Newspaper Death Wish

February 28, 2009

Owen Thomas’ “Here’s Hoping Google Does Kill the Newspapers” here is a mix of good news and bad news. The good news is that different communication and distribution methods are breaking free of the constraints of the dead tree crowd. For one, his analysis makes it clear that electronic Gutenbergs like Google News do a better job for me and probably many other geese paddling in the data flow. The bad news is that Google is not the prime mover. I don’t disagree with Mr. Thomas’ analysis. For me, the most interesting comment in the article was:

Unlike the record industry, though, which for a good couple of decades had an enormously successful distribution medium in the CD, the newspapers have never come up with an electronic version of the news that is at once profitable for them and popular with consumers. Their Web sites are at once too large to shut down and too small to sustain them. The only newspapers seriously considering pay-to-read schemes are also-ran operations like Newsday. The right answer is embracing new sources of traffic (and hence revenue) like Google News — not shutting them off.

My view is that Google is the poster child–maybe poster Googzilla–for a shift between the “old” serial approach to information epitomized by the traditional publishing and media operations and the “new”–the digital Gutenberg that has emerged slowly at first and now, like an energetic two year old, is pushing and probing everything in its environment.

No, Google is not the cause. Google is just one example of the types of organizations that are transforming many sectors of the information world. I don’t think Google has what it takes to respond to the new products and services that are now squirming and wriggling on the periphery of its sprawling barony. Google, for example, is a corporate “customer” of Twitter. Google is not Twitter. I’m not sure Google has the moxie to acquire Twitter, which is a sign of ageing. Just as a professional athlete finds recovery taking longer and longer after a hard match, Google just can’t act with its old agility.

Change is upon us. Google is not the cause, nor is Google the bad Googzilla. Google is a metaphor for more change. The key point in my mind is that traditional media companies continue to demonstrate that it is easier to quit than change. Cancel a conference. Publish less frequently. Close the doors and turn off the lights.

Change is coming, and it will be upon us quickly. Google is easy to see. The newcomers are not so easy to spot but the newcomers are coming.

Stephen Arnold, February 28, 2009


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