Thursday, May 14, 2009

What Google should do to help save newspapers, local reporting

While we seem to be in the “blame Google” period of the history of American newspapers, it would be worthwhile to consider another way of looking at the search giant.

How about working with Google, or having Google make a commitment to work with newspapers? I think the latter approach would help Google and newspapers. Forget trying to punish Google by cutting it off from newspaper links (as if that would matter) or trying to extort more money from Google for newspapers’ content (as if that’s going to solve their problems). Instead, newspapers should partner with Google on a digital training and infrastructure initiative that might put them in a better position to compete on their own and at the same time provide a better news and information system for the American people. (And, of course, the people of the world, too.)

Consider how much the mission statement of Google has in common with how a local newspaper might describe its mission. Here’s what Google says: “Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.” The mission statement of the typical local newspaper might be: “(Newspaper name’s) mission is to chronicle the life of its community and enable citizens to participate fully in their democracy.”

We hear that Google is apparently talking with papers like The Washington Post and The New York Times. And that makes sense, given their importance and size. But the problem with that is that as great as those papers may be, they are outliers in the world of daily journalism. What’s needed is something to help the 1,400 or so smaller daily publications, as well as the thousands of weeklies, etc. One small example: Last year I was following a state senate primary in New York City for personal reasons and on election night turned to area newspapers for the results. The Daily News and Post were all over the story. The Times wasn’t. Maybe that’s an isolated case, but it points to the nitty gritty work that makes up so much of the bread and butter of daily newspapers that many people are rightly concerned about losing.

What newspapers lack is something Google as an organization has in abundance: technological expertise. While Google says it doesn’t want to become a content producer, we know that local newspapers can’t become technological companies, as much as they might wish they could. They just don’t have the scale or expertise. And they never will. But what about a joint mission to use Google’s technological skills and newspapers’ content expertise to develop new platforms that would give newspapers standardized tools – basically a new operating system – to connect their communities? Newspapers remain a form of craft industry in a digital world where global platforms dominate. There's not a different Facebook or Google for every city. Why should the structure of a news/community site be different in every city? Why not a universal platform, open source, that gives journalists the tools to do their work in a digital world? Then a training academy to give journalists and programmers the opportunity to work together, learn new skills and develop new applications for the platform. Does every news organization really have to figure out how to do election results or charts online and in print, for example? I don’t think so.

It’s time for Google to put its money where its mouth is, to assist directly in the fulfillment of its mission statement, by creating a "Google Academy" for the creation of a new era of journalism. This would be a way for it to make information even more universally accessible and useful, because the producers of that information would have a clue as to how best to operate and could then focus their efforts on the content itself, rather than the structure or the delivery of the content.

I use Google’s blogger software. It’s probably the simplest around. The task for local news organizations is far more complicated. It’s time for Google to step up and work with journalists to develop something similar, and then let the best content flourish. Newspapers need a new structure. The country needs vital local news organizations. Google works best when content is organized in a way that users can easily find what they’re looking for, wherever they are. Those common interests could be the basis for Google to help create a future content world without ever becoming a “content provider.”

We need the best minds of our generation working on how to create the new journalism. Can you imagine how excited young people would be about working with/for local news organizations if they knew that Google was behind them and that their good ideas could end up helping journalists across the globe?

That sounds a lot better to me than the blame game. When will Google get started?


  1. Why stop at an Academy? Your idea about extending blogger into a professional content platform is a great one. Put leading edge graphics and data tools in there. Also, Google could teach each journalist how to maximize ad revs, etc...
    Also, why segment by geography? Why not by other perspectives (govt corruption, hard crime, people doing good, small biz, etc...). Most of the current hobbybloggers have filled that void, but journos could step in and raise the game.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Google should help with the major copyright violations by what seems to be millions of blogs. Copy and pasting of whole stories, most of the story, and even the headline and first paragraph is right. Waiting for a court ruling doesn't seem to be working.

    Drop blogs that don't produce the majority of their content or have licenses for their non-original content from AdSense!

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  4. Hi Stephen larson,
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