It is the advertising revenue, stupid!

Posted 22 April 2009 by

Two blog articles about the demise of newspaper journalism have recently made the rounds. It is enough—almost—to make me believe there is such a thing as ying and yang in this world.

On April 19, 2009, Joel Brinkley expressed his opinion that Google should pay newspapers for the privilege of indexing their stories in “Web firms must pay for newspapers’ work.” On Monday, April 20, 2009, Mike Masnick responded with “Yet Another Journalism Professor Gets Nearly Every Fact Wrong In Saying Google Needs To Pay.”

Both tried so hard. Both missed the point. Both did not communicate.

Brinkley made simple mistakes. He assumed his readers would know the real funding method for newspapers in the past. He used the not-quite-relevant example of the recording industry. He did not know his audience, the biggest mistake for a writer.

Masnick was primarily arrogant and proud. He also does not understand the purpose of journalism.

What is journalism?

Wikipedia misses the point with this definition:

Journalism is the production of news reports and editorials through various types of media including newspapers, magazines, radio and television, and the Internet. Journalists—be they writers, editors or photographers; broadcast presenters or producers—serve as the main purveyors of information and opinion in contemporary society. “News is what the consensus of journalists determines it to be.”

After this opening paragraph, the opening for this article discusses various views, from propaganda to education. Nowhere is there a definition for journalism that separates it from any other form of non-fiction writing.

A scientific analogy clarifies what Wikipedia misses with its definition of journalism.

The engineers making mechanical advances starting in the early 1800s of the Industrial Revolution used the three laws of thermodynamics in their work. By the first 30 years of the 1900s, engineers saw there was something missing. There was no way to define temperature.

To solve this problem, science and engineering defined a “zeroth” Law of thermodynamics. They chose “zeroth” because this new law was necessary to be true for the existing three laws to be true. It was the foundation.

What does Wikipedia lack to make writing “journalism,” as opposed to other forms of non-fiction writing?

The discipline of history provides help. There are well-established definitions to separate the writing of history from the keeping of a chronicle.

Historians do not simply record past events, as someone keeping a chronicle would do. Writing history follows a method based upon the scientific method. Form a thesis. Gather facts—for and against the thesis. Compare the facts to the original thesis. Conclude whether the facts support the thesis.

When writing history, it does not make any difference whether you support the Turner Thesis or not. It does not make any difference whether the article appears in a book or an on-line journal. The calling of an historian is to follow the discipline.

Some historians are better at the art of history than others historians, though. Research techniques, communication skills, and ability to analyze are among things that determine who rises to the top.

There are similar issues in journalism.

Journalism is more than what recording happened in a public place. It does not make any difference whether it is the police blotter article in the local weekly paper or keeping a blog. These actions do not define a journalist, just as knowing events in 1492 do not define an historian.

(By 1492, I was referring to the year Ferdinand and Isabella drove the last Moors [Muslims] from Spain. Did anything else happen that year?)

Being a journalist involves timely evaluation, prioritization, and summation in addition to the basic reporting. The reason why a journalist keeps a beat is so help spot trends and changes in addition to simply learning more about a subject over time. The output improves when a journalist takes and defends an angle in an article using the knowledge gained through previous work.

Keeping a blog may involve journalism, but it does not have to be. One day a pure blog will do work as good as Hearst journalists did with Chain Saw Scouting, but it has not happened yet.

Masnick needs to understand that those of us who are technical communicators do some of the same things as journalists, but we are not journalists. Some journalists have become technical communicators and vice versa, but each field has its own demands.

For one, a technical communicator accepts the employer’s “party line” when accepting a paycheck. In many ways, technical communication is closer to public relations than journalism.

Why does journalism need new money sources?

Brinkley understands journalists need new funding sources. He failed to communicate why this is true, even after saying, “Google, by the way, does pay the AP for its stories.”

My perspective may be skewed on this matter. My father worked in the production side of printing and newspapers as a photoengraver. He was concerned primarily about advertisements throughout his entire career. These advertisements paid most of the costs of running the paper.

The purpose of paid subscriptions or newsstand price served more of a way to determine who was buying the paper and when. This provided marketing information to advertisers interested in certain ads for specific editions.

Today, the problem with newspapers is not that Google is indexing the websites of newspapers. The problem is that Google takes advertising dollars that used to go to newspapers. Consumer pay-for-play on a newspaper website will not make up this difference.

The purpose of Google as a corporation is to serve advertisements to websites. Google makes money based upon targeted ads based upon our individual searches. Did you think that the purpose of Google was a search engine?

The shift to the web is not the reason newspapers lack money today. The readers did not pay most the costs involved with the print editions before. The readers are still there, only in a different medium.

The real reason newspapers are having problems is that Google is taking the advertising money that used to go to your local newspaper. Changing writing styles on a newspaper’s website will not change that.

The model newspapers should examine

Newspapers should avoid the example provided by the RIAA in the Brinkley article. The primary reason is that people are getting around digital rights management issues today. Does a newspaper want to get into a position of winning the battle with pay-for-play but possibly losing the war like music publishers?

A better example to examine is the relationship between television and cable operators. Cable operators must follow one of two options under the law:

Google depends on quality news sources the same way a cable company depends on quality television content.

There is another way to say this. Without Google, no one would find a newspaper’s website. Without a newspaper’s website, Google lacks content to index.

Masnick needs to come around to understand that Google depends as much upon newspapers as much as newspapers depend upon Google. Without worthwhile content, Google does not make a dime.

Google pays for AP content. Therefore, Google pays for journalism. The only question is how many more people or organizations should be paid to provide quality content.

Content is King

Before the Seattle PI had a print edition, it had the winning news website in Seattle by a wide margin. In a month after becoming a web-only operation, the Seattle Times has taken the lead. Read about this switch on the Puget Sound Business Journal website. Where we read this information is the most telling piece of information.

Google has access to this information, in some form. After all, they are keeping track of all our searches and the results.

Google also knows that they are using someone else’s content for profit. Some may consider this matter settled in copyright law; some do not. How rich do they want to make the lawyers?

Google knows what is at stake.

That is, unless Google is happy only indexing public broadcasting websites for news coverage. No one else with worthwhile news will be left. Twitter only goes so far. Giving credit, even under fair use, does not pay the bills.

Related posts:

Post Details

Leave a Reply

Page optimized by WP Minify WordPress Plugin

Writing on a VTX is Stephen Fry proof thanks to caching by WP Super Cache

Better Tag Cloud