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Death of Journalism – Blame Google? No. Ask Google to Lead? Yes.

By - May 29, 2007

Newspapers

Thanks to commentor Kimo for pointing me to this SF Gate Op Ed, written by Neil Henry, a former colleague at the Graduate School of Journalism.

Snip:

The Chronicle’s announcement earlier this month that 100 newsroom jobs will be slashed in the coming weeks in the face of mounting financial woes represents just the latest chapter in a tragic story of traditional journalism’s decline.

Reportedly losing an estimated $1 million a week, the paper’s owner, the Hearst Corp., concluded it had no recourse but to trim costs by laying off reporters, editors and other skilled professionals, or offering buyouts to the most seasoned journalists in order to induce them to leave. The cuts reportedly will amount to a quarter of The Chronicle’s editorial staff…

….The factors behind this shrinkage are sadly familiar: The rise of the Internet has produced sharp declines in traditional advertising revenues in the printed press. Free online advertising competitors such as Craigslist.com have sharply undermined classified advertising as a traditional source of revenue. While many newspapers have attempted mightily to forge a presence on the Web — including The Chronicle, whose terrific sfgate.com is among the top 10 most trafficked news sites in America — revenue from online advertising is paltry compared to that from traditional print sources. As a result, newspapers such as The Chronicle must make staff cuts to survive — and increasingly it is highly skilled professional journalists committed to seeking the truth and reporting it, independently and without fear or favor, who must go.

The average citizen may not realize how severely the public’s access to important news, gathered according to high standards, may be threatened by these bottom line trade-offs.

When journalists’ jobs are eliminated, especially as many as The Chronicle intends, the product is inevitably less than it was. The fact is there will be nothing on YouTube, or in the blogosphere, or anywhere else on the Web to effectively replace the valuable work of those professionals.

I can’t disagree more with what Neil is saying in this first part of his Op Ed, though I do agree with some of his conclusions (more on that later). I can’t tell you where I heard this, but trust me, it’s from a good source: Up until recently, the Chronicle had 400 journalists working at the paper. FOUR HUNDRED! When I wrote for the LA Times, I often wrote two stories a day. Is the Chronicle pumping out 800 stories a day? Is it breaking all sorts of amazing stories and being a leader in the community with those 400 journalists? Hell no! 400 reporters and what is the paper DOING with them? Not much, I’m afraid. The paper should OWN the Valley Tech story. Does it? No. It should OWN the biotech story. Does it? No. It should OWN the real estate/development story. Does it? No. It should OWN the California political story. Does it? No!

Why? Well, maybe it has THE WRONG 400 journalists working for it?! And the wrong tone/approach/structure? Just maybe?

Neil goes on to write:

I see a world where corporations such as Google and Yahoo continue to enrich themselves with little returning to journalistic enterprises, all this ultimately at the expense of legions of professional reporters across America, now out of work because their employers in “old” media could not afford to pay them…..

….the time has come for corporations such as Google to accept more responsibility for the future of American journalism, in recognition of the threat “computer science” poses to journalism’s place in a democratic society.

It is no longer acceptable for Google corporate executives to say that they don’t practice journalism, they only work to provide links to “content providers.” Journalism is not just a matter of jobs, and dollars and cents lost. It is a public trust vital to a free society. It stands to reason that Google and corporations like it, who indirectly benefit so enormously from the expensive labor of journalists, should begin to take on greater civic responsibility for journalism’s plight. Is it possible for Google to somehow engage and support the traditional news industry and important local newspapers more fully, for example, to become a vital part of possible solutions to this crisis instead of a part of the problem?

I agree with Neil’s sentiment, and in answer to his question, yes, I do think it’s possible, and I agree that Google and others should be more engaged in helping shore up and – GASP – evolve the fourth estate. But assuming the way to do it is to support more of the same – the approach that gave us a bloated newsroom that puts out a product fewer and fewer people want to read each year – is to ask for tenure over evolution.

I’d love to see Google and Yahoo and others lead here. I do think they have a responsibility. But not because they are responsible for “killing newspapers”. Rather, because they are responsible for leading, period, in a world where they are the premiere corporations of the information age, an age that requires analysis, transparency, and, well, simply good journalism, unfettered by traditionalist packaging presumptions.


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17 thoughts on “Death of Journalism – Blame Google? No. Ask Google to Lead? Yes.

  1. nmw says:

    How many people work at Google?

