62 Comments

Summary:

Google CEO Eric Schmidt, in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece this week, set out to argue what has been said a million times before: The Internet isn’t killing news. But while he was stating the obvious, some of his points didn’t exactly help Google’s case.

The art of verbal self-defense can be tricky. Ramble on while defending yourself against critics, and you can expose yourself to new criticisms. For a recent and clear case study in this misstep, look no further than Google’s own Eric Schmidt. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece titled “How Google Can Help Newspapers,” Schmidt set out to argue what has been said a million times before, and what everyone but news executives in denial will admit: The Internet isn’t killing news, it’s forcing it through a painful evolution into a new business model.

The op-ed came a few days after Rupert Murdoch made a gutsy bluff to block Google from indexing stories on News Corp.’s sites. Murdoch is no dummy, and all his huffing and posturing is aimed less at preserving a dead business model than at testing his leverage in a new one –- the way a mischievous kid tests a new babysitter to see what he can get away with. And it was cunning of Schmidt to push Murdoch back on his own playground. But in the course of stating the obvious –- Google isn’t killing newspapers –- Schmidt made a few spurious arguments of his own.

He begins with a fantasy of reading a “news gadget” that “knows who I am, what I like, and what I have already read.” We all have our fantasies, but this one strikes me as a bit dystopian and suggests a fundamental ignorance of what news actually is. Much of the news I read these days I don’t like. But I need to read it, and print newspapers are very good at putting it in front of my eyes.

Google’s algorithms are very handy for shopping or entertainment recommendations. But I don’t like it “personalizing” news. Serving readers news based on what they’ve read can lead to a kind of tunnel vision where they’re insulated from the dissenting views and unpleasant truths. Newspapers emerged to serve communities, and communities are inherently hotpots of dissent. Targeting news stories as if they were advertisements runs counter to that important service. I want a news gadget bringing me stories that make me uncomfortable.

Schmidt’s op-ed also ignores the reality that search engines are by design very helpful at finding ways past news paywalls. Most everyone knows that Journal stories have long been available for free by typing the headline in Google (although Google appears willing to close that loophole). Even without free access via Google, news will leak through paywalls as blogs and rival newsrooms dutifully excerpt or summarize the most important stories.

Another thing Schmidt blithely overlooks is how conversational the web has become through social media. No one is going to mention on Twitter or Facebook a story cloistered behind a paywall. The evolution of the web is pushing users away from paid content, not toward it. And it’s generally not Google’s practice to hinder the technology as it evolves.

Finally, the very notion that search engines offer news for free is flat-out wrong. Google doesn’t charge its users money, but takes its payments in a currency just as precious — user data — that helps advertisers target ads at readers, whether they want them or not. As Schmidt himself noted, “Advertisers are willing to shell out a lot of money for this targeting.”

If Google really wanted to help newspapers, it wouldn’t just share revenue -– as its promising to do with its ungainly Fast Flip -– but would share its real treasure trove: unrestricted access to the data of its users.

I respect Eric Schmidt and what he’s led Google to accomplish on the web. It’s ironic, though, that his thinking stumbles once he tries to express himself on the printed page. It makes me wonder, does Google really understand news?

  1. Susan Schimatior Saturday, December 5, 2009

    This very point was argued in the new book “Wired for Thought”. In fact, Schmidt’s example of a news tool that knows who you are came from the book and the author argued, not as Schmidt does, that this will complement offline news and bridge the time gap without affecting the quality or varacity. Maybe Schmidt is borrowing ideas b/c hasn’t formulated one for himself yet but we can’t blame him at this early a point. These are very interesting times in news and it is interesting to watch it all play out.

    Share
    1. Imagine this – you watch a news item on terrorism, you search for the terminator movie, look up for a hardware store..and then there’s a knock on your door. Thanks to google algorithms and google’s submission to the FBI, you now have the right to remain silent, anything you say or dont, and anything you did on that stupid netbook, will be used against you.

      Wow, the price you pay to get ads targeted to you!

      Share
  2. But then on the subject of “personalized news”, you need only look at Murdoch’s own Fox News that does a pretty thorough job of “insulating from the dissenting views and unpleasant truths”.

    Share
    1. Sure, and all the other news orgs are unbiased. Where is the reporting of Climategate? Look I see Santa Claus!!!

      Share
    2. A good friend, an SF liberal to end all liberals, recently had to spend a lot of time in the South. Many of the hotel rooms apparently only included Fox News as a news channel (according to her).

      She came back last night and said, “you know, I expected it to be so much worse. I mean, yes, many of the commentators lean conservative, but the opposite view always has a say. I found it to be informative and thought-provoking even if I often disagreed.”

      Therefore I’m forced to wonder – do you ever watch it? Or simply bleat the party line?

      And why do people like you always insist on inserting politics into a tech story? I know you think all technophiles are liberals, but you are way wrong. You lose credibility.

      Share
      1. Scott, Seattle WA Saturday, December 5, 2009

        I think you are the only one pulling politics into this. It is hardly political to point out that Murdoch, a focus of the story, already runs a “news” organization that primarily succeeds by doing exactly what Kelleher is claiming people don’t want.

        Slim may be reacting to the same phantom you were, but he is simply proving the point that Martyn made by pointing out that almost all news sources already provide exactly what Kelleher says “isn’t news.”

