Google's Plan to Become The Media Company

FastFlip_1481356cHere’s a confession I’m a little uneasy making: I still read the newspaper every day. Not an online version, but an old-school, physical newspaper — the New York Times lands on my lawn each morning. I won’t leaf through the pages until the evening, digging into stories I missed during the day’s chaotic rush. But while the same stories have been online for hours, sometimes a day or more, there’s something about the newspaper — its layout, its tried-and-true design, even its faint scent of dried pulp and ink — that makes the print product simpler, and more pleasurable, to devour. The Internet may be killing print papers, but it’s miles from replicating the experience of them.

So much energy is needed to tailor web pages to myriad platforms — rival browsers, news feeds, mobile devices and, soon, tablets — that there is little time left to do the harder work of making the experience of consuming news online an emotionally satisfying one. Which it isn’t yet. And that’s why Google’s Fast Flip announcement this week was so interesting. It’s time, the company was saying, for the web to offer a news interface that rivals magazines and newsprint. Fast Flip isn’t anywhere near to doing that; its gallery of pre-loaded news page images is so crude that initial reviews were pretty harsh. But with Fast Flip, Google tipped its hand to a much broader, ambitious strategy: Google has said for years it doesn’t want to be a media company, and it doesn’t. Google wants to be the media company.

News publishers have been complaining that Google’s intentions are hostile, that it wants to steal their revenue and slowly strangle them to death. That’s not, strictly speaking, true. Google just wants to own them. It’s not a vampire; it simply sees itself as a benevolent dictator — maybe even a philosopher king. Google needs news publishers, otherwise the web will turn into, as Eric Schmidt said, a cesspool. So it plans to stand at the front end of all that news. Newsrooms will take a share of the revenue, but to do so they’ll have to play the role of an outsourced vendor, much in the same way auto parts makers are paid to contribute their goods to what become standalone vehicles.

To be that standalone media company, Google has been taking quiet little babysteps — baby tiptoes, really. It submitted a proposal to the Newspaper Association of America offering an enticing blend of micropayments, subscription billing, ad revenue and reader data (it’s worth reading if only to note how Google ingeniously couches itself as a vendor to publishers, not the other way around). It added a Spotlight section to Google News that highlights stories that meets its definition of “in-depth” journalism.

And now, it’s clear that Google is working to knock down the last, elegant column supporting that print format: its fast, comfortable and intuitive interface.

Google wants a partnership with newsrooms the way Britain wanted a partnership with its colonies. In an era when ink and paper have given way to algorithms and interfaces, Google has such an advantage it’s not even a fair fight. Forget what Google says about its vision of organizing all the world’s information – a mandate broad enough to justify nearly any campaign – the company faces a problem no matter how powerful it gets: It needs to keep growing revenue.

And news publishers? Well, it’s good and bad. The good is, they’ll always have a home in the Google Empire. The bad is, they’ll have to share more of their online revenue with Google. And they’ll have to kiss their brands good-bye.

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