How Apple, Google, and Facebook Would Save the News Together

Apple CEO Steve Jobs said he doesn't want the United States to "descend into a nation of bloggers" at the All Things Digital Conference yesterday in New York. He added, " Anything we can do to help newspapers find new ways of expression that will help them get paid, I am all for."

I hardly take this as an affront -- I don't want a nation of all bloggers, either -- but it's interesting how this quote aligns Jobs with his famous frenemy Google CEO Eric Schmidt as tech execs with (at least nominal) interest in looking out for the news industry.

In his insightful cover story for this month's Atlantic magazine, Jim Fallows spoke with Googlers about their critiques, suggestions and plans for the future of the news biz. Some of Google's recent contributions to the marketplace of ideas for rescuing journalism include features like Living Stories, Fast Flip, and YouTube Direct. Ultimately, Google is an ad company, and Schmidt sees journalism's ultimate salvation in targeted ads. In his words:

"It's obvious that in five or 10 years, most news will be consumed on an electronic device of some sort. Something that is mobile and personal, with a nice color screen. Imagine an iPod or Kindle smart enough to show you stories that are incremental to a story it showed you yesterday, rather than just repetitive. And it knows who your friends are and what they're reading and think is hot. And it has display advertising with lots of nice color, and more personal and targeted, within the limits of creepiness. And it has a GPS and a radio network and knows what is going on around you. If you think about that, you get to an interesting answer very quickly, involving both subscriptions and ads."

That's where Apple comes in: with that "electronic device of some sort." The iPad gives media publishers a book-sized slab to charge for content that had gone for free on desktops for the last decade. What's more, on the iPad publishers can experiment with prices and layout in a way that uses the iPad's affluent, early-adopter audience as guinea pigs for their paid-content revolution. We're already seeing heartening signs of success. Wired's iPad app sold 24,000 "copies" in the first 24 hours, eight times the mag's expectations.

One year ago, I might have written that Apple's hardware savvy combined with Google's advertising innovation might eventually produce something like Schmidt's vision. Today there's a little more cross-pollination. Apple is getting into the mobile advertising business, and Google is getting into the smart phone (and smart pad) business. Both companies are competing and inspiring each other (not to mention suing each other) as they chase something like Schmidt's dream. That's good for consumers, because it will likely mean lower prices and more choices at Best Buy. Whether it works out for paid content producers remains to be seen.

The hot new tech giant I haven't mentioned yet is Facebook. CEO Mark Zuckerberg's new Open Graph initiative (Facebook's Web-wide hivemind of users' "likes" and more information) could be just as revolutionary as Apple and Google's innovations for news organizations. Why? Read Schmidt's dreamworld again. Facebook "knows who your friends are and what they're reading and think is hot." If its empire of "like" buttons can prompt algorithms to personalize news pages and personalize advertising on news pages, ads become more valuable to users and companies. That means readers pay more attention and companies pay more money. Cheap online ads have contributed to the struggles of Web journalism. More valuable ads means more revenue for editors, reporters, fact-checkers and, yeah, bloggers.

This is all a bit far-out and wishy-washy at the moment, but it's interesting to note how Apple, Google and Facebook are not only rivals, but also collaborators in the future Schmidt conjured for the Atlantic -- and, one hopes, in the future of the news business.