Newspapers are wrong – Google is not your enemy

7 May 2010

New media pioneer and one of the UK’s leading tech writers Bill Thompson told he believes newspapers are misguided if they think paywalls will save them and are in danger of condemning themselves to irrelevance.

Tech critic Thompson is a pioneer of new media in the UK. He was internet ambassador for PIPEX in the early 1990s and founded The Guardian’s New Media Lab in 1995, setting up and editing the first Guardian website. He currently authors a widely read weekly column, Billboard, on the BBC News website, and appears regularly as a studio expert on the BBC World Service’s ‘Digital Planet’.

Speaking with ahead of his appearance at the Irish Internet Association’s annual congress on 20 May, Thompson said of newspapers: “Google is their enemy not because they’ve linked people to their content but because otherwise they are not readers but because they rely on Google’s advertising model.

“Online advertising doesn’t earn as much money as print advertising, people don’t pay as much. And, in the old days all the money the newspaper got for its print advertising went to the newspaper and therefore – now there’s a smaller cake – Google is taking a significant share of it and they don’t like that.

“My feeling about paywalls is that this is the last desperate act of an effectively failed business and they will not succeed. Even if it makes enough money for them to seem worthwhile, it takes the paper and its writing and reporting out of the global conversation,” Thompson said, referring to the rise of social media like Twitter and Facebook.

I asked him would people just find other ways of discovering content. “People won’t walk around the paywalls, they just won’t care. They will get the information they want in other ways and will just stop linking to newspapers, stop talking about them, stop quoting them and putting a paywall around a newspaper over time condemns you to irrelevance.

“That’s the real danger. It’s not that you can’t get 1m people to pay £1 a week for The Times and claim a big business success if in five years’ time if no one knows what The Times was.

Journalism’s goal

Thompson, recalling the establishment of The Guardian website in the 1990s, said that particular newspaper has been successful in the online space because it has remained true to achieving the goal of journalism – getting as many people as possible to know about the world. “If you have that as your guiding principle you’ll make the right choices about how you use new media.”

He elaborated: “What the Guardian does and what other news media needs to do is ask themselves a question, what is it they do? What is their business? The business of a newspaper is not printing a newspaper anymore, it’s not about getting into people’s hands at 7 o’clock in the morning. You can carry on doing that and you might even make some money out of it but not for much longer. But if you’re a newspaper, really you are a news organisation now, you should use whatever channels are available to get the information people want to them in a timely manner that helps to make decisions and understand the world better.

“And so, if you have that as your guiding principle then you start to be creative about how you use the web and Twitter and Facebook, iPads and iPhones and other things that come up rather than think – ‘these are threats to our newspaper business we better do as little as possible with them and hope none of our readers notice them’ – which has been the strategy for lots of papers over the years.”

Thompson says news organisations need to realise how young people – especially the under-30s that don’t buy papers anymore – get their news. “Many of the young people today have a belief that the news will find them. If something’s important they’ll hear about it because a friend will tell them on Facebook or Tweet it to them.

“There is a much deeper question – what do journalists do – forget about newspapers or whatever, what is the role of journalism? If journalism was about fixing the information flows in society, about making information available to people and the whole way information moves within a society changes as it has over the last 10 years, then the things journalism does are going to be different. The ways you could make money out of the things journalists do are also going to be different.”

I asked Thompson if he believes journalism is in trouble?

“Oh yes – I think a society gets the journalism it deserves. I think that journalism is not a necessity, it is something that corrects an imbalance in this case the imbalance of power and information. We have had models of journalism for the last 200 years that are designed to work in a particular environment and they no longer work. And we do not yet have an idea about what will replace it, more and more importantly how will it be possible to make money out of what replaces them. I think the crisis is one of a broken business model and a new set of requirements that we don’t yet know how to meet.

“I’m absolutely confident we will figure out a solution to that because we always do but it could mean, the next five or six years are good time to be a corrupt politician because the quality of investigative journalism and local reporting is going to be much worse.”

On the subject of copyright, Thompson says that those who had power to control media distribution feel threatened and are fighting back by trying to preserve old business models or aggressively assert rights to prevent other people using their material.

“There’s a wonderful quote from Cory Doctorow, one of the editors of Boing Boing. He has pointed out that ‘Disney introduced copyright law to make sure that no one does to Mickey Mouse what Disney did to the Brothers Grimm’.”

Real vs virtual?

Thompson says that thanks to Twitter and the iPad he has merged the online and offline aspects of his life. “I tweet a lot, maybe to excess. I’ve integrated Twitter into my online life and I’ve integrated my online life into my offline life. I’m a perfectly balanced individual who doesn’t respect the boundaries between the real and the virtual.”

He already has his own iPad ahead of the arrival of the device in the UK in June which he calls ‘My Shiny Toy’. He says the computer industry has finally realised that people want simple devices that give them what they want.

“We’re moving to a world where you can get access to any information at any time on any device where it’s just available to you, it’s just there and because mobile devices are carried around with us and are very personal, there’s a different connection to them. We’ve finally reached a point where the capabilities of the hardware are able to deliver the experience that fine-tunes the services you access. Until a year or two ago that wasn’t the case.

“Accessing information services over a phone was a pain. Text messaging took off because it was easy enough to work, it was a very limited channel of communication and phones were primarily about voice or consumption of media to download, not about search, interaction, engagement, not about the moment

“We now have fast, reliable enough networks and good enough devices. The iPhone and Android phones are at the start of things, they are the first devices that are beginning to be capable to allow you to feel online and connected all the time. Moment by moment access.

“I can call up Twitter on my iPhone and follow tweets about the volcanic ash cloud and it has life, I can be engaged with the online communities that I’m a member of, I can get information and take part in those conversations and that basically joins together the offline and the online.”

Could devices like the iPad help restore vigour to the media business? “They could, but they [the media] need to avoid making the mistakes newspapers made when they went online which was about treating the screen as just another printing press. You are seeing magazines just replicating their print experience online and the potential is so much greater than that.

“I’m finding the iPad an interestingly compelling device. In particularly sitting on the train it is so much nicer than a laptop is. I have just written a 1,000-word article on it on the train. I consume media and there’s some lovely apps coming for it now. What to do with this form factor … the big screen and touch screen makes a difference. Apple has opened something up but will not be the only beneficiary of it, and may not be the primary beneficiary of it, but they have opened something up.

“Everybody will be faced with the challenge of how do you respond to it. Newspapers have an opportunity not to screw up as badly as they did with the web,” Thompson concluded.

By John Kennedy

Photo: Bill Thompson, Technology Critic and Digital Culture Commentator

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years