Is it irony, or only logical that the Internet, an entity that has come close to destroying the print news industry, has also prompted some of its titans to make efforts to promote journalism and news production? Many veteran news industry leaders are openly skeptical of efforts by tech leaders like Jeff Bezos, Eric E. Schmidt, and Craig Newmark to address some of the more painful realities of the digital news era.
Les Hinton, a former Wall Street Journal publisher, once described Google as a ”vampire” that sucked the life blood out of newspapers by aggregating news articles on the Google News platform. Publisher and CEO of The Seattle Times Frank A. Blethen, criticized Craigslist founder Craig Newmark’s for disrupting classified advertising, longtime pillar of the print news business model and then ”portraying himself in this public policy realm.”
Here is some insight into why these tech titans have said they want to help newspapers.
Jeff Bezos’ Purchase of The Washington Post
One of the biggest news industry stories of the summer was the August 5 announcement of the purchase of The Washington Post by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Though reaction in the journalism community was mostly one of bewilderment, Bezos insists he will continue to let Post leadership run the paper while he keeps his ”day job” back in Seattle.
Post CEO Bob Graham, though emotional when making the announcement to the Post staff, expressed confidence in Bezos and noted in an interview with PBS NewsHour that his friend Warren Buffett called Bezos the best CEO in America.
Why did Bezos make this purchase? John Reinan of MinnPost.com believes he wants the Post to be a marketing test lab: ”The factors that drive Amazon’s success – intense targeting of consumers, data mining to reveal consumption preferences and patterns, building an ongoing relationship – will now become part of the Post‘s DNA. And that will increase the attractiveness of the Post to companies that want to reach its audience with targeted, relevant messages.”
Google’s Overtures to News Publishers
In 2012, Google quietly acknowledged the enormous effect it had on print and digital news by sponsoring a journalism fellowship to allow eight journalism students to learn about data-driven reporting. In its announcement, Google said, ”As a company dedicated to making the world’s information easily accessible, Google recognizes that behind many blue links is a journalist and that quality journalism is a key ingredient of a vibrant and functioning society.”
The news industry is wary. It does not believe the fellowship makes up for the detrimental affects the search giant has had on journalism. In a 2011 white paper submitted by The Media Institute to the Anticompetitive Practices Division of the Federal Trade Commission, the authors spell it out plainly:
[I]ncremental progress being made by the media industry pales in comparison with the scale of Google, its major competitor in the market for digital advertising. Even though it does not create a word of its own content, Google makes more from advertising than all of the nation’s newspapers combined.
The paper accuses Google of dominating online advertising, scraping news content, and denying news providers the scale required for effective competition. In other words, Google has a ways to go before the news industry will trust its motives.
Craig Newmark’s Interest in Fact Checking and Media Ethics
Fact checking and media ethics may seem an unusual focus for the man behind Craigslist, the digital domain where visitors are urged at every step to be skeptical. Yet, Craig Newmark donated $42,000 to the Poynter Institute to host a seminar about a book it recently published on journalism ethics.
Reactions from the news media were swift and scathing, including the comments made by Blethen referenced above. Alec MacGillis of The New Republic asked, ”Are those ethics different than the ones that allow one to make $36 million per year on prostitution ads, thereby making it easier to give away for free the classified listings that were a major source of newspaper revenue?”
What Does It Mean?
While many news industry veterans are understandably unimpressed by these overtures by tech giants to the news industry, many recognize that newspapers were far too slow to react to disruptors like Google and Craigslist. Some people believe that the tech motives are sincere. Esther Wojcicki, mother-in-law of Google co-founder Sergey Brin and long-time teacher of high school journalism in Palo Alto, insists the motives are pure, telling The New York Times, ”They are concerned that what they’re doing has impacted a very important part of American culture.”
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