How do you save Fairfax? Google the answer

By Nick Place

It sounds difficult.

Hell, it appears difficult.

How do we save The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, and broadsheet journalism in general?

Because we all know it’s going down. Serious broadsheet media is as endangered as the Amur Leopard and nobody knows how to stop the slide. We knew this even before the poor battered Fairfax journalists finally cracked, and went on strike for the past week, not so much to save the latest 120 threatened jobs among all the jobs already gone, but pleading for any kind of sign that their company still actually stands for what it is supposed to represent.

In this age of fake news, it’s easy to argue that we have never needed trusted news sources more, prepared to dig and actually cross-check sources, brave enough to ask uncomfortable questions and hold the bastards to account, as it were. Yet traditional media companies everywhere continue to shed staff like dog hair, and sometimes with about as much sensitivity, while even the shiniest online news organisations pedal as hard as they can, scream ‘Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!’ and hope whatever venture capital or next round of funding they can land holds up until the apparently endless flow of projected future revenue finally arrives. If it ever does.

None of this is a major surprise. Back in 2009, a golden age as far as Fairfax scribes are concerned, respected American media commentator Clay Shirky wrote: ‘Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.’

Shirky wrote that eight years ago and I would humbly suggest that while it was true then, it is not necessarily still the case now.

Because I say there is a way to save broadsheet journalism. In fact, it can thrive, starting tomorrow.

You ready?

The answer is Google.

Yes, Google: that behemoth accumulator of online advertising dollars, whose remorseless domination of all online ad spending is at the clear expense of Fairfax and any other hapless old-media company trying to keep up in this crazy new-media world.

I say Google can and should be the saviour, of Fairfax, in Australia, immediately, and potentially of wider broadsheet journalism in the medium term.

As it stands right now, Google and Facebook are the bleach to our quality media reef, as it were.

The Guardian reported on May 2 that Google and Facebook took almost one-fifth of all global advertising spending in 2016, nearly double their take from five years ago. According to a data and analysis agency, Zenith, Facebook took $US 26.9 billion, while Google dragged in a staggering $US 79.4 billion. The research added that in 2015, Alphabet — owner of Google — took $US 67.4 billion of ad revenues and Facebook $US 17.1billion, so business remains very much on the up.

To confirm that, Business Insider magazine reported that another data company, eMarketer, looked forward, estimating that the US digital ad market would reach $US 83 billion in 2017, of which Google should claim more than 40 per cent, largely from its search business. Facebook, the company said, was ahead in display advertising. Everybody else was struggling to stay alive, somewhere way behind in their wake.

So, in the context of those nose-bleed inducing numbers, let’s consider that the Fairfax Board is currently entertaining an offer of $2.2 billion for the juiciest parts of the empire, with a hand-on-heart but unenforceable promise by the bidder, US-based TPG Capital, that it will build on and support the quality journalism of the mastheads.

For you or me, $2.2 billion is a lot of money. For Google which, according to Fortune magazine, snaffled 54 per cent of the third quarter $US2.9 billion growth in all advertising revenue last year (Facebook taking about 45 per cent, to leave 1 per cent of growth for everybody else), the figure is a lot less intimidating.

And so there it is: Google should dip into its spare change jar and buy Fairfax. Immediately. The whole enchilada.

It should say: Google is saving quality journalism. We believe a serious, diverse, broadsheet media is essential in a country such as Australia and we are the only company that can effortlessly afford to fund it, oh yes we can, without agenda or political motivations beyond protecting a free and vigorous press. Because this is important.

How fucking cool would that be?

And it would be a true test of the talk Google likes to talk.

Google has long maintained that it is not just a search engine company, existing only to rake in enormous online revenues. In fact, it went through a complicated name change to form a parent company, Alphabet, of which Google is a subsidiary, just so it could play in other spaces. And it has played hard. Remember the wild idea for floating, wifi-enabled helium balloons, carrying signal to remote corners of the Earth? Have you seen Google’s serious play in the driverless car space? Have you considered the investment and sheer workload in Google Maps trying to have aerial and street views of every street and house and square metre in the world?

