Google CEO: We Have a "Moral Responsibility" to Help Newspapers

How will we know when the newspaper industry has finally atomized into long-threatened impotence? When the heads of companies who actually give 21st century consumers what they want (and for the right price) stop apologizing for being successful.

I'm really looking forward to the day when tech CEOs feel comfortable in saying "Damn RIGHT, I helped kill newspapers! I'm running a business here!" Like Johnny Rotten's England, newspapers are just another platform. If they can't figure it out, then someone else will.

I'm as nostalgic as anyone who has ever made a living operating a unisetter (pictured), but after having created, criticized, participated in, and competed against the things I think the whole flatter-them-with-kid-gloves treatment has long since outlived its usefulness. You wanna help newspapers? Steal their lunch, and laugh in their face. Since almost all else has failed, maybe a cold slap can do the trick. And if it doesn't, blame not Google or Craig's List, but the people who managed to convert decades' worth of double-digit profit margins into near death.

Read or re-read Reason's roundtable on "Rethinking the Social Responsibility of Business," featuring Milton Friedman, T.J. Rodgers and John Mackey.

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  • ||

    The price of the Detroit News and* Detroit Free Press doubled today, from 50¢ to $1.

    I'll bet sales of the leaner and leaner daily rags go through he roof now.

    * They have a JOA so price collusion is legal.

  • ||

    Add this to my previous.

    The price increase in Detroit comes six months after the newspapers slashed home delivery and began offering smaller newsstand versions on non-home delivery days.

    Where the Hell is Preview?!

  • Attorney||

    I'm really looking forward to the day when tech CEOs feel comfortable in saying "Damn RIGHT, I helped kill newspapers! I'm running a business here!"

    God bless you, Matt Welch!

  • ||

    Google's CEO is perfectly free to feel a moral responsibility to newspapers, and to spend his own money supporting newspapers.

    I draw the line at him spending his stockholder's money on his hobbies, or lobbying for taxpayer money to to be spent on his hobbies.

  • P Brooks||

    Being my cynical-bastard self, I suspect the real story here is, "We have a moral obligation to let somebody else foot the bill for the content-generation."

  • Jennifer||

    You know the science fiction trope about the mad scientist who figures out how to keep a severed head alive, and the head keeps saying "For the love of God kill me; this isn't living, this is hell?" and the audience keeps yelling "Yes, for the love of God, kill the poor thing and put him out of his misery?"

    That's what working for a newspaper these days is like.

  • BakedPenguin||

    You know what it's like to watch those same cheesy 1950's movies because nothing else is on, and you can't go to sleep?

    That's what reading a newspaper these days is like.

  • ||

    That's what reading a newspaper these days is like.

    Whenever I read something like this, it always hits me upside the head: "Wow, that's right, a lot of people don't realize that nearly everything they know about current events comes from newspapers."

    But it does, BakedPenguin: Nearly everything you know about current events comes from newspapers. A newspaper might not be where you read it or heard it or saw it. But it is the reason you know of it, because newspapers are the main institutions that assemble large groups of people to keep tabs on a lot of current events.

    And that, ultimately, is the issue at the heart of all this: When these particular institutions -- "newspapers" -- go away, who is going to assemble lots of people to keep tabs on current events, and how are they going to make money doing it?

  • ||

    Nearly everything you read in a newspaper (or see on TV) is reprinting someone's press release or attending an open public meeting that could easily be done by a blogger, or the meeting be webcast and the tape posted to YouTube. The age of investigative journalism is dead, look where the real investigations come from these days (viz, the ACORN tapes, but just about everything starts with some group or individual with an angle and the news media just pick it up if they want to).

    They should just die off and let the next media evolve.

  • WWJGD||

    If they added Mike, Crow, and Servo commenting on the articles, I may start reading again.

  • Kolohe||

    I draw the line at him spending his stockholder's money on his hobbies, or lobbying for taxpayer money to to be spent on his hobbies.

    Not being a google shareholder (at least directly) I really don't care how he's spends his stockholder's money - they can either vote a new CEO if they don't like it or sell shares. (and if I were a shareholder, he's earned some benefit of the doubt for the short term.

    And and I know what you mean, but really he can lobby all he wants - and others can lobby against him. That's the way the system works; otherwise, you're talking the same line as McCain-Feingold supporters & the people who spazzed out over John Mackey's op-ed.

