Could a Google News Network save journalism?

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news_small.jpgADOTAS — There are times when you take a deep bite of the apple and notice something that makes you want to spit it out.

At other times – especially recommended while chewing on the thought of an “L-shaped” recovery and the economic equivalent of permanent flat-lining – you might decide to swallow whatever it is on the theory that worms are, after all, a valuable source of life-sustaining protein.

Apropos of which: this weekend I noticed a Facebook posting from Nathan Ballard, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s brilliant communications director. His point: we need to start talking about new ways to keep journalists on the job instead of “old models for employing publishers.” My first reaction was to reflect on the fact that the de-professionalization of the media – deep hugs to Web 2.0 for reinventing the amateur hour – is both proximate cause and the ultimate consequence of the collapse of traditional media business models and all those journalistic jobs.

My second thought, perhaps the proverbial protein source in the granular fruit, was that Nathan was on the verge of intuiting the emergence of something strange, highly provocative and, at the same time, prospectively inevitable. To wit: the advent of GNN – the Google News Network – as the inevitable game changing face on the news distribution block.

When you think about it, the logic of Google diving into this kind of enterprise is almost perfect. Start with the fact that media companies are really nothing more than pipelines designed to suck in advertising dollars and spit out content. Clearly, nobody on the planet, Rupert Murdoch included, beats Google on that score.

Then, consider the impact of media fragmentation on the financial realities, structure and dynamics of the news business. While the print venues are currently dealing with the lion’s share of the carnage, there’s mounting evidence that broadcast outlets will increasingly find themselves dealing with shrinking audiences and ad revenues in tandem with the explosive growth in viewing, listening and reading options. When that happens, and as the fiscaldominos dutifully obey the laws of gravity, we can expect to see growing numbers of broadcast journalism’s best, brightest and most expensive join their print colleagues in an involuntarily newsroom exodus. This is a tragedy with deep societal as well as human dimensions since there’s a steep cost to a lower quality news product, regardless of medium.

All of which leads, like a bright scarlet letter, to a single question: who in the wide world is not only equipped to support the kind of information gathering we traditionally associate with high quality institutional media, but able to do so in a Web 2.0 or even 3.0 context? By the way, “support” isn’t limited to keeping reporters gainfully employed. It also includes maintaining the pricey infrastructure that allows for those oh-so-minor trivialities like fact checking, source confirmation and the other useful trappings of journalistic credibility.

My answer is obvious: Google is not only the world’s biggest knowledge distributor and hugely deep pocketed (still), but company has proven itself more than adept at cherry picking talent, building out new skill sets and, generally, assuming a commanding role in every sandbox it plays in. That doesn’t mean that a prototypical GNN will publish its own version of morning coffee’s perfect companion – as a marketing exec at one of the local rags once remarked, “at the price we charge for daily delivery, we should be calling it a gift with purchase, not a newspaper.” But it requires no stretch of credibility to think that somewhere, someone at Google, is looking at Amazon’s Kindle and similar print-simulating technology with bright and lustful eyes.

Equally important, because Google brings both audience mass and class – especially important as the rules of media engagement change – the company is uniquely positioned to saw through the Gordian knot of news economics. The clear implication is that they can make it pay from day one. And, in the process, conceivably provide what Nathan was looking for with his Facebook posting – a new way to keep good reporters, reporting and avid news consumers, consuming.

Of course, unless Carol Bartz and the new team at Yahoo seizes the opportunity first as a way to make non-Microsoft magic. Because, if GNN isn’t the first to make this leap, there’s no reason that YNNshould hold back.

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