Google argues the toss about print and online journalism

Search giant Google issued a response to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) which essentially consists of a lengthy screed telling publishers why it’s not evil and what they can do about it.

The paper consists of comments on the FTC’s draft called Potential policy recommendations to support the reinvention of journalism and kind of misses the point in all sort of ways.

It kicks off by saying that “Google is committed to helping news organisations develop innovative ways to serve consumers and foster revenue generation models that will sustain the continued vitality of the news industry”.

It says that is sents four billion clicks every month to news publishers through Search, Google News and other products. “Each click – each visit – provides publishers with an opportunity to show users ads, register users, charge users for access to content, and so forth.”

It continues: “Google is currently working with news organisations that want to create online subscription services about ways to use our tools to achieve their goals.”

Google also helps publishers generate revenue, it says – it shared over $5 billion with its Adense partners and DoubleClick also helps them out.

It is true to say that Google News does make it a lot easier for online publishers, including small publishing outfits like TechEye,  to be on the same ground as the big boys. That really does open the field up and it must annoy the hell out of big news organisations that a tiny outfit can hit Google News headlines while they don’t necessarily do so themselves.

But there are some questions about the algorithms that Google uses that the company simply refuses to answer, claiming that revealing the proprietary information would give its competitors – are there any competitors? – an edge. People on the hunt for news may trust Google News to deliver the information they want, whether it’s in the realm of technology, energy or whatever. But the Google News actually has a news agenda of its own, determined by algorithms that are secret.

In truth, large publishing organisations with a largely print based legacy face the dilemma that the internet has changed the rules of the game. When I set up the INQUIRER, the initial investment in the site was minimal – I needed a CMS, a design, and a place to host the site. And I needed content. Unlike, say News Corp, Reed or many other traditional publishers, the INQUIRER did not have the huge costs of paying printers and distributing papers and magazines. The Register, which I co-founded, broke all the rules and the INQUIRER carried on successfully in the same manner.

Large print organisations are dinosaurs and the decision to put a paywall in front of the Times of London is a rearguard action that we suspect will come to nothing. The Wall Street Journal – now owned by News Corp too – has always successfully operated a paywall but that’s because it offers access to heavyweight stuff and to data that it was hard to get from anywhere else.

Google’s paper suggests that publishers can win by offering excellent online content but journalists and freelancers worldwide know that wages are lower than they’ve ever been, conditions are tougher and people are expected to work longer hours.  Under these circumstances, and on the Google News carousel, scoops and quality are forgotten and regurgitation and churnalism is the name of the game. The FTC, we hope, will ask Mr Google about its famous “algorithms” to ensure no Wizard of Oz is sitting behind the curtain pulling business levers.

The Google conclusion that it is optimistic about the future of journalism – “The Fourth Estate is too crucial a part of a functioning democracy and the internet too powerful a medium, for journalism to die in transition to a web-first approach.” Many journalists of my acquaintance who have lost their jobs or been reduced to minimum wage level, would laugh hollowly at that glass half full approach – to many, journalism is already dust.

Google says in the paper: “Google believes that by helping users more efficiently find different points of view they can better inform themselves as citizens. Quality content is complementary to Google’s search services – if there is better content on the Web, people are likely to do more searches, which will be good for Google’s business and for users.”

This is all a little bit disingenuous. While old style publishers are trapped by the twin albatrosses of print titles and huge overheads, what Google is essentially doing is dictating not only the news agenda but the advertising agenda too. Google does have something of the Big Brother about it. And the FTC is right to look at Google with something more than just a passing interest.

You can find Google’s comments, here.