According to the chief economist at Google, a newspaper’s strength is in how many subscriptions the newspaper has. Google also wants to counter the thinking that it is Google that has destroyed the newspaper industry. Instead, Google states that since 1947, subscriptions have declined dramatically at all major newspaper publications and cites these figures to support its claim that it is not at fault.

In 1947, each 100 U.S. households bought an average of about 140 newspapers daily. Now they buy fewer than 50, and the number has fallen nonstop through those years. If Google had never been invented, changes in commuting patterns, the coming of 24-hour TV news and online information sites that make a newspaper’s information stale before it appears, the general busyness of life, and many other factors would have created major problems for newspapers.

I have to agree. The day of the printed newspaper is ending because, by the time the print paper hits the news stand, the news is stale. In addition, all of the major retailers have their sale notifications online and are more than happy to send email alerts when items go on sale. The major advertising I see in our local newspapers are auto dealerships, who also are slow to grasp the power of the Internet.

In addition, companies such as eBay and Craigslist have also drained off substantial amounts of advertising dollars that the newspapers once relied on. Why would I want to spend $50 or more to try to sell my car with a newspaper ad when I can use Craigslist for free?

With this in mind, Google has what appears to be a secret plan to save the newspapers. Secret, because Google has not gone public with its proposals and, instead, has sat back and let people like Rupert Murdoch rant and rave, spit venom, and basically act like a cry baby. So what is Google’s plan?

That goal is a reinvented business model to sustain professional news-gathering. This is essential if the “crowd sourcing” and citizen journalism that have already transformed news coverage—for instance, the videos from inside the Iranian protests last summer—are not to be the world’s only source of information. Accounts like those are certainly valuable, but they will be all the more significant if they are buttressed by reports from people who are paid to keep track of government agencies, go into danger zones, investigate and analyze public and private abuse, and generally serve as systematic rather than ad hoc observers. (I am talking about what journalism should do, not what it often does.)

Google’s likely route toward this destination, however, differs in crucial and sometimes uncomfortable ways from the one the existing news business would probably choose on its own. The differences are natural, given the cultural chasm that separates a wildly successful, collectively cocky, engineer-dominated, very internationally staffed West Coast tech start-up from a national news establishment that is its opposite in all ways: East Coast–centric, liberal arts–heavy, less international in staff and leadership (more Brits and Australians than in the tech industry, fewer Indians, Chinese, and Russians), dominated by organizations founded in the distant past, and at the moment strikingly downcast and even panicked.

I must admit Google is pushing back at the newspapers and is calling it like it is. Different coasts with different cultures. So now it is time to put these differences aside and get back to business. Hopefully most of the major newspapers will jump on the Google bandwagon before it is too late for them to bail themselves out.

What do you think?

Comments welcome.


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