Why does the company do these things, instead of just diving, Scrooge McDuck-like, into its ever-growing pile of digital cash? I got a walk-through once of the Sydney headquarters of Google Australia, and marvelled at the three or four free restaurants for employees to eat at, and the creative spaces where employees could just go and build things like robots or gadgets, if they felt inclined. Of course there were basketball hoops and beanbags and all the usual gimmicks of an online giant, but my host for the tour told me that Google really wasn’t about any of that. Google was, he explained very earnestly, about coming up with the big ideas: the ideas that could change millions of lives. Google is a company that wants to make a difference, to be seen as a Good Citizen of the world. Which is tricky when advertisers like the UK Government, McDonalds, Marks and Spencer and others were reportedly recently threatening to boycott, according to the Guardian, because Google was accused of running their adverts over Youtube videos by right wing extremist groups. Anything for eyeballs? Suddenly not so cool.

Or maybe voluntarily invest back into Australia, for all the money you take out of this country, instead of reportedly ducking and weaving through overseas tax havens until a new law has to be passed to try and corner you by Federal Parliament; a tax informally known as The ‘Google Tax’.

So, Google thought-leaders, show us who you really are. Step up to save quality journalism. Buy Fairfax and keep an eye on all the other major global broadsheets that genuinely should be holding governments, multinationals and other potential villains to account.

And yes, I did hear your ‘A-ha!’ just then, readers. Multinationals, like Google? I hear you ask.

Well, sure, but I ask you: is Fairfax’s journalism disappearing genuinely a better alternative to Google owning the business?

And anyway, how hard would it be for Google to establish meaningful distance between the Fairfax editorial staff and the company’s advertising and revenue arms, so that there is no possible suggestion of journalists being asked to go easy on Alphabet properties? The Guardian does so elegantly, to the point that early in its Australian existence it paid my independent content company (the ever ironically named Media Giants) to provide some sponsored journalism, instead of the in-house staff writers, just so there could be no question of Guardian employees being compromised. And one more thing, can we all please keep in mind that without Fairfax, Australia is left with only a single Kong-sized gorilla newspaper player called News Ltd, and if you want to talk about a media organisation running agendas and openly barracking for one side of politics over another, then maybe revisit the last two Australian elections for your proof. Also, in the USA, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post — fun fact, it was worth less than satirical media company The Onion at the time — and nobody is claiming the Post is no longer a news heavyweight. In fact, the Post is making a strong comeback. It can be done.

The question remains of how to make genuine cover-the-cost/make-a-profit money out of online journalism, let alone the dwindling, unloved newspapers. When you think about it, Google has the best, most simple business case to attempt this. To stay with our Australian test case, Fairfax, the plan appears straightforward: place Google Ads on every story, on every page, millions of instant new eyeballs on high quality product. Huge revenues right there, putting a hole of some size in the investment to protect quality journalism, and certainly no more annoying to the reader than all the dodgy ‘native advertising’ that currently fills out the bottom of Fairfax yarns.

If Google announced to the world that it was determined to save broadsheet journalism, just because such media is essential to society, it achieves the ambition my Sydney host alluded to. Change millions of lives for the better — although possibly President Donald Trump would not be included among the beneficiaries.

Google should buy organisations like Fairfax, just because it’s important. And, unlike anybody else, it has the deep reservoirs of cash required. Well, ok, almost everybody else. Facebook also has the deep pockets, but after the recent scandals involving Facebook Live-broadcast deaths and rape, the jury is well out on whether Mark Zuckerberg and his cronies understand the power of their products, or the required ethics and robust editorial disciplines of elite media production. The New York Times cosied up to Facebook Live in its early days and it didn’t go well, even before the recent horrors, as reported by Wired magazine.

Google, with its lofty vision, feels like a better champion right now as a potential newspaper saviour.

So how about it, Google? Do you truly want to be a Hero Company for the world? Or are you really just an economically dominating search engine company after all?

The moment is here to take a first step to save a dying, essential industry and, for you, money is not an issue.

Let’s see if you genuinely care.

Nick Place is an Australian freelance journalist who works across all media. He was a pioneer at The Age Online, before co-founding Australia’s first ever e-content company in 1998. He is an occasional novelist. (nickplace.me)