Google-and-the-News Followups

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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.

After the jump, two dissents. One, from a reader who thinks that Google should be trying much harder than it is to help news organizations. The other, from a reader who says that the Google advertising experts don't know what they're talking about when they predict a brighter future for online ad revenues. Judge for yourselves. This argument will go on for a very long time.

From a reader who thinks that Google needs to do a lot more than what I described:

I believe that Google could be the white knight for publishers, but it may have to change its perspective on a few things.

There are lots of problems for publishers right now, as you point out in your article. One of them is that other sites (like the Huffington Post) can copy content from a publisher and get the ad revenue for it. Right now the only remedy is a lawsuit, which is horribly impractical.

Google could help by setting up a copyright registry for legitimate publishers. The publisher would submit its copyrighted material to the registry along with a list of the sites authorized to display it. (I.e., where the publisher has a syndication agreement.)

If a site violated those terms and displayed copyrighted content without the owners' permission, there could be various sanctions. E.g., (1) it would disappear from the Google search listing, along with any ads that link to that site, (2) the authorized contact at the copyright owner would be notified, and (3) the company that controls that site's DNS entry would be notified with a recommendation to redirect any traffic to a copyright violation page.

Of course there are any number of ways Google could monetize the content registry. I suggested this to one of my Adwords reps at Google and she replied that Google doesn't want to police the internet.

That's the problem. Saving publishers necessarily means protecting copyright, and nobody can do that effectively right now. Without a real-world, market-driven approach to protecting copyright, the news media is doomed. So if Google wants to help publishers, it will have to come up with a way to address this problem.

From the reader who thinks that Google's optimistic ad projections are delusional:

While it's interesting to hear about the ways Google is partnering with publishers to improve presentation of content and innovate new payment schemes, etc., I think it really weakens the story that you let them optimistically wave the magic wand of rising online display prices without challenge. Obviously it behooves Google to promote this narrative of inevitability, but so far it hasn't proved to be the case.

I used to work in online advertising (at a fairly low level, I'll admit) and the continual drop in average CPM (cost per 1000 impressions) was worrying to all publishers. I don't personally see any reason for this trend to reverse itself, for multiple reasons:

1) Inventory increases too rapidly. Your article is separated into 6 pages on The Atlantic's website, with no option to view as a single page--one of the easiest ways to increase pageviews. Publishers can always find ways to add more zones (the regularly sized areas that serve ads) to a page. They can publish more content as slide shows. This inventory will only increase as people spend more time online. Obviously advertisers will need to target them there, but I don't see how Mohan and Schmidt can just assume this space will automatically be worth "more per eyeball".

2) The ability to measure the way people engage with advertising online only makes it more worthless. Industry average for CTR (click-through-rate) is usually cited somewhere around .12-.15%. In my experience working at a network that had stricter than normal standards for intrusive ad designs, it usually proved to be about half that. Eight clicks per 1000 people that "viewed" an ad. Probably half of those were by accident. This is the metric that most buyers care about, and it just serves to emphasize how unengaging most of this stuff is. Though these metrics can't really used to compare online and print campaigns (since print is rarely trying to encourage some sort of direct action), but because this information is so readily available for online, it will be used.

3) More engaging, "conversational", advertising, isn't. No one really wants to engage with advertising. My company built tons of branded microsites with neutral-but-relevant content that we paid to produce. Display ads with twitter and RSS feeds. Sponsored spots within Facebook applications. We tried to add value to the reader at every opportunity, but there's simply too much quality content (easily found with Google!) that doesn't suffer from the sterile and slightly coercive taint of being intended as marketing.

4) It's too hard to turn the page. High resolution, large format print ads don't really detract from the print experience because they're easy to ignore if you want to. Just turn the page. Web ads have to load. Then they're blocking content. Then you have to click some little box to make them go away. The bigger and more beautiful, the slower they are.

5) I have the feeling that general display advertising for branding purposes just isn't as valuable as it once was. It's too easy to Google for the current consensus on what electronic gadget/car/gear would be best to purchase for my particular needs. The web just makes it easier to "know" what the best things are. One company that doesn't pay much for advertising? The big G.

More in a while.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. 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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