Monday, May 17, 2010

James Fallows goes gaga for Google, which he thinks is going to save the news business (or does he?)


"Ten years from now, a robust and better-funded news business will be thriving. What next year means is harder to say."
-- James Fallows, in his June Atlantic Monthly article,

by Ken

Okay, I plowed through the online version of James Fallows's piece in the June Atlantic Monthly, "How to Save the News," and it's not a total loss. Although it seems pretty murky to me, I learned some stuff. There are people, it appears, who have some degree of confidence that a new business model, or rather models, will be developed to make it possible for the business of newsgathering to continue, and while nobody seems optimistic about the continued existence of printed newspapers, some other form (TBD) is likely to emerge. And, oh yes, Google, thought to be the nemesis of professional news-gatherers because its search engine makes it possible for every user to cherry-pick all the organizations now gathering news without contributing to their botom line, is going to show the way, because even though they don't like to talk about to anyone except Fallows, they're doing a lot of work on the subject.
[S]ignificantly for the company’s vision of the future, nearly everyone at Google emphasized that prospects look bleak for the printed versions of newspapers—but could be bright for the news industry as a whole, including newspaper publishers. This could seem an artificial distinction, but it is fundamental to the company’s view of how news organizations will support themselves.

Reading between the lines of his Friday blog follow-up to the first wave of attention the piece received ("Google-and-the-News Followups"), you get the feeling that Fallows is surprised that the piece has been received as a Google puff piece, possibly related to the close relationship he acknowledges in the piece with Google CEO Eric Schmidt predating Schmidt's joining Google in 2001. Now I went back and looked at the piece, and yes, Fallows does say that Google isn't going to solve the problems of the news business, but he says it in the context of pointing out that Google didn't really create the problems either, though it unquestionably contributed. Okay, noted. But otherwise, it's not a piece about the news business, it's a piece about Google and the news business, and I don't see how it can be read any other way. The piece is almos entirely about Google. Makes you wonder if Fallows ever read it.

Basically, what I took away from the original piece is this:
[A]fter 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. The company’s ultimate ambition is in line with what most of today’s reporters, editors, and publishers are hoping for—which is what, in my view, most citizens should also support.

That goal is a reinvented business model to sustain professional news-gathering. This is essential if the “crowd sourcing” and citizen journalism that have already transformed news coverage—for instance, the videos from inside the Iranian protests last summer—are not to be the world’s only source of information. Accounts like those are certainly valuable, but they will be all the more significant if they are buttressed by reports from people who are paid to keep track of government agencies, go into danger zones, investigate and analyze public and private abuse, and generally serve as systematic rather than ad hoc observers. (I am talking about what journalism should do, not what it often does.)

But maybe you could skip the original article, because Fallows now tells us in the blogpost what he thinks we should have taken away from the article:
There is a wider variety of reaction to my current article (I've got to say it: subscribe!) than I can deal with in any comprehensive way at the moment. For now, a restatement of a central theme, then two reader dissents.

If there is a point that, above all the others, I wanted most to convey in this article, it is not "everything is going to be OK" or "Google is our friend" or even "here comes a torrent of new advertising money!" Rather it is a cultural/attitudinal argument about the press and everyone who cares about it. Far from being autumnal and despairing and mournful about a supposed golden age that has passed and fatalistic about the doomed state of public information and the resulting lapsed state of society, people who care about the media should (according to me) recognize that technological upheaval, and the resulting business shifts and forced individual innovations, have been the norm rather than the exception in our enterprise. Clever and ambitious people, especially but not only young people, will find new ways to do the work a society needs of them -- and to make a living while doing so. There will be parts of a future press establishment that will be worse than what we know now. There will be parts that are better. That is how it has always been. This paragraph, near the end of the story, is what I really believe:
Ten years from now, a robust and better-funded news business will be thriving. What next year means is harder to say. I asked everyone I interviewed [at Google] to predict which organizations would be providing news a decade from now. Most people replied that many of tomorrow's influential news brands will be today's: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the public and private TV and radio networks, the Associated Press. Others would be names we don't yet know. But this is consistent with the way the news has always worked, rather than a threatening change. Fifteen years ago, Fox News did not exist. A decade ago, Jon Stewart was not known for political commentary. The news business has continually been reinvented by people in their 20s and early 30s--Henry Luce when he and Briton Hadden founded Time magazine soon after they left college, John Hersey when he wrote Hiroshima at age 32. Bloggers and videographers are their counterparts now. If the prospect is continued transition rather than mass extinction of news organizations, that is better than many had assumed. It requires an openness to the constant experimentation that Google preaches and that is journalism's real heritage.