  • ||

    "We have a moral obligation to let somebody else foot the bill for the content-generation."

    Yeah, this is where this stuff always throws me off. OK, so newspapers die. Now how do we get their content?

    When Welch says that Google is giving "21st century consumers what they want," what he's essentially saying is that consumers want newspapers' content -- distributed the way Google distributes it.

    The problem, as has become painfully clear, is that the content itself -- the part that "consumers want" -- is not economically sustainable on the web. Whether it's Google doing the distributing or not.

    That's the weird thing about so many of these discussions: People talk about newspapers' woes as if there's some issue with newspapers per se. It's like there's this assumption that when they go away, somebody else will just show up to provide the stuff they provided, and somehow they'll be more successful at it because... because they don't use the name "newspaper," I guess?

  • Jennifer||

    OK, so newspapers die. Now how do we get their content?

    Call your local government offices and ask to see their latest batch of self-serving press releases.

  • ||

    So your work sucks?

  • Jennifer||

    Not mine. But the main daily paper in my state -- the one which brags about being the oldest continuously published daily in America -- has been losing readers like crazy this past year or two. They've also faced heavy criticism these past few months for (among other things) plagiarizing the content of their competitors; firing a popular consumer-watchdog columnist for exposing wrongdoing by a major advertiser; and outright "selling" news content to the highest bidder. Also, every time their readership levels drop, they respond by firing more content producers and filling the vacant space with ads, which causes them to lose more readers, so they fire more writers and photographers so they can still afford to give hefty bonuses to the executives.

    Now why, exactly, am I supposed to feel sad over the demise of such a business model? Is it the same reason I'm supposed to think it's a tragedy if a guy who already has cirrhosis continues drinking paint thinner and then dies of alcohol poisoning? Sorry, no; I haven't much sympathy for problems that are self-inflicted.

  • ||

    Yeah, sounds like a crap work environment they've got there. Sheez.

    So what do you think it would take to start a business that:

    (A) produces good journalism
    (B) that the public wants
    (C) and will make money
    (C) in the Internet age

    ?

    In other words, forget the particular entity called "the Hartford Courant," or the entity called "a newspaper." Can any group of assembled human beings achieve the above feat?

  • Autodidact||

    The reason Newspapers are failing is because they publish letters to the editor submitted by my dog. From the Boston Globe to the LA Times (yeah, I'm looking at you, Cavenaugh). And not a one of them (save for the ST. Paul Pioneer Press) EVER called to verify the writer of the letters or if they had been sent to other papers.

    Why? Because my dog wrote what the editors wanted to hear.

    Newspapers are a joke.

  • ||

    Yeah, the op-ed section is exactly what people are talking about when they discuss the economics of the news business.

  • Jeff P||

    Papers began dying when it became illegal to serve Fish & Chips on newsprint.

  • Autodidact||

    "Yeah, the op-ed section is exactly what people are talking about when they discuss the economics of the news business."

    I guess that makes publishing my dog just fine them. Nothing to see here.

    Sorry to have bothered you.

  • ||

    "I guess that makes publishing my dog just fine"

    Er, no. Publishing your dog's letter actually sounds pretty goofy and pathetic.

    But it's still not what people are talking about when they discuss the economics of the news business. You'll notice that my post was contesting your "newspapers are failing because" claim, not your "it's goofy to publish my dog's letter" claim.

    Newspapers could permanently eliminate their op-ed sections this afternoon and it wouldn't at all affect the macro problem being discussed here.

  • Sean W. Malone||

    Tom;

    How is it "painfully clear" that the content cannot be economically sustainable on the web? The newspaper business has really not even made an attempt. There are plenty of revenue streams available and a lot of technological solutions that have yet to be utilized, because instead they sit around bitching & moaning that their war-horse printing presses are going to have to be put down.

  • ||

    "...because instead they sit around bitching & moaning that their war-horse printing presses are going to have to be put down."

    Are you kidding? Newspapers would LOVE to be online-only operations. They're not clinging to their printing presses, and most have had a web presence for 15 years or more.

    And this idea that there are "plenty of revenue streams available and technological solutions that have yet to be utilized" is, frankly, a bit nuts. If such solutions existed, they'd be implemented. (And if nothing else, the invisible hand of the market would have led to others creating successful online journalism using such methods.)

