What Could Google Do — for News?

Google, I’m hearing, wants to help save news. Good on them. But that should not mean saving old newspapers in old Europe. Instead, it should mean helping to reinvent journalism—journalism’s relationship with the public it serves, the forms it can take, and the business models that will sustain it. Here, I will give Google and its neighbors my wishlist for their innovation and investment in news.

Especially in Europe, Google is under attack as legacy institutions — media and government—conspire to enact much cynical and protectionist idiocy: Germany’s ancillary copyright or Leistungsschutzrecht; Spain’s link tax; the European Commission’s decision to buckle under to publisher pressure and back off its antitrust settlement with Google; the European Parliament’s show vote to break up Google. It all adds up to a hostile environment for both Google and the net there. Eurotechnopanic.

I have heard that Google is looking at various initiatives in news and is talking with some leading publishers. Last month in Phoenix, Google and the Knight Foundation convened an unconference of journos and geeks called Newsgeist. There, I was one of many who called for a session asking what Google could do for news. I’ve made mention of some suggestions from that session here and I added more wishes at the end of an essay about Eurotechnopanic I wrote for Die Zeit. Now I want to explore more fully what Google et al could do for news—not as a defensive reaction to the attacks on them but as an opportunity and perhaps even as a moral obligation.

First, let me be clear: Google should not go into the news business. It cannot end up making content and competing with publishers; that would be channel conflict of a nuclear order. So then why should Google give a damn about the news, besides trying to pacify the publishers tormenting it in Europe? Because Google’s mission is to organize the world’s knowledge and make it accessible, and that includes news: No news, nothing to organize. Google doesn’t owe old newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters a thing; the advertising revenue Google now earns was not granted its legacy competitors by God. But I think Google does owe us—citizens and society—its best efforts to help imagine what comes after the disruption it helped bring. Google, Facebook, and Twitter, as well as technology companies that haven’t much affected news media — like Salesforce, Amazon, and LinkedIn — might hold the keys to news’ future if they try.

First, start from scratch.

I wish Google would convene some of its best minds; ignore the needs, complaints, and precedents of the legacy news industry; and begin with the fundamental questions:

  • What does it mean to be an informed member of a community?
  • What information do communities need?
  • What information already exists in a community? How can members of a community share information with each other more effectively?
  • How can this information be made accessible and useful (a Google specialty)?
  • How can this information be vetted? What signals of authority and originality can help? (And when is editing needed?)
  • What is missing? What questions are not being answered? What questions are not being asked? Who in authority needs watching? Who in the public needs protection? Whose voices are not heard? (That is, when is reporting required?)

In short: What’s the problem? Then: What are new solutions? That’s what Google’s engineering culture does brilliantly. What could a Gmail, a Waze, a Translate, a Drive for news and information be? It’s more than Google News, which organizes news done the old way and sends it audience … except in Spain. The future of news is something yet unimagined. It won’t be just human anymore. It won’t be just technology either. It will be some helpful combination.

Software may eat the world. But it will not answer all its questions. Human effort—journalists—will be needed. But their effort is precious (even if we don’t treat it that way, assigning too many reporters to repeat too much of what too many other reporters have already told us). Software can help with every function of journalism: discerning information needs, gathering information, judging information and its sources, organizing and analyzing information, distributing information, measuring impact and success. We in the news business should investigate the ways software can help accomplish our mission to inform communities—not just bringing efficiency to what we used to do but multiplying our ambition. We should recognize that we are not likely to be the best authors of that software; we must learn to work with those who will be.

What could news be? I don’t presume to predict what Google’s geniuses’ answers would be; that’s why it’s worth the discussion. I tried to do a bit of this speculation in my new book, Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News (which I’m posting for free, a chapter at a time, here on Medium). But I am infected with the viruses of ink and old ways. So I want to hear fresh, heretical perspectives.

