Is Google spinning the print media into a web of confusion?

8 Apr 2009

With the print media world in a state of confusion over its former authority and future status in a media sea swarming with news aggregators, according to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, newspapers have a greater future online than offline.

At the Newspaper Association of America’s annual conference held in San Diego yesterday (7 April 2009), Schmidt gave his views on how newspapers themselves must re-evaluate their position in order to satisfy readers during a time of transition.

Schmidt gave the conference’s closing speech at a time when the printed media industry newspaper is in intense turmoil, with some pointing the collective finger at Google for stealing their thunder.

At the start of his presentation, Schmidt appeared to try to warm up the audience by indicating his admiration for newspapers: “Without freedom of speech and without newspapers that make us understand what’s really going on, none of the great things that have happened in the past 200 years in the US would have occurred.”

But, as a backdrop to Schmidt’s speech, surely there lurked the thought from some the newspaper executives present at the conference as to whether the use of headlines and snippets of newspaper stories on Google News is, in fact, fair under copyright law, or whether it represents a perversion of newspaper content?

“The ultimate resolution of all is this will be determined by how you interpret fair use,” quipped Schmidt about the broader debate around Google News.

In the US, newspaper titles are struggling. The Boston Globe is losing somewhere in the region of US$1.6m a week, The Seattle Post is in trouble, while the 150-year-old venerable Rocky Mountain News folded in February.

Despite this, Schmidt had other things on his mind about how the newspaper industry can drag itself out of the mud.

He said newspapers and magazines are much better off online than offline, and indicated that the print industry has to improve its online product, but also its capacity to capitalise on the internet.

So, given the worldwide recession, and with people changing how they interact with the media via the internet, how does Schmidt think newspapers must redefine their modus operandi?

He said newspapers would have to realise that they are not just creators of trusted, professional content, but that they are also aggregators of the new kinds of information the internet has enabled, with collectively edited knowledge and information portals such as Wikipedia and user-generated information via blogs, images and online video becoming the way forward for the changing face of media.

He explained: “In that model, newspapers become platforms for the technology to use their services to build businesses on top, and also to interlink – hyperlink – all of the different information sources that end users will take.”

Schmidt’s advice to publishers was to create more personalised news products that could be delivered effectively on the web and also via mobiles, etc.

“We [Google] think we can build a business – again, with you guys – with significant advertising resources, where the advertising is targeted to the content,” he said.

Applying the Google model to the newspaper industry, Schmidt advocated innovation: “Innovation is bizarre because it’s very difficult to centrally plan. But you can architect a structure where innovation is welcome, and where it’s taken advantage of.”

One of his concepts was ‘Entertain Me’, whereby Schmidt explored the use of mobile phones to transmit news based upon a precise geographical location, such as which building a user is entering.

So, is he implying that Google Maps, perhaps, could be integrated with the whole newspaper experience in some way?

Schmidt also talked about how stories should be “continuous” and “living”.

“We need to reinvent the way the web delivers this content, so that you can have the kind of experience, when people are wandering around with their phone and so forth, that you can have with a printed magazine.

“From my perspective, the online experience can be thought of as terrible compared to what I view as this wonderful experience with magazines and newspapers.”

Schmidt added that one of a fundamental problems with the internet is how it doesn’t have respect for traditional scarcity structures.

“It’s very hard to hold information back,” he said.

His view was that in order to create value from internet content – which can be difficult to control – advertising is the answer.

Schmidt also said advertising needs to become more immersive, suggesting that online advertising is where the real money rests. “The important thing here is that advertising that is useful is going to work.”

His colourful speech comes one day after The Associated Press (AP) announced that it would be tracking down copyright violators on the internet in an effort to divert traffic from websites that don’t properly license news content.

Schmidt did say he was “a little confused” by recent news reports that pinpointed search engines such as Google as an AP target. He added that Google has a multimillion-dollar licensing deal for AP content.

The story will continue …

By Carmel Doyle