Photos byRobyn Twomey/Redux (Above: Hal Varian, Google's chief economist)
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.