[By Duncan McLeod] Is Google a friend of the media, or a foe that will undermine journalism? It’s a debate that’s been raging in media circles. But no-one has been able to agree: is Google bad news for the news business?
Newspapers are in trouble, especially in developed economies. That much is clear. What’s open to debate is whether it’s the worldwide economic crisis that’s to blame or whether it’s more to do with newspaper readers abandoning newsprint for online news sources.
When I interviewed several of SA’s top newspaper editors recently, I was interested in their views on Google and its role in promoting and/or hurting the news business.
Some media groups have accused the Web search giant of undermining journalism. Google produces no actual journalism of its own. In fact, it produces very little original content in any shape or form. Yet it rakes in billions of dollars in profit every year through contextual advertising in its search results and from selling ads against content it has aggregated from elsewhere.
Google’s been happy to share the advertising revenues with publishers — bloggers, in particular, have eagerly signed up to Google’s AdSense service knowing they’ll probably make a couple of dollars a month when people click on the Google ads they place on their websites.
Bloggers like the idea, but many in big media think Google is akin to the devil. Some media houses would prefer to do things online on their terms, not Google’s.
Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes has a good perspective on the subject. He says Google supports and threatens the news business at the same time. The lack of transparency in its advertising model troubles him. “And its willingness to eat our lunch concerns me,” he says.
Some commentators have suggested Google has already crossed the line, that it’s already sucking the life force out of the news media.
Google set media tongues wagging again this month with the announcement of two new services that will have a direct bearing on the online news business. The first, Google Fast Flip, allows Internet users to flip quickly through the homepages of popular news websites, scanning the main headlines without even having to load the websites.
Paul Bradshaw, a contributor to the Online Journalism Blog, says Google is playing a “cruel joke” on the news industry. “By hosting screenshots, Google is eating into one of the key metrics publishers use to sell advertising: the time a user spends on your site. And given that many readers don’t read beyond the first few paragraphs, there’s a good chance it will eat into the number clicking through to the actual page.”
The second announcement, that it is developing a micropayments system that would allow Internet users easily to purchase articles and other content for a small fee — a few cents to a few dollars — is the more interesting one, in my view.
The system, which will only be available in about a year’s time, will form part of Google’s “Checkout” online payments service and will allow consumers to purchase articles and other content on an ad hoc basis.
The question, of course, is whether people are prepared to pay for online news. If a story is exclusive, or provides a unique angle, consumers may stump up the cash. Could this encourage better journalism? Maybe.
Google’s plans with Checkout could rub publishers up the wrong way again, though: the company will keep a percentage of each sale. To me, that seems fair. After all, publishers should have come up with a micropayments system years ago.
Sometimes I think Google is a scapegoat for the news media’s inability to adapt to a fast-changing world. — Duncan McLeod, TechCentral
- McLeod is editor of TechCentral. This column also appears in the Financial Mail