Saving the News

There’s an article in Atlantic about the decline in the news industry and the rise of Google, news and all. The article, like most Big Media coverage of the topic, focus on the risk to Big Media news operations, like offices in Kabul or investigative pieces on government waste and coverups.

When I look at Google News, what I most often see are 1,200 copies of locally-published articles that are in fact Associated Press stories. These are classic “straight news” reports: announcements by officials describing crimes, legislation, accidents, celebrity activities, and so on. It is in fact rare for Google News, or any other news source, to produce the sort of in-depth reporting that might vie for a Pulitzer.

Yes, the traditional funding sources of such things are drying up. Yes, they play an essential role in self-government. But somehow we’ll find a way to pay for these things. Maybe Google will trip over a new business model as they blunder about, or maybe someone else will.

The Atlantic article makes several observations I agree with:

  • Newspapers are in huge trouble.
  • It’s silly to blame Google News for the free-fall of newspaper income.
  • If anything, Google drives traffic to these news sites, instead of stealing their content.
  • We need a new business model to fund Pulitzer-deserving coverage.

Neither the Atlantic, nor the other articles I’ve read, have singled out Pulitzer-appropriate coverage as the sort of reportage that’s in trouble. But that’s how I see it. Most news reporting pretty much consists of repackaging news releases. War correspondents sit around in military-managed press pools waiting for a colonel to give them the daily briefing. Ditto with the White House press corps. Yes, some reporters take the time and trouble to seek out individual newsmakers and get interviews, but a lot of stuff is just recycled announcements.

It’s the journalists who make the extra effort who will be the ones we want to keep. The others can be replaced by simply delivering the press releases directly to the Associated Press or the general public instead of filtering them through reporters.

This suggests the death of national news organizations embedded in local news outlets – why should the Minneapolis Strib repackage AP stories if everyone can get them directly from the AP? At present, the local news outlets simply provide a ‘voting’ function – if an AP story is interesting enough to republish, that increases the story’s perceived importance in Google News. If the Houston paper’s republication of the AP story finds itself atop Google’s news listing, then they get the most hits, but it’s a lottery.

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