    Is there an algorithm that can tell me whether I’m working right now?

    ;P nmw

  2. Louis Gray says:

    I don’t think Google has any more of an obligation to lead here than does Viacom or Disney or Apple or Microsoft, per se. Google is a technology and advertising company, not a media company. They are a media aggregator, not a media creator and publisher. As a business, it doesn’t make sense for Google to take on the saving of an old media industry for charitable purposes. Will old media need to make changes in the face of an ever evolving new media landscape? Absolutely.

    Neil Henry was a fantastic professor in the multiple courses I enjoyed taking from him in my time at Cal in the late 1990s, and I laud his efforts and emotion here, but I disagree with the conclusion that new media owes old media a bailout. When a market is changing, weaker players shake out and those that adapt survive.

  3. Mat says:

    @Louis

    If Google is solely a “technology and advertising” company, as you say, and their current business model undermines the very content production houses they rely upon for (bi-directional) traffic, then the company should have a very real interest in making sure those media companies stay afloat, for purely _business_ reasons (let alone the more philosophical responsibilities they may have with respect to reversing the destruction of professional journalism they helped usher in).

    Mat

  4. Joseph Hunkins says:

    John wrote: I’d love to see Google and Yahoo and others lead here. I do think they have a responsibility. But not because they are responsible for “killing newspapers”. Rather, because they are responsible for leading, period

    Yes! You make several excellent points, esp. that the internet is dismantling bloated legacy systems of information collection and distribution. For those legacy players this is a painful process, but for the rest of us it is important, necessary, and will eventually lead to better news reporting (I think it already is via blogging).

  5. Joseph Hunkins says:

    John wrote: I’d love to see Google and Yahoo and others lead here. I do think they have a responsibility. But not because they are responsible for “killing newspapers”. Rather, because they are responsible for leading, period

    Yes! You make several excellent points, esp. that the internet is dismantling bloated legacy systems of information collection and distribution. For those legacy players this is a painful process, but for the rest of us it is important, necessary, and will eventually lead to better news reporting (I think it already is via blogging).

  6. mb says:

    Instead of looking at Google as a technology company or a media company, what if we see them as an information marketplace? A NASDAQ for information that brings info providers and users together, funded by advertising.

    A decentralized market has no obligation to rescue an old-fashioned and inefficient centralized model.

    If there’s demand for the content and analysis of The Chronicle’s 400 journalists, Google’s info market can help them with distribution and monetization — either as Chronicle employees or as independents.

    But those who have nothing new to say and cannot develop an audience perhaps shouldn’t have been doing this job in the first place.

  7. Googly Eyed says:

    Interesting assumption that a reporter is “pumping” out stories like a factory. I am not we measure productivity in software engineering through lines of code, but rather quality of code. Likewise a reporter is leveraging contacts, insight, and skill to produce a story, not an article. It has a beginning, middle, and sometimes and end.

    Google is a media company. A bad one at that. Obligation? At its influence and size, yes. Like an athlete saying “I am just a ball player, I am not a role model.” At some point people and companies have to realize when you have such a huge influence on society, you have an obligation to the society that gave you that control.

    I am very worried if Google continues its tentacles across more media. If they don’t llike what you do, it affects you everywhere. Look at Brin’s wife. Google decided to invest in that company. Why? Is google coming out with a DNA constructor plugin or something for mozilla? With great power comes great responsibility.

  8. Ian Kennedy says:

    I don’t recall the radio or TV companies subsidizing the newsrooms when they came along. The transformation of the publishing landscape requires change and adoption to survive. Change is hard for an embedded business (especially one with shareholders who don’t go for long term investments).

    I think the average attention span of someone reading something online is 500 words. If I were a newspaper publisher today I would focus on the longer, investigative pieces which is why The Wall Street Journal and New York Times are relatively successful today. Because these are more like daily magazines, you tend to buy them when you see a story of interest or know that you’re going to be somewhere where you’ve got some time to dig into something substantial.

    The daily subscription business model is threatened so maybe something more flexible is in order – how about a Starbucks type frequent shopper card that gets you 15 issues for the price of 10. Upfront revenues for the papers but more flexibility for the readers? Bundle multiple papers and give the readers even more choice for an even greater incentive. Your choice of WSJ, NYT, or, when your traveling in Europe, the Financial Times – I’d buy that *and* give you my subscriber data.

    Let’s get creative folks!