  • ||

    a web-based content provider may be viable but not at the lordly salaries the NYT and other big media pay clowns like Friedman and the network anchors.

    With a cost structure that was realistic, it might be, but if the only alternative is govt support of these dinosaurs I'll take the chance.

  • Mo||

    I think Google just recognizes that they don't want to be in in the content creation business. Without newspapers, Google News is a pretty worthless product. A lot of people search for news in their site and Google makes a boatload of money serving ads on media sites. Google moral responsibility wrt newspapers is like that of an ant and an aphid.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Doesn't Google have an ad business that generates revenue based upon the number of hits a site receives? If the CEO is that worried about newspapers, perhaps he could come up with an idea, some idea, about possibly compensating the news sites in some manner, based on some metric...

    Hmmm...

  • Attorney||

    Well, if ritualistic apologies for being successful are all it takes for the gov't to leave businesses alone, I'm OK with that.

  • Barbar||

    How much profit does Reason magazine make?

    Dum dum dum...

  • Matt Welch||

    Reason is a non-profit, one that (unlike most all newspapers) has experienced significant growth in both budget and journalistic output over the past decade.

    Also, Reason hasn't confused its own existence with the very health of democracy, nor have we asked for special treatment from the government.

    And we actively enjoy/encourage hecklers.

  • Autodidact||

    "You'll notice that my post was contesting your "newspapers are failing because" claim, not your "it's goofy to publish my dog's letter" claim."

    My point is that if newspapers are so ideological that they are willing to publish anything by any creature, that sends something in just because it fits there biases, well, perhaps, just maybe, people won't want to buy it.

    It's systemic. The Boston Globe San Francisco Chronicle, LA Times Chicago Times, the Atlanta Journal Constitution all have published my dog -- many several times. Think ACORN -- punked in Baltimore, DC, Brooklyn, San Bernardino, San Diego – because the two are very similar.

  • ||

    Oh, I see now, that's the reason that online advertising is economically weak and content producers have a hard time generating sustainable revenue on the web.

    Thanks for clearing everything up with your germane point.

  • TMLutas||

    Sustainable revenue is income - cost > 0 persistently over time. Sustainability can be maintained at any income so long as cost is smaller. The problem isn't just that income is lower on the internet, it's also that cost has not shrunk sufficiently.

    I had a friend working at the Chicago Tribune. She mapped 16 layers of management between her and the CEO. Internet revenue can't sustain that at this time. Should it need to?

  • Autodidact||

    BTW, at work, the "reply to this" button doesn't work and at home, when I hit "Submit" I get shot back to the H&R homepage. Any ideas why?

  • Autodidact||

    "Think ACORN -- punked in Baltimore, DC, Brooklyn, San Bernardino, San Diego – because the two are very similar."

    Which is to say that ideology trumps truth.

  • ||

    Somebody help me out here: Are we supposed to be deliberately boycotting the "reply to this" function because we don't want threaded comments? Or is everybody just sort of chaotically doing their own thing?

    (This is an earnest question, not a jab at you, Autodidact. My jabs at you are up above.)

  • Das Leben der Anderen||

    "My jabs at you are up above."

    More like comfy chairs.

  • ||

    Well, she always said I was a softy.

  • Mike Laursen||

    I worked in a newspaper circulation department through my college years. I heard thousands of complaints from people who didn't receive their newspaper. It was all about "I can't live without my daily crossword." or "I need the Safeway ad." Maybe two or three calls the entire time were about missing the actual news content of the paper, and those were when the person was actually mentioned in the story.

  • ||

    Well, maybe we really can survive without the sort of news coverage we've come to take for granted. (I'm not being facetious -- there have been plausible arguments tendered in this regard.)

    But at a gut level, it at least sounds like a scary proposition, no matter how woefully the press may have done its job all these years.

  • ||

    The ironic thing is that nowadays people who've cancelled their subscriptions complain that they're still getting the paper they no longer want.

  • Sandi||

    I took a shit on some newspaper once.

  • ||

    I've become more interested in how the media moguls have helped run newspapers into the ground since reading "$everance." I had no idea that Google felt the need to apologize though.

  • ||

    You have to be peculiarly obtuse not to realize that news printed with ink on shredded tree pulp isn't likely to survive the 21st century, and doesn't need to.

