Shoot the Google

May 29 2007

Pieces like the one Neil Henry, formerly of the Washington Post, wrote in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, annoy me to no end. They are written by passionate, intelligent people who have become so disheartened by challenges to their beloved institutions that they feel the need to lash out at their perceived villains. First it was Wall Street. Henry picks Google, because if there’s anything that has limited the flow of information (which would be a primary goal of journalism), it’s Google, right?

Henry’s main argument begins well: he summarizes the various economic pressures brought about by the Internet. Not much dispute there - we’ve got lots of pressure on us. Then he runs off the rails: “As a result, newspapers such as The Chronicle must make staff cuts to survive — and increasingly it is highly skilled professional journalists committed to seeking the truth and reporting it, independently and without fear or favor, who must go.” Or instead of just cutting, and this is just me being crazy here, maybe they could, you know, do things better? Maybe people like Google and craigslist because they are easy to use and don’t require irrational steps (I’m looking at you, Newhouse newspaper sites). How is it that the industry that dominated classified advertising didn’t see craigslist coming and was not able to preempt it? Because to us, innovation has meant color photos and putting navigation rails on the left side (or wait, the right!).

The other thing that galls me about Henry’s piece is this gem:

I see a world where corporations such as Google and Yahoo continue to enrich themselves with little returning to journalistic enterprises, all this ultimately at the expense of legions of professional reporters across America, now out of work because their employers in “old” media could not afford to pay them.

Now, I’m not sure what other non-news corporations have returned to the journalistic enterprise, outside of ad revenue and the occasional PR job for reporters. IBM didn’t have to give back to the typewriter industry because it made typewriters before pivoting in favor of personal computers. I guess Henry’s argument is that corporations should just go back to being advertisers only: hand over the money and leave journalism alone. But if there are tasks out there that Google can do better - and there are some - why should they pay a fee to the industry that has mostly declined to do them?

Google has always maintained that it is not trying to kill newspapers. That doesn’t seem to matter to Henry: “While that may be true, the time has come for corporations such as Google to accept more responsibility for the future of American journalism, in recognition of the threat ‘computer science’ poses to journalism’s place in a democratic society.”

In other words, someone has to pay. Some questions come to mind:

The “threat” of computer science? Would this be like the threat of the telephone and the threat of the television? The computer is a tool. How you use it (or whether you do at all) is up to you. It’s pretty clear how most of the journalism industry uses that particular tool, and what some of the consequences are for doing so. Besides, what kind of independent press demands that a corporation that indirectly competes with it also subsidize its existence?

Henry also wonders why Google can’t support journalism education. Maybe because journalism education has been even less innovative than the industry itself, a remarkable achievement. If you ran Google, would you hire more talented and ambitious programmers who know how to solve problems, or would you give the money to places that pretty much since the decline of the two-paper city have done their level best to put their hands over their ears and shout “I can’t hear you!” in response to the changes in technology and society?

Henry asks if Google could not “somehow engage and support the traditional news industry and important local newspapers more fully,” although he doesn’t describe what this would mean. Google probably would be happy to “engage the news industry” if said industry was loaded with people who really understood and could make the best use of its talents. Or maybe he just means a nice fat check.

People who have worked in the media for many years probably have a hard time recognizing the industry they started out in. Heck, I have a hard time, and I started 12 years ago. That has to be jarring and even distressing at times. But change happens in every industry, and has happened before in ours. Henry’s “solution” to the “problem” posed by the greatest communication platform in the history of the world comes from the heart - I’ll give him that. It also has some of that “blame the messenger” reaction journalists have heard once or twice.

We cannot goad or guilt companies like Google into saving journalism when there is much about our own processes that we need to improve. If we used the information we collect in more useful ways and figured out how to present information that makes it harder to ignore, maybe we’d have a better financial outlook. But that is our problem. It existed before Google and craigslist. That we didn’t tackle it then is not the fault of smart engineers who took advantage of our weaknesses.

After the people who run and staff news organizations accept their share of responsibility for the future of American journalism - and then do something about it that doesn’t involve hand-wringing and finger-pointing - then maybe then we can ask Google to shoulder whatever is left.