Journalism June 2010

How to Save the News

Plummeting newspaper circulation, disappearing classified ads, “unbundling” of content—the list of what’s killing journalism is long. But high on that list, many would say, is Google, the biggest unbundler of them all. Now, having helped break the news business, the company wants to fix it—for commercial as well as civic reasons: if news organizations stop producing great journalism, says one Google executive, the search engine will no longer have interesting content to link to. So some of the smartest minds at the company are thinking about this, and working with publishers, and peering ahead to see what the future of journalism looks like. Guess what? It’s bright.
Neal Mohan

At a minor, practical level, today’s news organizations generally seem clumsy, at least from Google’s perspective, as they try to re-create their brand and business on the Internet. “The print world has gotten placing an ad in a newspaper or magazine down to a science,” Neal Mohan of Google, who is in charge of working with publishers to develop online display ads, told me. He said that for TV or radio advertising, the overhead and administrative costs of placing an ad might be 2 or 3 percent of the ad’s total value; but for the online news sites he knew about, simple, correctable inefficiencies might drive the cost to 25 or 30 percent. His team is working with publishers to reduce these “parasite costs.”

It was Krishna Bharat who identified a more profound form of inefficiency. As a student at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, Bharat had written for the campus newspaper while taking his computer-science degree. “In a second life, I would be a journalist,” he once told an Indian newspaper. (When the Indian newspaper asks me, I will say: In a second life, I would be a successful Google executive.) He got his Ph.D. at Georgia Tech and was an early Google hire, in 1999. After the 9/11 attacks two years later, he grew worried about the narrowness of news he was receiving through the U.S. media. “I felt that we really had to catch up with the world’s news,” he told me. “To get a broad understanding, you had to visit sites in Europe and Asia and the Middle East. I was wondering if Google could do something to make the world’s news information available.”

This last statement is the kind of thing many people at the company say in utter earnestness. In Bharat’s case, it meant devising a system that would collect news feeds from around the world, automatically and instantly cluster them by subject and theme, and move them up and down in prominence based on how many sources in various parts of the world were discussing the same topic. A few weeks later, such an automatic news-monitoring site was up and running as an internal demo at Google. In September 2002, it went public as Google News, initially covering 4,000 English-language news sources a day. Now it covers as many as 25,000 sources in some 25 languages, all by purely automated assessments of the main trends emerging in news coverage around the world.

Except for an 18-month period when Bharat founded and ran Google’s R&D center in Bangalore, his original hometown, he has been guiding Google News ever since. In this role, he sees more of the world’s news coverage daily than practically anyone else on Earth. I asked him what he had learned about the news business.

He hesitated for a minute, as if wanting to be very careful about making a potentially offensive point. Then he said that what astonished him was the predictable and pack-like response of most of the world’s news outlets to most stories. Or, more positively, how much opportunity he saw for anyone who was willing to try a different approach.

The Google News front page is a kind of air-traffic-control center for the movement of stories across the world’s media, in real time. “Usually, you see essentially the same approach taken by a thousand publications at the same time,” he told me. “Once something has been observed, nearly everyone says approximately the same thing.” He didn’t mean that the publications were linking to one another or syndicating their stories. Rather, their conventions and instincts made them all emphasize the same things. This could be reassuring, in indicating some consensus on what the “important” stories were. But Bharat said it also indicated a faddishness of coverage—when Michael Jackson dies, other things cease to matter—and a redundancy that journalism could no longer afford. “It makes you wonder, is there a better way?” he asked. “Why is it that a thousand people come up with approximately the same reading of matters? Why couldn’t there be five readings? And meanwhile use that energy to observe something else, equally important, that is currently being neglected.” He said this was not a purely theoretical question. “I believe the news industry is finding that it will not be able to sustain producing highly similar articles.”

With the debut of Krishna Bharat’s Google News in 2002, Google began its first serious interactions with news organizations. Two years later, it introduced Google Alerts, which sent e-mail or instant-message notifications to users whenever Google’s relentless real-time indexing of the world’s news sites found a match for a topic the user had flagged. Two years after that, in the fall of 2006, Google began scanning the paper or microfilmed archives of many leading publications so that articles from their pre-digital era could be indexed, searched for, and read online.

Up to this point, the company’s attitude was that it was doing the news business a favor, whatever the publishers themselves thought. “Our anecdotal evidence was that [these and other news efforts] were driving users to better stories,” Eric Schmidt told me. “There was a set of publishers who recognized that with these tools, users were more likely to visit their Web sites”—and in turn increase the publisher’s online audience and make online ads easier to sell. “There was another set who believed we were stealing their content.”

Google’s rebuttal to the claim of stealing is that it doesn’t sell ads on the Google News site, and moreover provides hardly any of the newspapers’ original content. Indeed, in this practice it is the opposite of “aggregators” like the Huffington Post, which often “excerpt” enough of someone else’s story that readers don’t bother to click through to the source. Google News gives only a set of headlines and two-line links meant to steer traffic (and therefore ad potential) to the news organization that first ran the story.

With this approach, Google has in a curious way re-created the “bundled” approach that it has helped destroy for newspapers. Virtually all of Google’s (enormous) revenue comes from a tiny handful of its activities: mainly the searches people conduct when they’re looking for something to buy. That money subsidizes all the other services the company offers—the classic “let me Google that” informational query (as opposed to the shopping query), Google Earth, driving directions, online storage for Gmail and Google Docs, the still-money-losing YouTube video-hosting service. Structurally this is very much like the old newspaper bargain, in which the ad-crammed classified section, the weekly grocery-store pullout, and other commercial features underwrote state-house coverage and the bureau in Kabul. Bundling worked for newspapers, as long as they offered things that readers couldn’t get elsewhere, to a wide swath of the public. Google’s version depends on its loss-leader services, like search and mail, being so central to modern online life that, when people do their less frequent but more valuable commercial searches, they’ll stay inside Google’s world. This in turn depends on the existence of information worth searching for, which brings us back to the predicament of the press.

