Friday, May 29, 2009

Is Google the Enemy of the Truth?

Source: ReputationDefenderBlog

Google has taught the world that great things can be free. More than any other company, Google’s existential and commercial constitution holds that information should be free to Internet readers, in exchange for some amount of advertising revenue.

But even Google cannot give us a free lunch. The costs of this Google-culture shift are appearing, and they are heavy. Newspapers across the country are imploding as they fail to replace lost subscription, classifieds, and print advertising revenue with online eyeballs dollars. Efforts to impose subscription fees on Internet readers have met with protest, scorn, or reader disappearance.

It’s not all Google’s fault. Newspapers–and TV and radio–have been slow to change. Cross-linking among sites, which generates strong search engine ranking, has come only lately to newspaper webpages. Traditional news media have likewise only recently started to make their pages “persistent”–so that they stay up on the web permanently–which adds to search visibility over time. (Both of these “rules” of Internet life were created, basically, by Google.)

But the expectation that “information must be free” is an article of faith among the Internet generation. This is a fatal problem for journalism. Someone has to pay reporters and editors. Online advertising revenue isn’t enough: according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, half of newspaper readers reach their content via the web, but newspapers generate less than 10% of their revenue from the Internet. That’s a formula for impending doom. The media industry is laying off heavily. According to the News Cycle blog, over the past 16 months, 27,000 newspaper employees have lost their jobs. When the economy comes back, some advertising revenue will return, but most of the papers will be gone, and the higher advertising rates won’t be sufficient to bring them back.

True, bloggers and amateur journalists are filling some of the void (see the citation in the previous paragraph). But it doesn’t take a genius to observe that bloggers are simply not subject to the same tenets that the formal editorial process demands. Moreover, the economic threat of liability for libelous publications has long imposed on professional outlets incentives to get their stories right. By contrast, nearly all bloggers have small enough incomes to be judgment proof, or they are anonymous, so the barrier to suing them is much higher. The net result is a lower quality of reporting and fact-finding.

Not all the papers will die. The top five in the US will most likely thrive. This may guarantee excellent coverage of New York, LA, Washington, Chicago, Wall Street, national politics, business, and global affairs. Very local police blotters may continue to blot. But who will cover Newark, St. Louis, Boston with regularity and care? What about the smaller cities? Who will gather sources and data for small stories that later make up the infrastructure supporting the larger, trendline stories that reach across towns, states, and decades?

Hope springs eternal. The new website True/Slant is intelligently mashing up economic features of traditional publishing, Digg, Arts & Letters Daily, and pay-for-play blogging to seek revenues. The New York Times, Boston Globe, and Washington Post are creatively tying long-term subscription revenue to technology hardware purchases in a deal struck with Amazon for discounted Kindles. David Carr recently suggested in the New York Times that the SEC should hire out-of-work investigative journalists to boost their fact-finding powers. News-gathering agencies seem to be considering, at long last, endowing themselves with long-term foundation-style support. Maybe enhanced feature sets like very-first-look breaking news feeds and searchable archive access will yield unexpected sources of revenue: Walter Isaacson has suggested that readers should pay for pieces that are costly to report. Americans find ways to fill vacuums, so there’s always reason for optimism, but, at scale, good reporting needs to be financially incentivized, and we haven’t yet found solutions.

And what happens if the reporting doesn’t get done? The quality of information will decline over time. The relatively good information gathered, analyzed, and published by professional organizations will be replaced with relatively bad information from unedited and consequence-free sources. Google will continue to do what it does best: find and present massive amounts of data to consumers hungry for information. But Google will, increasingly, be finding speculation, innuendo, sloppy reporting, and falsehood. It will not be finding the truth.