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.
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.”
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.