"We need to rethink every facet of the journalism model in light of the dramatic changes in the architecture of the news ecosystem." This is the quote from Richard Gingras, as first pointed out by my colleague Jon Mitchell last Friday. Gingras holds an important position: As head of news products for Google, he oversees the container through which a great many news consumers locate the products they read every day. For the better part of a decade now, Google News has been the world's front page.
Gingras advised the TechRaking conference at Google headquarters last week that the act of journalism should result in a product whose form is better suited to the container that Google has created for it.
Richard Gingras' comments can and should be read here, and in fairness to the former head of Salon, he brings up an important topic. What I take issue with is his objective: that journalism must be changed to adapt to the package through which people make use of it. It's a bit like saying, since there are fewer art galleries in small towns than in metropolitan areas, artists should stop painting landscapes. Or since more folks partaking in Thanksgiving expect cranberry sauce to emerge fresh from the can, cranberries should be made cylindrical.
News Isn't Page One News
The ongoing death of newspapers is not about changes in journalism, or the need for them. It is about a business model that has ceased to be relevant in the face of present technology. It used to be a poorly kept secret, but amid a vast array of competing histories, it's been forgotten like last year's canceled NBC sitcoms: What made newspapers successful was never the news. Newspapers provided vital services in people's lives: their connections with their hometown, the notices of local events, the daily topics of conversation, the latest thoughts hovering over Snoopy's head as he snored atop his doghouse. Many of these services were syndicated, and those that were not - like the classified ads - were intensely well managed. The front page, and the headlines therein, were merely the container.
News has always been a loss leader; it's the thing publishers provide to make the real products they used to sell timely, interesting and competitive. It's literally the sugar coating.
The Internet commandeered the services that newspapers once championed and delivered each of these services on an a la carte basis. In an earlier era, it made sense to bundle these services in a single package - the newspaper - and deliver it fully assembled. Today, the Web itself is the package, and each of the services now competes against other similar services in separate, often healthy, markets. And this is as it should be - this is not somehow wrong.
But it leaves local news providers with only the container, abandoning them with the task of making a living from the news alone. What's worse, it thrusts them into a market with tens of thousands of journalistic ventures of all sizes, all of which have charged themselves with the same objective: building a business model around solely the news. What gives all these services a bit of a reprieve, albeit temporary, are Google News and the other aggregators in its category. Aggregators serve not only as front pages for a multitude of news services, but by bundling them together and giving them the illusion of plurality, aggregators substitute for the missing thunder of the press. The end product is not exactly editorial, but if you squint, there are moments when it reminds you of something that might have been editorial once.
But First, This Word
There is no rational business model that can be formed around solely the production of news, just as many artists will attest that there is no stable business model around just an artist producing art that does not involve dying first. News must be bundled with a service. And that's a problem, because the Web model is to unbundle everything, reduce every service to its basic and fundamental form, and present it to you as a site or, more recently, as an app. If you ask southern California venture capitalists what types of investments they're searching for, they'll tell you they're looking for that one thing - not six things bundled together, not three existing things that complement one another. One disruptive thing.
And that thing tends to omit the word "news." Beneath what hair remains on my forehead, you may find that fact indelibly tattooed.
To quote further from Richard Gingras' speech: "The architecture of news content has barely changed. It continues to mirror the edition-oriented nature of the prior media forms - streams of articles that appear one day and drop into the archive the next. Can we better explore and adopt new approaches that, like Google's earlier experiments with 'the living story,' maintain the full expression of a reporter's efforts in one place behind a persistent URL?"
Oh sure, we can explore these things - I seem to have been doing this for three decades now. "Exploring" is one of these wonderful euphemisms that exhibits itself during keynote speeches. There's a market for "thought leadership," which consists mainly of people standing on stage extrapolating the lessons of their life into PowerPoint bullets, the result of which makes me think repetitively, "I paid money for this?" (There's a great joke just waiting to be crafted here centering on "Those Who Can't, Teach.")
Yes, I'm the fellow who keeps saying the blog is an outdated, outmoded format for the containment and presentation of news - about as silly as writing it down on rolls of paper towels and shooting them from cannons. From that aspect, Gingras and I are in agreement: The current presentation model for online news has already failed, both as a business model and as a reliable and integral source of information.
But the phrase "persistent URL" should be your first clue. Is there a way, Gingras is asking, to reform the delivery of online news in such a way that it streams into a source that has a single socket to Google News? By all means, let's make things easier for Google.
The Next Download
The real answer to Gingras' question is something he may have heard from folks at the conference, but which bears amplification: Whatever solution there may be to the long-term problem of online journalism becoming profitable for its practitioners, must involve weaning them from the life support system that is Google News. Like it or not, aggregation is an interim solution. It's a kludge that satisfies an immediate need in the short-term; it's a substitute newspaper.
When someone tells me that I, a practicing journalist, must change my job in order that his product may better adapt not to the needs of you, the reader, but instead to the whims and tastes of some outsourced delivery system, every molecule in my being must rebel.
The truth, which Google will at some point have to face (and may very well, at that time, embrace) is that the solution to the online information problem will come not from Web sites or blogs or browsers or Facebook pages or search engines, but from software that provides information services for reasonable fees. There will be a business model attached to it, and it will work. Journalism will not have to change to suit its structure. I have every expectation that there will be an app for that. If I did not wake up every morning believing this, I would have long ago gone back to painting landscapes.