“About two years ago, we started hearing more and more talk about the decline of the press,” Schmidt told me. “A set of people [inside the company] began looking at what might be the ways we could help newspapers.”

Why should the company bother? Until recently, I would have thought that the answer was a combination of PR concerns and Schmidt’s personal interest. On the PR front, one news official recounted a conversation two years ago in which Schmidt said that whether or not Google was responsible for journalism’s business problems, it did not want to be seen as “the vulture picking off the dead carcass of the news industry.” Unlike the two Google founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Schmidt is well connected in the news business and at ease with the media. His wife, Wendy, has a degree from the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley. Brin’s family experience with repression in the old Soviet Union is universally assumed to have shaped his uncompromising stance toward repression in today’s China. His parents brought him from Moscow to Maryland when he was a child; by all accounts, it was Brin who drove the recent change in Google’s policy toward China. Schmidt is just as widely assumed to have driven Google’s efforts on the press. But, significantly, he’s no longer the only one.

Before this year, when I asked Google employees about the health of the news business, their answers often seemed dutiful. During my interviews this year, people sounded as if they meant it. Google is valuable, by the logic I repeatedly heard, because the information people find through it is valuable. If the information is uninteresting, inaccurate, or untimely, people will not want to search for it. How valuable would Google Maps be, if the directions or street listings were wrong?

Nearly everyone I spoke with made this point in some way. Nikesh Arora’s version was that Google had a “deeply symbiotic relationship” with serious news organizations. “We help people find content,” he told me. “We don’t generate content ourselves. As long as there is great content, people will come looking for it. When there’s no great content, it’s very hard for people to be interested in finding it. That’s what we do for a living.” As Chris Gaither, a former technology reporter for the Los Angeles Times who joined Google last year as a communications manager for the news team, put it, “We believe in making information accessible. The surest way to make it inaccessible is if it doesn’t get created in the first place. That is why it is in our interest to deal with the problems of the industry.” (Small-world department: Gaither worked at The Atlantic as an intern in the mid-1990s and was a student in a class I taught at Berkeley’s journalism school nine years ago.)

“For the last eight years, we mainly focused on getting the algorithms better,” Krishna Bharat said, referring to the automated systems for finding and ranking items in Google News. “But lately, a lot of my time has gone into thinking about the basis on which the product”—news—“is built. A lot of our thinking now is focused on making the news sustainable.”

So how can news be made sustainable? The conceptual leap in Google’s vision is simply to ignore print. It’s not that everyone at the company assumes “dead tree” newspapers and magazines will disappear. Schmidt and others talk about how much easier and more efficient it is to assess, at a glance, stories on a broadsheet newspaper page than to click through to see the full text on a screen. Steve Ballmer, the CEO of Microsoft, told the Washington Post editorial board two years ago, “There will be no newspapers, no magazines, that are delivered in paper form” by 2020. (Ballmer later made clear that there might be small exceptions.) No one I spoke with at Google went quite that far. But all of their plans for reinventing a business model for journalism involve attracting money to the Web-based news sites now available on computers, and to the portable information streams that will flow to whatever devices evolve from today’s smart phones, iPods and iPads, Nooks and Kindles, and mobile devices of any other sort. This is a natural approach for Google, which is, except for its Nexus One phone, a strictly online company.

The three pillars of the new online business model, as I heard them invariably described, are distribution, engagement, and monetization. That is: getting news to more people, and more people to news-oriented sites; making the presentation of news more interesting, varied, and involving; and converting these larger and more strongly committed audiences into revenue, through both subscription fees and ads. Conveniently, each calls on areas of Google’s expertise. “Not knowing as much about the news business as the newspapers do, it is unlikely that we can solve the problems better than they can,” Nikesh Arora told me. “But we are willing to support any formal and informal effort that newspapers or journalists more generally want to make” to come up with new sources of money.

In practice this involves projects like the ones I’m about to describe, which share two other traits beyond the “distribution, engagement, monetization” strategy that officially unites them. One is the Google concept of “permanent beta” and continuous experimentation—learning what does work by seeing all the things that don’t. “We believe that teams must be nimble and able to fail quickly,” Josh Cohen told me. (I resisted making the obvious joke about the contrast with the journalism world, which believes in slow and statesmanlike failure.) “The three most important things any newspaper can do now are experiment, experiment, and experiment,” Hal Varian said.

In fact, such advice is both natural and inconceivable for most of today’s journalists. Natural, in that every book, every article, every investigative project, every broadcast is its own form of pure start-up enterprise, with nothing guaranteed until it’s done (if then). Inconceivable, in that news businesses themselves are relatively static, and the very name “Newspaper Guild” suggests how tradition-bound many journalists are. We pride ourselves on defending standards of language, standards of judgment, and even a form of public service that can seem antique. Whether or not this makes for better journalism, it complicates the embrace of radical new experiments.

The other implicitly connecting theme is that an accumulation of small steps can together make a surprisingly large difference. The forces weighing down the news industry are titanic. In contrast, some of the proposed solutions may seem disappointingly small-bore. But many people at Google repeated a maxim from Clay Shirky, of New York University, in an essay last year about the future of the news: “Nothing will work, but everything might.”

In all, Google teams are working with hundreds of news organizations, which range in scale from the Associated Press, the Public Broadcasting System, and The New York Times to local TV stations and papers. The last two efforts I’ll mention are obviously different in scale and potential from all the others, but these examples give a sense of what “trying everything” means.

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James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent; his blog is at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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