Sunday, February 05, 2006

A vertical search for national news

The Associated Press's CEO "can't imagine" why national news outlets haven't teamed up to wall off their news content within their own search engine. I'm skeptical about such a plan, but it's related to my earlier post about walling off local news content.


Raam said...

Hi Mike,

I'm happy to be the first to add a comment.

This is a really interesting topic, because it raises the question of the real purpose of newspapers and journalism.

Journalism, I think, has always been seen as a public service, the goal being to put out information that the public needs to be informed --- all for just 50 cents a day. Newspapers were able to be such a populace medium, and be profitable, because of advertising revenue.

Blocking search engines like Google from searching your news content, or even beginning a subscription-based service, could make newspapers more profitable and help guarentee their existence in the long-run.

But at the same time, such steps would add a firewall between the public and the news --- which seems to go against the mission of a newspaper.

Michael said...

Raam, I'm happy to have such a smart guest leave the first comment. And you make a good point that the public benefits most when the barriers to information are lowest.

You may be forgetting, though, that there was a firewall between the public and the news for 200 years: that 50-cent cover price. For the last decade, that firewall has been almost eliminated, and the public has doubtless benefitted. But firewalls themselves aren't inconsistent with newspapers' mission.

As an institution, I'd argue, the press has indeed been seen to provide a public service. (That's why reporters like you and I owe allegiance to the institution as much as to our employers.) But in the States the press has always operated within the capitalist structure, and individual newspapers can't be expected to make their business decisions based on the public good.

Not that the public good would be served in the long run by dropping all our firewalls. To continue benefitting the public, the press needs to survive as an institution. And its survival at the local level is clearly threatened.

P.S. Shame about those Seahawks.

Michael said...

Yes, Father, I did just misspell "benefitted" and "benefitting."

Raam said...

See, what I'm saying is that back in the ol' days, there was no firewall. I'm reading this book on Lincoln right now and it's fascinating to read about how widely-read newspapers were. They were cheap. (Still are)

And they were seen as almost low-class, for the working man. Therefore, the information was reaidly availible.

This was possible, of course, because of advertising revenue.

I'm not saying that by preventing Google News from accessing the NY Times website the public is somehow blocked from the info.

Still, by imposing even the slightest impediment to the public getting its information, one could argue, the publication is going against the spirit of the newspaper.

The funny/sad thing about the internet is it allows the public to be more informed than it ever has been in human history. Moreover, through blogs and email, articles have a longer shelf life, and the internet can keep a story alive. Think Trent Lott.

The dilema, however, is that while the internet allows the public to be better informed, it also eats into a newspaper's profits, meaning that newspapers will no longer be able to afford such huge news staffs.

As a result, the internet could be generating less --- not more --- news coverage.

Michael said...

You may be right that 50 cents (or 2 cents, back in the day) is less of a firewall than keeping one's content off Google News. Hard to say; but the firewall was always there.

I disagree, though, that withholding information goes against the spirit of a newspaper. If that were the case, nobody would care about scoops--we'd all have been trading stories all the time. Selectively withholding information has been integral to the spirit of newspapers until the last few years. Again, there's a difference between the information-sharing ethic of the press as an institution and the information-guarding strategy of the newspaper as a business.

Your last point about the net endangering newspapers is right on. Though I don't think our curiousity should stop there. If we do want to keep information accessible, people in the news business should be looking--immediately--for ways to make news profitable online within, oh, 10 years.

Michael said...

One more point about newspapers' glorious populist past: it was possible in the 1860s because newspapers were the fanciest media around. That's not the case any more, and they've seen a corresponding increase in quality since television lapped out the bottom of the market.

If you haven't seen it, I can't recommend Al Gore's speech on this topic too much:

"Make no mistake, full-motion video is what makes television such a powerful medium. Our brains - like the brains of all vertebrates - are hard-wired to immediately notice sudden movement in our field of vision. We not only notice, we are compelled to look. When our evolutionary predecessors gathered on the African savanna a million years ago and the leaves next to them moved, the ones who didn't look are not our ancestors."


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