  • Mike Laursen||

    In our area, we actually have a new newspaper that started up about five years ago. At first it was a little 16-page tabloid that you could only find in a few Starbucks here and there. It's grown into a full-size paper of the same length as our local "paper of record", with racks all over the place. Still free.

  • ||

    THIS IS THE BIGGEST LOL IN MY LIFE! The google ceo is obviously an imbicile who got where he was through pure luck. What a bunch of crap! And BTW, I don't have any responsibility to help GOOGLE, when it declines. Buncha morons!

  • ||

    What is the "morality" of the Moral Responsibilty?

    Responsibility is a form of obligation that arises out of a particular relationship.

    What has been the relationship and how is it infused with "moral."

    This stuff is just the cliche of a person of particular skill expanding and expounding beyond his ken.

  • ||

    The problem with the papers is their overall bias. It isn't the gathering of the news it's the skewing. It seems, if they intended to run a profitable operation, there would be some adults there to say "OK, you've had your fun. Now you start reporting and I'll do the editorializing. On a separate page!"
    Won't happen.
    I suspect the aggregators will start selling their content directly. What do they care if the raw is used or if some weenie decides to re-write to make a political point?

  • ||

    "OK, so newspapers die. Now how do we get their content?"

    Like the up-to-the-minute reports on the Iranian demonstrators? Or Micheal Yon's dispatches on the British goverment slighting their troops? or the stories about ACORN? or the truther stories about Van Jones?

    They missed all those stories over just the last month or so. Or did they, in fact, 'gather' that news and just decide we shouldn't be allowed to hear about it?

    I'm afraid the 'gathering of information' excuse is getting very thin. At best, they are press release aggregators.

  • ||

    It's one thing to advocate a policy. It's quite another to claim there exists a "moral responsibility" to implement your preferred policy.

    So when this chap invokes "morality" for newspaper bailouts, or Warren Buffett claims it for estate tax increases, they must follow through to demonstrate they are not hypocrites. Let them put their own money up - it's too easy to be "moral" with someone else's.

    Until they do so, the only proper assumption is that they are lying and know it.

  • ||

    Serious question: What does this mean: "Like Johnny Rotten's England, newspapers are just another platform."

    I am a Sex Pistols fan and am generally familiar with their history, but I have no idea what this means. Anyone know? Thanks.

  • craig - website writing||

    The future of newspapers might be the local scene. Reporting on local issues and governance would help to educate the voting public who currently know very little about local political issues and personalities. but "saving" them in their current state (or even a nostalgic state) is not going to work.

  • ||

    It is all agitprop now.

    Newspapers are pretty much all advertising; news has become indistinguishable from editorializing, and "editorializing" is devoted to selling the political product.

    I may glance at propaganda, but I will not pay for it...

  • ||

    I spent my whole working career in newspapers and magazines, 30 years, until 2000, when I thought I’d get hip and join this Web thing. They didn’t insist that I wear my cap backwards or get around in elephantine trousers, so I took a job with a major Old Media company that was making brave noises about embracing online news.

    Guess what?

    The folks who made the decisions at this company at first treated the Web as a PR exercise. “Look at us! We’re cool, too!” Then the ass fell out of Dead Tree Media and the same people who stuffed the parent magazine started knifing each other to get a piece of the only unit at the company that was recording solid growth. Blood everywhere, and when they did get their greasy, ink-stained hands on it, they did everything wrong, starting with bogus click-boosters (slide shows, if you’re interested) that debased the brand and drove off the readers that advertisers were actually prepared to pay for. Oh, one other thing: As a final stroke of genius, they spent $21 million trying to turn the site into a “reader interactive forum”.

    The only customer the corporate apparatchiks thought they needed to impress was the CEO. And he’s not very bright, as the magazine’s forced sale at what is reported to be a bargain-basement price indicates.

    Don’t mourn Old Media. It is reaping what it has sown. As Marx put it in another context, sometimes it’s better to let things go all the way to hell, because it can only get better after that.

    P.S.: Can anyone guess which mag I’m talking about?

  • JB||

    Hey, at some point Google may become "too big to fail" and it would be "morally irresponsible" not to bail them out.

    Let's break them up now. Paging Mr. Holder.

  • ||

    Help me with the moral part? I'll look in the Bible for any references for supporting newspapers. Plus who's this "we"? Is thee a mouse in your pocket?

  • ||

    Its the Bias, Stupid.

