Monday, May 4, 2009

April Report: Google & the Future of Newspapers

Gordon Crovitz, Journalism Online · Stephen Arnold, Arnold IT
Myles Fuchs, Pressmart
· Jeff Bogart, Bogart Communications ·
Mo Krochmal, Hofstra University

by Alan Brody

This breakfast came at a critical juncture in the Newspaper industry - Seattle, Chicago and now, Boston face the possibility of losing newspapers. So what has happened and where are we going?

It was no small irony that the headlines of the day trumpeted the "Craigslist Killer" - the med student who found his victims on the classifieds site - because in many ways, Craigslist, by undercutting the formerly profitable newspaper classifieds sections (by some $64 million in one year in San Francisco) became the Jack the Ripper of the newspaper world.

The other big player in the newspaaer world is Google - but whether they are the Jekyll or the Hyde is no small debate.

According to Google's Eric Schmidt, Newspapers did a great Act 1 in the 90's by going online - but haven't come up with an Act 2. I couldn't agree more - what they did was to put print up on a screen and add search with a little feedback mechanism. But that is really what we used to call "shovelware." They took the content from an old media - print - and shoveled it onto a new medium - online.

(As a matter of disclosure, I have a dog in this race - a new publishing company called ViziPress that addresses this issue through visualized storytelling.......)

Over time what I believe happened is that online papers taught people they don't really need to pay for the print product, and then they learned that reading a paper online wasn't such fun either. But then, returning to print was now unwieldy and a huge time sucker. Ergo - newspapers actually trained their readers into becoming dissatisfied customers seeking their news elsewhere.

From a strictly viewing point of view - they need to find a way to tell stories that are more readable online - especially as we go to mobile. We also need information compression and that calls for way of telling stories conceptually.

(With ViziPress, by experimenting with semiotics, graphic novels and music we have developed a kind of visual "cliff notes" for business, non-fiction and entertainment. You be the judge!)

The presentations began with's Gordon Crovitz, a new venture backed by the legendary Steven Brill that hopes to gang the newspapers together and, in some ways, take on Google to overcome the "original sin" of giving away their stuff for free. Through subscriptions and the artful of use of "fremiums" (giving some stuff away and then charging for the more desirable parts) they believe the public can be encouraged to fork over again. It happed with iTunes vs. the pirate music sites and certainly, as former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, Crovitz has shown it can be done with a business newspaper.

But according to veteran Google analyst, Stephen Arnold, while that might work - assuming as in my analysis, the victim has already been dispatched (sorry about the metaphor, but that was the news of the day!), the better answer may just be in finding more ways to work with Google.

In Arnold's view, Google is a technologist with the world's biggest audience, finding ways of working with them and their various payment mechanisms (Adsense being the simplest) will probably enable you to do very well indeed. Fight them and they will incrementally swallow you because the news flows to them anyway. In his view, their ability to bring all data types - the video and pictures as well text along with fantastically big audience are unstoppable and their way to aggregate advertisers and buyers is not to be ignored either. Message to publishers, if Google doesn't call you, call them. You'll be glad you did!

Myles Fuchs at PressSmart offered another view which is that by using multiple digital delivery systems, his company can monetize whatever content newspapers already have. This is particularly the case in the one healthy area of the newspaper economy: hyperlocal news. Jeff Bogart agreed, noting that his local town blog outdistanced the big area newspaper in terms of true local coverage - events, town hall meetings etc. Interestingly, locals may have survived since most local newspapers stayed behind the technology curve, so their resistance made them a subscription necessity when everything went online for free. But again, according to Bogart, his success with aggregating local bloggers could also undermine that sanctuary - it only takes one local news blog aggregator and the local papers will be staring down the same storm the big city papers are facing.

Finally, Mo Krochmal a former journalist turned J-School professor at Adelphi talked about what he teaches his students. If, like me, you are about to fork over $160,000 for a fancy degree for one of your kids you might want to reflect a moment. According to Krochmal, as long as the students are comfortable with the fact that no fancy job awaits with a corner cubicle and networked computer, that they understand the reporting fundamentals and can blog well then, with a little entrepreneurship they should be happy. They might not make rent but they'll be happy.

Download presentations.
See other reports on Steve Arnold's blog.

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