I ask Google to do this not in a Googley way: in secret. Do it in the open. Do it with a university (I can, of course, nominate one—how does the Google Institute for News Innovation sound?). Show us how you think. The exercise would be useful for news—and for other disrupted industries. I’ve asked leaders at many tech companies and venture capital firms in the Valley not to give journalism their pity and charity. Instead, I ask them to give us their innovation and investment. Invest in new competitors that will reinvent what we do. Challenge us. Inspire us. Just please don’t give up on news.

Teach us the relationship business.

In Geeks, I argue that news organizations must shift from thinking of themselves as content factories serving mass audiences to understanding that journalism is a service to individuals and communities. As a service, we must learn to develop relationships with people before we can know their needs and how to serve them. But we media people are bad at that. Google is good at that. Big, giant, data-driven Google is actually a personal services company. Thanks to my use of Waze every day, for example, Google knows where I live and work (and I’m fine with that). My local newspaper doesn’t. My newspaper gives me the same 400 pieces of content it gives everyone else every day, with no regard for its relevance to me. That must change.

Google could teach us how to build relationships of relevance and value with people as individuals and members of communities. It could help determine the technology needed to build user profiles and to act on them.

This is where Google’s Silicon Valley neighbors could also help. Newspapers don’t know how to build user profiles as the basis for personalization. Salesforce could do that. At a recent meeting of vertical publishers at CUNY convened by Skift’s Rafat Ali, one founder told how he collected data on users in Salesforce to improve the value of his service to each user. What could Marc Benioff do for news?

Facebook certainly understands the value of relationships and also of personalization; as Mark Zuckerberg has long said, no two of his 1.4 billion users see the same Facebook. We could ague about Facebook’s algorithms manipulating human behavior (as if every taboid editor in the world doesn’t dream to do just that). We could argue about the Facebook echo chamber (but keep in mind each of us has many sources of information). Instead, let’s imagine how Zuckerberg could educate journalists about helping communities connect and share information.

Amazon is the genius of targeted recommendations. I hope Jeff Bezos will do much more than put the Washington Post on tablets. I want him to bring his expertise in relevance built on relationships to newspapers—not just personalizing the targeting of the content we already make but becoming, as Amazon likes to think of itself, truly customer-driven. How do we create the systems that have the people formerly known as the audience assigning our work? That is the real ambition of our new degree in Social Journalism at CUNY.

I also want to propose that we have an opportunity to reset the discussion about privacy, data, and targeting for media and technology companies. That is, if we haven’t blown it already. Advertising targeting is being lumped in with NSA surveillance. We in media and advertising have only ourselves to blame. We were opaque about what data we collected and why, allowing the Wall Street Journal to demonize the harmless cookie. Thus we may have cut off our best hope of increasing value in media through relationships. In a completely anonymous world, all people are the same (a mass), all content is the same for all (a commodity), all advertising is unwelcome (spam). Without relationships, relevance is impossible. That’s old, mass media. Do we really want to turn the internet into that?

I have argued to combative German publishers that they will not get Google to hand over money for the privilege of sending them audience. Spain proves that. Instead, I say, they should get Google et al to share information with them about their users and about their content, its use and meaning. Ah, but that would raise a shitstorm from the privacy forces of Europe, you say. Yes, unless it is done right.

So let’s have a discussion—Google and technology companies with media and advertising companies—about what it could mean to do privacy right. The user must reap the benefits of sharing information to get relevance (as I do every day using Waze). The companies must provide complete and reliable transparency into that information and its use: What do you know about me and how do you use it? (Amazon lets me do that with its recommendations.) The companies must give the user the ability to delete and correct information (which only improves the value of the information, by the way).

Google lets me edit the presumptions it makes about me for targeting ads. (Its lists are surprisingly lacking in subtlety and finesse.) Imagine if your newspaper had a similar tool. Imagine then if you—you!—could trade information among the services you use. You’d do that only if the services were equipped to give you better information as a result or if the services decided to reward you in return. If privacy were done right and you were in complete control, maybe you’d welcome the opportunity for Google, Twitter, or Facebook to tell your local newspaper it should alert you with news about a topic you’ve been following. Done secretly, such a service is impossible to imagine: creepy cubed. So how could such a feature operate openly in a relationship built on trust? Who would you trust more to invent such a service, Google or the local newspaper you’ve subscribed to for years? Maybe newspapers and Google could help each other rebuild sufficient trust to provide personal services.

