How to Save Newspapers; or, lessons of the Giant Water Bug

How do I feel about the newspaper business these days?

I’m reminded of a scene in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, where the author Annie Dillard describes watching a frog that seemed fine, placidly sitting on a creek bank.  As she watches, and within seconds, he is “shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football.”  He contracts, as if all the air and fluid has just been let out of him, “like a kicked tent.”  In a moment there remains only a bag of skin floating on the water where before there had been a healthy being.

It’s an unforgettable image.

Dillard later discovers that the frog was the victim of a giant water bug, which paralyzes its victims from underneath, then sucks the lifeblood out of them — literally, blood, muscles, bone and tissue — and departs, leaving just a sack of skin.  She uses the incident to set the tone of the book, that there’s this wild interplay of prey and predator going on around us all the time, but we’re too busy and distracted to notice.

Sucking the life from traditional media?

Sucking the life from traditional media?

Newspapers… lifeblood being sucked out… you see where I’m going with this.

You might have noticed that your local paper is roughly the size of a Watchtower pamphlet (or a Home Depot circular, don’t want to offend anyone).

But if you wonder whom I might have cast as the water bug in this metaphor, I’ll spell it out for you: the i-n-t-e-r-n-e-t  s-e-a-r-c-h  e-n-g-i-n-e.

I’m not a hater, though.  I mean, here I am — linking away.

I am having a “wish I’d thought of that” moment — because in spite of all my personal worry and angst at seeing friends and colleagues laid off — I tweet about a website that tracks journalist layoffs, of all things — leave it to a journalist to put, elegantly and concisely, just what needs to be done.

To save newspapers.

And I don’t mean recycling.

I get a lot of news online.  But I get a lot of news offline, too.  And as I said below, there are things online journalists and bloggers can do unbelievably well — and some that, say, the New York Times does better than nearly anyone on the Planet.

Which doesn’t make it more pleasant to discover that Sergei Brin and Larry Page, founders of Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) could buy every newspaper in the U.S.A and still put away $12 billion for their next acquisitions.

What does that mean?  Well, do you want all your news to come from one place?  Do you want your news at all?  Because, someone has to write it.  And it would be good if that someone got paid, was trustworthy, or at least was trying to adhere to some code of ethics.

This crossed my mind when Tom Foremski of Silicon Valley Watcher last week put forth his own water-bug control idea.  He writes:

US newspapers didn’t realize GOOG is a media company until it was too late. Google was able to scrape its content virtually for free, from newspapers and other web sites, and sell advertising around that content. Newspapers spend huge amounts of money to create their content.

Newspapers, and other media companies, have allowed Google to commoditize content, and retain the value in the aggregation and distribution.

Yet the technology for aggregation and distribution is a commodity — content is not a commodity.

Newspapers and other media need to rally around their content and not let Google or any other search engine scrape it for free.

Or else, Foremski continues, “the media will be the next big bailout.  It’s too important to fail.”

Amen.

Of course, how to do that — make search engines pay for the content they scrape, while making it available to consumers?  What are your ideas?

Figure it out.  It’s got to be better than just waiting for the water bug to finish sucking out your guts.

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5 Comments

Filed under Media, Technology and PR, Uncategorized, Web 2.0

5 responses to “How to Save Newspapers; or, lessons of the Giant Water Bug

  1. Ike

    Could it be micropayments?

    Could it be pay-per-link?

    Could Google “auction” the headlines? Think about it. 12 newspapers all run a similar story, and Google uses the AdWords algorithm to do a real-time auction over which paper gets top billing on Google News. After a certain number of impressions, the financial dynamics change and whammo! you have another headline sneak to the top.

    One thing for sure — there is a HUGE demand for people who search for old news (just look at all the internet research for CRA and housing mess). Papers that lock down their archives will never earn a penny in ad impressions for those coming back for the old content.

  2. alittleclarity

    Ike,
    See, this *is* what I love about the blogosphere. I honestly never would have thought of auctioning the headlines on my own. Brilliant. They will ask, “what’s in it for them?” of course. But perhaps the answer is, do you want the content? Or not?

    Also agreed on locking the archives – there must be a smooth, relatively painless way to do this.

    You know, when GOOG announced last month that it was generously posting all these old archives online, I tweeted and also asked directly those attending the news conference: do the original outlets (if still in existence) get a slice of the revenue? Or does Google keep it? And everyone answered me: “you know, Google didn’t say.” Which I found troublesome. I really hope they give some piece of the pie back to the original outlet.

    I can’t tell you how glad I am you stopped by – such great ideas! I begin to feel hopeful…

  3. Ike

    To extend your analogy further (and therefore risk sounding too much like an actual Social Media strategist)…

    Too many newspapers are trying to defend against the Water Bug by toughening their skins. Some want to evolve into Turtles, with a hard protective shell. But as we know, Turtles are slow.

    Instead, they need to change the relationship. Don’t let the parasite suck you dry — give it a reason to keep you alive. Symbiosis.

    [I’m leaving this discussion for now. Gotta get these Nature Channel images out of my head in time to settle my stomach for lunch.]

  4. Its interesting to see the contrast of this situation to some projects I’m working on now. What happens when all the news outlets cant keep pumping the stories that Google uses? We have no news? If Google is the water bug in this situation, they will eventually run out of mainstream frogs….

  5. alittleclarity

    Michael,
    First I have to say, you do beautiful and interesting work (http://dreaminpictures.com/blog/). And I was quite interested in your story on James Nachtwey’s TED prize and photography.

    Your comment is exactly the same as mine — if we don’t find a way for the news outlets to make money off their content, then Google will have no news. They could try to scrape “citizen journalism” which is fine up to a point, but as we saw today (http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/steve_jobs_had_no_heart_attack_citizen_journalism_failed.php) citizen journalism has limitations.

    I want us to find a way for the frogs to live unmolested and the giant water bugs to go feed off some other (ad) stream…

    Thanks so much for commenting. I feel lucky to have found your blog.

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