Google: whipping boy for distressed publishers

Google -- bad or good?

That's the hot debate in the troubled news industry.

The company whose motto is "do no evil" is being cast by some of the biggest names in publishing as the scourge of newspapers, the Godzilla that is wrecking journalism.

Linking in

Google's spiders scrape news off of thousands of websites every minute. Google then blurbs the articles on its Google News site. These are just blurbs, so a reader of Google News who is interested in an article needs to click on the link, which leads to the article on the originating website. Many more people find articles via Google News (and similar aggregators) than by going to our home page.

As much as it puts news sites in a subordinate position, the arrangement still seems like a win-win.

A story gets exposure by being teased on Google News. But the substance of the story -- the primary sources, the detail, the deathless prose, and the adjacent advertising opportunity -- goes back to the news organization that produced the article in the first place.

And the news organization then has an opportunity to introduce readers to other content on its site.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt argues that this is only helping the news industry by directing readers to their sites. His do-no-evil point, in a speech to the Newspaper Association of America, is that the newspaper industry needs a second act:

"How do you keep engagement?" he asked. "How do you avoid being just mediated with a set of stories that are aggregated with your brand on them."

Aggregation aggravation

Google does not put ads on Google News Pages. But it recently began placing them on Google News search pages (the page you get when you use the search box on the Google News Page).

Could Google News pages be next for ads? Google says no. News companies are not so sure.

And even if Google stays true to its word, the nagging worry of news organizations whose content is indexed on Google News is that for many users the aggregation page is enough of a destination. If you are a skimmer, you get all you need there from reading the extracts of the articles. No need to click through to the original.

Enter the aggrieved parties

As the financial fortunes of news companies have gotten more dire, Google has increasingly been cited as a reason. Rupert Murdoch, MediaNews Group's Dean Singleton, and a host of other publishers have been complaining that Google is using their content but not paying for it.

"Should we be allowing Google to steal all our copyrights?" Murdoch asked.

"We can no longer stand by and watch others walk off with our work under misguided legal theories," Singleton said.

Do not crawl - Doh!

Google counters that what it is doing is well within the confines of "fair use." It is doing what a librarian would do in providing an index to newspaper content. Yes, it's doing it faster and more conveniently and at a massively more dominant scale -- but it's the same thing.

And besides, if a news organization doesn't want Google to scrape its content, it can make a simple code adjustment on its articles -- a "do not crawl" designation -- and Google steers clear.

No problem.

Also no traffic.

What would AP do?

Jeff Jarvis thinks Google bashing is dead wrong. The City University of New York professor is a big fan of Google. How could the author of the book "What Would Google Do?" be otherwise? He also acknowledges a financial interest in another aggregator company, Daylife.

That said, he makes a compelling case in his Buzzmachine blog that all the Google-bashing among publishers is because they are caught in the past and are failing to embrace what he calls the "link economy."

Get me rewrite

His most provocative point isn't that publishers are old-school, however. It's that the real culprit is the organization that is the central nervous system of the news industry: the Associated Press.

The venerable AP, he says, is built on appropriating the content of its members, rewriting it, and selling it back to them and to other organizations without so much as a link back to the originator.

Jarvis writes: "If the AP really wanted to help support original journalism ... it would stop rewriting, homogenizing, and anonymizing all its members’ news. Or when it does, it should provide credit and links to the sources, a moral necessity in the link economy; I urged the AP to adopt such a link ethic last year."

The link economy

The ol' CUNY perfesser is right about the link economy. It is the real world we're living in. Or at least the world we are going to be living in.

What Google is doing is what any erstwhile librarian would do: cataloging information for your convenience. And Google is giving not just credit to the original source. It is creating a path back to that original source.

Google needs no defending. It is so strong that it can defend itself. It is incredibly successful. And it still isn't evident that it is doing evil.

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