Rethink advertising.

I know, Google already did reinvent advertising. Well, it did and it didn’t. It did by taking on the risk in advertising when it shifted to pay-for-performance and when it focused on managing abundance rather than scarcity using AdSense. But with its purchase of DoubleClick, which serves more ads online than anyone, Google also perpetuates the old, mass-media business model built on volume over value: reach and frequency become unique users and pageviews. That model is fundamentally corrupting. It inevitably leads to clickbait and cats; to everybody having a take on everything to generate pages and pageviews and thus an overdose of redundant content (which Google then helps sift); to manipulative media that lie when they promise to change your life with a single click or to explain the world in a single chart.

It doesn’t help that Google is also involved with programmatic advertising and remarketing (aka retargeting), which only commoditize media because they value data about a user over the context that content provides. (When you look at a pair of boots on Amazon and they follow you everywhere on the net for weeks, that is remarketing; these annoying ads are places anywhere you go programmatically.) I also worry that Google might get involved in native advertising—or sponsored content or brand journalism, call it what you will, I call it mostly fraud. I don’t blame Google. They’re following us in media down that sinkhole.

Maybe Google, like media, is doomed to pursue volume over value. Google’s business, after all, is built not on depth but on speed and scale: click, click, click. Then perhaps there is an opportunity for media to leapfrog Google and offer marketers entirely new models of high-value advertising. Well, we wish.

Google could help reinvent advertising that values quality, substance, engagement, and loyalty. Chartbeat’s Tony Haile is arguing that attention will do that. Media leaders including the Financial Times, The Economist, and Medium are following suit, selling time over space, exposure over impressions. That’s a huge step in the right direction but it will be hard for a few publishers—even that august trio—to re-educate advertisers in how they should buy ads. But Google has the heft to drive adoption of attention metrics. Google also has the ability to develop more new metrics of quality and engagement.

Google, like every publisher alive, is worried about mobile advertising. Facebook apparently isn’t. It earned two-thirds of its $3 billion ad revenue in mobile last quarter. In Geeks, I argue that we in media are looking at mobile wrong. We think it’s another content-delivery mechanism. Facebook and Google understand that mobile is a signal generator—that is, users provide the context of their needs when they choose maps vs. mail vs. messages vs. photos. Both companies could help us in news reconsider the contexts of news use to create new products and new revenue models (more on that below).

Revalue distribution.

The essential problem at the heart of Google’s battle with European publishers is this: Our copyright systems—legal, economic, technical— value the creation of content more than the creation of audiences for that content. So publishers whine that Google is stealing their content when it quotes a snippet and links to them. Google can’t understand why publishers aren’t grateful for the links, clicks, and audience they receive. We need to value audience creation.

I’ve been working on this question for a few years, wondering how we can establish markets around new definitions of value in a link economy vs. a content economy. Finally, I see progress toward answers. At the World Economic Forum (Davos), I’ve been part of a project to reconsider copyright and intellectual property, proposing new, flexible technical and legal frameworks to support additional business models and new currencies, such as data. I have been exploring the idea of creditright, valuing other contributions to creativity, such as recommendation, distribution, remixing, and so on. (I’ll link to the Forum’s report and to my chapter in Geeks on the topic in January.) It would behoove Google to think about more ways to value creativity all along the chain and to help build marketplaces that trade in that value.

The smartass in me wants to suggest that once the value of audience creation is established, Google can start charging publishers for the links it sends them, rather than the other way around. Of course, I don’t want that to happen. That would result in a moral hazard, motivating aggregators to link only to those sites that choose to pay, ruining search and quality curation, and leading only to more click corruption. But establishing value for audience creation would make discussions with European publishers less lopsided. Publishers in Germany and France have painted themselves into corners of their own making, learning the value Google News brings when they lose it. They are learning that Google News is an exchange of value.

Another way to look at this question of valuing audience creation is to turn distribution upside-down: Rather than making an audience come to us, how can we take our content to the audience? In short: Why can’t an article or blog post be embeddable like a YouTube video, traveling anywhere with its business model attached—its brand, revenue, analytics, and links? Well, it can. We’ve used just such technology to build a content- and audience-sharing network in New Jersey’s news ecosystem.

One of the companies providing the technology that makes articles embeddable found that embedding brings new audience to a content creator and that the click-through rate from a complete article—which you’d think would be nil—is as high as 5–7%. Lesson: Your content is your best advertisement. Finding new ways to distribute your content more widely—rather than just protecting it—is a strategy for growth.

At Newsgeist, there was preliminary discussion about creating standards for portable, embeddable content. There I pushed Google to make it possible for publishers, bloggers, and anyone to embed complete content in Google+, with the creator’s brand, ads, and analytics attached. Then publishers would happily allow Google to quote not just snippets but to embed entire articles, so long as the publisher receives branding, revenue, analytics about users, and the opportunity to maintain relationships with those users. Importantly, Google could then set an example for a mutually beneficial relationship with publishers for Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks.

Distribution on mobile is scaring publishers to death. They lament the downhill ride from print dollars to digital dimes to mobile pennies. At the same time, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt has said that Google will make more money on mobile because there it knows who you are and something about you. How can Google school publishers in such a relationship-based strategy on mobile? How can Google help create platforms for context-aware news distribution on mobile—for example, separate applications for delivering quick updates vs. long reads vs. watch-ready urgent alerts?

Publishers are also starting to get scared about what I’ll call the answernet: Ask Google Search or Google Now or Google Glass or their competitors a question—a game score, a stock price, a definition, an address, a flight schedule—and you can get the answer without need of navigating to a page. But publishers’ business models are built entirely on getting people to their pages. The lesson: There’s no future in providing commodity information. You never could own it and now you can no longer trap people into coming to you for it. Instead, publishers must concentrate on unique value.

Publishers will need help from Google to point to quality work over mere commodity information—original, authoritative, engaging, valuable. As a start, Google News began an editors’ picks feature with selections from major brands. Google News head Richard Gingras also proposed a Trust Project to add more such signals about news content (I added more thoughts here). These are good beginnings. For the sake of quality journalism, we need more ways to drive audience and business benefit to original and authoritative reporting, not just the 5,287 versions of the same news. The real solution, as I said above, is to move past the mass-media business models that value volume over quality. Google can send more audience to high-quality journalism—not because it is good for publishers (it will be if they produce quality) but because it is a better service for users.

Investigate new revenue streams.

I am not a believer in paywalls or micropayments as the salvation of news. These hopes rely on the Gutenberg-era notion that content is a scarce product that we make and sell. No more. If you’re Reuters or Bloomberg, you can sell a time-advantage for information. If you’re a highly specialized analyst who produces unique research and data, you can charge. But if you’re one of the producers of one of those 5,287 versions of the exact same news, forget it: You’re not worth paying for. So I see Google’s efforts to establish micropayments and contributions as little more than sops to the emotional desires of people who still of themselves as content producers.

In our research at the Tow-Knight Center, we have found hope for various other revenue streams: commerce, events, patronage and crowdfounding, digital and social services for advertisers, data.

News media can have a role in commerce—which is really just another way to compensate for advertising. That’s why I proposed a company to provide the infrastructure for local merchants to make their inventories available for local, online sales. As Amazon and Google fight over local, same-day delivery, their wares will need marketing. I do hope there’s an opportunity for news organizations, especially local ones, even hyperlocal ones, to help drive sales. Google can involve local media in its development of local delivery.

I have argued that media need to sell service over space, offering merchants—especially busy and unsophisticated local businesses—social and digital services, helping them with their Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube presences. Some publishers are Google resellers. With the right support, online companies could gain huge sales forces by working with publishers. And while I’m at it, I’ll put in a pitch for Facebook to enable its community hosts—see especially the Jersey Shore Hurricane News—to become local sales agents, to run ads on the pages, and to become sustainable.