Again, there really is a lot of sound observation and information about the journalism business past, present, and future. Fallows is a smart guy, and he's been around the business a long time. If I can indicate my problem with the mode of argumentation he deploys here, it comes down to this discussion of the question of readers paying for content:
[P]eople inside the press still wage bitter, first-principles debates about whether, in theory, customers will ever be willing to pay for online news, and therefore whether “paywalls” for online news can ever succeed. But at Google, I could hardly interest anyone in the question. The reaction was: Of course people will end up paying in some form—why even talk about it? The important questions involved the details of how they would pay, and for what kind of news. “We have no horse in that race or particular model in mind,” Krishna Bharat, one of the executives most deeply involved in Google’s journalistic efforts, told me, in a typical comment. His team was already working with some newspapers planning to put their content behind paywalls, others planning to remain free and hoping to become more popular with readers annoyed when paywalls crop up elsewhere, and still others planning a range of free and paid offerings. For Bharat and his colleagues, free-versus-paid is an empirical rather than theological matter. They’ll see what works.

All well and good, but my imagination isn't alert enough to see how this actually translates into new real-world business models such as Fallows assures us are in development, and the Google examples he discusses, "Living Stories" and "Fast Fiip" and "YouTube Direct" strike me as unpersuasive in the extreme, even accepting the wisdom that it's not going to be any one thing that replaces the old model, not this or this or that or that, but this and this and that and that. I don't see a line from any of these to anything that seems likely to form any part of a healthy new news-gathering business. Fallows himself points out that bloggers are part of today's new thing for news-gathering, and there are lots of serious news-gatherers at work (by which I don't mean thumb-suckers like yours truly), but I still don't see any glimmering of how the Google thought trails lead us to a model where those people can make a living doing it.

Of course I'm old and East Coast intellectual-ish, whereas these problems are going to be solved by young people (like always; you know, like Henry Luce and John Hersey and Jon Stewart -- and of course Roger Ailes was a mere child when he and fellow toddler invented Fox News, which come to think of it surely should be a caution rather than a model for where we're headed, no?) and West Coast tech-ish people.

You should know, though, that we have it on the authority of no less an authority than Google CEO (and Fallows buddy) Eric Schmidt, whom Fallows studiously avoided interviewing for this piece until after he had done all his other interviews (which resolves the potential conflict how exactly?), that the news business doesn't have a demand problem, it has a business-model problem.

I had the exact quote, but I've misplaced it, and it's too much hassle to find it again, because online you can only view the piece as its six separate "pages," which makes it almost impossible to riffle through. One of the dissents Fallows quotes in the blogpost points out that the absence of a single-page viewing mode is presumably not accidental, because this way each page counts as a "hit," and as the commenter points out, this is one reason why advertisers will never pay for online content they way they do for print or broadcast content, where there are actual numbers for readership and viewership.

I really do want to give Fallows credit for addressing an important subject in a manner different from the traditional sky-is-falling mode, and the fact that much of what his Google interviewees have to say floats over my head doesn't mean it's wrong. Maybe the thing to do is just wait those ten years until that "robust and better-funded news business will be thriving," and then we'll see what it was that was brewing today.

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At 10:13 PM, Blogger News Nag said...

I'm guessing eventually we'll all be forced to pay toward the "new" news system, such as through an inclusive charge in your IP bill (kind of like we pay extra for touch-tone and caller-ID on our land-lines). What I have no doubt about is that there will be a multi-tier system where, when you pay more, you get better service and more access to information. This is America after all, the land of the commerical free-for-all.

At 6:52 AM, Blogger kj said...

wow it's really a good article.

At 11:08 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Of course somebody is going to have to pay if we're going to have a news "business," if only to make sure that a journalist like Marcy Wheeler -- to throw out just the first name of an authentic blogospheric journalist which comes to mind -- can make a living doing what she does so well. As Fallows explains, up to now in both print and broadcast media, so far it's been mostly advertisers who've been picking up the tab, which means that we've all been paying, but really indirectly. And again, even in the old media, there are lots of different kinds of advertising. Classified advertising, while hardly important to most magazines and essentially irrelevant to broadcast media, has been a crucial financial underpinning of newspapers.

The point isn't that the old forms are going to be translated into new online ones, but that new online ways of charging for content will be found, according to the visions of Fallows and his Google visionaries. Again, note his underlining of the way the Google people take it absolutely for granted that ways will be found, probably all sorts of ways, to have online users pay for content as parts of the new "business model."

And again, I realize that I'm limited by my lack of vision here, but except for certain niche markets, I don't see even the haziest outlines of these new "monetizing" modes. But then, again, according to Fallows, all we have to do is wait ten years and there it'll all be. If I'm still around and functional, please be sure to wake me.



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