Thursday, July 9, 2009

Frankenpaper and the Monster Mashup

For anyone whose ever worked in the newspaper business, watching the industry's struggles to rebuild itself can feel a bit like being one of Dr. Frankenstein's horrified friends in the 1931 film version of Mary Shelley's novel.

The illustration above by my friend Eric MacDicken captures the horror I've been feeling as newspapers, reanimated somewhat online but stitched together with lifeless lines of business, try to lift themselves from the table -- perhaps to ultimately turn on and destroy their crazed makers.

The industry's desperate and circuitous debates -- about online subscriptions, PDF editions and how to reestablish mass market media dominance in a highly niched, multimedia world -- hint to me of a self-destructive Frankenstein-like madness.

But others in the media business see very different monsters.

Les Hinton, Dow Jones' chief executive and publisher of the Wall Street Journal, recently described Google as a Dracula-like figure, feeding on the blood of traditional media institutions -- by which Hinton meant freely distributed Web content.

I saw Hinton's remarks in a Crain's New York Business report on his speech at last month's PricewaterhouseCoopers Entertainment and Media Outlook event. Google may not have started out "in a cave as a digital vampire per se," the newspaper executive told the audience. "The charitable view of Google is that the news business itself fed Google's taste for this kind of blood." By giving away content, Hinton said, newspapers "gave Google's fangs a great place to bite.... We will never know what might have happened had newspapers taken a different approach."

Many in the news business share this view of Count Googlia -- but not me. Perhaps as an editor of Web sites that have long depended on search engines such as Google to help drive traffic and new users to support their ad businesses, I'm just a Renfeld-like minion....

"I am here to do your bidding, Master. I am your slave, and you will reward me, for I shall be faithful.... I await your commands, and you will not pass me by, will you, dear Master, in your distribution of good things?" (From "Dracula," by Bram Stoker, Chapter 8)

Those who feel otherwise, who agree that Google is the vile blood-sucker that Professor Van Hinton warned about, can comfort themselves by putting virtual garlic flowers and pay walls around their necks. After all, cutting off the Googlebot's ability to find and link to one's content is a technological snap.

So if Google really is villainous, why haven't more news organizations stabbed it in its algorithmic heart? Because most advertising-supported Web sites understand that the bite out of their own page views and user counts would be far more fatal than the one Dow Jones' CEO fears.

(Note on the illustrations above: Eric MacDicken, who designed the logo for this Web site, knows of what he draws at the top of this entry. He's done much work for a number of the major newspaper and other media industry groups -- including the logos and other materials used to promote the American Society of Newspaper Editor's "Sunshine Week" campaign. The Google logo is from the company's Oct. 31, 2005, homepage.)


ITF said...

But my biggest source of online news these days *is* walled off from Google. I learn more about Iran and the British Elections and Renewable Energy and American Electoral Politics and the true meaning of Michael Jackson and whatnot from my Facebook feed than anywhere else online. Granted half of them are posting links, but I trust my friends more than

Mark said...

A good point, Ian. And as soon as the Facebooks and Twitters of the world start making money, meaning profits, the newspaper biz will have new competitors to blame -- as opposed to examining their own failure to compete. And that failure is not necessarily a newsroom failure. Late to the online party though many newsrooms were, there's no shortage of journalists who embraced blogging, multimedia and the like. There's been far, far less experimentation on the business side of the newspaper business.