The Atlantic’s James Fallows wrote recently: “Everyone knows that Google is killing the news business. Few people know how hard Google is trying to bring it back to life.” Over the past year, Fallows spent lots of time with Google employees all working on one thing: saving the newspaper business. He explains how they plan to do it.
Artist: by Loudon Wainwright III
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Often, the blame for the destruction of the newspaper business lands squarely on Google. Thanks to a Google search, we can find what we're looking for without flipping past print ads, so advertisers are far less willing to pay for them. But if, as The Atlantic’s James Fallows wrote recently: “Everyone knows that Google is killing the news business,” few people know how hard Google is trying to bring it back to life. Fallows has logged many hours at Google in the past year, interviewing engineers and strategists all working on one thing – strengthening newspapers. Why? Two reasons: JAMES FALLOWS: [LAUGHS] A low-road reason, which they admit but don't stress, and a high-road reason. The low-road reason is something Eric Schmidt, the CEO and – full disclosure – a longtime friend of mine, he said that Google could not afford to be seen as the vulture picking off the dead carcass of the news industry. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why not? [LAUGHTER] JAMES FALLOWS: Well, I guess, you know, that they've seen that it’s been a real business factor for Microsoft during its days of greatest hubris, and for Facebook now. If people don't like them, there are ways in which that can have some business ramifications, so they don't really want to be seen that way, especially with their famous model of “Don't be evil.” BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. JAMES FALLOWS: The high-road reason that I was – initially I thought was just kind of blather but I became more persuaded of, is that they think that it is in their interest as providers and indexers of information online. If that information becomes polluted, bad, junky, people are going to have less reason to turn to them. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Getting down to brass tacks, you highlighted three specific areas that Google has been working on to help bolster the newspaper business, beginning with something called “Living Stories.” JAMES FALLOWS: Living Stories is a way that if you’re an organization doing a lot of things which were, were all around a central important topic, it would combine them in a special site just for that topic where you could have charts there and it would automatically bring in everything that was allied to this, and also it would ensure that this site got disproportionate brownie points. BROOKE GLADSTONE: In other words, pops up high in the placement. JAMES FALLOWS: Yes. The newspaper then gets more advertising revenue, it gets more viewers, etc., so it’s an attempt to reward news organizations with the main reward Google can offer, which is steering traffic there for doing what seems like higher-end news. BROOKE GLADSTONE: They're doing something else called “Fast Flip.” JAMES FALLOWS: The Fast Flip idea is a way to sort of set up the online caching of display of magazine pages so that you can flip through the stories as if you were flipping through a magazine and be able to sort of get engaged that way more attractively. The idea is that there are things about a paper magazine and a paper newspaper which are ergonomically better. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you don't have to hit “next page” - “next page.” JAMES FALLOWS: You just push an arrow button and it’s like you’re flipping the pages. BROOKE GLADSTONE: One last idea that Google has: YouTube Direct. JAMES FALLOWS: If you have this code, it allows people very easily to feed in YouTube clips to you. You can easily review them and decide I'm going to post this or I'm not going to post that. And the example would be during a natural disaster, a volcano or a tornado or something, the local newspaper, they could have 20 videos their viewers have sent in. Here’s what it looks like in this part of town. Here’s the people who have to be rescued here. So the idea is to reduce the barrier to allowing people to have essentially their own video production stations. BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s still the print ads that carry most of the weight of financing these papers, and the print ads are going away. How is Google working to solve that problem? JAMES FALLOWS: Just to make up a number, if an advertiser would pay one dollar per subscriber seeing an ad in my magazine, The Atlantic, or The New York Times or whatever, they might pay one penny per same viewer online. And the unusual argument from the people at Google is they think this is a trend that’s going to reverse. For example, I was interviewing, again, Eric Schmidt, the CEO, who was saying that the iPad is probably the first of dozens of devices that will follow it over the next five or ten years. And each of these should make it possible to eliminate what is now worst about online display advertising, which is that it’s annoying. The idea from Google is that’s a sign that those ads are not really attuned to who you are and what you’re looking for. So if you had on your iPad something that knew where you were and what kind of food you were looking for and where you wanted to go, it could bring you an ad that was interesting to you in that context. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hm. JAMES FALLOWS: So personalization, as Schmidt put it, within the limits of creepiness, could make ads more valuable. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] There’s been a lot of debate, this year particularly, about paywalls. In your piece, it seems like everyone at Google agrees that paywalls are inevitable. JAMES FALLOWS: Something I tried to convey during this article was the cultural difference between being in the middle of the normal journalism world, as I've been for all my life, and being in a tech company that’s thinking about journalism, because something that many people in the media debate as if it were a really religious issue, will people ever pay online or will they not, just wasn't interesting to people at Google. And their answer was, of course they're going to pay. And the model here that they explicitly use is the shift from only free TV to the whole variety of TV subscriptions now that people get in a lot of ways and pay on average a fair amount of money for each month; that historically you can't make people pay for the same thing they've been used to getting for free, but if you give them new things and new delivery vehicles, whether it’s on the iPad or some other device, or new features tailored to them or new conveniences, that is the, the general direction in which uh, the people at Google, at least, thinks that things are bound to evolve. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what do you think in general of Google’s prospects for keeping the industry from going under? JAMES FALLOWS: I think, number one, it’s valuable for the news industry to know that probably the most markedly successful company in the world thinks that there is hope for our business, which otherwise seems just to be moribund. And, second, the idea that experimentation is the core is also, I think, valuable. Krishna Bharat, who is the guy who invented Google News and who watches news stories from all the world flow through his little screen, he says it’s striking to him how you have a weird duplication of effort in the journalistic world; that when something big happens, 90 percent of the talent in the journalistic world will be writing about that one same story. He said that he thought over time there'll be a kind of redistribution of effort to other areas where there’s not the same kind of piling on. And this, I think, illustrates a really interesting cultural split in our business. Every show you do is an experiment. Every article I do is an experiment. But the organizational structures we're in have been relatively static. And so, if we think that the whole structures also need to experiment, then I think there’s a way we can get through this and find different ways to find revenue for news of a different sort, but it'll be the same basic function. BROOKE GLADSTONE: News of a different sort is exactly the point here, though, isn't it, because newspapers have always been one-stop shops. In the process of saving newspapers, you’re going to have to fundamentally change them. JAMES FALLOWS: Yes, and many of the enterprises we think of as being old as the hills now, for example, Time, Inc., that was invented during a time of real turmoil in the '20s and '30s, and the newspaper business has gone through real revolutions both in its editorial approach, in its business approach every 50 or 60 years. I think we've been through a time of deceptive stability in the news business over the last maybe half century. But I think new ways of delivering information, new ways of engaging the populace in providing new information, I think it has to produce a richer news environment in the long run, but a different one. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jim, thank you so much. JAMES FALLOWS: My pleasure, thanks for your questions. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jim Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic.