that there isn’t a crisis. That’s not what I used to say. Indeed, one of my mistakes in this debate has been accepting the assumption that there was one and allowing the debate to start there: “How are you going to save journalism from the scourge of your damned internet?”

Instead, the discussion should start here: “Look at all the new opportunities there are to gather and share news in new ways, to expand and improve it, to change journalism’s relationship with its public and make it collaborative, to find new efficiencies and lower costs and thus to return to profitability and sustainability.”

One’s view on the question determines one’s response and its level of desperation or optimism.

To generalize unfairly, those who say there is a crisis – most often, those whose legacy institutions are fading – are often known to react by:
* Looking for others to blame for the purported problem – Google, bloggers, aggregators, craigslist, et al (which is to say, not taking responsibility for their own role in it);
* Trying to preserve their past (expecting newsrooms to be supported, unchanged, by some manna from the market – paid content being only the latest prayer);
* Seeking protection from government (antitrust exemptions) or the law (copyright extensions);
* Demanding tribute (saying they are entitled to get paid because what they do is worth so much);
* Giving up (talking about abandoning growth by building walls or shifting to not-for-profit and begging for charitable support).

Those who say there is not a crisis (for- and not-for-profit entrepreneurs, inventors, and investors) instead tend to:
* Look to innovation (collaboration, algorithms, data, streams) to create new ways to make news;
* Look to entrepreneurship to sustain journalism (in blogs and networks);
* Be open to new ways to define journalism;
* Irritate the legacy people by not seeing the crisis they see.

So if we’re looking for an original sin in this saga, I’ll confess that mine has been viewing news from the perspective of the old controllers rather than from that of the community (the people formerly known as the audience), the inventors, and the entrepreneurs. At Aspen, it was Sue Gardner, head of the Wikimedia Foundation, who made me see this as she talked about the wonders that have been done with news on Wikipedia, which no one could have predicted. Being open to such new possibilities is key to building news’ new future.

There are so many reasons to be optimistic about the future of news:
* The audience for news is only growing online.
* The audience isn’t an audience anymore. News is becoming more and more collaborative as witnesses share what they see and communities join together to create news.
* Those who make news are more accountable to their publics.
* News is opening up to more diverse voices and perspectives.
* News is becoming far more specialized and targeted, which is to say that it can give deeper service to more communities.
* New technology – and freedom from the limits of the old means of production and distribution – allow the reinvention of the form of news, organized around streams, topics, ideas, and concepts still being imagined.
* News is more efficient thanks to the link – do what you do best and link to the rest – and specialization. That is what makes it more sustainable.

Some – but not nearly enough – of this optimism is inherent in the future we imagined in the New Business Models for News Project. We used the financial lingua franca and assumptions of the present world – CPM advertising, page views per user, even the concept of a page and a site – because that made it easier to describe what can follow and made our vision of sustainable news more credible. We were criticized for being too optimistic about audience penetration and ad rates.

But I think we were not nearly optimistic enough. We have to leap past the idea that news is a collection of pages worth 12 views per user per month (or, quoting Martin Langeveld, 0.5% of time spent online). News shouldn’t be a site we force people to come to but, as Google’s Marissa Mayer said at Aspen, we have to find ways to insinuate news and its value into anyone’s – her words – hyperpersonal news stream. We shouldn’t create sites but instead create platforms that enable communities to share what they know and need to know, with journalists contributing value – reporting, editing, aggregation, curation – to their ecosystem. We should build and assume much greater engagement and define engagement not as consumption but as creation. We must value that creation (and not consider it merely a reaction to what we do). We should forecast much greater relevance and thus value for both the market and the marketer.

We should set the bar way higher. And that is the real problem with letting the discussion start with the pessimism, depression, and desperation of the perceived crisis among the past’s players, who aren’t inventing the future. It limits the possibilities.

The real sin: not running businesses

Like priests looking for someone to sacrifice, Alan Mutter, Steve Buttry, Howard Owens, and Steve Yelvington have been on the lookout for the sin that led newspapers astray. For Mutter, it’s not charging; for Buttry, it’s not innovating; for Owens, it’s tying online dingies to print Titanics (my poetic license); for Yelvington, it’s inaction.

