Google’s mission to make journalism sustainable

James Fallows has a great piece in The Atlantic on Google’s work to “[reinvent journalism’s] business model to sustain professional news-gathering.”  It’s a fascinating look at business model innovation, journalism, and sustainability for a number of reasons:

First, it’s a fast and clear analysis of an industry business model going through a dramatic transition as we speak (I’d love to read something similar for auto or pharma).

Second, it gives us insights from outsiders on the current state of journalism. Google News head Krishna Bharat believes that there is a deeply fundamental inefficiency in the media today, namely “the predictable and pack-like response of most of the world’s news outlets to most stories.”

“Why is it that a thousand people come up with approximately the same reading of matters? Why couldn’t there be five readings? And meanwhile use that energy to observe something else, equally important, that is currently being neglected.”

Third, it’s a look at how one company, seeing that “huge, historic technological forces” are threatening the viability of a crucial part of its value chain, is throwing its core competencies towards collaborating with that industry to make it sustainable in the truest sense—having the capacity to endure.

“We help people find content,” [Nikesh Arora, president of global sales] told me. “We don’t generate content ourselves… When there’s no great content, it’s very hard for people to be interested in finding it.”

“For the last eight years, we mainly focused on getting the algorithms better,” Krishna Bharat said, referring to the automated systems for finding and ranking items in Google News. “But lately, a lot of my time has gone into thinking about the basis on which the product”—news—”is built. A lot of our thinking now is focused on making the news sustainable.”

It is this same mindset that, say, global processors and retailers of food should be taking: respecting producers—smallholders and Big Farmer alike—as fellow businesspeople operating within an enormously challenging commercial and resource-constrained context and asking “How do we do our our best to help the sector that produces our key input achieve the capacity to endure? And how can we leverage our core competencies, like world-class distribution capabilities and a deep understanding of consumer behavior, to help develop solutions?”

One inspiring lesson seems to be that “an accumulation of small steps can together make a surprisingly large difference.” Google being Google, their efforts here consist of lots of experimentation and prototyping—Fallows describes a few, like Living Stories, an effort to aggregate a news outlet’s reporting on a single key topic over time.

The forces weighing down the news industry are titanic. In contrast, some of the proposed solutions may seem disappointingly small-bore. But many people at Google repeated a maxim from Clay Shirky, of New York University, in an essay last year about the future of the news: “Nothing will work, but everything might.”

Fourth and finally, it’s a look at the three areas (“improving the distribution, engagement, and monetization of information streams”) in which Google is trying to re-design the business model for news, which is interesting from a corporate transparency and reporting perspective. Most of this harnesses Google’s deep expertise in advertising or technologies such as YouTube Direct, which gives newspapers the means to allow readers to send in video clips and do a bit of citizen reporting. For example, Fallows notes that “Al Jazeera used YouTube Direct during the elections in Iraq this spring to show footage from around the country.” One of the things my Open.com piece advocates for is for sustainability reporting to experiment with sourcing data from stakeholders—imagine the possibilities here.

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