        Share
  3. Well, you’re basically correct in what news are: uncomfortable… but on the other hand nobody said that Google would only present comfortable news to you.

    The logic could simply be turned around to deliver you the things you should read instead of only recommending more stuff that you possibly like to read:

    Not like “oh, you like X? so you probably also like Y”…
    More like “oh, you like X? then you should probably also read Z, although you might not like it”

    It’s too early to asume the outcome of Schmidt’s ‘fantasies’ — but Google is certainly not interested in creating users living insulated from dissenting views; it needs users ‘searching’ (!) for new things…

    Share
    1. It is early, Erik. Still, while I don’t know what percentage of news readers seek out news that makes them uncomfortable, I suspect it’s small. Some people want to shut it out – just look at how many people who follow only one cable news channel as if it were a sports team. One of the benefits of a print newspaper is that it is by nature impersonal – you are forced to get the good with the bad on your doorstep.

      Maybe Google and others are moving in this direction, but when Schmidt imagines a news gadget giving me what I like based on what I have read, it sure doesn’t sound like it.

      Share
      1. Scott, Seattle WA Saturday, December 5, 2009

        I read Schmidt’s comments rather differently; for “like” I imagined he was talking about personalizing the news the way that Google News already does… not by excluding specific stories that might make you uncomfortable, but by allowing you to focus on the types of stories you find interesting. It’s more about categories than stories… if you like space news, for instance, it’s about serving up content that has that focus, not about leaving out the ones where the shuttles explode.

        You could be right, but I think the leap you are making hinged on the word “like” is further than the context seems to support, and so far I haven’t seen any evidence that Google is going further with this than the news organizations themselves have gone (already perhaps several steps too far, of course).

        Share
  4. I’m not sure your own points are very strong, Kevin. Personalization doesn’t inherently mean “stories you want to read”; certainly, personalization can involve “stories I don’t want to read but I think are important.” Secondly, your second and third points are contradictory: first, you say that the social nature of the web means that news will find its way past paywalls, and then you say that if a story is behind a paywall, it won’t be discussed socially.

    Share
    1. The second point was about search technology. The third was about social networking technology. Nobody understands better than Google that these are not the same thing.

      Share
      1. Trying is disambiguate the two doesn’t make the point sensible. If search engines get beyond the paywall that information flows to the social networks.

        Share
    2. I don’t want news served to me based on what some algorithm assumes might interest me. How I form my interests comes from reading unexpected news.

      No newsreader is going to think a 35-yr-old woman living in SF who often searches for fashion brands and computer gadgets might enjoy a story about the politics of an obscure tribe in Zimbabwe, or about NASCAR. I would read both, and open my mind to new experiences and new passions.

      It’s not about where you’ve been, its where you are going. Google should stay out of my way and stop trying to influence me in order to get me to buy their advertisers goods.

      After all, do not forget that despite lots of flashy brands, Google is an ADVERTISING COMPANY.

      Share
  5. Some startups are trying to solve this problem. Alacra is good for finance news, and there are companies around twitter, and some companies building iPhone apps like EveryWood for Hollywood Gossip – http://www.bit.ly/everywood_app

    Share
  6. I was going to post exactly what Tim F. did. There’s different levels to personalization…it doesn’t imply anything you’re uncomfortable with won’t be visible to you. But you could make it leave out stories that have zero interest for you, uncomfortable or not. I think Schmidt’s example of rating to tweak this is describing exactly that.

    Also, you mention Google advertiser targeting, though neither Google News nor Fast Flip display advertising on their pages, so the revenue argument does not make sense. It makes even less sense for Google to be sharing their user data with the news sites. They’re already providing each other benefits – Google gets news snippets, and in return the news sites get more viewers since you can’t read the story on Google News. There’s no incentive for Google to share the user data they collect.

    Share
    1. Niraj, these are good points. I’d point out that tweaking implies a want, not a need. Many times what people want – a second mortgage, one last drink, news you like – are exactly what they don’t need.

      You’re right that there is no incentive for Google to share its user data, and my suggestion they should was made cynically because they never will. But my point was that this is incredibly valuable data that could help news sites, who have every incentive to ask for it.

      Share
  7. One of the most rational and sensible pieces I have read on this debate. The thing is there is a massive shake up happening and there will continue to be for the next 3 years but nobody knows where it will end up, not Schmidt, Not Murdoch and certainly not you or I. What you can be sure about is that news and paid journalists will always be around. For all the citizen journalism and real time reporting there needs to be proper reflection and reporting on the stories and that will always come through paid journalists. Where they work and how their salaries will be paid is anybodies guess

    Share
  8. This is a wonderful article! Thanks.

    Share
  9. Sure, the web’s conversationality has greatly increased, and that’s tearing down pay walls. I’m not sure how this can be laid at the feet of Google, especially if they’re trying to help papers with pay walls enforce them…

    Share
  10. “If Google really wanted to help newspapers, it wouldn’t just share revenue -– as its promising to do with its ungainly Fast Flip -– but would share its real treasure trove: unrestricted access to the data of its users.”

    Ummm. Don’t give Schmidt any ideas. Our personal data is already flowing from one entity to another behind our backs as it is.

    Share

Comments have been disabled for this post