Invest.

Google Ventures put aside $125 million to invest in Europe in 2014. Hmmm. That’s a quarter of the investment received by a single news media company, Vice, this year. The Google purse is puny.

Google’s enlightened self-interest in investing in Europe is not to suck up to publishers or government. Though Google folks tell me that the $82m fund the company was strong-armed into creating in France is producing some decent results. Instead, as I argued in my Zeit essay, Google’s self-interest in Europe is “to build a robust technology community that will join its fight to protect the net from others’ control, protectionism, and panic.” So, yes, Google should invest more in Europe. Much more.

That’s a separate agenda from investing in the future of news. Europe may not be the place to do that. India might be. Or Brazil. Or, yes, New York. Investing in innovation in news is also in Google’s enlightened self-interest, for the more that new, digitally savvy ventures—Vox, Vice, Quartz, Politico, The Texas Tribune, the New Jersey news ecosystem—rise up and serve the public’s news needs, the less dependent Google and the public will be on cranky incumbents.

I will also argue—with obvious, albeit enlightened self-interest—that Google should invest in R&D labs in universities, for the industry is just too scared, cheap, and hidebound to reinvent itself.

And I think there is an opportunity to invest in the new infrastructure the news industry needs to build new business models. After writing Geeks, I took to my whiteboard to outline several infrastructure companies I think are needed to support the models I propose. I mentioned two above: one to support the relationship and personalization strategy with best practices in user profiles, analysis, and privacy; and another in local commerce. I see more opportunities to build companies around a membership strategy for media; context-wise mobile applications; commerce; events; systems of authority; new collaborative community and commenting functionality; creditright and new IP models; and new digital services for local merchants. Have at it, Silicon Valley.

Please keep in mind that not every investment in news will be at VC scale. I believe much of news’ future will be built from the bottom up, in small, entrepreneurial ventures made possible by the existence of new platforms. Here’s how I put it in Geeks:

News’ rebirth requires investment at every level: to get beat businesses off the ground and multiplying to scale (tens of thousands of dollars each); to build new and larger-scale news enterprises (low millions of dollars); to innovate and experiment in and rebuild the legacy news companies that survive (tens of millions of dollars each); and to build the technologies that will facilitate the development of new forms of news (anywhere from from a few thousand dollars in a Kickstarter campaign to hundreds of millions for the next Twitter or Google).
Be politic.

In everything I have suggested here, I have focused on the future of news, not on its legacy players. The healthier news is in the future, the better for Google. That does not mean brown-nosing old European publishers and politicians. It means reinventing news according to the new opportunities technology provides.

Having said that, Google has been a fool not to deal with publishers as political forces. Here’s what I said in my Zeit essay:

Google’s biggest mistake has been its failure to adequately address eurotechnopanic on the cultural and especially the political level. The problem is that Googlers are engineers. Like Star Trek’s Spock, they abhor the illogical. But people and especially politicians are illogical. Europe teaches Google that it cannot ignore these forces.

Google must engage. It cannot sulk and skulk away. Silicon Valley companies should assign people to deal with the issue who do not exude Silicon Valley hubris. They should learn to listen to and respect their opponents. And then they should be in such a strong position defending and innovating in news that they need not worry about incumbents’ petty political peeves and protectionist conspiracies.

Finally, I will argue that Google—forced to be the representative of the internet as it is the largest and most successful company there—must also be the internet’s staunchest protector. Google must fight for our freedoms against the interests of disrupted institutions: against the NSA’s surveillance, against telcos’ war on net neutrality, against governments’ attacks on free speech and openness, against legacy publishers’ war on progress and disruption. The more Google is the agent of our freedom, the greater freedom it will have.

In the end, Google should not think that by dealing with old Europe’s old publishers it has dealt with the problem of news. They don’t own the future of news. They can have a role in it if they try. But the future of news is uncertain. Google should see it not as a field of war but as a land of opportunity.