  9. MikeM says:

    Are you kidding me? Google propping up the failing big media news facilities? Why? These institutions are falling for a good reason.
    We don’t need Google assisting these top heavy over done monoliths.
    They had their day!

  10. David Forrest says:

    The Chronicle and other papers are getting crushed because they aren’t relevant any more. Done and done. Produce something amazing and people will pay attention. The notion that we need to somehow save these “highly skilled professionals” is misguided at best, especially when most “journalists” ran for cover during the last 5 years and forgot their obligations to actually report the news, question authority, and exercise the freedom of the press to call BS. People have lost respect for the media, and that’s hurting as much as anything else.

  11. Rich Pearson says:

    Your evolution point is dead-on. People have flocked to read the news online and the newspapers haven’t adapted quickly enough.

    While they are paying the price now, Newspapers have the content which still makes them the long term winner — provided they evolve and don’t lay off all their staff; Many still seem to be afraid to push their content out aggressively in fear of sploggers, or, as you put it, lack of transparency.

    This is where technology must provide the evolutionary boost, if you will. There are a few promising tools out there to help newspapers level the playing field in this search-centric economy. Copyscape and Attributor come to mind as leaders in this area. Technology from these companies or others like it can help lead newspapers back. Search engines have a vested interest in helping out too – they stand to benefit from better content online and should help provide the transparency newspapers require.

  12. Trogdor says:

    it is highly skilled professional journalists committed to seeking the truth and reporting it, independently and without fear or favor, who must go.

    The average citizen may not realize how severely the public’s access to important news, gathered according to high standards, may be threatened by these bottom line trade-offs.

    Can’t you just hear the arrogant elitism smacking from his lips?

    Professional journalists … who get 90% of their stories from PR folk from anybody anywhere.

    Report the truth independently without fear or favor … I don’t think I’ve ever seen this in our one-sided American media.

    And then, the clincher: “The average citizen may not realize how severely the public’s access to news …”

    Yes, yes, us average idiots out here cannot survive unless the SFGate journalists are able to package the reality of our world into its papers, in its fashion. The SFGate journalists are so much smarter, and more important, than us average idiots.

    Journalism as a profession has been declining since long before the Internet made it obvious. For real journalists with real skills, there will be opportunities. But that’s the caveat: they must be great journalists … which is just how many of that 100 that’s getting the axe?

    You could probably count them on one hand.

  13. Trogdor says:

    Googly: Interesting assumption that a reporter is “pumping” out stories like a factory. I am not we measure productivity in software engineering through lines of code, but rather quality of code.

    That’s a good point. I’d like to see a feature that is able to measure the accuracy of what a journalist reports. Something that takes the body of knowledge of what’s happened, and that journalist’s previous predictions, and rates how well they do.

    That way, we could measure the quality of reporting and opinion-giving, since reporters are so quick to give them out. After enough time, when Katie Couric says “X is happening, which will lead to Y” we can go over her historical data and see just how much credibility we should (or shouldn’t) give her.

    Heck, for that matter, let’s add celebrities & politicians, too.

  14. nmw says:

    Trogor: a feature that is able to measure the accuracy of what a journalist reports

    Hey, you might be onto something there — I think you should “go with it”!!

    ;P nmw

  15. pi says:

    I completely agree with mb. Internet killed intermediaries in many industries, typically replacing them with others (e.g., local computer shops were replaced by internet sellers + fedex/ups). It does not seem unlikely for the same thing to happen in online journalism. Each journalist can produce content (independently or as part of a smaller team) and them Google will serve as an aggregator who will match the journalists with their audience. Newspapers have been doing this for a while now, but their distribution model seems inefficient now.

  16. SpragueD says:

    The problem is velocity and the inability of society to react quickly to radical change. It took about a hundred years to develop the journalistic institutions that we have come to rely on for quality information. The internet is very efficient at destroying the financial underpinnings of those institutions, but cannot hope to replace what will be lost fast enough. It’s not too soon to start lamenting the loss.

  17. Tom Foremski says:

    John, when I worked at as a reporter for the Financial Times, some days I would write 6 stories, and over night a news analysis or feature. In SIlicon Valley there is no shortage of news stories. With 300 editorial staff I could own Silicon Valley, the 10th richest economic region on the planet. I have good friends at the SF Chron and respect their work. The problem is in the legacy costs of running a newspaper business and the slow development of new media business models, imho.