But I think Owens hit on it when he wrote this: “I realized I needed to flip the expense/revenue picture upside down. Instead of thinking about how to generate more cash, I needed to figure out how to create a news operation that could exist profitably based on a reasonable expectation for local online revenue.”

Right. In other words, the sin was not running a business. It was not creating a sustainable P&L.

Newspapers have been too busy trying to protect specific budget lines that protected specific interests – the size of the newsroom, the ego expressed in gross revenue that yields stock performance and salary bonuses, the size of unionized staffs (up or down), the rules that governed advertising relationships even as they disappeared. They made preservation their mission.

What they should have done instead is rethink the bottom line: How is journalism going to be sustainable in new business realities?

Said Owens: “In a market where the newspaper newsroom might cost $10 million, I knew how to make $1 million online, or even $2 million, but I didn’t know — and still don’t — how to make $10 million. So if I can make a million online, why do I need operate a $10 million newsroom, especially given the greater efficiencies of online publishing?”

He built a realistic budget based on new business realities. Now picture news executives across the country hitting themselves on the head saying, “Damn, why didn’t we think of that?” They should have. But to do so would have required them to completely tear apart their businesses. Witness Detroit, banking, retail, advertising, insurance, and every other industry undergoing upheaval – nobody wants to do that.

Just as the bloggers linked above took their share of blame, so will I. Owens suggests that the problem with tying old and new operations together. At Advance, where I worked for a dozen years, we created separate online companies, which had some benefits: enabling the sites to build what was right for online (that is, interactivity), creating real value for advertising (rather than throwing in online as value-added), creating smaller and differently skilled staffs. But it also created problems: sites that were dependent on newspaper content, rivalries that killed collaboration and limited the responsibility anyone would take for the future. In the end, everyone needed to rethink what they were creating and what value it had, how they were creating it, how they related to their communities, and how the business could be run. But I didn’t see that happening anywhere in the industry. Everywhere, I saw people looking for someone to blame and somewhere to hide. I don’t put all the blame on the individuals because that’s how companies and industries operate.

Individuals who want to succeed in this upheaval become entrepreneurs. That’s what Owens – and many others – are doing. That, I’ve come to see, is the basis of the future of news.

In our New Business Models for News Project at CUNY, we threw out the old business assumptions with the old business. That’s why we tried to answer the tough question people were asking: What happens to journalism if the paper disappears? (their implied answer was that journalism does, too). What we came up with was one entity being replaced by well more than 100 entities – 1,000 entities, perhaps – each run according to new opportunities and needs, each smaller, each contributing real value, each sustainable (some very profitable; some choosing no profit). Everyone in this ecosystem has to think about running a business rather than preserving one.

Someone else looking for sinners is James Murdoch, whose MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival excoriated the BBC for bigfooting the news market in the UK and the government for enabling it and for regulating everybody else. I agree with him to an extent, this extent: that profit, in his words, will make journalism sustainable, independent, and innovative.

Except I doubt that this sustainable, independent, and innovative journalism will necessarily come from Mr. Murdoch’s father’s business and its cohorts because they are the ones that even today are trying to maintain the scale and models for their old businesses rather than inventing new ones. Look, instead, to the entrepreneurs who are starting over and rethinking the business from the bottom up, as Owens is.

Hyperdistribution

The newspaper industry should be sobered by Martin Langeveld’s calculations, based on the Newspaper Association of America’s misplaced bragging about Nielsen internet data, that only about a half one one percent of time spent online is spent on newspaper sites.

It is clear that if journalists want to be supported – let alone have impact and influence and find their days worthwhile – they need more people to spend more time with news. I believe they should be doing the opposite of what is being suggested in many quarters: clamping down controls to try to fight aggregators and search engines, threatening to build pay walls, consolidating content into destinations they’d have to work harder to get people to visit.

Right now, news organizations should be trying to reach more people and engage with them more deeply. They should seek hyperdistribution.

