Photos byRobyn Twomey/Redux (Above: Hal Varian, Google's chief economist)
Slideshow: "A Google-Eye View of the Newspaper Business"
A presentation by the company’s chief economist, Hal Varian
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.
Of course this overstates Google’s power to destroy, or create. The company’s chief economist, Hal Varian, likes to point out that perhaps the most important measure of the newspaper industry’s viability—the number of subscriptions per household—has headed straight down, not just since Google’s founding in the late 1990s but ever since World War II. In 1947, each 100 U.S. households bought an average of about 140 newspapers daily. Now they buy fewer than 50, and the number has fallen nonstop through those years. If Google had never been invented, changes in commuting patterns, the coming of 24-hour TV news and online information sites that make a newspaper’s information stale before it appears, the general busyness of life, and many other factors would have created major problems for newspapers. Moreover, “Google” is shorthand for an array of other Internet-based pressures on the news business, notably the draining of classified ads to the likes of Craigslist and eBay. On the other side of the balance, Google’s efforts to shore up news organizations are extensive and have recently become intense but are not guaranteed to succeed.
That this campaign is under way is surprising in its own right, as is its strong emphasis inside the company as a significant strategic measure. Most Internet and tech businesses have been either uninterested in or actively condescending toward the struggles of what they view as the pathetic-loser dinosaurs of the traditional media. (What is the Craigslist vision for sustaining the news business? Facebook’s? Microsoft’s?) Google’s projects have hardly been secret, since most of them involve collaboration with major newspapers, magazines, and broadcast-news organizations. This April, the company’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, delivered a keynote address to the major news editors’ convention, telling them “we’re all in this together” and that he was “convinced that the survival of high-quality journalism” was “essential to the functioning of modern democracy.” Last December, he wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal announcing that Google would be going out of its way to devise systems that would direct more money toward struggling news organizations—rather than, as many in the news industry assumed, simply directing more of everyone else’s money toward itself. Publishing this in The Journal was a piquant touch, since the paper’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, has frequently denounced Google’s effect on the news industry.
Still, compared with what it could have been saying about its strategy toward news companies, Google has undersold its efforts and rarely talked about them as an overall program with a central guiding idea. Partly this is because of the highly decentralized nature of most innovative effort at Google, which often takes place in “20 percent time”—a workday per week when developers can concentrate on projects they choose themselves. Partly it is because of the “permanent beta” culture at Google, in which projects are viewed as tentative and experimental long after they have reached what others would consider a mature stage. (The company’s wildly popular e-mail system, Gmail, officially graduated from beta-test status only last summer, after five years of operation by tens of millions of users worldwide.) And the news organizations that are trying out experimental approaches at Google’s suggestion and with its support have themselves chosen to be quiet.
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. 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.)
Google’s likely route toward this destination, however, differs in crucial and sometimes uncomfortable ways from the one the existing news business would probably choose on its own. The differences are natural, given the cultural chasm that separates a wildly successful, collectively cocky, engineer-dominated, very internationally staffed West Coast tech start-up from a national news establishment that is its opposite in all ways: East Coast–centric, liberal arts–heavy, less international in staff and leadership (more Brits and Australians than in the tech industry, fewer Indians, Chinese, and Russians), dominated by organizations founded in the distant past, and at the moment strikingly downcast and even panicked.