Should Google Subsidize Journalism?
4 min read

Should Google Subsidize Journalism?

Neil Henry, a professor of journalism at UC Berkeley, has a lament about the decline of newspaper journalism in the soon to be editorially downsized San Francisco Chronicle. He puts forth some good examples of the types of investigative journalism that are at risk of being defunded. He also displays a fundamental misunderstanding of what is responsible for the collapse of the newspaper business, which has in turn resulted in a decline in the subsidization of journalism. But he does raise an interesting question about whether Google and other online companies should start subsidizing journalism, which I found intriguing, once you get past all the misunderstandings.

Here are the highlights:

Fewer resources will be available to investigate stories as nationally significant as the BALCO scandal, for example; fewer professionals to doggedly uncover shady financial practices at the University of California, forcing top officials to publicly acknowledge their mistakes and work to fix them; fewer journalists to cover local city halls, courts and schools, reporting community news that the public often takes for granted — and which other media, including local television and radio outlets, rely upon to set their own news priorities.

I see a world where corporations such as Google and Yahoo continue to enrich themselves with little returning to journalistic enterprises, all this ultimately at the expense of legions of professional reporters across America, now out of work because their employers in “old” media could not afford to pay them.

It is no longer acceptable for Google corporate executives to say that they don’t practice journalism, they only work to provide links to “content providers.” Journalism is not just a matter of jobs, and dollars and cents lost. It is a public trust vital to a free society. It stands to reason that Google and corporations like it, who indirectly benefit so enormously from the expensive labor of journalists, should begin to take on greater civic responsibility for journalism’s plight. Is it possible for Google to somehow engage and support the traditional news industry and important local newspapers more fully, for example, to become a vital part of possible solutions to this crisis instead of a part of the problem?

Google Didn’t Destroy The Newspaper Business, The Web Did

First, to address the claim that “Google and Yahoo continue to enrich themselves with little returning to journalistic enterprises” — I suggest that Professor Henry ask the New York Times how much Google and Yahoo return to them — the New York Times has embraced search engine optimization and now gets more than 20% of its traffic from search.

But let’s be clear — the New York Times can’t monetize that search-driven readership with the same monopoly pricing that it enjoyed in print. But that’s not Google’s fault. That’s the free market.

The newspaper business is based on monopoly control over the distribution of news and information in a given region. The Web destroyed those regional monopolies by making it cheap and easy to distribute any information anywhere in the world instantaneously. The car killed the horse and buggy industry. Digital cameras killed the film industry. Technology happens — but technology itself isn’t destroying journalism. It’s simply destroying the business that subsidized journalism.

And, let’s not forget, it’s technology, i.e. the invention of movable type and the printing press, that enabled journalism in the first place. Demonizing technology, as Professor Henry does when he references the “threat ‘computer science’ poses to journalism’s place in a democratic society” is, with all due respect, rather medieval.

Google Could Subsidize Individual Journalists

That said, as to the suggestion that Google should subsidize journalism — it’s easy to dismiss this out of hand, because it’s not Google’s fault that the web destroyed the newspaper business, which in turn destroyed journalism’s source of subsidization. And the fact is that Google search results that include content from newspapers probably represents a relatively small percentage of all results — Google would probably still make $10 billion in advertising without newspapers.

But what if we look at Professor Henry’s suggestion through the lens of corporate social responsibility, as he tries to do in this more sober section:

Is it not possible for Google and other information corporations to offer more direct support to schools of journalism to help ensure that this craft’s values and skills are passed on to the next generation?

Is it not possible for these flourishing corporations to assist and identify more closely with the work of venerable organizations, such as the Society of Professional Journalists, in support of their mission and to preserve this important calling? I like to think such things are possible.

Henry cites Google’s Marissa Mayer, who stated, “We are computer scientists, not journalists.” That’s true, but for a company that is increasingly hard-pressed to stand behind it’s motto of “Don’t be evil,” it would seem there’s a huge PR opportunity in doing what Henry suggest — although not as an admission that Google bears responsibility for the sorry state of newspaper economics.

I like the idea of Google supporting schools of journalism and the Society of Professional Journalists, i.e. instead of propping up failing newspaper businesses, Google could focus on supporting individuals who want to dedicate their lives to serving the public good. For example, Google might run free training for young journalists to teach them how to thrive in a search-driven, online media world — particularly if these journalists want to try their hands at independent online journalism, i.e. blogging.

The opportunity here is to stop taking less constructive actions like pointing fingers and abdicating responsibility, and instead look at constructive ways that technology can actually enhance and evolve the practice of journalism, far beyond what was ever possible with print publishing technology.