The word “content” wasn’t historically used to broadly describe writing or imagery or video until the internet. The term “content” also implies a kind of generic equivalence — lots of things that are more or less of equal value or can be lumped into the same bucket.
That notion certainly applies to what’s happened to news online. We all know the well-documented survey data that show the internet has become the preferred news source (or in some surveys second to TV) across age groups in the US. We all also know the terrible financial condition of major metro daily newspapers in the US. The two are causally tied together.
The myriad news sites, aggregators, feed readers, as well as search engines and portals, have turned news over the past several years into something of a “commodity.” That didn’t used to be the case, with various new outlets operating in a kind of hierarchy of credibility. While it’s untrue to say there are no more news “brands,” the internet has “democratized” or flattened news, exposing a wide range of sources of coverage and making them easy to access.
It is in this context that, under the inflammatory headline “Google Devalues Everything It Touches,” Tom Foremski summarizes a discussion on the Charlie Rose show about the plight of newspapers and the role of the internet in that predicament featuring executives and editors from Time, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Daily News.
Foremski quotes Robert Thomson, Managing Editor of the Wall Street Journal:
But one of the — Google — I mean, the harsh way of just defining it, Google devalues everything it touches. Google is great for Google, but it’s terrible for content providers, because it divides that content quantitatively rather than qualitatively. And if you are going to get people to pay for content, you have to encourage them to make qualitative decisions about that content.
Even though Google has considered ranking news stories by their “authority,” the remark above is essentially correct — brand per se doesn’t play into the presentation of news content in Google search results or Google News. (Google is a stand in here for “the internet” in most of the discussion.)
In the past, I’ve observed that search is something of a “brand killer” because of the way that content is presented in search results. However Yahoo Search Monkey, interestingly, attempts to give publishers control the presentation of their content in search results and offers them some “branding” in the process.
For its part Google has been a big booster of traditional newspapers and their value, somewhat ironically. It has commissioned studies to prove their value. Eric Schmidt has publicly spoken many times of the importance of traditional newspapers. And Google’s Print Ads program, recently discontinued, was touted as a way to help grow ad pages in traditional papers.
It’s also important to point out that it’s not simply the flattening of news or the way that news is presented online that has negatively impacted newspapers and the value of their brands. It’s also the emergence of myriad alternative online content sources and tools that deliver what newspapers used to deliver almost exclusively — such as restaurant reviews or event and entertainment listings. And then there’s the more efficient delivery of advertising online. Before Google became the juggernaut it is today online jobs, autos and real estate destinations were already starting to capture traditional newspaper advertising.
Foremski argues that US newspapers can take lessons from British newspapers, which have better “exploited” the internet for years. Maybe that’s true in a relative sense but UK newspapers are not immune from the same forces that have resulted in today’s US newspaper crisis. As a result US newspaper publishers are talking again about charging for digital access to their “content.” That’s going to be a challenge; however it’s probably necessary if they’re going to survive.