Google News: Europe's newest BFF*
Tuesday 5 May 2015
I read about Google's détente with Europe with more than a little scepticism. The search giant is forming a partnership with eight European publishers for "product development" and is creating a €150 million “innovation fund”. As reported by Jane Morrison of The Guardian - one of Google's new partners - the juiciest part of the deal will be the mind meld, during which Google will try to help them "increase revenue, traffic and audience engagement”.
Which sounds an awful lot like it's Google's fault their new European media partners were unable to do what they were supposed to be doing with all that traffic Google has sent their way for years and years.
A headline can sometimes tell a lot about a publication's opinion. The Guardian's is not subtle: "Google admits mistakes with news outlets as it announces new partnership." That's sort of the opposite of burying the lede, because nowhere in the story is the hint of mea culpa by an industry which acts as though the Internet is as much of a nuisance as post-Edwardian history was to British monarchists.
As my friend and go-to media critic Matthew Ingram writes on LinkedIn:
While publishers and media types in the EU celebrated the announcement, others said they would much rather that publishers do their own innovating instead of relying on Google to do it for them - or to pay them to do it. On top of that, I have to wonder whether the media outlets involved in this deal are cutting a deal with the wrong enemy. As social discovery overtakes search (particularly for millennials), it feels as though they should be more concerned about Facebook rather than Google.
I'll go Ingram one further. Publishers and media types have seen the enemy, don't realise "they are us," and are, once again, asking the world to take pity them.
Ingram is correct that the Facebook initiative - which puts publisher news on the social network directly rather than driving it to publisher sites - is a big risk that smart players like The New York Times are think they have to take.
But we're here because newspapers dropped the ball, not because Google learned how to slam dunk it. Newspapers may have to make Faustian bargains now, but that's because they didn't address changing reader expectations any faster than they adapted to irrefutable evidence that Craigslist was going to destroy a critical revenue stream.
As an industry, print decided to be a glib, protectionist victim decades ago. Nothing has changed.
Google News was a real threat for me when I was running Reuters’ real-time Internet news service in the '90s - the first and, for years, inexplicably, the only one
For Google, this is good business. It's a small price to pay as it fights the EU in an unrelated matter which will require it to explain how it managed to get so good at what it does and create a new platform for print publishers to exploit. Oh wait - I guess nothing is unrelated.
A truly engaged corporate citizen like Google might have offered advice early on instead of having to do it at the point a bayonet. Of course, Google's advice to old media would have been the same then as should be now. Google won't be blunt, but I don't have that problem. So here it is in a nutshell:
"Stop doing that."
Google can't say it, so I will. Print media would find it simply delightful if the world didn't change. And like that puppy that dies if you don't heed, it asserts that the consequence of not seeing the world as they do would spell the end of journalism as we know it.
Which, of course, is nonsense.
Much of the bait-and-switch argument old media employs involves the not-so-subtle difference between reporting and publishing. Google disrupted distribution. A consequence was new evidence on the kind of reporting that readers craved - not what to report, but how. The big news was insight into display and design.
Here is a very simple example: The top complaint from Google's critics is that readers often don't want to read the whole story when they've read the headline and first paragraph. Their takeaway is to protect long form. Mine is, most stories don't need a deep dive (and isn't it a delicious irony that long-form is enjoying a renaissance?). If aggregation and quick-hit blogging are what readers crave, why blame them? If news is a commodity and the best scoops are those of perception, why perpetuate the pursuit of what Jay Rosen calls "the view from nowhere" instead of developing context and voice and making fact-checking central?
USA Today pioneered staccato journalism decades ago. The newspaper industry giggled. Google came along with a distribution model that made USA Today's seem pathetic. They complained about being beaten at their own game.
I lived this. Google News was a real threat for me when I was running Reuters’ real-time Internet news service in the '90s - the first and, for years, inexplicably, the only one. Our small team pumped out the top news in nearly two dozen categories to all the major internet portals and news sites. On the day Google News launched, I told my boss they were the future. But I did so with a smile he could appreciate.
He and I had made a career out of making ourselves obsolete every 18 months or so by redefining our mission and doing it with fewer humans - a sort of Moore's Law of publishing - so having Google leap ahead with fully programmatic news selection and delivery was a lesson in what was possible.
We learned how we couldn't compete with Google, but also how we could better it. Fast forward 20 years and Google, Techmeme and others who tried to do it by machine alone decided that this extremely cool achievement wasn't as important as not allowing machines to make stupid "mistakes" in “judgment". Facebook and Snapchat exist, have editorial operations and are distribution monsters. I now work for a company which also evolved into an unlikely, powerful media platform.
And this is the lesson institutional print refuses to appreciate. Change exposes flaws we were able to accept but simply can't anymore. It's always been true that the public doesn't (for example) need hundreds of words on as many stories as print thinks. But it took TV (on purpose) and the Internet (by accident) to expose it.
So, hooray for Google, which might have to stop using as much saffron in its cafeterias and demand Über receipts from employees to tithe to Europe's media monarchy. My prediction is that Google will fulfil its European community service, and nothing will change, because what print really wants is for the privileged class system to endure. But even Downton Abbey has to come to an end.
*Best Friends Forever
John Abell was the founding editor of reuters.com during a 26-year career with Reuters in which he was a reporter, editor and bureau chief. He is now a senior editor at LinkedIn, where this article was first published. It appears here with permission. ■