    The only reason talk radio even exists is because, when conservatives were driven out of the MSM, they set up a parallel venue where they could express their thoughts and ideas.

    And now Rush is looking to buy an NFL football team.

    If I need a newspaper, I'll order Pravda. Same thing as NYTs or Wapo. Except that the fibers are better for soaking up bird cage droppings.

  • Willys||

    I have no bird, no bird cage, ergo no use for a newspaper resulting in washing my hands fewer times in a day.

  • Doc||

    It's important to separate the news-gathering function of newspapers from newspapers' business model. The business model is based on an impressive but now-obsolete technology that allows publishers to put a bunch of time-sensitive information on every driveway in (my case) New England every morning. Once you've got that tech, the business logic is to put everything you can into the distribution funnel, whether everybody needs it every day or not -- car ads, house ads, job ads, personals, TV listings, and on and on. From a business model point of view, the actual news is there so everybody will take the paper every day so the publishers can monetize the distribution.

    The business problem the publishers face is that with the advent of the web, all of those functions are better served online than on paper. Who still looks for cars or houses or jobs in the paper? So no one will pay them for those functions, so they're going broke.

    The Boston Globe is losing something like $85m a year, but their subscription revenue alone was still something like $400m/yr last time I checked. That $400m represents what New England consumers are willing to pay for news. I'll bet that if you junked the existing business model and the whole physical distribution apparatus, and just concentrated on collecting news and distributing it on the web, somebody could make a very nice profit on that $400m of New England subscription revenue.

    The problem right now is that the Globe has the brand, and TimesCo is apparently willing to put out their product at a big loss. So who's going to go up against them? Probably nobody until TimesCo has lost so much money that either the Globe stops publishing, or thins out its news coverage so badly that they might as well have.

    Once the legacy newspapers are gone, we'll see some kind of web-based news media that fills the same news function. It won't have the same same tendency toward monopoly that physical distribution gives the legacy media, so instead of one Boston Globe and one also-ran Herald we'll probably see lots of players competing for various niches. Some of those will probably be subject-oriented (business news or sports news or inside-Beacon-Hill news for politics junkies), some will probably be ultra-local ("Beacon Hill Today"), some will probably have very strong ideological biases. Some might even think you can make money selling actual objective news.

    The transition will be fun to watch, if not a fun time for a lot of the employees. Somebody will probably make a bunch of money in the process, but for it to really get started the legacy media pretty much have to go broke first. So it goes. Google will be fine either way.

  • TMLutas||

    Google may or may not be fine. If the news moves to data cubes and OLAP processing in any significant way, Google may need to adjust their business model themselves because that sort of thing is not amenable to the same sort of search engine dominated advertising model.

  • Doc||

    Interesting point. Certainly if new media put their content behind a pay wall, it'll be harder for spiders to get to it to index. And if they don't format it as stories on pages, then it'll be harder for indexers to make sense of.

    However they store it, they need to serve it up as some kind of story eventually. And I don't think new media can be successful by keeping their stories secret. Maybe the trick to getting readers will be to make the headlines and the top three lines freely available, and you can only see more if you pay up somehow. It could turn out to be the electronic equivalent of the newsboys and screaming headlines in "The Front Page."

    If I'm right that new media will tend to have lots of competing players, there's going to continue to be a role for somebody to help the reader find the stories they want to read. That indexer could be ad-supported, could be paid micropayments per click, could be lots of things. Like I said, it'll be fun to watch.

    I'm sure the tech will continue to evolve, and maybe whatever comes next won't be called a search engine. But the role that Google fills now for online news will still need to be filled.

  • ||

    "Nearly everything you know about current events comes from newspapers."
    No, nearly everything YOU know comes from newspapers.
    That's why you don't know about the trouble in Afghanistan, particularly with the faltering political will of our NATO allies, because you don't read Michael Yon.
    That's why you don't know about the awful corruption at ACORN, because two other people you don't know about, James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles, caught ACORN on tape abetting child prostitution.
    That's why you don't know the political situation in Lebanon, because you don't read Michael Totten.
    Oh, and you also didn't know Van Jones was a Truther until after he was fired.
    Sucks to be you, pal. Maybe you should pull your head out of the fishwrap every once in a while and keep up with current events.
    Then you'd know the best way to be ill-informed is to get your news from newspapers. They don't report news any more; they're political broadsheets with comic strips (which also suck compared to Webcomics.)

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