Since when did it become OK for media people to shrink their audiences? Since they gave up on the ad model, that’s when. But I am not ready to surrender to the idea that advertising, which has supported mass media since its creation, is over. Yes, ad rates are lower; welcome to competition. That’s all the more reason why publishers must attract larger audiences publics – make it up on volume – as well as more targeted and valuable communities.

In my presentation at the Aspen Institute on CUNY’s New Business Models for News Project, I listed some of these opportunities, even though we didn’t build them into our first models because we wanted a conservative base case. Next we are building blow-out models incorporating these means, many built on the principles of the link economy:

* Reverse-syndication. We suggest that the new news organization (NNO) we envision in our ecosystem can create highly targeted content that can be distributed on the sites of other members of the network. So, for example, a new news org could create voting guides for every state assembly member and all the hyperlocal bloggers in the state could offer them to their readers. This content could carry both metro and hyperlocal advertising sold by and benefiting both sites. It is in the NNO’s interest to help these bloggers succeed. Thus they should collaborate on creating and distributing everything from news to calendars to functionality.

In the link economy, value is created by he who creates content and she who delivers audience. So in this networked ecosystem, large players and small will find ways to mutually create and share in more value.

* The embeddable paper. Once you embrace hyperdistribution, then you’ll find new and simple ways to get readers to become distributors. In this post I suggested that we should enable any content to be placed in YouTube-like players that carry brand, advertising, states, and links.

Lo and behold, Silicon Alley Insider just made it possible to embed its stories on this blog or anywhere. In fact, you don’t need to follow that link above; you can read the story below (and I imagine it won’t be long before there’s an ad there, along with the Insider’s branding, links, and data collection).

* API The New York Times has an API (application programming interface) enabling developers to incorporate its headlines, driving traffic to NYTimes.com. NPR and the BBC have APIs that enable others to use more content; as public broadcasters, their goal is simply broader distribution. The Guardian’s API offers full content but requires developers to join its ad network. Thus the Guardian wants to get its journalism into the fabric of the web, as they put it, and support it at the same time. Fingers crossed that it works.

* Specialization. One-size-fits-all news was a product of our means of production and distribution and a very small number of topics aside, that just won’t cut it anymore. Whether by geography, interest, or community, news must become far more specialized. In the link economy, this is how content rises in search to be discovered and it is how value is added with advertising.

Specialization sounds like a way to decrease, not increase audience but with the efficiencies specialization enables, many more publics can be served more deeply and each is bound to be more engaged. In our New Business Models for News projections, we ended up – to our surprise – with an equivalent number of journalists working in our hypothetical ecosystem when compared with the legacy newsroom, but these journalists were all covering much more specialized topics in much greater depth, creating more journalism for more communities than before. Specialization becomes a way to grow.

* Social engagement. In our NewBizNews models, we projected 12 page views per user per month because this is in line with existing news sites and thus, a conservative assumption. But it’s also a shameful assumption.

Local news networks that are truly a part of communities – owned and operated by their communities – will surely have much higher engagement. The fact that Facebook – which brings communities elegant organization, just as newspapers endeavor to do – gets hundreds of pageviews per month per user should be a lesson and model for news networks.

If news organizations – pardon me – asked what Google, Facebook, Twitter, and craigslist would do, they would define themselves as platforms more than content creators and controllers. They would act as networks rather than destinations. Once again, this gives them not only distribution and engagement but efficiency.

I have stood in and before no end of conferences when I or someone else recalls what that student said in The New York Times said a year ago: “If the news is that important, it will find me.” Waiting for her to come to our site won’t work – and it especially won’t work if, once a peer links her to our site, she finds a wall. No, we have to take news to her.

At Aspen, Google’s Marissa Mayer told the assembled news machers that they have to find ways to insinuate their content and value into our own hyperpersonal news streams. In other words: This ain’t about getting people to come to your home pages anymore.

You can bet if Mayer is thinking this way, so is Google and so it will find ways to consolidate information about sources across these new means of distribution. It’s still in Google’s interest to tap the tree for Googlejuice. So I say we cannot waste a moment finding more ways to get more people to distribute and engage with news.