Does Google Even Understand What News Is?

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?

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